Interview: Alice Myers, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun

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Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, Alice Myers

While I recognise that Disphotic’s focus on thinking and talking about photography is a niche interest (and that’s putting it mildly), I think it’s important that these rather specialist discussions are guided by bigger issues in the world. Hence the recent focus over the last six months on the role of photography in Europe’s immigration and refugee crisis, from exposing a fake Instagram account masquerading as that of a Senegalese migrant, to examining Norbert Baska’s questionable refugee themed fashion photographs. From Kiki Streitberger’s still life portraits of the personal possessions of Syrian refugees, to Phil le Gal’s epic New Continent project. Today I turn to Alice Myers’ Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, which focuses on Calais’s informal settlements and refugee inhabitants in a way which is marked by quite a different approach and length of engagement. Recently I met up with Alice to discuss photography, politics and books and the interview that follows is the result.

Hi Alice, could you start by telling me about how you first became interested in making work in Calais and around the topic of refugees, was it during a similar surge of public and media awareness of the issue or did something else first start you thinking about it?

I had been thinking a lot about the narratives that people attach to landscape. I had been working in Ireland with a group of people who had been combating the installation of a gas pipeline, and then I went to Arizona and spent some time on the border with Mexico photographing the trails people use to walk through the desert. So with Calais I was interested in the idea that there could be an invisible border in the sea, and in where in fact that border lay, and in the way borders permeate so that the walls of a truck can become a frontier.

But throughout all these projects the more interesting questions were around finding ways to use photography in politically fraught situations that felt open and respectful (or that I felt I could at least live with), while acknowledging the complexities of the power dynamics created by arriving as an outsider and pulling out a camera. While working in Calais I became more aware of this thread and these questions became a much more visible part of the work.

That question of the power dynamic is interesting, I think if you are the type of photographer who is conscious of these problems there is often the hope of finding a way of working that takes them into account and perhaps neutralises them to some extent. There’s a very noticeable participatory element to the project, certainly compared to much of the recent work I’ve seen on refugees and migration, but when we chatted before you mentioned that one of the difficulties of that was getting the participants to understand what you wanted to do and why, could you explain more?

The word ‘participatory’ can be used for so many different things. While I opened up the project to input from others, and responded to what people were interested in doing, I’d hesitate to call this participatory because I was in full creative control of the output. When we spoke before I think I mentioned what a complex thing consent is, and as in any project I had to be really careful to make sure people fully understood how the pictures and interviews were for. It was also important to leave space for them to change their minds.

I guess no matter how carefully I explained the project, some people weren’t familiar with the kind of book I was making, and they were very surprised by the photographs I chose to include. While I gave people prints of the photographs I took, they weren’t really the audience I was making the work for. This question of audience is really interesting, and I’d like to take it forward into future projects.

Can you flesh out your working process when you were in Calais, did you have a certain approach in what you were looking for or was it more a matter of seeing what was there and what happened and who you met and reacting to things as they occurred?

I was very aware of the role photography plays in the policing of borders, of the dominance of imagery that presents migrants and refugees as either victims or criminals, but also of the importance of photography for migrants trying to keep track of their lives. I think we all probably take photographs partly to remind ourselves that we exist, but that becomes more of an urgent project if you are legally non-existent.

So I was trying to enter into this fraught situation in a way that felt respectful and open, using the camera as a starting point for interaction. But I was also constantly questioning my role as photographer, and also as a gatherer of material. I’d worked on the US/Mexico border before and it took a lot of work to get to the point where it felt OK to even begin to use a camera. My approach was to make these questions present in the work, so that the tensions and negotiations are visibly being worked out in a way that I hope is more interesting.

So my process was really just finding a way to be in that space with a camera. This involved a lot of photographing people and giving them prints afterwards (none of these images are part of my edit), or filming something in a space and waiting for people to approach me and get involved. I had a project explanation in English, Arabic and Pashtu, which said I was not a journalist, I was doing a project and people could get involved in whatever way suited them or not at all. I suggested they might want to write something, draw something, record an interview, share the photographs on their phones with me or work with me to make a portrait which did not disclose their identity. Some people had lots of ideas for my project and I worked with them over the longer term, each time I went back. With others it was a more fleeting interaction.

I work in a very slow way, which I tell myself is about being responsive to what I find but may also be about a reluctance to pin things down. So I gathered masses and masses of material, and then spent a couple years narrowing it down, figuring out what it was about. There are hours of recording and videos that I decided not to use.

I find that resistance to pinning things down interesting point because I think the refugee crisis has been marked both by a mass of reporting, almost to the extent that it’s hard to know where to start, and also by reporting which is often really lacking in nuance, which is often very much about making black or white distinctions. It’s interesting that you included the fact you aren’t a journalist in your explanation of the project. Did you feel that distinction made a difference to your participants, and also did you encounter many journalists and if so what was there reaction like to the idea of someone producing art about a topic like this?

