The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

Spectrum analysis of Cuban intelligence radio broadcast
From Shadows of the State

Journalism has traditionally rested on certain core truths which are often taken to be self-evident and beyond question. The Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa’s often quoted dictum that ‘if your photographs are not good enough, you aren’t close enough’[1] would seem to encapsulate a particularly important one, the axiom of proximity. This idea that a journalist should seek a certain closeness to the story, that is to say a spatial rather than emotional closeness, has long been regarded as one of the most important routes to insight and revelation, as well as being central to the journalist’s role as witness to vitally important events. The implication of Capa’s aphorism might have been true when he first spoke it in the early part of the last century, but his world was a strikingly different one from the one we occupy today. Profound and ongoing changes in every arena call his words, and journalism’s emphasis on proximity, into ever greater question.

In a present marked by unchecked environmental collapse, by undeclared wars fought with increasingly autonomous aircraft, by aggressive multinational corporations, and massive data surveillance, spatial proximity to the story in the traditional sense implied by Capa is often simply no longer an option for many journalists. The news of today occupies spaces which are often too remote, too dangerous, too abstract, or where the machinery of public relations are too effective to permit any sort of useful access. Even where such physical proximity to the issue remains possible is it any longer a guarantee of journalistic insight, because even where such topics can be ‘seen’ such sight often offers little comprehension of the systems and processes which make them possible. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Capa, had already observed this truth in the 1930s when he perceptively argued that ‘… less  than  ever  does  the  mere  reflection  of  reality  reveal  anything  about  reality.  A photograph of the Krupp [armament] works or the AEG [general electricity company] tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification  of  human  relations—the  factory,  say—means  that  they  are  no  longer  explicit.  So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed’[2]

The equivalent today of Brecht’s armaments factory might be one of the high tech facilities where the subsystems of military drones are manufactured prior to integration, packaging and delivery to the battlespace. It might, still more abstractly, be a server farm humming with exabytes of data, a resource now as important to our world as Krupp’s steel was to Brecht and Capa’s. Whichever the more appropriate modern analogue, witnessing or photographing these places in any traditional sense of these words tells us as little and perhaps even less than Brecht’s factory photographs, so abstracted have the relations that underlie them become. The work of the artists Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, who have extensively photographed the infrastructure of high frequency stock market trades, reveal this difficulty[3]. Their photographs, which are the product of lengthy and difficult negotiations for access, depict the workstations where the algorithms that execute these transactions are monitored by their human retainers. Geissler and Sann have managed to reach the center of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by these new technologies, but at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur, and nor even its human thralls, instead only a series of uncompromisingly blank screens. What their photographs are unable to directly reveal are the relations, and specifically the networks which make such deals possible, nor can they fully reveal the relations that they create.

Ours is a world defined less and less by the power and significance of specific, discrete geographical sites, but increasingly instead by the collective power of these sites, as nodes in networks made possible by the communications superhighways of the 21st century. The use of drones as part of ever more network dependent wars[4] is an apt example of this, an activity conducted in a highly-distributed manner with hundreds of sites across dozens of countries joined together in real time via undersea fiber optic cables and communications satellites in order to ‘find, fix and finish’[5] those who are its targets. In finding ways to report, document or respond to such a war, witnessing the existence and even the activities of individual nodes is less revealing than the documentation of the relationships between them, and the relationships which make these activities possible. The military contracting, the political lobbying, the legal wrangling, and the international alliances and agreements without which one human being in a cabin in Nevada would not be able to release a missile on another human being on a mountain side half a world away. This is a networked war in an informatics sense, but it is networked also in the sense that in a globalized world everything is inescapably linked to everything else. Conflict, social inequality, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, man-made disasters are, if I may be momentarily unemotional, nodes in a network which sync, reverberate, and feed back into one another. But as has often been observed the network only recognizes what it is taught to recognize, and we, as nodes ourselves, have been taught to ignore what is right in front of us.

In the context of the changing form of global problems new hybrid practices have emerged to offer us ways to report and understand these things. One, which we could call network centric journalism lies closer to traditional journalistic practices. Another, perhaps the binary of this new journalism, is the practice often called documentary art. This is also a hybrid or Chimera, combining the real world concerns and methodologies of documentary and journalism with the visual, conceptual and disseminative strategies of art. Such an approach is not entirely new, and Brecht himself was an innovator in this field. His most remarkable effort, the 1955 book Kriegsfibel, combined appropriated press photography with poetry in an attempt to reveal the truths which he believed lay hidden within these photographs, and in doing this the truth of the Second World War. This book includes the very same image of a Krupp armaments factory which he had before decried for its muteness. Brecht’s compatriot Hans Haacke is a more contemporary example, an artist who has often used journalistic research blended with conceptual display strategies to ask uncomfortable questions, not least of the art world in which his work circulates. His 1971 installation Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, sought to reveal the activities of a notorious New York slum landlord and was withdrawn from exhibition amid speculation that it suggested connections between Shapolsky and members of the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees.[6]

This blend of art and journalism then has an impressive lineage, and it continues to gain in traction and acceptance, both within the context of galleries which might have regarded such unambiguously worldly and political concerns as vulgar and uncouth, but also in magazines and newspapers which once might have been suspicious of using experimental strategies to talk about contemporary matters. The latest manifestations of documentary art frequently raise and discuss issues which elude traditional strategies of investigation, and often indeed also reflecting on the muteness, and indeed sometimes complicity, of traditional media in the face of these problems. This is the case for example in Edmund Clark’s investigations of the consequences of the global War on Terror and in particular in Body Politic, a video piece produced in collaboration with Max Houghton, which juxtaposes the realities of state secrecy and redaction with the false narratives of the press conference. Likewise in the work of Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, or KennardPhillips, juxtaposition plays an even more direct role, placing vastly different realities side by side in the same frame in order to reveal the falsity and opportunism of populist press reporting of the recent refugee crisis. It is precisely this type of layering and building up that Brecht had argued was required to penetrate the reified reality of the armaments factory.

The work of KennardPhillips also reveals part of the great attraction of this borderland between art and journalism, that it is not bound by the same codified rules as journalism, the same ethical constraints, and the same burdens of truth. Documentary art labours under none of the diktats about staging images or later manipulating them, there no thresholds for the proof of a claim, and the risk of libel action while certainly not absent is generally regarded as far less present in this field than in traditional journalism. This is of course to say nothing of the reality that many traditional journalistic organs are owned by private owners who may exercise an editorial control in line with their own political priorities.[7] Liberation from these restrictions can be advantageous in reporting certain subjects, and indeed it is telling that a significant number of people who previously trained and operated as traditional journalists have made the migration to this border land, including Laura el-Tantawy whose installation In The Shadow of the Pyramids offers a deeply personal and impressionistic look at the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From one shadow to another, in my own project Shadows of the State I reveal the communication networks established by the world’s intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and which in some cases continue to broadcast to this day. Locating these sites has relied on comparisons of large quantities of public information, some of it highly questionable, and throughout I have been aware that much of this information would likely not pass the conventional journalistic thresholds for reliability. That in a sense is what the work is about, about traversing a landscape of ambiguities, where nothing can be taken at face value.

This in turn poses as yet unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. In particular when artists make work about important contemporary issues one must ask what burden of truth lies upon them, and whether it is ever acceptable for an artist to ‘not let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ [8] While most journalists adhere to the notion of an objective truth, the possibility and indeed desirability of such a truth remains far less clear in art, where it is often tacitly recognized that the artist is, in Plato’s words an imitator or ‘manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.[9] Imitation can of course reveal truth, as for example in Jeremy Deller’s The Battle Of Orgreave which recreates the events of a notorious 1984 confrontation between striking miners and the police in a form which hovers somewhere between theatre, living history and crime scence re-enactment. Further important questions which demand discussion are how this hybrid of art and journalism fits with the art world’s proclivity for self-aggrandizement, and the old fashioned expectation that artists position themselves as visionaries, in the process often eschewing and downplay collaborations and the many others who play a part in the creation of their works. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Ruth Berlau, Brecht’s collaborator on his Kriegsfibel, has been often written out of the subsequent history of that work.[10] Journalism is perhaps more than ever a collective enterprise. All the more so in the era of investigations involving vast data leaks which sometimes require networks comprising hundreds of journalists across the globe to work cooperatively to marshal the facts and break stories. The journalism that surrounded Edward Snowden’s revelations into the activities of the American National Security Agency would have been inconceivable as a solitary effort involving as it did the review of as many as 1.7 million documents.[11]

It is intentionally provocative of me to suggest that journalism’s emphasis on proximity is now completely irrelevant. Many of the works discussed in this essay clearly reveal that spatial closeness still has an important part to play even in the reporting of even the most abstract of modern issues. Equally alongside these new terrors of drone and algorithm our world is still afflicted by many of the same problems that troubled Capa and Brecht, and in the reporting of these things proximity to the story, and in particular to the human subjects of the story, remains an essential part of journalism’s function. Alongside this though perhaps what is also required is a different form of distance, a view which takes in and which can critically make visible and understandable the macro as well as the micro. Without this wide view, the sense of how a humanitarian crisis, environmental collapse and corporate malpractice might all be connected, journalism will always be chasing the effects and affects of it’s subjects rather than the causes and the culprits. The two practices of art and journalism are still in a state of fusing, and they still have much they can learn from each other. It is less a case of an either-or scenario, or a replacement of journalism’s functions by these new approaches, than it is a case of two different practices which share fundamentally the same concerns and have an enormous capacity to support each other in important ways. In a world racked by a problems which seem to grow more abstract by the day it is not enough however to continue as it has always been done. The reified power relations which make our world what is must be drawn out of the shadows, and exposed to public scrutiny even if to do so requires, in Brecht’s own words, that something must be built up, and something artificial posed.

