After seeing a video of the musician John Maus speak about his musical influences and some of the practical musical techniques that he implements, I experienced a lightbulb moment that allowed me to fully understand why Commons has developed his photographic practice around analogue processes and materials. Let me digress a little and further explain: Maus is known for using a range of modular synthesisers, a relic of the analogue music world; but the question fell on my lap as to why he was building his own synthesisers and using these archaic techniques within his practice, as any digital audio workstation could be used to re-create similar sounds without the trouble of building what is essential an instrument. Maus went on to say that he felt these materials spoke to him and therefore he wanted to use them to express the current moment. He does not utilise them in a hauntological sense, even though this maybe culturally part of the reason why, but rather as a means to discuss the present. This is when Commons’ work comes into mind and begins to abridge my thinking as to why he has created these expressive images that appear fragmentary and illusive through analogue technologies. It seems that his approach has got much to do with the aesthetic history that he clearly works in; the Provoke aesthetic is by nature politically charged and resists normative forms of interpretation. Commons’ work should be looked at as a continuation of the persistent questioning and tension within the Provoke aesthetic, and seen as not only a personal reflection upon the external world, but also as a work that taps into external cultural forces that define the English political landscape.
At first glance the work does not intend to be directly political, rather its aesthetic history is tied up within a philosophical model of photography: it is defined by a series of camera interventions created to resist larger capitalist forces that young people were reacting against during post war Japan.This aesthetic within contemporary photographic practices has been operationalised for several artistic purposes, usually for the sole goal of “personal expression”. However, it seems that these artists are missing the original purpose of this aesthetic: the Provoke intention is something that is combative towards thought and language, and thus is not about self-expression, but is rather a struggle to locate and pin down the self within contemporary society. With this in mind, Commons’ work can be easily misunderstood as simply some type of vaporwave nod to photographic nostalgia. Nevertheless, upon close inspection Commons is working within this aesthetic and clearly understands how to borrow from this tradition, adding to it from his English sensibilities that are evident from his vast range of contextually relevant subject matters. In terms of the nature of the work, as previously mentioned, it is not outwardly political, rather it expresses something that hits a current nerve of uncertainty within the UK that has been building up over the past four years, and now feels even more dire due to the pandemic exacerbating all of these symptoms.
Furthermore, there are general capitalist forces that make up our Neo liberalist society that have a large hand in creating this clinical vastness that we all feel from interacting with technology, whilst our emotions and desires are been pre-emptively managed by systems and greater commerce. This current state has been fully expressed within Mark Fishers’ concept of capitalist realism. According to Fisher, our futures have been cancelled by capitalism and, as such, we have lost the ability to cast our gazes forward into the future to envision ourselves in newer states of being. With all of these components in place, attempting to comment on a given experience feels almost impossible to actualise. One could even suggest that the anti-authoritarian aesthetic created by Provoke has already been reabsorbed by the capitalist machine and regurgitated back to us, thus losing any type of unique and original message. However, taking this stance is rather nihilistic and Commons’ work presents this approach with fresh eyes that feels highly relevant to the contemporary moment, grabbing hold of the hauntological qualities of Provoke and making it anew for his current vision. We may have lost the ability to imagine new states, but the answer to this problem may lie within mining the history of photography as a means of renewing our abilities to cast our gazes forward. This provides the space where technologies have an equal capacity rather than superseding each, and thus casting aesthetic lineages to solely something that exists within the past. It can be said that photography has evolved with current technologies and has lost a sense of possibility that its chemical heritage gave us; the chances for the possibility of discovery have been fully reduced, and it seems that our world aches for the possibility of something great again that can be found through chance and more organic processes.
Upon looking at Absent Air, Commons’ newest publication that is a direct continuation of the work produced in No Silver Bird, he pulls the viewer through a range of internal and external landscapes, whilst paying homage to a range of subjects in his personal life. The title has a direct relationship to his previous work, suggesting that this book has moved into a new state where the air is “absent”, and as such this recent work takes on a much more cynical tone that permeates the reception of the book. With the move from subject to object and back again, Commons not only makes the viewer question the relationship between the two, rather he makes us want to understand the plight of the subject: these subjects, often abstracted through darkroom manipulation, carry a certain emotional weight, the type that itches all around you on a bad day, and that you see in the faces of people when they cross your peripheries. The forms of the subjects are constantly placed throughout, and make us question the transient moment these people are caught in: are they suffering? Are they too feeling what it feels like to be a person in the UK right now? Or are they just simply caught up in everyday life? It seems these images of people could be asking all of these questions yet trying to pin down an exact definition seems somehow reductive and it is simplistic to suggest that they fulfil this quota. Commons’ images are naturally allusive and play into resisting interpretation; his images of people are formalistic, yet they still have a profound level of emotional depth. It can be said that the images are at once a personal documentation of his internal life, as well as a discussion on the topic of what it feels like to be living within our current social and political climate - this just being one aspect of the book that is of particular interest.
Equally, Commons’ interaction with man-made objects and their relationship to their natural counterpart also plays into themes such as loss and existential contemplation on what our given experience means in relation to the world. Objects on the whole play a major part within the work; a key example of this is later found within the book: a spread of an abstracted form and a window image are transitioned into a full bleed image of water droplets that have a highly forceful effect, making you feel like your own self is moving between such contrasting states. One of the most effective transitions within the book is during its beginning, where the viewer is moved through an open tunnel only to be met with clouds and marks on a window: is this something that cannot be fully taken in by the viewer yet? Or maybe it is to simply tease the viewer into the gulfs of the book and what is to follow. This image is contrasted with a formalistic play of a floor with deep shadows cast by a railing, and as we move to the next page, we are confronted with a full bleed image of interlocking arms that provides some form of hopeful salvation, proposing that there may be hope for what is to come. The materiality of the photobook also plays a key role in communicating the experience of the images: silver paper has been used throughout to mimic the surfaces of the city where many of the images were taken, whilst also bringing new visual elements and further abstracting the photographs into ambiguous forms. The photobook is instrumental to the expression of the images and creates a space where the images are constantly interlaced and folded into each other - a capacity that could only be granted through a small personal book. The work on the whole moves back and forth with no specific time in terms of day and night and the world that Commons presents is a claustrophobic space that moves from hot to cold and back again; here he presents a void where all of our desires and fears are brought together in hopes of communicating and thus clarifying our modern experience. This is defined by deviant cultural forces, as well as their very attack upon our internal subjective lives.
To conclude, Absent Air is a book that is marked by our current time and as such is highly competent in communicating a feeling that is intertwined within our current experience. The book feels like a direct continuation from No Silver Bird; however, it markedly proposes something that pushes further to question our senses and our ability to understand the given social and cultural situation. The chemical unsurety that exists within Commons’ work offers us a possible way out and presents a celebratory vision that embodies the potential that we need within a greater society to express ourselves and envision a future that belongs to us.