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.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #5: Overall Impressions

2016-CWY-cat06

Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013.
Courtesy of the artist, Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

This week I’ve been in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ve been posting a series of rapid fire posts summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which examine ideas about European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. For the next post I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I looked some of the ten photographers shortlisted for the the annual Discovery Award, and for this final piece I thought I would sum up my general feelings about the festival this year and mention a few final exhibitions I didn’t have time to discuss in previous posts.

In summing up the 2015 festival my chief complaint about Recontres Les Arles was that it’s exhibitions and displays all concieved of photography in a very traditional way and gave little space for new ways of thinking about the value of photography or the ways in which it might be manipulated and displaued. Despite the new director Sam Stourdzé’s proclamation that the festival is not a museum, there was little in 2015 that challenged prevailing thought about what photography is, thought which remains rooted in the idea of it as something which exists in isolation as a discrete object, which be held, bought, sold. While this conception of photography might be comforting for photographers and artists, it is far from the reality of photography as it is experience by the majority of people in the world, for whom the medium become something binary, networked, both ever owned and ownable, and constantly prone to being mutated or changed. That absence was perhaps was understandable last year since it was a moment of transition for the festival, so the 2016 festival is maybe a better opportunity to test the extent to which the festival and it’s new director are loyal to the present as well as the past of photography. Certainly new practices were noticeable in the numerous exhibitions of the 2016 festival, whether in the anarchic multiple projections of Christian Marclay’s Pub Crawl, in the distorted scans of Sara Cwynar (pictured above), in the fragmented pixel and Photoshop art of Nothing but Blue Skies, or in the 3d meshes of Hito Steryl’s computer generated video The Tower, part of the Systematically Open exhibition which has inaugurated the new La Mecanique Generale building in Parc des Ateliers. These types of works were though were still relatively few and far between, and where it occurred the focus was invariably on experimental work by relatively safe, collectible, name artists rather than younger or earlier career photographers.

One thing which was very noticeable this year was the sheer number of exhibitions, and their scale and opulence. Looming over Parc des Atelier this year was the LUMA foundation’s new premises, a twisting tower block, ten stories of concrete and steel which looks unforgivably out of place on the very traditional skyline of Arles with it’s red roofs and innumerable church spires. The tower seems like an apt symbol for the problem with many of the exhibitions I saw, which were overlarge and sometimes staged in ways which felt unsympathetic to the work. This was the case of Yann Gross’s The Jungle Show, installed in a darkened space on a series of massive stacked light boxes, the installation was superficially compelling but did the work no favours. In other cases, it was simply a matter of scale, with many exhibitions which would have been utterly engrossing if they been half the size, but which scaled as they were instead only encouraged fatigue in a viewer. Sincerely Queer, a potentially fascinating exhibition of historic photographs of transvestites would be an example of this, with twenty fairly similar photographs often used to illustrate each of the curator’s ideas, when five carefully selected images would have done the same job and given a viewer the breathing room to really study each image. Similar issues abounded in more contemporary issues like Yan Morvan’s Battlefields, which was an interesting if conventional documentary work on battlefields around the world, but was again just too big to properly enjoy or to engage with the extensive and detailed wall texts. I could list quite a few other exhibitions this year which in photographic terms felt like an all you can eat buffet, when what I and many I spoke to at the festival felt a hunger for was more like nouveau cuisine. In terms of complex staging, Eamon Doyle’s End was one of the few that I felt justified it’s elaborateness, with a cleverly thought out use of large wall vinyls combining with a freestanding Family of Man style grid of images in the center of the space which caused wall and grid to align with each other in intriguing and unexpected ways as a viewer moves through the space.

A large part of what made the 9/11 exhibition Nothing but a Clear Blue Sky stand out for me was that rather than filling a massive space with a vast number of images on a loosely connected theme, this show essentially asked visitors to engage with just one image, that of the burning twin towers, but to do so repeatedly and in way which was cumulative across the breadth of the show. While there were certainly things I didn’t like about this exhibition, this key difference felt hugely refreshing and it is one of the reasons this is one of my top exhibitions of the festival. Similarly the small display of Maude Sulter’s Syrcas series was engaging in part because with so few pieces on display it felt manageable to really spend time with each one and study the subtlety and thought that went into their making. This same problem of scale was also really evident with the book awards. Last year a relatively small number were on display and it was feasible to look through each one, and to look through some of them in depth. This year not only has the number of prizes expanded to include a new Photo Text award, but also the system of displaying shortlisted works has gone out of the window and there were such a quantity of books on show (shortlisted and not) that it would probably take most of the week to look through them, hence why I have not attempted a best of the books post as I did last time. Amongst such scale there were also some appalling mistakes, including some books installed cover down to the reading tables. As I wandered through the vast space of the Grand Halle of the Parc du Ateliers I did start to wonder whether the problem with the penchant for art exhibitions in such mammoth disused industrial spaces is that the curators feel the irresistible need to fill every inch of them.