I completely agree with your first point, though I feel like ‘refugee crisis’ should always be in inverted commas, as the crisis is more about the failure of our European governments. The other reason to not pin things down is that a concrete, bulletproof and logical story is what is required of refugees to justify their presence here. I didn’t want to reproduce that demand.

I’m not sure [saying I wasn’t a journalist] made that much of a difference to participants, I think they mostly just assumed I was a journalist anyway. And then a few people probably thought I was a spy of some sort. Though I think some people were really interested in the long-term and collaborative aspects of the project (they had lots of ideas for photographs or text to include). The thing that might have made more difference was stating that I wasn’t interested in photographing them directly. That I didn’t want to photograph their faces. I think for some people just being handed something to read in Arabic made a difference.

I’m not anti-journalist, but the distinction about not being one maybe made more difference with the activists I worked with. Many activists who work in border situations are understandably suspicious of photojournalists, mostly because of one or two really bad experiences they’ve had with individuals being exploitative or disrespectful. Although I didn’t work formally with activists, I spent a lot of time in squats that they had helped to set up and was friends with several people who might not have called themselves activists, who continuously housed 5-15 people. I think they saw and appreciated that the project was slightly different.

So the result of this process is a book, perhaps to end you could say a little about why this felt like the right format for the work?

I’ve tried a number of different formats for this work and I’m really content to have arrived at the book. Because the project is a collection of fragments, the book leads people through the material, but gives them space to take their own time with it. It also allows the text to be central to the project, without forcing associations between specific images and pieces of text. I guess I also wanted to give a sense of Calais as this in-between space where logic doesn’t apply, and the book format allows you to create an immersive environment.

See more of Alice’s work at www.alicemyers.net

Art in the Age of Individualism

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Unidentified artist,
Seattle Municipal Archives, 1955

Towards the end of last year I read an interesting piece by Caroline Douglas which considers the relationship between art and the resurrection (or perhaps just the continuation) of the sort of aggressive neo-liberal individualism that came to the fore in the United Kingdom during the era of Margaret Thatcher. Douglas’s piece illustrates that it’s worthwhile to consider the ways that these attitudes might continue to influence our lives, not only in the obvious domains of politics and economics, but also in realms traditionally considered antithetical to it, like education, or the art world. By recognising how this might be occurring, we might start to also recognise ways that we can do things to combat or counter it. In this short piece I specifically want to discuss two aspects of the culture of individualism in the United Kingdom, first in relation to some of the material realities of working as an artist in such a climate, and second in terms of it’s possible effect on the public perception of artists and their role in society.

First to clarify, by ‘the art world’ I don’t here only mean the rarefied white walled galleries frequented by those with significant disposable income, in other words the sort of place this ideology might be expected to find a natural home. It often seems that neo-liberal thinking permeates British society so totally now that it seeps into areas one might have considered naturally hostile to it, and it has a significant influence even at the very distant level at which the real majority of artists and other creative people exist. As Douglas points out this is a place of economic uncertainties and precarious existences, where the need to make and create often subsists in awkward balance with need to secure the material essentials of life. I choose the word ‘need’ in relationship to creating art quite pointedly, because the denigration of the practice of making art, it’s popular characterisation as some sort of self-indulgent distraction from life as a properly productive citizen, and the common suggestion that artists ought to ‘get a real job’ are all very much connected to this world view.

The difficult reality of trying to make a living and make art has many affects which entwine with an emphasis on the individual. As Douglas suggests, the economic instability that runs alongside creative freedom often involves a level of dishonesty. That can be dishonesty about the true precariousness of one’s position, a precariousness which in turn often precludes honesty about the wider state of an industry, or society. “Fake it ‘till you make it” is a common and rather questionable piece of advice dispensed by tutors on creative courses and by people who position themselves as experts in getting ahead in a notoriously challenging set of practices (in my experience the most lucrative position to occupy in the arts is that of an alleged expert). Photographers who have both commercial and artistic practices are often cagey about admitting to the former, concerned perhaps that the necessity of dirtying their hands by making an honest living or relying on others to give them work will impinge on their artistic credibility, and by association saleability. It seems fairly typical for art courses to shun the responsibility of equipping their students with any sense of how they might make a living outside of art, and I think at least a small part of that must be because of the low regard working artists are held in.

