Monochromatic Productions:

The Ends of Photography and the Beginning of Writing

Dr Rowan Bailey

(University of Huddersfield)

‘Let us [the industrialists, the artists, the savants] unite … We the artists will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious’.

(Henri de Saint-Simon, Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles, 1825)

Andrew Warstat’s piece ‘The Artist as Stan Laurel (Lucky Dog)’ bends the object of photography into other spaces. Democratising the processes and techniques of film, photography and drawing, Warstat plays with both the indexical1  and material character of the photographic image. Taking as his subject matter a one-second clip from the Laurel and Hardy silent film The Lucky Dog (1921), he makes use of the historical relevance of the film’s dates2 to introduce a set of themes specific to the propelling movement of the avant-garde in the context of Russian Constructivism. Henri de Saint-Simon’s 1825 call for a vanguard of artists, engineers and savants, would have appealed in particular to the exponents of Russian Constructivism, a movement that gave the figure of the artist a role to play on the stage of historical change. The movement of the movement itself, an advance guard propelled forward by technology (photography and film included), appealed to a future, unforeseen but nevertheless directed by the artist’s engagement with new modes of productive activity. Debates about the film’s release date, whether 1917 or 1921, signify the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and Alexander Rodchenko’s ‘monochrome’ paintings.3 That these dates also mark the genesis of the American comedy duo Laurel and Hardy is not an arbitrary choice on the part of Warstat. The techniques he employs to manipulate this one-second clip trigger a set of historical and cultural signifiers: the epoch of mass production, new modes of technology, revolutionary social change and experimental artistic production.

There are three key stages in ‘The Artist as Stan (Lucky Dog)’. First, Warstat takes from the one-second animated clip from The Lucky Dog, 24 photographic stills onto which he blacks out with graphite the looming threat of the tram in the background. By erasing the tram, the graphite brings into focus the figure of Stan Laurel. This allows us to see the material resources Warstat uses to accentuate the object of photography, and registering the production of film, photography and painting in Russian Constructivism, the figure of the artist as Stan Laurel, persists as the placeholder of the indexical; an historical object interlocking with the techniques of material production. Second, Warstat re-photographs the existing 24 photographic frames. This process produces an unanticipated effect. The artificial flash of the camera bounces light off the graphite and produces the colour grey. This monochromatic effect derives from the mechanics of the camera apparatus itself. Artist and machine collide. Third, Warstat reanimates these 24 photographs into a loop. Running the sequence backwards and then forwards produces an extra 24 frames. This generates another second of film. Repeating the animated clip, Warstat keeps the circuit of the loop open, and moving backwards through the existing material, the sequence is able to move forward. This extra second of film is a beginning that unexpectedly arrives out of the material of a prior sequencing.

These techniques are experimental. Film editing triggers a relationship to the past by pushing forwards in the act of returning. Out of the material fragments of the film clip, Warstat intends to exhaust what remains and yet, in and through the expenditure of his material resources, he meets the arrival of an excess, the unanticipated beginning of something. Endings contain the consequences of beginnings.

It is with the connected theme of time and the ‘monochrome’ in ‘The Artist as Stan (Lucky Dog)’ that Warstat’s influences come to the fore. The ‘monochrome’ features in the writings of Hegel and the paintings of Rodchenko. Hegel speaks of speculative philosophy as a monochrome painting in the Philosophy of Right. Philosophy comes after the end and brushes itself over the past with its idealism:    

When philosophy paints its grey in grey, the shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognised, by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.4

As Hegel suggests here, philosophy is always too late. It reflects on the past by generating images in the dark. Philosophy is a monochromatic reconstruction that mourns the loss of an interpenetration between artist and world. It is perhaps in the pages of Hegel’s lectures on fine art that we see this mourning in his writing of images. Privileging the classical art of ancient Greece as the perfect manifestation of beauty through the complementary relation between content and form, meaning and shape, Hegel heralds the disaster of separation that is to come for art. Reading retrospectively through the ‘present’ condition of modernity, Hegel explains how philosophy comes to mourn this irrecoverable epoch, an epoch when citizen and state were one, when artist and world were united. Yet, from out of the disaster of this ending comes the beginning of a philosophical writing; a writing about and on the subject of art, lamenting what has been lost forever, supplementing the present with images of the past. Philosophy for Hegel is a practice of returning after the separation, for it brushes monochromatic pigment over an ending with a new beginning. This beginning is the philosophy of fine art. 