In conclusion, Recontres Les Arles continues to stage consistently strong exhibitions, which are generally well curated and which are almost always executed to the high standards of display you would expect from a permanent, professional gallery. Photography is well represented both in terms of historically significant art works, archival and vernacular photography, and in certain forms of contemporary photography, but I feel the festival needs to run faster to keep up with the way photographers and artists are employing digital forms of image making, and even moving beyond these into employing technologies and methodologies which might be a hard sell to describe as photography. The money and venues keep coming, but what the festival needs far is more thought about what it means to show the work that it does in that way that it does, and also a careful consideration about the experience it wants visitors to have. The problem is with such a considerable amount of money clearly flowing in from sources like the LUMA Foundation these questions may be difficult ones to ask, let alone answer, and with all those massive spaces to fill it may continue to be overwhelmingly tempting to commission shows which are oversized and initially eye catching, but which was in curatorial terms weaker than they might have been. Above all what is really worth pondering is what happens to the festival if that flow of money on which it seems now to depend should ever comes to an end.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #4: The Discovery Award

2016-WAI-cat10

Seeking to Belong, Stranger in Familiar Land series, Kibera, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. The day before yesterday I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I want to look at some of the ten photographers nominated by five international selectors for the the annual Discovery Award shortlist, a €25,000 prize for photographers who ‘have recently been discovered, or deserve to be’.

First up, Florian Ebner head of the Photographic Collection at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, has selected Stephanie Kiwitt and Frank Berger as his nominees. The latter’s series Weissenfels responds to the oft repeated observation by Bertolt Brecht that a photograph of an armaments factory reveals little about the relations that take place inside it. Berger’s answer to this problem is instead to rephotograph the same locations outside a German slaughterhouse repeatedly over an extended period of time, which are then shown as a multi-screen projection. While these images certainly tell us a little more than a single image (if only in that we can see the passage of livestock in one direction and lorries of schnitzel heading in the other) they don’t really offer a solution to the problem Brecht identified, nor do they at all critically examine what his idea actually means when applied the best part of a century later to a world already awash with repetitive images.

Independent curator Mouna Mekouar has selected Basma Alsharif and Daisuke Yokota as her nominated artists. As someone often on the lips of curators and critics at the moment my money would be on Yokota to win the prize. His use of space is certainly the most ambitious and engaging in this year’s awards, with long rolls of half developed photographic paper coiling down from a ceiling gantry (still reeking of developer), and walls padded with spiky acoustic foam. Unfortunately, the descriptive text on the wall which describes photographing at night and relying on senses other than sight to identify subject matter seems to bear little relation to what is presented in the space and I felt rather disengaged with the work despite it’s scale. I sometimes wonder if it is Yokota’s adherence to comfortingly old fashioned analogue processes in an age of digital uncertainty and dematerialisation which appeal to his adherents as much, or perhaps more, than the actual ideas his work claims to explore.

Critic, curator and director Stéphanie Moisdon has choosen Marie Angeletti and Christodoulos Panayiotou for her selection. Panayiotou’s work which explores ideas about power, capitalism and globalisation manages to be engaging and subtle without being overly oblique, thanks in part to some short but useful wall texts for each piece (notably absent in some of the other displays which are desperately needed them). Three improvised water sculptures create a calming aural backdrop but also have a serious point to make about the value added by clever arrangements of objects or proccessing of natural materials. The perception of power is also another central idea in Panayiotou’s photographs of underwater piping systems constructed to feed the fountains of the French palace of Versaille, a potent image of the monarch’s power and one which reputedly consumed as much water each day as the city of Paris. The last of the three pieces in his display is a photograph of artificial flowers in Hong Kong, taken as part of what the photographer describes as a sort of reverse pilgrimage to the sites of globalised power.