This essay is an adapted version of one originally written to accomplish Very Now, an exhibition exploring the intersections of art and journalism, held at London College of Communication in August 2016.

[1] Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, xi.
[2] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, p.24
[3] Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile, 2011
[4] Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garska, Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origins and Future, 1998
[5] The Intercept, The Drone Papers: A Visual Glossary (Oct 15, 2015 )https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/a-visual-glossary/ (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 http://collection.whitney.org/object/29487 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership http://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/the-elephant-in-the-room (accessed 22nd June 2016)
[8] Usually attributed to Mark Twain, it seems apt that there is much doubt whether he indeed ever said this.
[9] Plato, The Republic X, 27
[10] Berlau edited Kriegsfibel, wrote the preface to the original publication , and may have contributed some of the core ideas behind the work. Yet reference to her is notably absent from much subsequent writing about the book.
[11] NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 Millionn Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-docs-did-snowden-take-2013-12?IR=T (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Research and a New Photography

06_07benjamin_passagennotizen

What is photographic research? A seemingly straightforward question begs a straightforward answer, but so often begets instead many more, less straightforward inquiries. How does one begin to answer a question which rests with such apparent ease on such unresolved terms? What is photographic research when the question of what photography has become (is becoming, will be) still seems so unclear. Not just unclear, but uncomfortable, a question which might have answers waiting in the wings, but answers which many are unwilling to call upon for fear that these understudies might upstage those they replace. Survey the fields of creative photography, from art to documentary, and you will observe many unwilling even to consider the proposition that photography has become something profoundly different, alien, to what it has been for the previous one and half centuries. Turning away from it’s new physical immateriality, technical subjectivities, it’s now truly infinite reproducibility, it’s increasingly networked and automated state, many people prefer to continue to invest themselves in an idea of the medium which feels as anachronistic as the telegraph. Analogue film, luscious prints and beautiful books of photographs are on the rise again, a trend often explained as being the result of a renewed interest in research and process, but which I often suspect in fact belies a deep conservatism, a regression less than a revolution. These things were photography once, but they are manifestly not photography now.

This problem of an unwillingness to engage with, let alone embrace, photography’s changes might seem to be a purely an academic, theoretical one, but this question of what photography has become is bound up in the far larger question of what photography is for. That, at least in the fields with which I am concerned, is the purpose of illuminating, explaining, or provoking the critical issues or our day. Ours is a world full of known unknowns, and unknowable knowns, where so many of the things that urgently need to be rought into the light are constructed (by accident or intent) to elude what we would traditionally think of as the sight of the camera and the explanatory power of a photograph. Make no mistake, photographs can change the world, but their capacity to do so is unpredictable, limited by their ability to reveal or suggest, and this ability for change always has as much potential to be regressive as it does positive.

Conversely ours is a world where issues rarely exist in isolation, but come in concert and find themselves interwoven, interdependent and networked, more so than ever before. We must speak urgently of environmental collapse, but how can we do that without thinking also of globalised capitalism, and how in turn can we understand that without analysing the politics and culture of the societies that allow it. The old photography is spatially, temporally and conceptually micro, but more than ever before we face problems that are manifestly macro, that reach beyond the horizons of individual perception or comprehension. Systems that are massive, complex, and interlinked defy explanation within the four sides of a print on a wall. In the face of this world and it’s challenges, even had photography not mutated as it has over the last three decades we might have found before long that we needed to change it ourselves to meet these new problems. As it is the changing world has in turn changed photography, but it has not yet it seems sufficiently changed us.

In this context then what is photography research? It becomes both a way to answer some of these questions, and in the absence of a convincing new definition of photography also a surrogate which in many ways more important than the resulting image. The photograph becomes more than ever a sort of token or gesture, a visible marker concealing the mass of ideas and information that loom beneath it like the inverted abyssal mass of an iceberg. To make one final metaphorical mix in a text plagued with them, let us leap from ice to fire, of a sort. The mystical priest-philosopher-poet of photography is best remembered for one essay, (attached to university reading lists across the land by lecturers who often appear to have never seriously read it). By contrast his most interesting work, itself a monument to unfinished research, moulders in its incompleteness. An attempt to potential reinvent history, within its pages was written that ‘knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.’ Photographic research is maybe something like this in the reverse. It is the thunder rolling long, drawing back slow or fast until it comes to coalesce in the lightning flash of an image, and perhaps, eventually, in a new photography.

This is an expanded version of a very short essay written for A Photography Research reader, published in conjunction with the UAL staff research exhibition. The exhibition continues at Camberwell Space untill December 16th.

 

The Empire of the Drone: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

I feel a pressure to always write in the moment, certainly with reviewing to talk about something while it’s still happening, still accessible, as if to give people a chance to test my the sum of my words out for themselves. Real life frequently often gets in the way and that’s not always to the bad. The slower burn can be rewarding, spending a few weeks mulling something over, pulling it this way and that in the confines of my own head, in the end resulting in a reading which is perhaps less literal, indeed perhaps rather oblique, but at least it is mine, unpressured by the expectation to respond. So it was after seeing the Vietnamese artist  Dinh Q. Lê’s remarkable drone filmed, three screen video installation The Colony which was on display in Peckham over a month ago. Housed in the remarkable derelict space of one of London’s earliest cinemas, the installation has since closed and the work is now on display at Site Gallery in Sheffield. The intervening time since seeing and writing have I hope not been spent entirely idly, as ideas have circulated and other influences have intervened.

Lê’s practice to date has largely photographic and almost exclusively focused on the legacy of the Vietnam War, particularly the way it’s memories are incorporated variously as trauma and fantasy. Superficially then The Colony then is a great departure from his work to date, but there is also a clear continuance, a concern with ideas about imperial ambitions and power, and more visibily with the marks these things leave on the present, and perhaps also on a future yet to arrive. The Colony examines the Chincha islands, three remote outcrops of rock off the coast of Peru, and home to enormous seabird colonies which have over centuries layered the islands with their droppings. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of chemically manufactured fertilisers, this guano was a valuable commodity, a means to boost yields of vital cash crops like Tobacco. As a result, and to the loss of the native Chincha people, the islands were colonised and contested by regional powers. Spain and its former colony Peru fought over the islands in the 1860’s, with what began as an attempt by a once extensive empire to reassert its waning influence rapidly escalating into a regional conflict involving Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As time passed the stockpiles of guano on the islands were depleted and the value of the product declined particularly as methods were developed to synthesise nitrogen based fertilisers on an industrial scale. The islands today remain dotted with relics of their former owners and while the practice of digging on the islands continues it does so on a far smaller scale than in the past.

With such subject matter, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the reviews of Lê’s installation fixated overly on the obvious, (Adrian Searle for the Guardian was one of the worst offenders in this regard with a joke about shit in the first line, someone take the man’s crayons away). What these reviews miss with their scatological puns is that the guano in Lê’s film is really only a very minor element, a foil to the much bigger themes he seems to be interested in. A much more prominent interest is clearly indicated by the title, it is the motivations for imperialism, and its ultimate leavings, the ruins both physical and psychical that great empires leave in their wake. The roving drove mounted cameras of Lê’s film crew explore the decaying derelicts of the island, hovering above abandoned buildings and even roving inside, moving cautiously through the corridors of abandoned buildings, their rotors mixing up the dust and bird feathers that line the corridors, pausing periodically to inspect a relic or negotiate a tricky obstacle. The Colony is a work about the battlegrounds that are fought over, exploited and then subsequently abandoned when they no longer prove worthwhile then, but it is also about the people who enter the frame at that point to take over the remaining crumbs which empire has deigned to exploit itself. Part of what makes The Colony remarkable is the depiction of the guano mining operations that continue on the island today, which seem like something out of an entirely different era. On these exposed, isolated rocks teams of men dig with crude tools to fill sacks of the dusty brown tuff, which are then physically hauled and slid to the water’s edge, to be pilled in huge, neat ziggurats awaiting offloading on to cargo ships. It’s hard to tell if this hellish existence owes more to the old empires of the nineteenth century, or of the new Empire of twenty first century globalisation. It’s probably a bit of both.

In this sense and in others The Colony bears some comparison to Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a similar multi-screen video installation filmed using a now obsolete military infra-red film originally developed for military reconnaissance purposes. The chemistry of this film reacts to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum to normal film or our eyes, meaning natural greens which absorb large amounts of infra-red light are rendered as a bizarre pink. Using this Mosse photographed and filmed in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The footage shot by cinematographer Trevor Tweeten is particularly compelling, as the steady cam glides through an alien landscape to a soundtrack of faux radio chatter. The Enclave, like The Colony, is partly fixated on both old and new ideas about empire, but Mosse, unlike Lê, is just a little too beguiled with his image making technology, and the The Enclave becomes just a little bit too much about the process and the technology, not the subject matter it is pointed at. This really brings me to the core of what I think is interesting about The Colony. I would suggest though that the real stars of the film though are neither the guano covered outcrops with their anonymous workers, nor the descendant imperial ambitions that these places represent. The real stars are the drones that record it all.

