“What On Earth Are You Doing?”

Photographs of America by Phil Bergerson

Curated by Matt Waples

Curatorial Statement

“What On Earth Are You Doing?”

America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a Utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too. It may be that the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum - that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model. As a result, they are the ideal material for an analysis of all the possible variants of the modern world. No more and no less in fact than were primitive societies in their day. The same mythical and analytic excitement that made us look towards those earlier societies today impels us to look in the direction of America. With the same passion and the same prejudices.”1

-Jean Baudrillard

The works selected here are just a sliver of Phil Bergerson’s vast body of work. He photographs storefronts and surfaces that show a palimpsest like nature—surfaces worked and reworked over time, by different authors, for different reasons. Some of these surfaces are produced for commercial purposes, while others are community mural projects or the intrusion of vandals. There exists between these interventions a richness of information and affect that is a pleasure to discover as viewers, sifting through the layers of trauma, celebration, hope and despair.

The stories latent in this selection oscillate from broken idealisms to burgeoning hope, between surfaces worked over time and new surfaces overwriting the old. Alongside the messages imprinted in the walls in city centres, a spatial nostalgia is inscribed within murals of “nature” painted over nature lost. The images of enclosure hint at the pre-enclosed commons, the before-America that sits in the depths of the American psyche. These photographs are slices out of the surface of the multifaceted American image: artifacts or shards as Phil’s books’ titles point towards.

One photograph reads, “WE MEET BY ACCIDENT”, in place of signage that could just as easily read “ROOMS FOR RENT, FREE WIFI”. This sign itself could be the work of an artist, but it functions as an allegory in Phil’s photography. Phil does not alter the situations he photographs beyond where he places the frame of the camera. Each of these images is a discovery by chance—by accident. Phil uses the camera as a tool in which to mediate the world around him as it comes. He may meet these places by accident, but the resulting images and selections produce intentional ironies and metaphors that dig to the depths of his subject: America.

Why Phil was interested in America was a bit of a mystery to me at first. As an American myself, it felt a bit voyeuristic. However, I will never forget moving from the US to Canada and how I felt like a voyeur, an outsider, looking into a culture and place I did not quite understand. The references to Canadian media and history evaded me for years, and at times still do, but in this confusion, I was able to see the differences more clearly between Canada and the US. I looked at Canada as Phil looked at the US, with a curiosity and desire to learn. Anyone who has travelled south or north of the border will likely feel the difference between the two countries, but this change makes your sight clearer. Between this heightened perception and the decades-long commitment to his work, Phil’s photographs reveal an outsider looking into another world, but with a confidence in this potential discomfort that produces startling, occasionally comical or frightening, but always empathetic relationships.

I was just a student when I met Phil in the scanning lab at Ryerson University. He looked at me intently and asked what I was working on. I was scanning some medium format film, and I was happy to talk about it with this man who I knew nothing about. I began working with Phil over the course of the next year, listening carefully to his stories and looking even more closely at the images we worked on. There was a philosophical quality to the images Phil made, that is to say: a love of learning. Some of his images are deceptively simple. “What on earth are you doing?” reads a green sign off the side of a highway. This is a good question, and one that can be seen in a multitude of ways. What on earth is Phil doing with his camera? What are we doing looking at this photograph? What are we doing on and to Earth? What are we doing to ourselves, to our society, and to our collective well being? I say this image is deceptively simple for a reason. What is the difference of seeing this sign in person versus seeing it in his photograph? We glance at roadside signs and interventions in passing, but then we drive off, perhaps never to think of it again. A later image that reads “SHELTER” in neon tubing over a hand-painted American flag exhibits the same simple framework in which we can read out a variety of questions. Is America a shelter? If so, a shelter for whom and when?

There is a certain prescience to Phil’s work, like the image of a New York newsstand in July 2001. A newspaper documenting the child custody scandal that plagued Rudy Giuliani while he was mayor of New York City is nested next to a headline reading “WAR CHANT” under the pornographic magazines surrounding it. There was no way of Phil knowing what would happen in the months or years to come, but this image documents the varied history of a public figure about to be caught in a pivotal moment in American history. Rudy Giuliani shifted from a public dunce to a national hero following 9/11, and finally to a menace nearly two decades later while the war in Afghanistan is still reaching its end. The attention span of partisan politics may be brief, but the camera is here to remind us of what was when considering what is happening now. One of the irreplaceable functions of art, and specifically photography, is the ability to look back, to lens the current moment with one from the past.

Another image taken in 2018 exhibits a similar though divergent surface and temporality. The words “love / love / love” written on painted bricks, and a scrawling “You have betrayed me / America…”, sit next to an old advertisement that features a face off to the side whose gaze is just short of the frame. The summer of 2020 made this sentiment vivid across the country. How many have you betrayed, America? And for how long? This image lives in the hope that America has for itself but reveals the angst underneath its projected surface. These are some of the opportunities we receive from looking at Phil’s work. There is no dogma to Phil’s lensing and his work is not partisan, but his photographs are deeply empathetic, specific, and profound.

There is a need to read diffractively with Phil’s work, to look for overlaps and intersections of similarity and difference to find meaning—to look for where the ripples in the water cross one another. This is something I have thought about while engaging with Phil’s work over the last seven years. He can find moments of contradiction in the surface of real American aesthetics. These are not the images of America we see through the backlit screens in our living rooms and pockets. The situations Phil photographs are of the inscriptions on the walls of a cave. These images are quiet, they do not come with headlines or captions, just the location and date. We as viewers do the work of decoding the information within these images. This is not to say the old cliché of “I just make the work; it is the viewer’s job to interpret,” as Phil exhibits a rare perspicacity within these images. He is eminently aware of what the camera does, what the act of photographing, sequencing, and exhibiting does—how images massage us. Look closely and you can find an education in the act of looking and thinking through Phil’s work. While he no longer teaches at Ryerson, he has never relinquished photography’s ability to teach us about the world, about ourselves, or about how we look at the world.

Phil’s photographs may not contain any people, but they are all about people and the mediated social fabric of our world, where action and agony go endlessly round in circles.2

Matt Waples, 2020

1 Baudrillard, Jean. America. Verso, 1988.
2 Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2000.

Artwork

Biographies

Print Details

Archival, limited edition prints are available from the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Square images are 29”x 29”, Rectangular images are 24”x 36”

Links

Phil Bergerson’s Books

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