Aida Muluneh founder of Ethiopia’s Addis Foto Fest has shortlisted Nader Adem and Sarah Waiswa as her two nominees. Adem’s series Life as a Disabled Person is a surprise amongst a shortlist of photography which, as last year, is very much more on the conceptual rather than descriptive side of things. By contrast Adem’s work is traditional documentary, black and white photographs of Ethiopians living with an array of physical disabilities. In the context of a prize like this one it might be seen as rather brave to nominate a work which many in the contemporary photography world might see as quaintly naive. Probably my favourite of the Discovery award was Muluneh’s other nomination, Sarah Waiswa, and her series Strange in a Familiar Land, a series of portraits of an Albino woman in Nairobi’s Kiberia slum. Alongside a print each frame contains a pertinent object, in the most touching case a tear stained letter in which the author speaks desperately of wanting to belong and to be considered beautiful. In many of the photographs the jeers and goads of passersby are palpable in the background, although it is unclear if they are aimed at the subject or the photographer.

Finally Stefano Stoll, the director of the Swiss Festival Images, has selected Beni Bischof and Sara Cwynar as his two artists. Bischof’s display is an anarchic assemblage of defaced and reworked images from mass culture. His appropriated images are burnt, daubed with chewing gum, and Photoshopped into monstrous pastiches of their original purpose. Garish signs scattered around the space invoke audience members ‘Detox your thoughts’ and ‘Disturb reality’. Despite the complexity of the display and Stoll and Bischof’s attempts to talk up the work it is remarkably underwhelming, like a weak update of the First International Dada Fair held in 1920 in Berlin, but with little new added in the interim and no real challenge posed to the audience, an assessment which might stand for quite a few of the other works in this year’s shortlist.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #3: Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western

2016-PAR-cat02

Kent Rogowski, Love = Love. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which consider European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. Today I want to look at two slightly more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western.

Fabulous Failures, which has been curated by Erik Kessels, bills itself as a celebration of experiments gone wrong but which in a way have also right and revealed something odd, funny or thought provoking. I love the idea and was hoping for an exhibition of photography which is unintentionally mistake ridden, but instead this is generally more a case of photographers turning their lenses on other people’s mistakes or manufacturing them artificially, rather than acknowledging their own unintentional ones. An example is Thomas Mailaender’s Toilet Fail, a book of photographs of badly thought out arrangements of toilets (awkwardly facing each other, barely accessible behind the stall door, and so on). Likewise Joan Fontcuberta’s Constellations series is, like much of his work, an intentional misleading of the audience, less his mistake than ours. Jochamin Schmind’s Purple was for me one of the highlights of the show, a series of images taken with a digital camera in it’s death throes, the photographs are all cast in a purple hue and distorted by extreme artefacts.

Other artists rework existing material into things which look like mistakes. Kent Rogowski’s Love = Love mixes jigsaw puzzles together to create images where two different subjects merge together into a fragmented form. Despite the very analogue, physical means of creating these images they have a strangely digital, pixelated look. Another nice inclusion is Ruth van Beek’s series The Levitators a series of vintage postcards of dogs which have been cleverly folded on themselves to make it appears as if each animal is levitating. In many cases this means they also lose many distinguishing features; legs, eyes, mouths, and the result is a typology of strange mop like bundles of fur hovering a foot off the ground. If I had a criticism it would be that the individual works in Fabulous Failures are sometimes overshadowed by the staging which plays on the idea of failure to a slightly ridiculous degree. Anyone allergic to the recent trend for objects to be propped up against the gallery wall as if their installers had forgotten to finish the job is advised to stay away from this. In the case of Rogowski’s series it actually looks a little as if part the installation has collapsed into a pile on the floor and no one has bothered to pick it up. The layout is amusing for a while but sometimes gets in the way of just enjoying what’s on show, something exacerbated by the confusion amongst some of the visitors about how to transit the chaotic arrangements.