I’ve also noticed that the struggle to make a living from one’s art can lead to an aggressive competition between artists, a sort of cancerous careerism which can lead people to trample over friends and colleagues in the pursuit of opportunities, contacts, and so forth. It’s something I became acutely aware of at the Arles Festival last summer where I saw it happen repeatedly, although it took me a while to figure out what I was witnessing, when people would sidle away from conversations to seek the ear of someone influential without wanting to risk bringing friends (read: competition) along for those conversations. Douglas also identifies this tendency in relation to social media, which certainly runs the risk of becoming a platform for tediously individualistic self-promotion. I would dissent here however and suggest social media can just as well be used to promote the activities of others, and indeed is often most effective when it is used like this. It does certainly generate other problems though, for example the prevailing view of artists as producers, content creators and the like, with the attached expectation to endlessly generate and post new material, and the erosion of the idea that not producing is just as valid a part of being an artist (more on that in a future post).

Individualism also seems to influence mainstream narratives around what art and artists are. Aside from the previously mentioned tendency to view ‘unsuccessful’ i.e. unprofitable artists as social drop outs or parasites, mainstream discussions about art and artists which have a positive tone often emphasise individual achievement and the idea of the artist as a visionary creator apart from society, at the expense of the idea that art is in many senses a communal project which involves myriad influences, influencers and collaborators. Exposed to scrutiny, the myth of the solitary genius artist rarely holds up and much more often falls away to reveal a web of collaboration, influence and exchange. The recent Turner Prize win by the architecture group Assemble is maybe an interesting example of collaboration being for once recognised, but it was interesting also to see this win being characterised as a celebration of art as utility at the cost of the idea of art for it’s own sake.

Popular histories of important artists often seem to be less successful at recognizing the myriad ways that even really great artists are dependent on others for everything from ideas to physical and emotional support, nor do they seem very good at recognising (let alone celebrating) those who provide this support. There have been attempts to reclaim this idea, the Whitechapel Gallery’s recent Hannah Hoch retrospective made much of how she was essentially relied on to play the part of a mother to the largely male circle of Dadaists she was a part of. At the same time these narratives can easily get twisted to emphasizing the achievement of the individual despite the demands of the group, rather than celebrating someone for being generous with their time and energy. Instead artists like Hoch are almost implied to have been naïve or gullible for having not been more ruthless about keeping their time and energy to themselves. In short the narrative of the artist as visionary outsider is an attractive one, and one on which a great deal of myths about art have been built, but it’s also one I think artists, photographers and anyone who occupies these creative territories should take efforts to resist, in favour of a view of the work of making art that recognise shared influences, ideas and efforts. No man or woman is an island, and art never exists in a vacuum.

 

Mute Witnesses: Pentagon Releases Detainee Abuse Photographs

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After over a decade of legal wrangling the United States Department of Defense has finally released a tranche of nearly 200 photographs documenting the abuse of detainees during the Bush administration’s war on terror (see here for the whole set). The American Civil Liberties Union who have fought for this release since 2003 continue to push for the publication of another 1,800 images which are still being withheld. The released photographs are reported to document abuse which took place at a number of sites around Iraq and Afghanistan, and may also include photographs from locations in other countries. But what’s most noticeable about these photographs is the mute banality of so many of them. They feel very much as if they’ve been selected for how little they show and say. In many cases there is little or no visible trace of the injury that is apparently being documented, in others it looks as if there is no injury being recorded at all, and what has been released are in fact grab shots taken at other stages of the detainment process, for example on initial arrest. Almost all of the photographs are rescans of bad print outs, and have been copied or reproduced so many times that there is little information which can be gleaned from them.

The actual muteness of photographs positioned as being of great relevatory value is certainly not a new issue in photography and it’s something I often talk to students about in some depth because it has particular implications for a practice like documentary photography, which hinges so much on showing things which the camera is often actually very poorly equipped to reveal. We place expectations on photographs which we have been primed to view as evidence, expectations which often cause us to extrapolate and imagine (apt word) things that the image itself is sometimes not really able to show, or which in some circumstances it’s creator is unwilling to really reveal. Photographs are mute without some form of external context and explanation, which are noticeable in this collection of photographs for their total absence. Very few of the photographs include anything by way of explanation, and even those that do are often noticeable for their obscure and non-specific language. As a result these photographs offer frustratingly little sense of the cause of injuries, chronologies, locations, or other information which might actually shed light on the opaque system of detainment and torture which there release was intended to push further into view. In this sense I would say this release of imagery has been masterfully curated, to meet the demands of the courts, without really giving much of anything away.