Before I explain this I have to take issue with drone videography as an artistic medium. In itself it is simply a process for making a work, and the results of course are variable and contingent on what is being filmed and how. I often think that an over emphasis on process in art is a bad sign, regardless of how fantastically byzantine or exotic the steps undertaken, it’s the end result or effect on a viewer that matters, and unless that exotic process really does something to a viewer then I find myself asking ‘so what?’ Perhaps because drones are new and exciting in themselves drone film makers often seem to get caught up in the novelty of their technology without really reflecting on what it means to use it. I recently attended a talk by researcher Bradley Garrett who showed a sequence of drone film made on a Scottish island at a point where an undersea internet cable comes ashore. Garrett is an academic but the film is undeniably artistic, not only it’s clear aesthetic concerns but also in the sense that the video actually provides very little information about its suggested subject (this is not exactly a criticism, it’s more or less inevitable given the subject matter). More interestingly all hints of both drone and operator have been excluded from the frame, and Garrett acknowledged in response to an audience question that he had been hiding behind a small structure during the sequence, guiding the drone unseen. This to me is representative of a certain aesthetic in drone films, that fantasise the drone and it’s operator as not really being there at all. It is a roving, god’s eye view, and this pretended disappearance of the technology that makes this viewpoint possible also makes it in some way also easier to avoid difficult questions about the technology itself. Amongst the varyingly interesting ideas Garrett discussed in his talk it was noticeable that there was no conversation about what it meant as a researcher to employ a technology like a drone which has a very specific lineage. That is a line of descendent that even in civilian dronesleads backthrough a history of militarism and imperialism, and this seems a particularly important observation in relation to Lê’s previous focus on the conflict in his native Vietnam, a laboratory for some of the earliest millitary drones.

Lê on the other hand seems highly aware of these issues. In The Colony, the two drones produce staggering aerial imagery of thousands of bird nests, of jagged cliffs and greyed decaying structures. But beautiful as these are they would be little more than eye candy without the frequent appearance of the drones themselves in each other’s footage and in static shots filmed from the ground. It says much of the aesthetic of drone cinematography that these insertions feel like continuity errors the first few times they occur in The Colony, but over the course of watching the three separate projections that make up the installation one has a mounting sense of a transformation of the drones into key characters themselves. At moments, this sense of personification is inescapable, particularly in sequences where the drones appear to enter into strange aerial ballet routines, and during several sequences where they follow each other, at one stage into the corridors of a dilapidated barracks building. As one drone pauses to inspect a faded piece of pornography pasted to the wall besides a crude bunk bed while it’s companion looks on, one has the overwhelming sense of watching as the vanguard of some unknown high tech power, tentatively scouting out the ruins of its predecessor. In that sense The Colony feels less like rumination on old empire, even though it certainly is also that, and far more a meditation on the rise of something new and very different. A new power far less concrete than the competing empires of the nineteenth century, perhaps even less tangible than the diffuse global empire of post-cold war capitalism. Lê seems to be hinting at an empire yet to arise, an imperium hard and soft wired into the circuit boards of the supposedly neutral technologies with which we surround ourselves.

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

watch-this-exclusive-trailer-for-adam-curtis-new-documentary-hypernormalisation-1476097154-png

Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

The Corrupting Image: Pornography and Propaganda

the-corrupting-image

Glitched Islamic State propaganda (Lewis Bush)

Can a photograph change the world? It seems like such a simple question, composed of only five words, and yet the tracts and discussions produced in the search for answer would fill shelf upon shelf. Such reams of paper and hours of debate over these few words stem from the knowledge that any conclusive answer would have radical implications for many of the ways we understand and use photography. To speak only of the two loose fields I am primarily concerned with, for photojournalists, documentarians and anyone who views their photography as a form of activism or advocacy, a conclusion to the negative would effectively pull out the foundations on which these practices are based. The intentions and understandings of photographers going back to Jacob Riis and earlier still would be rendered essentially flawed, their efforts and assumed achievements null. For artists and others who might position themselves as being above such lofty positivist aspirations as social change, the conclusion that photography really has no influence on the world it exists within would pose difficult questions as to why we employ it for anything at all. This is to say nothing for the implications for those who employ photography for a host of other practices, from commercial advertising to medical imaging.

I see the lines of battle over this question drawn more or less between three camps. For what might be called the positivist, or dare I say, traditionalist camp, the right photograph appearing at the right time can be decisive in changing the course of lives, ending wars, driving a humanitarian response to a crisis and much more. The second camp consists of those like myself who find themselves in no-man’s land of this question, believing that while photographs don’t themselves affect change in any profound or direct sense, they do have a capacity to work subtly on those who view them, causing slippages and disconnections in what we think we know. This in turn leads sometimes (but not always) to reassessments, reconsiderations and ultimately to us changing our stances. This occurs in ways which might be so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, or which might be more drastic, even conscious. For the third and final camp, who might be described as the post-positivist camp, photographs have no such power to create change. They act at best as momentary distractions, brief detours in the paths of thought that we follow which in the end do not change our final destination.

Yet as I have suggested before here, many of those who criticise the inability of photography make a real impact in the world would also readily accept that certain images should be banned or proscribed because they are perceived to have some power to pervert or damage those who view them. This is I think an interesting contradiction, rarely broken down and analysed, between the claim that photographs hold no power to do good, and the recognition that images can be a force for damage, a corrupting influence on those who view them. The influence of such images is a matter of significant public discussion, far more so than the question of whether journalistic photographs are able to influence for the good, a question mostly only concerns specialists and practioners of the medium. The press often erupt in discussion over the role of images of violence, in particular terrorist propaganda and extreme pornography, debating the extent to which it is their responsibility to show the former, and the extent to which access to the latter should be curtailed by state or corporate monitoring and intervention. These are not new conversations but urgency has certainly been added to them by the advent of the internet and the ready availability of both types of images, which can be called up in a moment by anyone, almost anywhere. Both of these ‘genres’ also clearly encompass a multitude of other media beyond photography, but in both cases photography is a significant and central means of their transmission.

Judging by the literature there seems to be little question that these types of extreme imagery do have an influence on those who view them. Studies of the effects of pornography have been particularly intensive, perhaps indicating the contemporary moral panic which often sees feature films with brief and mild sexual content given far more stringent ratings than those containing graphic violence throughout. The findings of these studies however are by no means consistent or uncontested, and research of the papers themselves suggests many come loaded with a definite prior agenda to prove or disprove the thesis the pornographic imagery is harmful. To pick out a few experiments. In 1986 Neil Malamuth conducted a study to determine the relationship between pornography and male violence towards women. His conclusion was that pornography had the capacity to exacerbate existing tendencies towards violence, but that it was not directly a cause. Ethical issues with exposing people to potentially harmful images make such experiments harder to conduct today, and as the piece above outlines much contemporary research into the effects of pornography rely on correlating a person’s self-reported use of such material with their view of relationships and the opposite sex, an approach which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions or to identify other factors in a person’s makeup which could contribute both to a predisposition for viewing pornography and to difficulties relating to others. And yet there is also the question of whether the two issues we are discussing remain for some people largely separate worlds. Michel Foucault, who was active in San Francisco’s gay sado-maschism community, always resisted suggestions that these activities bore any relation to his philosophical writings on sexuality, power, and control. Whether this was a rare moment of naievity on his part, or whether sex can be ring fenced from a person’s intellectual life in the way seemed to suggest to his interviewers, is another question in itself.

Studies of violent propaganda imagery are harder to come by, with most instead focusing on the impact of direct exposure to violence at key stages in person’s life, rather than violence mediated through photographs. In 1961 Albert Bandura experimented with the effects of witnessing violence by exposing children to the sight of an adult punching a doll. When left alone with the doll many of the children repeated the same behaviour. His contested conclusion was that when confronted by violent behaviour we are more likely to copy it than to find it cathartic. Many of the attempts to engage specifically with the effects of violent photographic imagery have been philosophical rather than scientific, the topic a cornerstone of contemporary photographic theory from Susan Sontag’s much discussed 1977 book On Photography to more contemporary examples like Susie Linfield’s measured 2010 study The Cruel Radiance. There are exceptions to this trend though. A controversial study published in 2015 suggested that social media users could develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the images of suffering, much of it violent propaganda, which regular circulates on these channels. This ‘vicarious trauma’ might not be as severe as trauma acquired from direct experience, but it suggests a powerful capacity for images to impact on those who view them, effects which might last long after exposure. Other studies have suggested it might not always be the default to identify with the victim of violence captured in a photograph, and that some people naturally identify far more readily with the aggressor.