While Fabulous Failures is unashamedly quirky in content and form, Camarguais Western tells a strange story in a straight way. This exhibition curated by Estelle Rouquette and Sam Stourdzé, looks at how the Camargue region of France became an unlikely backdrop for a series of western style films, made from the birth of cinema through until the 1960’s. Initially the Camargue acted as a double for the wild west, passing for genuine American locations in films like Drame Mexacain (1904) and the brilliantly named Le Railway De Mort (1912). With it’s rugged and inhospitable landscape it makes a convincing replacement, even if the architecture of the frontier town sets and many of the actors appear unmistakably European. Camargue in this period remained very much a frontier even within France, its inhospitable terrain, bulls, and numerous mosquitoes (which, trust me, remain numerous today) making life difficult for this interpreid film makers who resorted to guzzling quantities pastis to ward off illness. The stills on display, both publicity images and behind the scenes photographs are wonderful and are supported by some brilliant posters and clips from the featured films.

Work on these early films were stalled by the coming of the First World War but following it’s end French directors began to assert a new confidence. During the interwar periods the location for these epics was increasingly acknowledged to be Carmague as in films like Roi de Camargue (1934) and the brilliant Mirelle (1933). Inspired by a Frédéric Mistral poem, this film depicts a landscape and people every bit as wild as that of the Far West. In one particularly brilliant scene the antagonist cowhand Ourrias wrestles a bull to the floor with his bare hands in a display of compelling brute force made all the more incredible by the abscence of stuntment or special effects. What’s also interesting is the way some of the more complex and questionable politics of Westerns were replicated in their French equivalents, for example in the way Roma characters often took the equivalent role to Native Americans. Later films including the campy D’où viens-tu Johnny (1963) which stars Johhny Halliday as a Parisian forced to flee to the south after dumping a case of someone else’s cocaine in the Seine. Cue some brilliantly naff musical numbers and great behind the scenes stills photography by Claude Schwartz. While the popularity of the Carmague as France’s wild frontier waned in this period, the show ends with a small display showing it’s continued influence in the form of several bizarre images of modern leaders emulating the cowboy lifestyle. Perhaps the most brilliant is a photograph by Dominique Faget of former French president Sarkozy riding a placid horse down a road while pursued by a tractor pulling a trailer full of journalists It’s an piece of media every bit as surreal as those early silent films of cowboys roving across the South of France.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #2: Looking Beyond the Edge and Nothing But Blue Skies.

2016-NOT-cat01
Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the Nothing but Blue Skies series, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. Yesterday I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Today I’m focusing on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and the group show Nothing but Blue Skies.

Looking Beyond the Edge curated by Tate’s Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian is a sizeable show of work by veteran war photographer Don McCullin, however what makes it a little different is the way that it studiously avoids the imagery of war, famine and disaster that he is best known for. Instead the exhibition brings together series made before and between the overseas assignments which made McCullin’s name. It opens with photographs taken in his native north London, a decayed and battered place when seen through the photographer’s viewfinder. Despite the similarity in time, place and subject to other photographers, say Roger Mayne, there is none of the same lightness. Indeed viewing these smoggy streets and lost looking people it’s immediately striking how McCullin’s photographs have a knack for making everything look like a war, and this is an idea which repeatedly emerges with almost every set of images in this show. The closest we get to actual conflict are photographs taken in 1961 as the Berlin Wall began to be constructed. In these images armed soldiers faced each other across this most unnatural of borders but the real focus is on the ordinary Berliners who look on with a mixture of quiet curiosity and mounting concern.

The majority of remaining photographs are from the United Kingdom. McCullin’s photographs of the north of England, covering cities like Bradford and regions like Northumberland, seem to depict a society which is in the process of tearing itself apart. In this sense they are strongly reminiscent of work by contemporaries like Chris Killip, indeed at times their subject matter perfectly converges, and one wonders if the two photographers ever passed one another on the same half abandoned street. Also on display are photographs of homeless Londoners taken in Whitechapel in the 1980’s, which call to mind Moyra Peralta’s photographs taken in the same period. One thing that’s immediately obvious though in this comparison is the distance in McCullin’s work, these are very much the photographs of a photojournalist, taken at a respectful range while Peralta’s photographs put you right up with the subjects, as if they were sitting alongside you. Because of this and more I find her photographs moving while McCullin’s often actually feel more uncomfortably distant, even when a face fills the frame. Lastly and maybe most out of place are McCullin’s landscape photographs, many taken in Somerset where he now lives. Lacking captions or titles, these images feel out of place next to the more issue based work, especially since like all his other works they have the foreboding tone of place where a war or similar cataclysm might have just passed by, or perhaps is just about to arrive. In all Looking Beyond the Edge is an interesting show, a different look at a familiar name and altogether a more convincing coherent use of this space by the two curators than the show of Japanese work which appeared here last year.