The release instead only seems to shed a little light on the systems of image creation and management that operate (formally or not) within governments and their constituent agencies like militaries and intelligence organisations. They are examples of the state seeing for the state, and the way that this seeing is adjusted, filtered and censored when the time comes that we ask to see what the state has been seeing (and more importantly doing) on our behalf. They are examples of how the selection and exclusion of certain types of imagery can create meaning even in a set of images as mute as these. The visual language of the released images predominantly use the codes and conventions of crime scene investigation, the inevitable implication of this being that while bad things might have happened, photography has been used here to investigate it, the authorities are on the case, and no further disclosure is required. In this sense these images bare comparison to two less carefully managed precedents for the release of torture imagery. Self-evidently to the release of amateur photographs taken of abuse at Abu Gharib prison in 2003, photographs which have unintentionally gone to become as symbolic of the war on terror as grainy stills of attacks on 9/11, and which offer a sort of coda to that opening salvo of this most unconventional of conflicts. Perhaps less obviously though I also find myself thinking of the photographs leaked by Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who documented the deceased victims of the Syrian government’s torture program as records intended to confirm that those who had been killed were indeed dead. This is not to bluntly equate these different programs of torture and abuse, or the governments that sanctioned them, but only to note the similarities and differences in the closed circulation of imagery, and the importance of the circumstances by which they enter our view and the context they come with for the way we ultimately derive meaning from them about the things they purport to reveal.

Metropolitan Consolidation Eclipses Regional Distribution

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Insect Wings, c.1840, William Henry Fox Talbot © National Media Museum

Big changes are afoot within the United Kingdom’s photography collections with the move of the Royal Photographic Society’s archive from the National Media Museum in Bradford to become part of the photography collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This archive constitutes around a sixth of the National Media Museum’s collection, and once the move is complete it will make the Victoria and Albert Museum’s photography holdings ‘the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’ There are two ways to read this I suppose, one is that given the remit of the Science Museum group (which the National Media Museum is part of) and the remit of the Victoria and Albert Museum, this change maybe makes some sense in that it might allow both institutions to more clearly focus and specialise. Although that argument is also a little problematic, since particularly with very early pioneers like Fox Talbot, the line between the scientific and artistic aspects of his photography is a blurry one at best, and Pete James is right in making this point about photography more generally. How useful is it to hive off the medium into such polarised, but also rather clumsy categories?

It’s also a setting back of the clock, since parts of the collection which will move was originally held in London at the South Kensington Museum in the nineteenth century, although considering this was the height of empire and a time when London was the metropole not only of Britain but of much of the planet, I’m not sure how much this is a precedent that advocates of the move should be harking on. And that’s because many are rightly crying foul that this is another example of London, the metropolitan heart of the UK, eating up collections, archives and funding which would benefit other parts of the country far more. London is a city already bloated with culture, museums and collections and whatever prestige the move might mean for the city and for the Victoria and Albert Museum can’t be anything comparable to what it would have meant for Bradford to have it remain there, to say nothing of the wider region. Likewise returning to the idea of monolithic national collections for things like photography might be economically appealing but it would seem to me like something of a step back to the nineteenth century and the imperial ambitions which first gave rise to many of the South Kensington museums.

It’s also something of an irony that a collection like this is being removed from a regional museum partly because of funding issues and relocated to a museum currently facing accusations of undergoing a stealth privatisation through its new recruitment policies which apparently allow the Victoria and Albert Museum to hire new staff on much less secure terms. If the new home of the Royal Photographic Society collection is taking an increasingly hard-nosed financial attitude, does that pose worrying questions about the institutions commitment to creating long term posts to conserve and manage the collection, or about the future accessibility or maintenance of this material. The example of the collections at the Library of Birmingham which has experienced savage cuts in accessibility and jobs will be foremost in many people’s minds. The model employed by the Science Museum group whereby this and other enormously important photographic material would reside in Bradford but be available for exhibition in London at the Science Museum’s dedicated Media Space seemed like a very strong one, which emphasised the benefits of distributing culture across institutions and throughout the UK, while at the same time making that culture available to audiences across multiple regions. This change I suppose throws this approach into doubt, despite it being a model that institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the country more generally would have benefited greatly from rolling out more widely.

Disorder belies Construction: The Selection of Prix Pictet

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A scan of the list of international selectors
for Prix Pictet’s Disorder, recently on show at Somerset house

My slide into teaching has thrown other areas of my practice out of their usual order and at the moment I find myself often only making it to an exhibition in the closing weeks or days of its run. This is not much good for reviewing, but then I did say at the start of the year I was going to do less of that anyway. So this piece should proceed with the caveat that it is not a review of an exhibition exactly, but more of a deconstruction of one from a very particular angle. The exhibition in question is the recent Prix Pictet shortlist at Somerset House, a collection of works by twelve photographers, brought together under the theme of ‘Disorder’. These have been selected from a long-list of over 700, nominated by an international pool of selectors, before the final selection was made by an ‘independent jury’ (although seeing as it includes a former managing partner of the Pictet bank, that independence is a matter for debate). What I want to discuss here is the way that this prize, like any other, is about selections, selections within selections and selections by selections, all more or less consciously directed to achieving a specific end which is only partially about photography. While I cite Prix Pictet as my exemplar, I think similar tendencies are noticeable in every major sponsored prize, and I charge you to look for them the time you go to an exhibition of say, the Deustche Borse or Taylor Wessing Prize, and see if you can’t detect similar things at work.