Conclusions remain far easy to draw, but while the research often suggests different interpretations there is a common thread of acknowledgment that photographs do have an altering effect on those who look at them. This effect which in turn would often seem to alter their course and conduct through the world, whether in shaping a person’s relationships with others, or in the way they respond to subsequent violent imagery. It is interesting to note that far more intellectual energy has been dedicated to testing the destructive consequences of viewing imagery than considering the possibly galvanising effects, but it would seem to follow logically that this is a binary in which one consequence must exist alongside the other. It might also be worth noting that the two categories are not necessarily so exclusive as they at first seem, a fact hinted at by the conclusions of researchers who suggested that some people will identify with victims, and others with perpetrators. With this in mind these two categories start to collapse, and imagery which when viewed by some viewers in certain contexts is traumatic, violent and unpleasant, might in a different place, to a different viewer, be animating, even inspiring. The disparate responses to ISIS execution videos would seem to be an example of this, and it goes without saying that in terms of pornography what one person finds arousing another will find bizzare or even repulsive. With this in mind how can one begin to proscribe imagery on the basis of protecting a viewer, when the effect on the viewer is unpredictable until the moment of exposure? The banning of certain types of imagery in the belief that doing so protects the public, might be a modern day iconoclasm, a practice ISIS might teach us a thing or two, if our own history didn’t suggest we are already well versed in it.

The Market: An Interview with Mark Curran

11_CURRAN_Financial_Surrealism_WTC_2015

Financial Surrrealism (World Trade Center II)
Zuidas Financial District, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2015, from THE MARKET

It’s a paradox that one of the great strengths of photojournalism and documentary photography can also be one of its great handicaps. That is the tendency to employ a laser like focus, conducting photographic micro-studies which encompass a very small field in great detail. It’s the approach many of us learn from the start, being advised (with good reason) as students not to overextend ourselves and to restrict our focus. But it’s also an approach many of us continue to use even as we mature as photographers and become capable of so much more. This micro approach certainly has advantages, and in certain contexts, particularly in exploring very human topics, it can work very well. But in exploring some of the bigger themes and forces that shape all of our lives it often falls short, unable to expose the importance of abstract relationships, networks, and flows that take place between the disparate elements which often make up the greater whole of an issue.

How for example can one speak about environmental decay without also discussing capitalism, and how can one discuss capitalism without discussing the cultures and societies that participate in and tolerate it? A few, very few, photographers and photographic artists are ambitious enough to set aside the micro for the macro in this way. One of them I think is Mark Curran, an artist researcher and educator who lives and works in Berlin and Dublin. His long term research projects combine photography, multimedia and installation to highlight the flows of global capital and predatory acts and contexts that result from them. They have been shown at galleries, festivals and universities globally and future exhibitions are planned for the UK in France in 2017 alongside a full publication of THE MARKET. Mark holds a practice-led PhD, lectures on the BA (Hons) Photography programme, Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT), Dublin and is Visiting Professor on the MA in Visual & Media Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. (Full biography on Mark’s website). Recently we discussed his work and some of the wider questions that it raises.

Mark, perhaps you could start by telling me a little about how you first became interested in making work about the financial system?

Although now living and working between Berlin and Dublin, with hindsight, centrally all began with my experience first as a migrant from, and then as a returning migrant to, Ireland in 1992 (from western Canada, where my family emigrated in 1984 when I was 19). Having studied in Calgary, I was then working as a Social Worker and while away, one holds romantic notions of where one is from and ideas of ‘Home’. On my return, I was faced with the contradictions and hypocrisies of both the country of my birth and my own position. This was exemplified how on the second day of my return, a very close friend brought me to see Ireland’s first shopping mall and having seemingly left the landscape of suburbia and such spaces in Calgary, this was, a significant defining and revelatory moment. Then in 1995, I decided to take a career break (became a career change), bought a camera and went on an extended trip to SE Asia. This transformed everything. On my return, I lived in an area of Dublin that, as we would now understand, was experiencing the initial stages of gentrification, and what was the beginning and evolution of the so called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy where the Republic of Ireland basically underwent it’s Industrial Revolution.

I had a conversation with my elderly neighbour, Kathleen, and she described how, her daughter, the first in five generations could not afford to live in the area. So, I began then to photograph in this area, named Stoneybatter. It is one of the oldest parts (and Irish speaking parts) of Dublin. When the Vikings arrived and came up the river Liffey, to make way, the locals moved from one side of the river to the other and this site was Stoneybatter. In 1998, having applied and been accepted to art college to study photography (IADT where I now lecture), over the month of August, I began photographing young children at dusk and always with cranes in the background. A somewhat naïve, impulsive way of using photographs, in light of that conversation with Kathleen, to ask questions of economic futures and for whom. Of course, I didn’t realise then that this was really the beginning of a cycle of projects, thematically, that continues to the present.

Since that time, I have undertaken four long-term research projects, completed over the last 18 years, addressing the predatory impact resulting from the flows and migrations of global capital. Two have been completed in Ireland, one in the former East Germany and my current ongoing transnational project titled, THE MARKET*, which focuses on the functioning and condition of the global markets with increasing focus on the rogue, Financial Capital.

The first of these SOUTHERN CROSS (1999-2001) (recipient of the first Artist Award from the Gallery of Photography in Dublin) critically surveyed the so-called, ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy of the Irish republic, through portraits and landscape, mapping the spaces of Development and Global Finance. The title alludes to being sited in the south of Ireland and the new religion of capital. At the time of the first exhibition, we also published a catalogue (Gallery of Photography/Cornerhouse, 2002). This included and essay by Dr. Justin Carville and the poet and writer, Philip Casey. More recently, the writer, Colin Graham observed:

‘evidence of the rasping, clawing deformation of the landscape, the visceral human individual in the midst of burgeoning idea of progress-as- building, propped up by finance-as-economics…it stands as an extraordinary warning of the future that was then yet to come (2012: 15)’

3_CURRAN_Stephen

Stephen from Dublin
(IFSC, Phase I, Dublin, 2001) from the series prospect (SOUTHERN CROSS)

This was followed by, The Breathing Factory (Belfast Exposed/Edition Braus 2006), completed between 2003-2005 and was the central research of my practice-led PhD, one of the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. Sited at the Hewlett-Packard Industrial & Research Complex outside Dublin, which followed over 9 months of negotiation regarding access, the project critically addressed the role and representation of globalised labour and industrial space and global labour practices. Completed over a sustained two year period, central is an understanding of the condition of precarity and vulnerability as core to the functioning of those practices and seeing the factory complex as an allegory for the nation-state itself, in terms of responding to the needs and demands of the global market (the title references such an economic model, as defined by former Volkswagen CEO, Peter Hartz, who, on invitation of Francois Hollande, is presently reforming the state social welfare system in France). This was exhibited at FORMAT Festival in 2013 and a video of this installation can be seen here.

Extracts from EDEN/Ausschnitte aus EDEN (Arts Council 2011) was undertaken between 2003-2008 in a declining industrial and mining region of the former East Germany. A central premise of the project was seeking a future of capital, at time in Ireland were citizens were being told the ‘Celtic Tiger’ would last forever, The prophetic experiences of this region, and East Germany as whole, contradicted this narrative and evidenced the devastating unevenness inherent in globalisation. The intention, similar to the HP complex, was to also see the Opencast mine (‘Tagebau’) at the heart of the Lausitz as an allegory again for globalisation, being both unsustainable and finite. The project also alludes to how capital has no national identity. The installation is all projection-based underlining the precarity of this community and limitations of audio-visual practice to describe.

The intention was always to enter the site/sphere that has framed and defined all these other projects. Hence, in 2010, I began working with the curator and very much collaborator, Helen Carey (now Director of Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin) on THE MARKET. Helen has been instrumental in securing project funding and in the evolution of the project, which now incorporates five sites, Dublin, London, Frankfurt, Addis Abeba and Amsterdam. All were selected for specific reasons – Dublin, where the project started, London as the global centre for financial capital, Frankfurt, at the heart of Europe, the Euro, however, for the project became about the mediatised version of this structure and inaccessibility, Addis Abeba as site of the youngest exchange in the world (opening in 2008) and Amsterdam, although site of the oldest exchange in the world, the focus for me was the Netherlands central role in the global Shadow-Banking system and High-Frequency Trading (HFT). Ultimately, each site offers description regarding this globalised sphere.

Your work on this topic has been long term to say the least. Is that the way you naturally work or do you think that sort of long term involvement is simply demanded by a subject of this complexity?

Having started working directly with this theme in 1998 through what would be defined as documentary photography, my practice evolved to an expanded multi-media practice, in response to and informed by ethnography and the then burgeoning field of Visual & Media Anthropology. This is for a number of reasons. First, in the context of ethics and representation and photography’s historical role in the construction of identity. As someone who centrally incorporates the portrait and representing people, this was and remains a central consideration. Ethnography puts the human subject at the centre and in a way that demands time, is immersive and thereby brings understanding and insight – a critically reflexive approach. This evolved into formulating an expanded practice and ‘montage/multivocality’ as critical representational strategy in the context of the politics of representation. Therefore, in addition to photography, the projects incorporate, audio-digital video, artefactual and archival material and sound and centrally, text/verbal testimony – the person/citizen as witness.

In addition, time is significant in the role of securing access, as I understand these projects as a study of power. THE MARKET, in particular, has been informed by the anthropologist, Laura Nader and her advocacy in 1973 for Studying Up – to study the structures of power and the culture that substantiates them:

What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty? Principally studying the most powerful strata of urban society…and instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other peope are so affluent

(Nader, L. (1972: 289) from ‘Up the Anthropologist – Perspectives Gained from Studying Up’ in Hynes, D. (ed.) Reinventing Anthropology, Pantheon, New York, 284–311).

