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ARTH 640 - Issues in North American Photographic History

  • J - 14:00-17:00
  • EV-3.760

Selected issues pertaining to the production of or writing about photography in North America.

Re. Producing History. Building and Narrating a Canadian Mnemosyne Atlas, circa 2017

Mechanical reproduction has changed society’s relationship to its cultural heritage. Nothing new in that thought – Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin encapsulated it nicely in his analysis of the ‘aura’ and American photographer Sherrie Levine exploited it in her copies of canonical photographs. In those two examples, and many others, we see the push-pull of photo-mechanical reproduction as a tool for democratization of knowledge and an instrument to recast inspiration in a new, highly marketable form. Photo-mechanical reproduction has also served other programmes: French cultural impresario André Malraux’s “museum without walls” – a Cold-War world-making concept, par excellence – and before that, Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929 – unfinished). Coming forward in time, countless artists and curators have mounted impressive installations of image and argument by delving into the archives.

2017 has been identified as a year in which Canadians should celebrate by reflecting soberly and constructively on the nation’s identity to this point. Visual art will certainly be invited to the national party where it will be met by a generation attuned to diversity and struggle, and interested in displaying and debating that work. This seminar will participate in that process by creating a Canadian Mnemosyne Atlas. An iterative process will be led by the members of the seminar, but open to anyone who wishes to add and/or comment on the construction as it develops in the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art. Photographic media will be the core of this project and we will discuss what translation to photography does to the subject-object – is it tamed or unleashed? Comparative analysis will help us answer that question. Our Canadian Mnemosyne Atlas will also invite other media: drawings, maps, graphs, cartoons, clippings, and words (poems, screeds, and expletives). And what shall we do with this collage as it develops? A viable approach is offered by Cornell University’s “Mnemosyne: Meanderings through Aby Warburg’s Atlas.” On this website, participants have created pathways. The model is good, even though our themes will be different. As you consider enrolling in this seminar, please visit  These scholars are dealing with a historical object – interpretation is its activation. We will be dealing with an object-in-the-making, blazing pathways and interpreting as we go. A final paper will present a participant’s pathway, offering readers an engaged perspective on the Canadian Mnemosyne Atlas as a whole.

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