I’ve often spoken and written on this blog about what I consider to be the uncomfortable relationship between corporate interests and the arts. In particular I’ve tried to persuade that the sponsorship deals between large companies and major photography prizes, particularly prizes with a documentary component, deserve much more scrutiny than they usually get. In particular they require consideration of the ways that this relationship might impact our understanding of what type of issues, and what kind of photographic handling of those issues, are deserving of our attention and thought. When I visited the Prix Pictet on the final day of it’s run at Somerset House these questions of selection resurfaced in the content, form and even the very structure of the exhibition. The most obvious example of this is simply the type of work which makes up the shortlist. The Prix Pictet as in other sponsored prizes studiously avoids projects which engage on any level with the sponsor’s area of activities. Despite the theme of ‘Disorder’ there is no work here which even comes close to engaging with the recent financial crisis, surely the great global disorder of the last decade. This of course isn’t that much of a surprise, while I’ve said before that it would be great to see work like Mark Curran’s or Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s featured in the shortlist for a prize sponsored by a private bank, I am a realist.

More interesting than the obvious exclusion of these sorts of explicitly critical works is how this avoidance of these kinds of topics runs down to quite a subtle level. I found it interesting for example that Maxim Dondyuk’s series Culture of the Confrontation on the Euromaidan protests was shortlisted and not say, Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar’s Barricades works on the same topic. Could that perhaps be because a portion of the latter work focuses on the corruption and disorder of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and might shed uncomfortable light on allegations of his systematic siphoning of state funds into private bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein? It’s possible. What is interesting and somewhat impenetrable are the reasons for these absences and omissions, whether a form of passive self-censorship by nominators and jury, or something more overt and organised. Without seeing the process from the inside all one can really do is to speculate.

In any case, and as I suggested at the start of this piece, the inclusion, or non-inclusion of particular works and topics is important because the implication of any artistic shortlist or selection is that what is here is the best, the most interesting, the most significant on a theme. By so carefully avoiding work which engages (whether overtly or not) with the issue of capitalism and it’s attendant inequalities, this shortlist manages to transmit the subtext that the dysfunction of capitalism and it’s institutions is not really worth considering as a form of disorder, and is perhaps not even really worth considering at all. The implication instead for a viewer is that here what you see brought together are the essential disorders of our age, the problems that really deserve our attention and energy. And yet our world is a profoundly interconnected one, and very few of it’s major problems exist in total isolation. What links photographs of riots in Ukraine, car bomb craters in Iraq, floods in Africa and the global decimation of bee populations? Without seeking to be controversial for the sake of it I would say that these are all more or less directly the products of the chronic disorder that is unbridled capitalism, and it dosen’t seem to me that it would take a particularly critical viewer to see that link when considering these twelve projects in rapid succession.

Which leads me on to the arrangement and description of the work in the gallery space, which seems almost to take account of the potential for a viewer accidentally drawing this connection from the work by doing the opposite of what one might think to be the normal aim of curation. Rather than weaving together the connections in twelve disparate works to show how they relate to a central theme, the exhibition feels rather as if it is constructed to make the works in it feel isolated and disconnected from each other. Each artist’s work is very much treated on its own, separated from the others in part because of the rather labyrinthine spatial character of the East Wing galleries of Somerset House which requires different rooms to be dedicated to each series, but also by the way each work is isolated from its neighbors intellectual, for example in the inconsistent texts that introduce and describe each work rather as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than as part of a themed exhibition. The result is a strange show where the only consistency is the elephant in the room of this unspoken connecting theme.

I know what I’ve done here is to make this all sounds rather conspiratorial, as if everything from the selection of nominators through to the rather dysfunctional curation of this show have been planned from the off to deliver a particular and rather malign effect. I imagine this process is probably more passive and unintentional than I’ve made it sound, although perhaps lit by moments of more intentional design. Whatever the case, I hope this short piece has given some cause for thought about the way many prizes are linked to outside interests, and has also caused some consideration of the way that these sorts of events don’t simply objectively reflect the type of issues that matter in the world, nor the photographs that are necessarily the most brilliant encapsulations or critiques of those issues. Rather I hope you will see such prizes and exhibitions are very much constructed selections, from the final exhibition perhaps right back as far as the initial selection of nominators, and I would say all linked back to priority that underpins pretty much all corporate sponsorship of the arts. Public image and an atmosphere conducive to profit.

