Of the various collected objects in Cameron Rowland’s studio—a fluorescent orange work coat, a bundle of street-sweeper bristles, several pot-medal badges—the most abundant are books. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire features alongside works by political scientists Cedric Robinson and Naomi Murakawa, and Cornel West’s writings on genealogical materialism. The influence of the latter, which critiques the biases and blind spots of indexical history, is particularly evident in Rowland’s work, which, because it testifies to social injustices that are usually hidden by capital’s opaque machinations, he describes as a kind of documentary. But Rowland’s documentary is not a process of image production. Instead of mimetically representing or claiming to expose social realities—strategies that have been complicated by the well-rehearsed debates over an image’s ability to truly “reveal” reality—Rowland selects objects that speak for themselves as components of broader social infrastructures. His work simultaneously suggests two apparent impossibilities: an implicitly imageless documentary practice, and the potential for art to engage in meaningful critique within the very structures that seem to most aggressively foreclose on that possibility.
Many of the objects that Rowland uses come from online government auctions and scrap yards, from decommissioned municipal buildings and manufacturers of commercial security apparatuses. They’re often implicated in the processes of daily life, and yet appear unfamiliar. Few would recognize, for example, the aluminum rings that are used to raise manhole covers to meet the level of newly repaved roads. But these rings—which will feature in some capacity in Rowland’s upcoming solo exhibition at Artists Space—are indispensible fixtures of urban infrastructure, literally facilitating the circulation of capital. They’re also one of the major products manufactured via inmate labor in the New York State prison industry. Rowland uses this kind of information—listing it on checklists and in image captions alongside a work’s title and date—to tint the apparent banality of the presentation of the objects themselves, and to trouble the detached mode of looking characteristic of art viewership.
Beyond indexing processes or exchanges that belong to the past, Rowland’s works are explicitly future-oriented. Some are accompanied by a contractual agreement for a collector to rent the work for a fixed period of time, but not to buy it. The document is based on a model used by Rent-A-Center, and Rowland considers it a work in its own right. It mimics the function of the standard museum or gallery loan agreement while bypassing the institution entirely, reorienting an exploitative financial model aimed primarily at low-income consumers to emphasize the privileged entitlement to property that characterizes exchanges in high-end markets. (Some collectors have gamely responded with their own counterproposals in contractual legalese, but Rowland has stuck by his terms.)
In recent writing by photography theorists Ariella Azoulay and John Roberts, among others, documentary photography’s efficacy has been described as a kind of annunciation: a declarative power that circulates within a greater social and political infrastructure, commanding a response. Experimenting with the ways that an object might address not only its beholder but also the financial networks it circulates within, Rowland finds the same political dynamism in material things. Without claiming to eschew the market, or simply ignoring it altogether, as many artists do, he pushes art to initiate—rather than simply comment on—a progressive politics. He suggests one method whereby art, the luxury commodity par excellence, might meaningfully begin to critique endemic inequality and economic obfuscation without pointing the way to its own demise.
—Ian Edward Wallace is a writer and critic based in New York. He is a doctoral student in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.