If Looking Beyond the Edge studiously avoids images of conflict, then Nothing but Blue Skies might be seen as a consideration of the opening salvo in an entirely new type of conflict, one where the role of photographers like Don McCullin remains hugely uncertain. Curated by Mélanie Bellue and festival director Sam Stourdzé, the exhibition draws together artists who have looked in very different ways at the impact of the attacks of September 11th 2001. The show opens with a room consisting of dozens of newspaper front pages collected by Hans-Peter Feldmann and spread across all four walls. This simple but powerful display underlines both the heterogeneity of media responses to the attack, ranging from the hyperbolic to the measured, and also hinting at the complex role that the media played in perpetuating the shock of these events through their reporting of them. Headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’. The media’s ambiguous role in this event is picked up in a short text by Jean Paul Curnier, one of several that sit in the space alongside the works and which each briefly examine pertinent issues around the visualization of the attacks. The prescience of these texts in the gallery seems to me like a tacit acknowledgment by the curators that to allow images like these to ‘speak for themselves’ is inherently fraught, and that even after mediation by artists they still require further context and explanation.

Proceeding further into the show the works become more meditative and more about the aftermath and memory of the attacks. Cotton Under my Feet by Waalid Raad charts his fraught attempts to recall the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks. In order to do so the artist starts to collect images of the New York skyline which he then proceeds to digitally cut away at, removing everything in the image but the sky itself. The cuts are jagged, violent and the white patches left behind where areas have been removed are both resonant of absence, but also suggestive in their outlines, hinting in many cases at the shape of the World Trade Centre, in one case the outline of an airliner impossibly similar to the one which was immortalized by countless cameras as it curved gracefully into the second tower. The works in this show also rove far wider than photography. Save Manhattan 2 by Mounir Fatmi is a model cityscape roughly similar to Manhattan, but constructed out of VHS cassettes. The magnetic guts of these tapes spills out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust which settled over the island after the collapse of the towers. Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski is the final piece of the show and in many respects the one which left the greatest impression. In it, video clips extracted from Hollywood movies are montaged together into a narrative reassembling the chronology of the attacks. The effect is strangely powerful, as disparate clips extracted from American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others combine with the viewer’s memory of that day to create an account which recalls documentary films like 102 Minutes That Changed America but hovers uncomfortably between fact and fiction. Lurking behind the work is a commentary on the United State’s dark fascination with images of it’s own destruction and the subtext that before the day which ‘changed everything’ these same images had already been rehearsed on the silver screen a thousand times.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #1: Methods of Loci and Syrcas

maude-sulter

Alas The Heroine: Madame Laura Is at Home, 1993, from the Syrcas series.
Courtesy of The Maud Sulter Estate and Autograph ABP.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First up are Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in very differnt but strangely complementary ways.

Methods of Loci by French photographer Stephanie Solinas was one of the first exhibitions I visited, partly because it is housed in one of my favourite of the town’s venues, the former cloisters of St-Trophime in the centre of Arles. The work’s title refers to a mnemonic technique, also known as the memory palace, which originated in ancient Greece to aid orators in the memorization of complex speeches (by coincidence I have an exhibition on exactly the same theme opening in London next week). The methods of loci technique exploits the power of spatial memory in order to improve a person’s ability to remember much more abstract information, the sort of thing we normally struggle to recall. In Solinas’s work this method becomes a strange sort of metaphor for her examination of the Lustucru Hall, a monumental industrial derelict on the edge of Arles. Originally constructed by the Eiffel Company for a colonial exhibition held in 1905 in Marseille, this grand building was dismantled at the end of the exhibition, relocated to Arles and served as a rice warehouse with periodic uses for other purposes including as a barracks for the French, German and American armies during the Second World War. In 2003 it was flooded, it’s use as warehouse ended and today it faces an uncertain future.