News: School of Punktum Scholarship

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Post-mortem photograph of a child, c.19th century

In February I’ll be teaching some classes as part of the School of Punktum, an alternative documentary photography school established by Ed Thompson. In the interest of practicing some of what I preach, I will be donating my teaching fee to establish the Lewis Bush pre-emptive memorial scholarship. The serious aim of this tongue in cheek fund is to cover one student’s fees so they can attend the advanced Punktum program which lasts one month and features a combination of virtual and face to face classes and crits. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the only way documentary photography can really hope to reflect the world in all it’s complexity is if it becomes a practice open to as many people as possible, and as long as financial barriers remain (whether big or small) that’s always going to be an aspiration rather than a reality. So if you know an aspiring photographer who’d like to attend but really can’t afford to pay then have them drop me a line at info [at] disphotic.com explaining the reason they need the scholarship and including some examples of their work, deadline is midnight, 31st January 2016. And please share this around. You can also read more about Punktum here. Thanks!

Terrordrome: Islamic State and the Savage New Times

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Videodrome

In the cult 1983 film Videodrome, Max Renn, a sleazy cable TV executive, stumbles across a mysterious signal apparently transmitting from the Far East. The station it carries consists of a video stream from a single room, where a series of people in orange smocks are tortured and murdered by black garbed executioners. As the film continues it starts to appear that Videodrome is something rather more than depraved snuff TV, it is the public representation of a mysterious group’s frightening ideology. Unperturbed, Renn sets out to track the makers of Videodrome down so he can broadcast it on his station, ironically named Civic TV. As he remarks to another executive, ‘better on TV than on the streets’. Rewatching the film recently I couldn’t help but wonder if someone on the media team for Islamic State might have been influenced by it. A flippant thought but not impossible given the film’s age and the international composition of the group. It may have just been that I was at the tail end of a long day but for a moment the parallels between the world portrayed in the film and the propaganda disseminated by Islamic State seemed irresistibly intriguing. As often happens one thought soon dissolved into another and I began to think that perhaps Videodrome is an interesting touchstone through which to think about the contemporary intersection between media technology and the extreme levels of violence employed on both sides in what the new (or perhaps really not so new) conflict between western states and so-called ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

At one point in the film a character pointedly asks Renn ‘Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome?’ Why indeed. Videodrome is a chamber of horrors, a place where revulsion becomes compulsion, and compulsion becomes a deviant pleasure. Such a description will probably sound familiar to anyone who has been exposed to the ultraviolent political media of today, whether the visceral brutality of a beheading video or the flight of a guided missile as it curves gently on to a distant house or car. These things are nauseating and repel us, but they also often paradoxically draw us in and compel us to repeated viewings, as if repeated exposure to them will resolve their incomprehensibility into some meaning. This mixed inclination to watch or turn away, to view or to turn off, is in itself is nothing new. Sights of horror have always been tinged with a certain desperate fascination, the only change perhaps being in how technology allows us to view, and review these events, perhaps in the process coming closer to reaching some understanding or meaning, but I often think not.

In the pre-internet media landscape of Videodrome, the scene of violence is a discreet place, a geographically specific red walled room of torture and murder, and perhaps most tellingly it is also a cable TV studio with all the rigidity that space and technology implies. You go to the Videodrome to die, not the other way around. By contrast the Videodrome of today has started to feel rather as if it is all around us. As Europe experiences periodic attacks and conspiracies on its street, it has begun to seem as if any space might at a moment’s notice transform itself into a set piece of violence in the service of ideology. Consequently the possibility of finding oneself suddenly caught in this chamber of horrors seems in some ways more real than ever, even if for the great majority of us the likelihood of death by terrorism or war pales in significance next to so many other threats to which we pay little thought. Today’s Videodrome, or at least the sense of it’s wing-beats at your back, seems potentially ever present.

Part of the psychic preponderance of terror attacks in comparison to other threats  stems from their unpredictability and inexplicability, but also from the way these attacks are constructed in ways which lend themselves to being recorded and by passersby, who then distribute them on behalf of the perpetrators. This also is not exactly anything new, terrorism with it’s inherent asymmetry has often been about inflicting visual or psychic, not material or strategic damage. The change again perhaps lies in a change of technology, which allows even a relatively minor attack to achieve major airtime, and leads to such a state of terror that actual terrorist acts need not even occur to further perpetuate it. This is perhaps most clearly seen when new reports on even clearly unrelated crimes and disorders are often sub headed with the reassuring note that ‘the police are not treating this incident as terrorism related’ as if this diminishes the terror of someone being shot, blown up or stabbed. This pervasive sense of the potential for violence runs both ways, and in the aerial campaigns that western nations increasingly wage overseas a similar uncertainty reigns, that at any moment, any place could become a scene of a sudden destruction which is almost divine in it’s inexplicable and unanswerable quality. The aural similarity between drome, meaning a course or place for running, and drone, an informal term for the unmanned aerial vehicles known for their endurance and omnipotence, seems more than a little apt. The significant distinction is that while terror seeks visibility to magnify its effects, our violence does the opposite, more often eluding visibility.