This requires time explicitly as she states, ‘how the powerful do not want to be studied’. So perseverance becomes critical to provide cultural description to theses spheres, these structures that centrally define us. So for example, with this project, it has taken on average, 1.5 – 2 years to access sites and/or individuals. So perseverance becomes critical to enable cultural description of theses spheres and structures that centrally define us, and how we are expected to live as citizens. In addition, where access was not given as with the Deutsche Börse in Frankfurt, the project documents that process in terms of what that lack of access describes, the paper trail and indeed the mediatised version of the market as evidenced by the ‘TV studio’ as the Börse itself describes the actual exchange in Frankfurt. So the projects are inherently political in terms of a study of power, and therefore this frames a positioning of artist researcher and activism. This has also been informed by Nicholas Mirzoeff’s idea of #VisualActivism, which he describes as the ‘interaction of pixels and action to make change’.

I would just like to acknowledge that there is much discussion of ‘post-representation’. However, in the context of contemporary financial capital whose key function is abstraction (this is witnessed in the impact of algorithmic technology/machinery, which financial capital has been, and is, the central innovator), and evolving how Marx stated, Capitalism seeks everything to be recreated in its image, I would observe that Financial Capital seeks everything to be recreated in its image – therefore, to embrace such a position opens the possibility of practices which, intentionally or not, align themselves, ideologically with the functioning of financial capital.

8_CURRAN_Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Trader (negotiation 1.5 years) Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX)
Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, September 2012, from THE MARKET

I’m glad you raise the spectre of technology, it’s relationship to capitalism and the question of its abstraction. I’ve often written here about the issue of representation in a time when more and more of the key machinery of our world is becoming impossible to directly visualise in the ways that journalists, artists and particularly photographers would traditionally have done, the increasing use of algorithms being a very clear example of that. I think the work of Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann makes an interesting example of this in that they apply these traditional approaches rooted in the axiom of proximity to a topic which cannot really be revealed by such closeness. By contrast, I think you find very interesting ways around this problem and I wonder if you could talk a little about how you think about visualising topics, which are essentially avisual?

A central function of capital is abstraction. This is so critically important to understand as through my research and speaking with those working in this sphere, I became aware of the central role of technology, specifically what we may define as algorithmic machinery, which has been innovated and pioneered by financial capital. At present almost 85% of trading is undertaken through such technology. Indeed, a 2012 UK government Office of Science (Foresight) report forecasts that within a decade there will be no human traders having been largely replaced by these systems. It is again important to understand and stress that the application of algorithmic technology was innovated by the markets beginning in the 1980s. Too often this relationship is overlooked and indeed under-represented in discussion around such themes as ‘Big Data’. And this is where it can become rather dystopian.

Focusing on the thesis of how the markets, and more specifically, financial capital, seeks everything to be recreated in its image. In such a scenerio, where, in addition to the role of tax avoidance systems/Havens and Shadow Banking systems with as much as half the money circulating the planet flowing through these networks daily remaining largely unregulated, creates a large degree of Stateless-ness, there is an argument of a future about significant peopleless-ness. So, as an artist researcher, how to represent such structures, to give these processes cultural description.

Therefore, a critical element of the project and the installation of THE MARKET is the soundscape, which is immersive in scale. Algorithms emit pulses as they travel through fibre-optic cables (although presently shifting to light) and function 24 hours a day so they are ever present beyond the visual and aural realm of human beings so how to represent something we, as citizens, cannot see or hear. My brother, Ken (Curran), is a programmer and composer. So, through the application of an algorithm, which Ken coded, to identify the words “market” and/or “markets” in public speeches given by relevant national Ministers of Finance, the data was then transformed to create the installation soundscape. To date, ‘localised’ algorithmic translations of speeches by Michael Noonan (Ireland), George Osborne (United Kingdom), Pierre Moscovici (France) and Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Netherlands & Eurozone Group President) have been included in exhibitions in those countries. The intention conceptually is to represent the functioning of contemporary financial capital through the conduit of the financialised nation-state. In turn, to create a tension between the material objects of the installation – photographs, artefacts, transcripts – and the possibility of their abstraction through the processes that the soundscape represents.

Another strategy I have employed is drawing on research by Eric Scott Hunsader (Owner of Nanex, online platform which documents daily global trading), who looked at one stock for one second in 2012. He noted that in one second, 14,000 positions were taken globally on that one stock. He stated how if you were to print out that amount of data, it would equate to a 6 feet high stack of A4 paper. So, I have recreated this (titled Normalising Deviance II) as part of several installations further in the context of the soundscape. It is figurative in scale and in addition on each page is a quote from a telephone conversation I had with a senior trader working in London, who stated:

…what people don’t understand… is that what happens in the market is pivotal to their lives… not on the periphery…but slap, bang, in the middle…

More recently, a further elaboration on the soundscape and critique of the popular graphic representation of the markets, I worked with a friend and colleague, Damien Byrne, who designed a 3D visualization/virtualisation of the algorithmically-generated soundscape. So again as a key contemporary operating strategy is the virtualisation of structures including the nation-state (as outlined by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi), I would argue through this appropriation, it further represents contemporary financial capital functioning through the conduit of the financialised nation state. It is important to note that in the installation is that a one point the 3D graph disappears, evaporates so alluding to how we, as an audience, as citizens can reject the narrative that supporting/saving such structures is the only possibility available. Remembering that presently, it is the actions of global central and state banks that is maintaining the appearance of globalised economic well-being through quantitative-easing resulting in austerity and a scale of inequality, which according to the World Economic Forum, the world has ever experienced. And again, this has occurred since, the crash in 2007/2008.

6_CURRAN_Steilmann_EDEN

Empty Workstation (Steilmann Textile Factory (one week before closure) – last textile factory in East Germany relocating to Romania and 6 months later Moldova)
Cottbus, Lausitz, Eastern Germany, April 2006
(Glass slides, multiple, looped projection) from Auschnitte aus EDEN/Extracts from EDEN

You neatly pre-empt my final question. The economic turmoil of the last decade seems to have revealed even to people not that interested in economics how shaky and impermanent these systems can be. This is naturally frightening in some respects but also exciting, a hint that edifices which have come to be regarded as normal, permanent and indispensable could disappear and be replaced by something different. The turmoil of the recession offers glimpses of alternatives to the current financial system, and has helped perhaps more than anything to dispel the once prevalent sense that there is no alternative. At the risk of asking for an impossible forecast where do you see The Market and the wider market which it explores going next in the coming years?

In terms of the project, the intention is to make a complete publication, critically, as a document, but also as an artefact of a sphere that may ultimately abstract itself through the means of its own innovation. The aspiration would be, in parallel, to create an e-book and/or App version, which, ideally, will be freely available. The intention is to distribute the cultural understanding regarding this sphere, as widely as possible. So at present, I am seeking a publisher and Nicholas Mirzoeff has already kindly agreed to contribute an essay to the publication. Beyond this, there are forthcoming conferences/symposia in the US and UK. Some of the work will form part of a major group exhibition organised in the Autumn, by the Blackwood Gallery in Toronto titled ‘I Stood Before The Source’, which sounds really dynamic. The complete projects will encompass several locations extending to off-site and/or public spaces and there is a full programme of events planned under a theme with a large focus on representing contemporary financial capital. In November, I will also give a public talk in Newcastle, organised by NEPN (the research centre at the University of Sunderland, who in cooperation with Noorderlicht Festival (Netherlands) commissioned project work undertaken in Amsterdam last summer), who are also planning an installation for next year. In addition in 2017, there will be an exhibition at Galerie Bleu du Ciel in Lyon working with Gilles Verneret ho also previously showed both Southern Cross and The Breathing Factory. The intention then would be to begin the next project of the cycle, which would be to engage with, and map those central to the technology & innovation of globalised finance and more closely, the shadow structures.

In answer to the second part of your question, it is understood how structurally and regarding the culture of that structure, nothing has fundamentally changed since 2007/2008 and that the system is being artificially maintained by debt undertaken by the world’s central and state banks through Quantitative Easing (QE). For example, since 2015, the European Central Bank has been buying debt to the total of 80 Billion Euros per month (both bank and corporate) and this is set to continue (and watch what the Bank of England is planning later in August and this year). To subvent and subsidise this system, policies of austerity are imposed, resulting in the harrowing conditions of inequality, that we witness, globally. I am reminded of the words of one senior trader:

‘You have no money in your education system, that’s us (‘the markets’), you have no money in your health system, that’s us…you have no money for culture, that’s us…it’s everything’

(recorded notes with Senior Trader, Cafe, The City, London, March 2013)

Combine this with the technological evolution of algorithmic machinery innovated by financial capital and the process of abstraction, while always remembering that this sphere creates crisis and simultaneously, the means for its survival. Therefore, it truly seems unsustainable.

