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Index Cards

by Moyra Davey

A collection of 14 essays, many of them extensions of pieces that originally involved other media, along with several reproductions of photographs, Index Cards is a frequently fascinating, if ultimately exhausting, survey of Toronto-born, New York–based Moyra Davey’s four decades of work in photography, filmmaking, and writing. In contrast to the more enigmatic aspects of visual or audiovisual forms, Davey’s texts, while rarely arriving at a resolution, exude transparency and explication, taking the reader through the artist’s process and struggle to stay engaged both as a creator and a consumer of art – positions that in Davey’s creative calculus are inextricably fused. There’s a lot in here about reading as the foundation of writing, to the degree that the book gradually becomes something of a closed circuit, of interest to other reader-writer/artists but perhaps less so to everyone else.

“Fifty Minutes,” which leads off Index Cards, is among the book’s most fully realized essays, in part because it features some semblance of external narrative, describing activities, geographies, and individuals whose utility to Davey’s work isn’t immediately evident. Presumably titled for the typical duration of a therapy session, “Fifty Minutes” – which ends by declaring itself autofiction – chronicles the narrator’s experience with a long spell of psychoanalysis, moving through cities and negotiating memory and space, musing all the while on the writings of Michel Foucault, Vivian Gornick, Natalia Ginzburg, Svetlana Boym, and many, many others. There’s a genuine thrill in the way Davey articulates, for example, her philosophical dilemma regarding the meaning and ethics of nostalgia. She possesses a stunning ability to draw us into her way of thinking through abstract matters while going about her weekly routines. This is equally evident in “Notes on Photography and Accident,” in which she reconsiders canonical texts by Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, and Roland Barthes as a means of grappling with the still-relevant question of whether accident is an anachronism in contemporary photography, a context in which an image’s value is no longer tethered to its apprehension of fleeting reality.

There comes a point in Index Cards where Davey’s diaristic concern with how an artist generates material becomes a little overbearing. Whether this is due to a gradual shift in focus over time – it seems like the essays are sequenced chronologically – or the result of a certain tautological accumulation is unclear. In any case, this is hardly the result of a lack of rigour; Davey isn’t one for introducing an idea without scrupulous examination. Neither is it due to a lack of interesting reference points: Davey’s deep engagement with the work of artists as diverse as Robert Walser, Chantal Akerman, Jean Genet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and James Baldwin helps her essays maintain a certain baseline of stimulation.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of stakes. Most anyone with a long-term art practice will relate to Davey’s semi-pathological search for a meaningful way to read, to watch and listen, to travel, to examine personal histories, to represent others (a key juncture in Davey’s career came when she resolved to stop photographing people). But there comes a point when Davey’s audience, whether artists or not, seeks release from the vagaries of looping thoughts and processes and longs for some discovery, some surprise that transcends the labyrinth of pondering.