Returning to the Videodrome, and without wanting to spoil the plot, what later emerges in the film is that the signal is is not originating from abroad at all. It is transmitting from the United States where the station has been created by a right-wing government cabal intent on hardening America for future conflict, presumably with the Soviet Union, by cleansing it of people that they believe are moral degenerates. Anyone who watches Videodrome develops a fatal brain tumour which distorts their perception of reality before eventually killing them. In this distorted reality it becomes impossible to determine what is real and what is not, the banality or absurdity of an event no longer offering any guarantee of its truth or integrity. By the end of the film Renn believes he has begun to physically transform, a VCR port has opened in his chest and his hand has fused to a gun which he uses to first kill his fellow TV executives and then the government conspirators. As Islamic State’s destabilising influence transmits ever more violently beyond the Middle East and into Europe, I would say we are being changed also, hardened by exposure to their violence and also to our own, whether we see it mediated on the screen or in Renn’s word’s ‘out on the street’. In spite of the political rhetoric, I think it’s hard to argue that terrorism isn’t changing us, or perhaps more accurately that we aren’t changing ourselves in response to it. As we become hardened, habituated to our own Videodrome signal, it seems that we collectively find it harder and harder to perceive what of this is real, and what is hallucination.

The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

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The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, North Dakota, USA.
Became operational September 1975, deactivated eight months later.

This text is based on a talk given at a symposium the London College of Communication on January 14th 2016 to mark the opening of The Forest of Things. This talk and draws together a few different ideas I’ve been thinking about over the last year around the status and place of the photograph today, and expands on some of the darker implications of algorithms and photography which I first speculated about in An All Seeing Eye. In The Forest of Things, the graduating show of the the 2015 masters degree in Photojournalism and documentary photography is at London College of Communication until January 22nd.

Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes from direct experience, has been at the heart of western understanding for several centuries, and in turn the human eye has been at the heart of empiricism, sight valued above all other senses. The camera was conceived of as a sort of mechanical extension of that sight, which replaced some of the demands on the living eye to be physically present at an event, and which opened up knowledge which was beyond what the human eye could perceive unaided. But the camera still ultimately depended on the living eye to interpret and understand it the images it produced. What I would like to suggest is not only is this is now changing towards an ever greater emphasis on mechanical analysis of imagery, but that we are perhaps unwittingly also preparing the groundwork for us to be permanently locked out of the role of seeing and interpreting, whether we want this future or not.

Soon after its invention photography was readily integrated into a range of authoritarian structures. The camera satisfied the expansionist desire to know all and control all, by apparently offering us the possibility of unlimited seeing all through it’s photographs. With more time the camera of course also became part of a broader, more democratic culture, as a tool of reflection and expression. It seems a very contemporary angst that this democracy of the camera has given rise to a world where there are too many images, but it is not a new one. The Weimar cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer decried what he called the blizzard of images, and the way that this storm challenged photography’s ability to bestow meaning. Kracauer’s world was very different one from our own, a world where I would say technology and technological progress still seemed to offer the possibility of an almost omnipotent vision, an all seeing eye encapsulated in the blind stare of high technologies like the Cold War radar system featured above. Today we live in quite a different world, one which is so inundated with imagery as to make Kracauer’s blizzard of images seem like a light frost. But the fact of photography’s abundance, so often quoted, so often fretted over, is I think not nearly as interesting as the form those images take.

In Kracauer’s time the image was a material object, significant in that the image could truly be said to be a trace of the thing it recorded. Because of this materiality it was also something which was inherently visual, the photograph could be held and viewed in the hand. Today neither of these things can be said to be the case, digital technology has democratised photography and made possible an explosion in quantity, but it has also led to a more profound change in that the massive bulk of images are no longer really physical nor visual, they are alphanumeric data, pure information, inherently not visual things. I think this fact is significant insofar as it is increasingly causing photography to intersect with one of the other technologies which is defining our age, the algorithm. Photography had tended to be difficult fare for algorithms, partly because of it’s material form, no longer an issue in the digital age, but perhaps also because of it’s complexity and subjectivity. In the 1980’s, thinkers like the French philosopher Paul Virilio began to anticipate the coming of vision machines, essentially algorithms which could not only see but also understand images. Facial recognition was an early example of this, but the efforts involved were often huge and the results often crude. Today we are seeing algorithms that are ever more capable when it comes to sorting, sifting and understanding visual material, and have that material readily available in massive quantities to practice on. Up until now many of these algorithms have only been demonstrators, and appear rather like parlour tricks, more often amusingly inept than threatening. As they reach the real world their roles are for now are mostly supplementary, so far supporting people rather than supplanting them.

