More about The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems


Martha Rosler aimed to take the piss out of documentary photography.

She made a name for herself as a cultural critic and feminist performance artist, and serves up her work with a signature deadpan tone. She’s also well known for turning photography back on itself and questioning the inherent shortcomings of “representation” in art. As in, if documentary art merely documents, how much can it ever truly and authentically portray its subjects? She and her pals from UC San Diego (their gang was known as “The San Diego Group”) wanted to get to the bottom of that question by being “documentarians in a way that documentarians hadn’t been.”

This series examines the NYC Bowery neighborhood, mid-70s, pre-gentrification. Some creative types had begun to take advantage of the cheap loft space, and this was the decade that CBGB would make the neighborhood a punk and new wave mecca, but at the time it was mainly known for alcoholism and homelessness. Rosler has cynically remarked that at the time, the Bowery’s grittiness held a “magnetic” allure for documentarians.

Photographs are the first of her two descriptive systems, self-reflexively inadequate at capturing the true depth of the Bowery and its scraggly inhabitants. She depicts the neighborhood in derelict objects and architecture. Typed text--the second descriptor--compliments each photograph, all imaginative terms pertaining to drinking and alcoholism. Kinda dark, kinda funny… I’ve never heard a drunk described as “snozzled” or “pixilated,” but points for creativity.

You’ll notice lots of trash and ironic signage in the pics, but no people.  Rosler wanted to make images that were purposefully alienating to viewers, and rejecting of the humanistic warm-fuzzies that documentarians often lean on in their work. By trying to tell a story about people without actually showing people, she’s criticizing the inherent futility of representation. Just remember that the next time you’re flexing for the gram.