In the Place of the Public: Airport Series also comprises vinyl wall texts displayed alongside and amongst the photographs at various heights. These sentences, which Rosler has selected especially for Tate, draw attention to the ways in which airport advertising, signage and architecture in the airport promise to take the visitor elsewhere, mentally as well as physically. For example: ‘A view, a vista, a vision, a destination, an end. A crossing, a sighting, a sight, a site.’ Sometimes Rosler’s text invites comparison between the architecture depicted in her photographs and the body (for example, ‘vagina or birth canal?’; ‘boulevard or intestine?’); at other times they simply state an observation (‘brightly lit atrium’). Phrases like ‘total control’ emphasise a key concern of Rosler’s: the ways in which airports regulate public behaviour. The series as a whole – widely exhibited since 1992 – represents Rosler’s critical approach to the documentary tradition and her sustained concerns with invisible labour, class, capital and the production of public space. It also articulates themes of national boundaries, transit and displacement which are of increasing contemporary relevance. In 1990 Rosler sequenced some of the photographs into a four-hour single-channel video, also titled In the Place of the Public: Airport Series (held in the collection of MACBA, Barcelona).
Rosler started photographing in airports in the 1970s, when her burgeoning career began to necessitate frequent air travel. Photography served as a form of distraction, but she ‘gave the project a phenomenological dimension with words and phrases that indexed my observations and experiences’ (quoted in Airport Galerie 1998, p.28). In the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the work, she stated that:
air travel and airports do not attract much public notice except in extremis, a fact that is provocative in itself. In a time in which production in advanced industrial societies is increasingly characterised by metaphors of transmission and flow, I am interested in the movement of bodies through darkened corridors and across great distances but also in the effacement of the experience of such travel by constructs designed to empty the actual experience of its content and make it the carrier of another sort of experience entirely.
(Martha Rosler, in Airport Galerie 1998, p.28.)
Twenty years on, in a changed climate of heightened surveillance and security, this series concerned with ‘the flow of people and capital within and national boundaries’ has taken on fresh meaning and relevance. Rosler notes that the concerns she began exploring in the 1980s now resonate ‘especially powerfully in Europe and the UK in this period of historic refugee flows and Brexit, and still expanding work, familial, and leisure travel – and now politically fraught forced deportations.’ (Martha Rosler, email correspondence with Tate curator Yasufumi Nakamori, 5 July 2019).
Rosler’s practice began in the 1960s within the cultural context of the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements. Her work across photography, photocollage, video, installation and sculptures examines power structures, gender roles, class, labour, war and foreign policy, subjects that she has also written about widely.
Early in her career, Rosler was inspired by dada and pop art to work with everyday materials and media, which led her to photocollage. In her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home 1969–72 she combined images from magazines including Life and House Beautiful to create a sardonic look at the American Dream that critiqued both American foreign policy during the Vietnam war and the division of domestic labour. Rosler returned to this technique in 2003 when she directed her attention to the invasion of Iraq and the Afghanistan War (2001–present).
In her series The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems 1974, Rosler photographed the front of mostly commercial buildings in an impoverished area of New York City, their doorways often littered with alcohol bottles, and paired these with photographs of words associated with drunks and drunkenness. As a critique of the limits of language and photography as tools of representation, The Bowery became a landmark in the history of documentary photography. Following The Bowery, in the 1980s, Rosler’s essay ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ (1981), as well as Allan Sekula’s ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’ (1976), became a cornerstone of the critical reappraisal of the documentary tradition that had evolved in the United States since the 1930s. Questioning notions of photography-as-evidence and the concept of documentary-as-self-expression (as represented in the exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1969), they urged for a more militant use of documentary; one that exposed the causes of societal conditions, as opposed to recording their consequences.
The artist has stated that In the Place of the Public: Airport Series directly connects to The Bowery ‘both in terms of the use of text and image, and in the works’ relationship to a wider rethinking of documentary’ (email correspondence with Tate curator Yasufumi Nakamori, July 2019). It also connects to two other series examining the control and organisation of civilian movement in places of transit: Ventures Underground 1980–ongoing and Rights of Passage 1993–ongoing, shot in subways and highways respectively. In the Place of the Public also relates to Air Fare 2008–ongoing, for which Rosler photographed, while on board, the different meals served to customers in economy and first-class seats.