Solinas’s work investigates the space of this structure and in doing so also it’s history, both it’s specific, local history and also it’s place as part of a much broader world history. She employs a diverse set of strategies to probe the space, examining it through archive imagery, through interviews with those who have worked in or studied it, through an exploration of it’s natural history and even through sound. As these examinations are layered upon one another a building which at first glance appears to be a relatively neutral one is revealed in fact to be a complex symbol of successive and interlinked economic and political eras, of ninteenth century colonialism, twentieth century capitalism and finally twenty-first century globalisation. The ambitious, complex layout of the work in the space creates a strangely compelling spatial and thematic loop around a dense island of images. Visitors start with original imagery from the Detaille Fund Archive which show the building under construction (the prints buckled and warped by water damaged caused by a flood in 1938), they then loop around the display as it covers the buildin’s uses over the following century, before concluding with objects from the 2003 flood which put an end to the buildings use.

Still processing this complex work I moved across the road to a small exhibition of work by the Scottish-Ghanian artist and writer Maud Sulter which has been curated by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP where this series was recently on display. In her photomontage series Syrcas, Sulter examines the murder of Europeans of African descent during the holocaust, an episode which has attracted relatively little scholarly or public interest relative to other victims of Nazi intolerance. To do this she uses collage to juxtapose photographs of Africa sculpture and imagery against European art, ranging from kitsch landscape paintings of alpine mountains mixed with African masks, to a photographic portrait of Alexander Dumas overlayed with the morose face of an African elephant. The resulting images are uneasily surreal, calling to mind some of the collages of the feminist artist Martha Rosler, and also more directly echoing Hannah Hoch’s 1930 series An Ethnographic Museum. What unites three artists is an interest in the imagery of ideals, and how those who do not fit with these images are often systematically persecuted, excluded from history, and sometimes ultimately excluded from exsistence.

Alongside this work is a recording of Sulter reading the text of her 1993 poem Blood Money. The poem was inspired by the German photographer August Sander’s photograph Circus Workers (1926-32) which is notable amongst Sander’s oeuvre for including a black subject, non-whites being otherwise noticeably absent from his epic project to document the inhabitants of early twentieth century Germany. This image offers a starting point for Sulter to imagine the experience of black Germans in this period as the Nazi party became increasingly influential and racial discrimination became not only the norm, but a legally constituted fact of life in Germany. If there could be any doubt about the message in Sulter’s collages, this poem removes it with it’s sadly poignant words. It is strange to view something so dark in the bright sunshine of Arles, but it is right that there are no good feelings or resolved narratives to be found in this work. As Sulter muses towards the close in her thick Glaswegian accent; ‘There is no way I can make this poem rhyme.’

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

3500
The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

Metropolitan Consolidation Eclipses Regional Distribution

Insect-Wings-c-dot-1840-William-Henry-Fox-Talbot-c-National-Media-Museum-Bradford-slash-SSPL

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

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

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

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

After Empire II: The American Ruin

Whiskey_Hotel
The White House in Ruins
From Whiskey Foxtrot in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Last week I wrote about our fixation on the ruins of the Soviet Empire, and our continuing search for meaning in the ashes of an empire which seemed to extinguish itself without confrontation. I was curious about the gulf of unfulfilled expectation this might have created for us, a sense of unfufillment which now finds some placation in the photographs of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and military bases that are produced in great quantity by amateur and professional photographers alike. This week I want to explore a somewhat similar trope which is forward, rather than backward looking. That is the ubiquitous trope of the American ruin in popular culture.

Empires invariably cast themselves in relation to others which have preceded them. Whether as spiritual inheritors of their antecedents or opponents of their values, new empires almost always take on something of that which has come before, in the western world most often tracing a lineage back to ancient Greece or Rome. The German Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Fascist Italy, all demonstrated such tendencies. Controversial though it might still be to speak of an ‘American empire’ the United States is no exception to this weakness for imperial over-shoulder glancing.

The iconography and architecture of state is rich with appropriations from the old empires of Europe, themselves invariably loaned in turn from the far history of ancient Rome and Greece. Lincoln’s memorial statue rests its hands on two bundles of sticks or fasces, a roman symbol of state power backed by the will of the people, and later a symbol of the new Italian fascist empire of Mussolini. It is a strange, although not entirely unfitting contradiction, that American notions of democracy and self-determination are bound up in a lineage of empire building which has involved the depriving countless people of these things.

The United States’ short existence as a unified country seems to exacerbate this imperial awareness of empire’s past and present. Something which has often fascinated me is the subject of ruination in American art, which seems not entirely disconnected. Thomas Cole’s series of paintings ‘The Course of Empire’ is as easily readable as a cautionary tale for the young America as it is a generic, idealised account of an ancient civilisations rise and fall. Flitting to a more recent media, video games such as the Call of Duty franchise, and blockbuster movies such as White House Down (2013) are laden with images of America under attack, its iconic government buildings in ruin.