There is consensus and awareness that the previously understood cyclical nature has evolved into something structural. In addition, the apparent disconnect between this sphere and the real economy – hence in the project, titles directly reference ‘the Economy of Appearances’, ‘Systemic Risk’ and ‘Financial Surrealism’. Many observers, including bankers, traders, analysts, economists and CEOs I have encountered, are alert to how a massive globalised bubble has been constructed through the intervention of QE and the functioning of this system that could make the aforementioned financial crash seem minor in comparison unless, a radical overhaul occurs… But critically, this all points to the end of a system of capital as we understand and simultaneously opportunities as it is clear that resources are there to re-enable inclusive citizenship, the social contract and to invoke Martin Luther King, Socialist Democracy. Unless this is addressed and I would further argue that from Trump to Brexit, not to mention climate change, terrorism and war, all symptomatic of this dreadful malaise, that such conditions will only become more volatile and unstable. This is why it is urgent we understand the central role of this sphere, the culture it presently embodies of normalising deviance and its relationship to technology, as part of a process, which it is important to acknowledge, is happening, to avoid such calamity and towards the re-imagining and reclaiming of other futures.

* Supported by the Arts Council of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs, Government of Ireland and partnered by Belfast Exposed Photography, Gallery of Photography, Dublin, CCA Derry-Londonderry, NEPN, Noorderlicht and curated by Helen Carey, Director, Firestation Artists’ Studios (Dublin), the transnational multi-sited project, THE MARKET, was also part of a series of visual art events marking the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a pivotal moment in Irish labour history.

13_curran_teoa_lcga_2015

Installation (Limerick City Gallery of Art, 2015) includes The Economy of Appearances 2015
3D Data Visualisation of the algorithmically-generated soundscape identifying the application of the words market and/or markets in the public speeches by Irish Minister of Finance, Micheal Noonan.(Single channel projection, sound) Algorithm Design & Sound Composition by Ken Curran, Data Visualisation by Damien Byrne

Highlights and Trends: Unseen Photo Fair 2016

hoopla-2016-clare-strand_lhgwr

Hoopla 2016
Clare-Strand / LhGWR

Photography fairs are not my natural environment, but I’ve often heard good things about Amsterdam’s Unseen Fair and decided to visit this year. It may just have been the late September sun sparkling on the canals or perhaps a post-Brexit longing for Europe but the experience was probably the most positive I’ve ever had at an art fair, with a strong range of work, decent events and above all a nice atmosphere without the air of frenzied selling I expected. As I traveled home across the Dutch landscape I thought I would sum up a few thoughts and observations about the fair and the photographs I saw there. Firstly I should admit that, holding the views that I do about the photography art market, I went prepared for a bit of a battle. I’ve written before about what I see as one of the most glaring contradictions of this world, the employment of limited editions of photographic prints as a means of artificially rarefying a medium which is by it’s nature is just not rare or limited, and which year by year is only becoming less so and that contradiction all the more glaring. Chatting to quite a few gallerists about this at the fair, I’m still not won over and won’t be editioning my own photographs anytime, but I’m more ready to accept the practice as a necessary evil where it helps make sales and support artists in the making of new work. The artists and gallerists that I spoke to seem to be well aware of this contradictions themselves and not always comfortable with them. With that in mind it was very interesting to see how many of the works on display employed material strategies which had the effect of turning their photographs into more legitimately limited edition items.

A few of the evident trends were polaroids, artists working directly with the surface of their prints and artists morphing their photograph into objects verging on sculpture. About polaroids perhaps the less said the better, but I did see what felt like a disproportionate number of them presumably because the unique nature of the process makes them attractive fodder for collectors rightly wary of editions of more conventional digital or chemical photographs. The polaroids on show ranged from Miles Aldridge’s indifferent test shots of his well known photographs (talk about flogging a dead horse) through to more interesting inclusions like Clare Harvey’s blending of polaroids with drawing. In terms of artists using direct manipulations to the surface of their prints to create unique objects there were numerous examples, including Elmar Vestner who works directly on the surface his photographs using abrasive materials and Maurizio Anseri who embroiders his images. As a technique embroidery is certainly not a new one (Julie Cockburn et al come to mind) but way that Anseri wraps his thread around objects in the frame to create angular forms and a sense of three dimensional space within the very two dimensional image is intriguing.

Very evident was a trend towards dramatically complex image-sculptures, for example the work of Christianne Feser, where the shapes of her already almost abstract photographs merge with cuts and folds in the print’s surface to create an image which functions almost like an optical illusion. In his own write up of Unseen, Francis Hodgson suggests that this jump away from flat photographs is now defining separation between photographic artists and the mere camera operators producing purely factual images. What Hodgson dosen’t acknowledge is that these types of works also serve the interests of collectors and gallerists, and that such work probably features so heavily at the fair precisely because it short circuits one of photography’s very problematic features for the art world, its reproducibility. The artistic worth of these images is by the by, some are very interesting, some are shallow and process led. Lastly I’m not sure whether to dub it sculpture, performance, or something else entirely, but I before moving on I also have to mention Clare Strand’s Hoopla installation which was located just outside the fair. Here a game of skill has been repurposed and recreated as a both a very funny commentary on the art market and a chance to get yourself one of Strand’s own prints at a bargain price. For a few Euros visitors are given some wooden rings which they have to throw over a print a distance away in order to win it. I had a go and didn’t do very well, but the gambling here at least involves smaller figures than that going on inside the fair (Strand wasn’t easily drawn on which of the outlets for her photographs was proving more lucrative).

Besides what was on display it is also worth discussing is what wasn’t in evidence. Documentary and photojournalistic photography was largely absent but that is little surprise. What was more notable was the lack of an engagement with photography’s present form as an almost exclusively digital medium. Artists are engaging with this and the myriad issues it raises in their droves, but for the most part you wouldn’t guess it from Unseen. I expect this just reflects the general angst about the digital that extends beyond the art world and into the photography using public at large and the instinct of most people (particularly those with a stake in the old ways) to bury their heads in the analogue sand. Some works made an attempt to reference this digital world, Jan Rosseel’s series On the Aesthetics of Violence for example includes images consisting of a grids of bold coloured blocks which reference the layout of Google Image search result page with hints of the original image to which the title refers, usually an image of war, atrocity or destruction. It’s interesting work but but feels strange to see a platform and product so ephemeral as an image search rendered permanent as a physical print. I often confront this same problem of the dissonance of representing the digital physically in my own work and I still haven’t reached either a practical or intellectual solution, but the problem is there and needs drawing out. There was also sometimes a sense of frustration to find photographers who have engaged with these topics quite effectively in the past not pushing further. Michael Wolf for example has it seems not pursued the avenues opened by his 2010 works using Google Street View, instead exhibiting a series this year where he returns to the streets of Hong Kong to document detritus grandly described in the accompanying text as ‘vernacular sculptures’.

Curation and context is another question worth discussing. Unseen is an art fair, not a gallery or museum show, but the stalls where the works have been carefully selected to really play off against each other and have a even a small amount of contextual information about the series or the artist really stand out. East Wing Dubai’s display easily wins the prize on this front, offering visitors a well thought out and contextualized mini-exhibition (especially considering the limited space) of artists considering the impact of human kind on the planet. These include Yan Mingard’s Seven Sunsets, which jarringly contrasts details of the sky from 18th century paintings with internet appropriated images of polluted Chinese skies, and Mandy Barker’s work on ocean borne plastics. Of course curation (or the lack of) can also sometimes raise readings which might be less desired. There was a strange moment for me at another gallery’s stall in encountering a series of Zahele Muholi self-portraits highlighting black stereotypes facing a series of photographs by Vivianne Sassen. It was a contrast which brought to mind questions about representation and ownership which have been raised on Disphotic before and also discussed far more articulately by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa in his essay The Lives of Others.

There is also an interesting but not entirely resolved conversation going on between the Unseen Fair and the Unseen Festival, the latter a smattering of exhibitions held across the district just north of the main fair and also at some of the larger galleries and museums across the wider city. The exhibitions range from relatively large scale and complex to small and informal. In the former camp there was Anton Corbijn’s Touched (a little awkwardly billed as ‘Touched by Anton Corbijn’ on a few advertising posters I saw) which focuses on the trend towards artists making drastic interventions on their print, rather as if to validate the trends in the main fair. I’m really not keen on over focusing on process, nor shows largely advertised on the basis of their curator, but the exhibition was interesting and employed a good range of artists from Miroslav Tichy’s beautiful if predative photographs of unaware women to Anthony Cairns frozen e-ink screens. The smaller displays were often the standouts, in part for the way they were often integrated into the local community in a way which pushed visitors to engage with the area rather than just pass through as normal. The Art of Making Selfies at De Bogt-Westerbeer nursing home was my favourite and a good example of this. A collaboration between the residents, a Dutch youth group and photographer Willem Popelier, the exhibition features young and old recreating famous selfies, from Robert Cornelius to Kim Kardashian. Exhibited in the communal areas of the home itself, visitors mingle with the staff and residents and even now as I travel home my most delightful memory of the trip remains that visit, flat photographs and all.

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

KOY201407070021

Russian officers run to the Nakhimov square to take part in a rehearsal for the May 9th Victory Day parade in Sevastopol. May 6th 2014. Yuri Kozyrev/Another Crimea

I recently reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty, a commanding account of the role of war correspondents from the 1854 Crimean War through until the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The book brilliantly charts the successes of correspondents in revealing some of the worst excesses of war, but also is acute in arguing that at least as often correspondents have willingly or unwittingly been co-opted into sustaining, legitimising or smoke screening indefensible events. Finishing the book, it occurred to me how well it could do with updating to include some of the conflicts since 2003, including the secretive drone wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and perhaps coming full circle back to Crimea with it’s annexation by Russian forces in 2013. This thought drew me back to something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, Another Crimea, an ‘unprecedented documentary art project’ which expansively offers to show viewers ‘the dawn of the peninsula and its people’s new old chapter beyond all political and ideological barriers’. Jorg Colberg first flagged Another Crimea back in June in the context of a discussion about manipulation and verification, and I want to pick up where he left off and discuss it in more depth.