Rodchenko provides a different reading of the monochrome. In 1921, he brings the ‘non-objective’ to painting by putting the historical conventions of painting and their bourgeois illusionistic representations under erasure. Rodchenko brushes over the past with the pigment of the monochrome. Painting had to present itself as if for the first time. In ‘The Death of Painting’, he writes:

I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation.5

Rejecting traditional painterly techniques with the resistance of the ‘non-objective’ through the monochrome of paint, Rodchenko releases painting from its history and allows a new beginning. The ‘non-objective’ objective of painting involves the removal of the object from painting; time and colour intersect at the plane level of a degree-zero.

This is perhaps why the captions taken from The Lucky Dog are a persistent and thought-provoking feature of ‘The Artist as Stan (Lucky Dog)’. To work with the fragmentary character of photography in such a way that one eventually sees disappearance happening in the words and images Warstat brings together, tells us something specific about his own relationship to his artistic practice. Acknowledging the past through the concerns of the present, Warstat conveys the threat of disappearance in the words stencilled onto the gallery wall and overlaid with the ash remains of the 24 photographic images taken from the one-second clip of The Lucky Dog:

‘You and the world are going to separate’

‘This makes Russian blowouts successful’

‘If they don’t work we have this Bolsheviki Candy’.

The matter forming these words is going to disappear; this is what we must come to terms with when we witness the past fading before our eyes. A threat and a call to prepare for a beginning. This is a stark reminder of Walter Benjamin’s famous words in Theses on the Philosophy of History that to ‘brush history against the grain’6 is the task of every historical materialist and furthermore that ‘every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’.7 Warstat puts his images to use by expending all the material resources of his practice. Using his material up, moving towards the limits of zero, he must then begin, as if for the first time, to contend with the threat of disappearance, the threat of putting his own productive activity under erasure. For when his photographic images start to fade, he is unable to escape the inevitable threat of a present condition. The aftermath of this disaster marks the beginning of Warstat’s writing, not a speculative type of philosophical writing, but a photographic writing born out of the ongoing deterioration of his photographs.

Warstat’s writing is thus a re-shaping activity made possible by the material substance of photography. This is not about establishing the monochrome grey to demarcate or differentiate between black and white, figure and ground, content and form. Grey happens when things get complicated, when the unforeseen takes hold of us. Grey ash makes us think about the effects of disappearance concretely. Those ashen words stencilled onto the gallery wall are going to fade. These are words produced out of the remainders of the photographic images themselves. The specks of the photographic process are slowly disappearing and yet out of this process something else starts to appear. Perhaps it is the beginning of a commentary on the interconnectivity between material traces and a photographic writing to come. These captions may be whispering to us that the dialogue between photography and writing is Warstat’s own special brush against the grain of history.


  1. 1.In this context, the ‘indexical’ refers to the reproducibility of the object in photography, the referent within photography itself. The figure of Stan serves as an index, or sign, which points to the history and theory of photography. For a reading of the indexical along these lines, see in particular, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage Books, 1993), pp.5-7.

  1. 2.The precise date of the film’s release is unknown; it may have been released as early as 1917, though 1921 is the release date most widely accepted.

  1. 3.Alexander Rodchenko first exhibited monochrome paintings in Moscow in 1921.

  1. 4.G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Allen Wood [ed.] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.23.

  1. 5.Alexander Rodchenko, ‘Working with Mayakowsky’ in From Painting to Design: Russian Constructivist Art of the Twenties (Cologne: Galerie Gmuzynska, 1981), p.191.

  1. 6.Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, [ed.] Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p.248.

7. Benjamin, Illuminations, p.247.