Like all great human constructions, empires at their most massive and apparently indomitable almost always presage or anticipate their eventual, inevitable decline. Whether they do this simply in the minds of those who gaze on them, or whether they do it more intentionally, can vary. Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value, which I’ve written about before here, intended that the grand ruins of the buildings of a German National Socialist Reich would one day impress and inspire those explorers who discovered them, decayed and destroyed. In many cases his theories were put to the test far sooner than he perhaps anticipated.

It is clear to note from history that as the pace of technology and all other things is subject to increasing velocity, so too are empires subjected to ever shorter spans of existence. Egypt, if we may stretch the definition of an empire, lasted millennia. Rome lasted five centuries, the British Empire perhaps two hundred years. The United States could already be in decline after a period of global dominance lasting not much more than half a century. As wars today are increasingly fought and won in a matter of days (even if their reverberations last decades) it is tempting to wonder if we will one day see an empire rise and fall like a mayfly, growing exponentially to span the globe, only to die out in the course of just a few years, months, or days.

 

After Empire I: The Soviet Ruin

PENTAX Image
The cupola of a Soviet missile silo at Plokštinė, Lithuania
From Wikimedia

Anyone who spends considerable time looking at photographs will know that certain tired topics appear again and again, often with the photographer’s blissful ignorance, or indifference. While it’s tempting just to complain about these tropes and vainly hope that some of those who are tempted to repeat them will take notice, I think it’s also interesting to try to understand the allure of these things, to ask what magnetism it is that they possess which is able to cause people to return to them again and again.

Ruins are a particular strong example of this, a truism for art more generally as well as photography individually and something I’ve mulled before on this blog. Within photography though one ruin type holds a particularly strong grip on our imagination, and these are the ruins of the Soviet Union. The abandoned or decayed industrial, political and military structures of the USSR, an empire which once covered twenty million square kilometres of the earth’s surface. From the desolate automated lighthouses strung along the Arctic coast to the radioactive ruins of Ukraine’s Chernobyl or Kazakhstan’s Polygon. Photographers, both amateur and professional, return again and again to these places, and we as viewers in turn look again and again at these photographs, as if the next set will somehow explain something more of these enigmas than did the last.

Leaving aside the specific qualities of ruins that many people find attractive, as picturesque visions, or temporal paradoxes, I have lately been wondering what is the specific allure of these Soviet remains, as opposed to those of any other demised civilisation or polity. In a very obvious sense I suppose it is that these ruins give us a frightening yardstick by which to see how quickly our own efforts as a civilisation might come to merge with the earth and eventually disappear. A ruin of a great temple or an ancient castle might be a memnto mori that gives us some sense of the awful briefness of the things we make in this world, but our temporal closeness to the remains of the Soviet Union gives them an altogether more overwhelming sense of our own demise.

But there is something more, in some sense I suspect in the west we find these images particularly fascinating because they reveal the inner workings of something which was once opaque, and reveal the decrepitude of an empire which was once so greatly feared. Some of my German friends have remarked to me on the strangeness of the British obsession with watching Second World War films, an endless fixture on television channels at all times of the year and even during seasons that would seem to be antithetical to conflict, like Christmas. Our fascination, I have suggested to them in return, perhaps stems from the fact it was a relatively morally unambiguous war against a dark and oppressive power, but maybe more importantly a war which we still can’t quite believe we won. We want to relive our victory again and again because in some very fundamental way that victory perplexes and eludes us.

In some senses I think something similar is at work here, we cannot fully grasp that we would have won out against a Soviet Empire which seemed to powerful, so monolithic, and above all so dark and opaque. This confusion is not least compounded by the fact the long anticipated violent reckoning between the two sides in the Cold War never came. Poring over these ruins as we do again and again is like a fruitless post-mortem which we have continued for the best quarter of a century without satisfactory conclusion. It is an aimless anatomy lesson which we maybe hope will posthumously reveal our enemy’s Achilles heel and lead to some final insight into our victory. If recent events in Russia and Ukraine indicate anything thought it is that perhaps this demise was a feint and the corpse is not as cold as it once seemed. The fingers appear to be twitching, and these ruins may yet return to life.