But even in this role these technologies pose interesting questions about the extent to which they are not only guiding and advising us, but also shaping us. As much as we feedback into and refine the algorithms we create, perhaps they are starting to do some similar to us. When man gazes into the machine, the machine gazes into man. It has been suggested that the result of algorithms playing such a prominent role in social platforms is that they are increasingly serving to shape interpersonal interactions which they have no business being involved with. In the case of dating websites it has been said that computers are now breeding people. These ideas have particularly strong implications in photography’s old stomping ground, the repressive realms of policing, intelligence gathering and warfare, major growth areas for automated technologies that reduce the intensive manpower needs of these fields, and offer to remove the personnel of the security services from harms way. Given the huge advances and investment in these areas it seems to be only a matter of time before technologies which are able to search, fix and kill without human intervention features of a battlefield somewhere. Indeed I suspect that one day we might look back at the era of piloted drones with the same sense that we now regard the early pilots of the First World War, as something which is quaintly romantic in it’s crudeness and it’s dirty violence, in contrast to the cold, distant killing of today, or tomorrow.

To return to Paul Virilio, in an interview given the same year as the publication of The Vision Machine, he spoke of reading a science fiction novel about a world where cameras had become so ubiquitous that they were now even being inseminated into flakes of snow, which were released on the world, seeing everything there was to see, and leaving no blind spots. When asked what he believed we would dream of in a world so saturated with imagery and the machines that produce them he responded that we will likely dream of being blind. What I would like to suggest to you is that perhaps we are starting to reach that point, where images dominate our world and confound our understanding so much that the thought of blindness might even start to feel like a relief. But we have also perhaps begun to move past it, and perhaps we are responding to that overwhelming feeling by starting to relinquish the task of to interpret and understand, and passing this burden on to the machines. We are allowing these algorithms a part some of the most important, powerful roles our societies have, and I’d suggest we are also starting the process of locking ourselves out, as machine vision develops in forms which are beyond our perception, as machines are built to see with technologies designed primarily for the understanding of other machines, not human eyes. Vision is no longer just mediated through technology as with traditional photography, technology is now overtaking and replacing our vision, with our partial our assent. So what I’d like to leave you with is the idea that we maybe now face a choice, between on the one hand the desire to shut down our senses to this incomprehensible storm of imagery, to delegate the role of interpretation and judgement, and on the other hand the need, the responsibility, and the burden, to see.

Disphotic’s Future

An East German ‘village teacher’ teaching students of all age groups in one class, 1951
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-13055-0008 / CC-BY-SA

Happy new year! 2016 marks the fifth year of Disphotic’s existence, and it’s third as a blog dedicated to writing on photography. Each new year usually brings small changes as I try to refine what the blog does and how it fits in to the other things I spend my time doing and this year there are two small changes I want to announce. Firstly I will be significantly reducing the number of reviews (particularly book reviews) I do and possibly in time stopping them altogether. Lately I’ve found reviews more and more of a pain to write, and I never really derived that much pleasure from getting up on my high horse and proclaiming one piece of work better than another. I will continue to write about new photography but I’d prefer to find other ways to do it, whether that be through essays which are more analytically critical than judgemental, and through things like interviews with photographers.

The second change is a consequence of my joining London College of Communication’s BA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography as a lecturer last October. It’s a really exciting opportunity to explore many of the topics I discuss on this blog in a much more practical setting and to be far more deeply involved in shaping a course than I ever have been in the past. However this new commitment inevitably  means that I have rather less free time for pleasant diversions like writing and working on my own projects, at least during the transition into teaching and for however long it takes for me to find my feet. Disphotic will carry on publishing, but I anticipate the schedule of new posts might start to be less regular than it has been.

Slowing the blog down a year ago from two posts per week ago to one was meant to make Disphotic more sustainable, because that sort of writing commitment proved remarkably grueling over the fourteen months or so that I kept it up. In practice even posting once a week has proven pretty exhausting, and although I’ve just about managed to maintain that pace for about a year and a half I know it’s not always been to the best. Things get posted which aren’t always up to the standard I’d like them to be. That comes with the territory of blogging, but you still strive for the best quality you can. I hope that reducing the pressure to post on a regular basis will mean I can spend longer developing each piece, and make them rather better for it. I remain totally committed to this blog and the conversations that it has helped to start. This isn’t going to mean an end to any of that, just perhaps a slight change of pace.

Holiday Hiatus 2015

nativity-painting3

Disphotic is signing off for a month so I can recuperate, read, ponder and prepare for a new year of writing and photography. If you’re short of things to read don’t forget that everything written for the blog going back to 2013 is listed in the blog’s catalogue. Whether you celebrate something or nothing, have a great break and see you on the other side.