Another Crimea brings together six photographers from the prominent photographic agencies Noor, VII and Magnum. The photographers (Christopher Morris, Francesco Zizola, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Olivia Arthur, Pep Bonet and Yuri Kozyrev) each produced a documentary photo series, or in one case a film, in the region over ten days in summer 2014, and these are featured on Another Crimea’s website alongside a behind-the-scenes video for each photographer with a narration and explanation of their project. For a sampling of the projects, Francesco Zizola’s contribution consists of rephotographs of Crimean war photographs, ranging from Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death to less well known historic images by Russian photographers. Olivia Arthur’s project follows three families, one Russian, one Ukrainian and one Tatar, reflecting on the diverse makeup of the peninsula. Pep Bonet’s film reflects on the region’s history, in particular the legacy of the Second World War Siege of Sebastopol. ‘We are cleaners, we clean the history, we make it shining’ says Alexander, a historian who identifies war graves, and one of the people interviewed by Bonet. The individual photography projects are competently executed, but in the way they are framed by the broader project and it’s copious avoidance of key questions about Crimea’s annexation by Russian in 2013 it is hard not to feel even after a superficial look that what one is viewing is problematic.

The deeper one gets into the Another Crimea website the more the sense grows that this is not just a pro-Russian take on Crimea but might be even more problematic, indeed that it might be directly aligned to support Kremlin policy. Certainly that seems to be the view of many of the photographers interviewed for one piece about the project, one calling the photographers involved in the project ‘useful idiots’ and suggesting they have been dragged into participating in the continuing propaganda war over the future of Crimea. Some basic research dosen’t do much to counter this. Russian Reporter the magazine behind the project routinely selects Putin and his favourites for it’s annual ‘person of the year’ award and has been accused of misrepresenting the Wikileaks cables in a way designed to support Russian foreign policy objectives, while not reporting cables which paint Russian leaders or their allies in a negative light. The magazine is owned by the Ekspert Publishing House, which is in turn owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who despite having had something of a rocky ride with the Kremlin in the past is today often described as a close ally of Putin’s. It took me perhaps ten minutes to research this information, which makes me wonder whether the agencies and photographers did the same when first presented with this project, and if they found what I found, then why they decided to participate in it anyway. While it’s hardly damning evidence, it does suggest that the publishers behind the project might not be exactly neutral, which given the sensitivities of the peninsula casts a shadow over Another Crimea as a documentary project.

The Russian state’s use of the media has been much discussed in our own press, and it is often described as a core part of the Kremlin’s overall strategy for projecting power and influence around the globe in the post-Cold War era. Thinking back to the annexation of Crimea itself, Russia appeared to employ a range of media strategies as part of the campaign including an online disinformation campaign, the employment of soldiers without identifying insignia, and to some extent also capitalised on spontaneous events like the selfies taken by some Crimean residents with the soldiers. The ensuing conflict in the east of Ukraine has equally been marked by a furious information war, particularly around key events like the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014. There is also much to be written about the use of government funded broadcasters like Russia Today to sow disinformation, counter-narratives and outright conspiracy theories. So close indeed is the connection between the Kremlin’s employment of hard and soft power that the approach has increasingly been dubbed ‘hybrid warfare’ for the way it blends traditional military force with black operations, cyber attacks, and propaganda. Whether you adopt this catchy buzz phrase (after all hasn’t war always involved these things to some degree?) or not, events of the last few years suggest it has been an effective strategy both for smoke screening overt military actions, and for generating a sense of inertia and confusion in the countries that might otherwise try to counteract Russian actions.

As Knightley repeatedly demonstrates in his book, there is always the possibility of a journalist subverting a managed opportunity in order to create a result which is quite different from what those in charge want to produce. We’ve seen this done with varying degrees of success in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the military practice of embedding. Tim Hetherington’s series Infidel remains for me one of the most effective examples of this, even if it also at the same time demonstrates very clearly the inherent limitations on even the most conscientious photographer working within these confines. It’s also worth of course stating that documentary photography has often been co-opted as a medium of propaganda in the past, and depending on how far you stretch that term some of the most celebrated documentary projects of the last century would meet the definition. In the case of Another Crimea I sensed the six projects were well intentioned but suffered from similar issues, an uncritical one sidedness masquerading as documentary distance and objectivity. Arthur’s work is maybe the one that comes closest to offering a counter-narrative to Another Crimea‘s own counter-narrative, and I feel it’s also worth noting that she appears to be the only one of the six photographers who actually features the work the resulted from the project on her own photography site. She also does so with an introduction which unambiguously frames the work in terms of the Russian annexation of the Crimea (in a way which the series isn’t framed on the main Another Crimea site).

So to end, what does this potential co-option mean for documentary photography? I would flag three things. Firstly, it suggests that a hitherto unexpected consequence of shrinking economy for this type of documentary photography is that when offers of work do come along perhaps photographers are less inclined to look closely at who is paying for them. The lesson here is clear, we need to be as or even more questioning of who is commissioning us in financially meager times as we might be in more bountiful seasons. Secondly I think it is worth noting that in the context of documentary as propaganda what is attractive to commissioners might no longer be the photography at all. Perhaps conscious of the negative light that broadcasters like Russia Today are seen in the west, commissioning unrelated external organisations with a reputation for independence established over many uears could be a very effective way for governments to launder propaganda into what appears to be documentary or news, and at the same time offers a ready-made audience into the bargain. Again the lesson is that these organisations run the risk of losing this credibility very quickly if they fail to vet who they take commissions from. Thirdly and finally, that if like Knightley you see journalism and by association documentary photography as ‘the first draft of history’ then it’s co-option and manipulation as a tool of governmental persuasion and policy promotion is something we all need to be very worried about. If documentary photography is to retain its currency and purpose in what (to use a Putinesque turn of phrase) is often described as a ‘post-truth’ world then it to remain above all else highly critical, and fiercely independent.

Monsanto: An Interview with Mathieu Asselin

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_007

It’s really, really rare that a photobook speaks to you in a way which feels important beyond the narrow realm of photography, and even does so in a way which feels desperately urgent. This was the precise experience I had the first time I came across Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation when it was on display as part of the dummy book table at Bristol Photobook Festival, and again when I saw it at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival this summer. The title of Asselin’s book needs little elaboration, the work scrutinizes the activities of this multinational agrochemical company, considering the lasting impact of it’s activities overseas and in it’s home country of the United States.

Through a series of chapters Asselin photographically interrogates these different areas, ranging from Monsanto’s role during the Vietnam war as one of the two major producers of the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange, through to it’s contemporary diversification into genetically modified crops, plants which are designed as much to support a corporate business model as to be plentiful producers of food. This investigation is remarkably wide ranging and reflects the complexities of modern corporate activity. As Asselin writes ‘Monsanto® maintains strong ties with the US- government, and especially with the FDA (United States Food and Drugs Administration). It is a bed-fellow with many other economical and political power houses around the world. The company engages in campaigns of misinformation, the persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists that dare to disclose their crimes.’

Mathieu, perhaps first you could say a little about why the first wanted to produce a project about a company like Monsanto, was there a particular encounter or discovery which set you off down this route?

Years ago, talking to my father, a French activist by heart, spirit and actions, and a true world citizen, the subject of Monsanto came up. This got my attention and inspired me to start an in depth research on Monsanto, little by little I realized that it has a much deeper and darker history. I was facing over 100 years of “successful failures”. This means that Monsanto success is built on a long series of social, ecological, economical and health disasters all around the world. This is no news for a large number of people fighting Monsanto but for the majority of people, including myself at that time, this was a shocking discovery. At that time the persecution of farmers wrongly accused of patent infringements (The use of Monsanto GMO seed without signing a contract) was featuring in many news outlets. I don’t remember exactly when, what I do remember is that I was very shocked by the 2008 Vanity Fair story Monsanto Harvest of Fear as well by Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto documentary.  At that point the story was already on my mind, the problem was how to photograph it.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_046

Many photographers attempting to document corporate activity might have just looked at one location or issue, for example the current consequences of herbicides like Roundup, or the lingering effects of Agent Orange use in Vietnam. What makes your work stand apart for me is the way you connect the disparate activities of Monsanto, from chemicals to seeds. What brought you to employ this multi-faceted way of investigation?

It is that multifaceted story that makes it a universal one. Monsanto’s dark story is a complex one and it cannot be understood if we just talk about genetically modified seeds, Agent Orange or PCBs separately. Monsanto is a 115 years old corporation (established in 1901) and its activities are as diverse as its social and ecological crimes. Everything is connected, one thing takes you to another is like a chain reaction, and the deeper you dig the more you find, in that sense is like an endless pit. The main challenge of this project wasn’t what to photograph but what not to. This was for me the hardest part. I focus on Monsanto’s milestones, places and events that have mark and shape their history as a corporation. It is a timeline to understand where Monsanto comes from, on what foundations it was built. This approach can help us understand its present and have a better idea of what the future maybe.

But is important to say that I didn’t discovered anything new, all this well documented information is public, before me many people have paved the road to make it easier for the rest of us, you just need to dig a bit. The interesting part was that as far as I know, nobody had put together photographically speaking that many pieces of the Monsanto story together I think that this was an important point to invest myself on the project. But I need to say that Olga Yatskevich was a great help in putting this together, she was like a translator for a language that was in my mind and that at that time only I understood. You know photography is never completely self-made. We are the products of our parents, our experiences our friend and people close to us, the important thing is to know how to combine all these experiences in a coherent voice that is your own.

Another facet to the book is the extensive use of Monsanto’s own advertising and marketing material, in particular The Monsanto House of the Future, an attraction created in the fifties for Disneyland but which in your book becomes a sort of metaphor for corporate indifference to the future and the people who have to live in it. Could you explain why you felt it was important to include examples of the ways Monsanto has represented itself alongside your photographic representations?

It is fascinating, isn’t it? That is why. I’ve never contacted Monsanto to have their point of view, I think that no statement from them can justify the crimes against humanity and the planet. With time you realize that this is not about Monsanto, this is about the people and environment affected by them. In the past five years I’ve bought a large collection of Monsanto paraphernalia. It was amazing to see how the propaganda machine works, but at that time didn’t know how I can incorporate it in the project. With time all this objects, the advertising and marketing got a wider meaning and became my way of letting Monsanto introduce itself. I was interested in the irony of the perfect world that they portrait.

Ricardo Baez, the designer of the book was very fond of the idea and suggested to place the ads at the beginning of the book. These materials help me to open a new window story wise, not limiting myself to what I can or can’t photograph to tell the story. All these “external” items, in one way or another, give an extra dimension to my project making it more interesting for the viewer and especially for me to build it. I think that with time I realize that the story needs to be told, this is the goal, and the more resources you have to play with, the better you can build it.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_012

Looking at your book I felt a very strong resonance with Phillip Jones Griffith’s seminal work Vietnam Inc. There is an obvious thematic connection in terms of Monsanto’s role in the production of Agent Orange for use in this conflict, but actually I think the similarity stems from a sort of quiet anger which underpins both books, and which I see in much great investigative journalism. Do you feel that’s accurate?

Ah! Mr. Griffiths what a great photographer, I wish I can compare my work with his. I don’t have that book, but I do have Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Viet Nam which I got before traveling to Vietnam, to see if I can finally learn something about photography. Mr. Griffith’s books is a very extensive investigation on the Vietnam war but the most important part of his work is that it really helped to change the view of the public on the war.  My work still young and I hope it can have some repercussion on the issue am pointing at.

I think it is more outrage than anger, you can’t detach yourself from the subject and you can’t detach the subject from your feelings either, at least that is the way I work.  At the same time it is important not to fall on to an easy narrative. Anger can lead to that, contrary to outrage. It is important to find a certain poeticism in the work, a flow that makes a longer lasting mark than anger alone would be able to. Fighting this type craziness with anger is not a good tactic. More important than anger is to be outraged because it is related to empathy, as the French philosopher Stephane Hessel said it “is time for outrage” and it is this time for outrage that gives you the strength and the empathy to say “Fuck it, I won’t take it anymore and I won’t let others to take it either”. I am sure Mr. Griffiths dealt a lot with this in his own work.

The book looks very complete and I believe is due to be published soon, but given the scale of this topic and the nature of this type of rather investigative work there is often the sense that there is more to be done. Will your work on this topic continue or do you feel it has reached its limit?

At the moment I am in contact with a few publishers that are interested in printing the book, and whose work I like and respect. I think the transition from dummy to the final book will happen soon, fingers crossed! It is rewarding to finally have a dummy it is the physical proof of many years of work but the most important thing is to reach the people, without that the rest doesn’t matter much. No doubt the project can keep growing. I didn’t include many other communities affected by Monsanto: Argentina, India, Mexico, etc. I didn’t include these stories not because they are less important, but because it was a big challenge to figure out how such an important and complex subject can be put together in a book, so I decided to focus on the United States and Vietnam (because it has direct ties with the USA) knowing that this can be a well contained example of what is and can happen anywhere else. When you see the disasters Monsanto left in their own country and the horrors of Vietnam, it gives you a very good idea of what is going on or what can happen in the rest of the world. Monsanto is expanding it’s business to countries with weak regulations and law and this allows them to basically do “whatever they want”, with very few barriers or responsibilities.  Argentina is a good example of that.

Right now I would like to focus on others projects. I’ve spent five years on this story (I am a slow photographer) and after a while is important for me as a photographer to find new subjects and advance in my learning curve. I just hope that the work I did can help people who are fighting Monsanto everyday by establishing a dialogue about the subject with a larger population. My biggest hope is that it can help to change people’s vision about Monsanto so they can make better choices. For now my work photographically speaking is done and a different part of the project needs to be put in gear, the one of putting it out there for the public, so no matter what, I think I will be crossing paths with Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation for some time.

Thank you for giving me the chance to speak about my project.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_030

No Justice, No Peace, Only History

us_protest_photo

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

If you were considering doing some visual analysis this week then there would be one overwhelmingly obvious candidate for it. A photograph by Reuter’s photographer Jonathan Bachman which shows protester Iesha L. Evans about to be arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gone viral, and is already being hailed as a ‘legendary’ image destined for the history books. In the photograph, a young black woman stands in an empty street, as two armour clad, white police officers move in to grab her. Her uprightness and poise is remarkable, and by comparison the two officers are frozen in a moment of motion which make them look as if they might actually be being repelled away from her by the magnetic force of her sheer will. To the left behind the officers, a long row of riot police look on, to the right behind the protester a row of bystanders and protesters watch from the far distance. It is a potent image, and like many great ones it is ripe for reading and counter-reading. It is a remarkable example of what the camera can do so well, an episode which by the accounts of bystanders lasted less than half a minute has been made permanent and indelible by the camera’s mechanism. It is also though an example of what the camera does so badly, in this image is only a sliver of time, shorn of context, which explains little of the wider cause or aims of these protests. It can easily be read as a simplistic binary of an overpowered, anonymous, authoritarian, white, male American state using disproportionate force against an unarmed, black, female citizen, which is certainly a truth, part of the truth, but not perhaps the whole truth.

In a piece on American Suburb X Brad Feurhelm hyperbolically declares Bachman’s image a ‘complete failure’ for rather different reasons, including because it repeats the tropes of a previous protest image, Marc Riboud’s photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to the sheathed bayonets of a row of soldiers during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The formal similarity and the looming presence of Riboud’s photograph in recent popular culture might account in turn for some of the success of Bachman’s photograph, but I’d argue that this similarity is far from a source of failure, far from evidence of a visual culture rendered so lazy by mass image consumption that it seeks familiar tropes by which to reduce all present events to familiar antecedents. Bachman’s photograph is important precisely because it sets present events in terms of the political struggles of the 1960’s, both the anti-war movement of which Riboud’s photograph was a direct document and the wider political milieu of that era, including of course the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement is a significant reference point because at least part of the reason that people are today dying on the streets of American cities is because of the way police forces have been progressively militarised with surplus hardware from conflicts in the Middle East (something which becomes clear from the armed man in fatigues in the final image of Bachman’s complete sequence of the event). These protests then are at least in a very small way protests against conflict, militarism and their inevitable impact on the home front, ideas I will be writing on more next week.

In turn, the civil rights movement is clearly an important reference for these current protests because Black Lives Matter in so many ways feels like a spiritual successor to that movement. It seems historically apt that an image like Bachman’s should come from a protest in Baton Rogue, where the first civil rights bus boycott took place in 1953 and thinking in terms of this history Bachman’s photograph actually has a far greater similarity for me to a 1963 photograph taken by Bill Hudson in during protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In the image, a 17 year old black protester named Walter Gadsden is being savaged by a police dog, but as in Bachman’s photograph what strikes the viewer is the remarkable poise he seems to show. Far from running from the snarling dog (which even the nearby police officer seems to have lost control over) the young man appears to be walking willingly and with total resolve into its snarling maw, while his hand grips the police officer’s wrist as if it to say ‘it’s ok, let go’. Onlookers behind look back perhaps in curiosity, surprise, and as with Bachman’s photograph it is an image which seems to say much, but which also tells little outside the fraction of a second when it was taken.

Is Bachman’s photograph a ‘complete failure’ then for echoing this history and these photographs? I would argue not at all, in fact it is that echo which is precisely what makes it important. This is not a case of an image of protest or war stylised like the works of a past work of art to which it bears no relation, or worse which casts the new image in terms of a moral or cultural framework to which it bears no relation. Think of the often inappropriate religious readings of Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the subtext such readings have for the supposed value of what is basically meaningless suffering (if I were to offer an art history reading of mine it would go rather further back, Evan’s pose reminding me of classical renditions of Clio, the muse of history) In its resonance with images of a much more recent past, Bachman’s photograph is one which demands that viewers remember that the question of civil rights in the United States is profoundly unresolved, and it is powerful precisely because in its historical reverberations it carries with it a sense of what the Black Lives Matters movement might need to be in order to have a chance of creating the change it’s supporters desire. While it is too soon to tell what impact this image will have, it is one, I would say, which does much to cast the movement as one which is as morally irresistible as its opponents are morally indefensible.