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)

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 #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.

Art in the Age of Individualism

Unidentified_man,_1955_(8695733705)

Unidentified artist,
Seattle Municipal Archives, 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Five More Years to Fight

Mother Frackers A3

‘Mother Frackers’ (2015)
Digital photomontage

A few months ago I posted a piece asking why there is so little photography of austerity? The last five years have seen the widespread closure of public services, the scapegoating of the weak, and the wholesale promotion of a degenerate, hypocritical set of values that have spread beyond individual parties and which seem to permeate almost the entire political establishment. And yet beyond a few heavily repeated topics, photographers have done relatively little to document (let alone protest) the current direction of British politics.

When I first wrote that piece I have to admit that in the back of my mind was the thought that it was hopelessly overdue. I knew that a general election was in the offing and like many I suspected (or perhaps just hoped) it would result in a victory that would reverse many of the regressions we have seen taking place over the last five years. Now that election has been and gone, and we know now that the longed for reversal will not materialise. Indeed depressingly the champions of an ‘age of austerity’ are now in an even more powerful position from which to pursue their destructive agenda.

Little good can be said about this state of affairs. The only thing that I can draw from it at the moment is the knowledge that there will be plenty of new regressions coming in the next few years that will need to be highlighted, challenged and resisted. Different people will do this in different ways, but for me this remains in large part the purpose of what I do with photography, writing and other media. Loathe as I am to admit it, my sense of what art is and how it should be used has been in great part a product of spending almost all my formative years under a succession of governments I profoundly disagreed with, from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair to the austerity of Cameron. Once again I think we need to call for an ‘art of austerity’ to counter this ‘age of austerity’.

I know as well as anyone that it can sound deeply naïve to talk about photography and art as a force for change, and in and of themselves they very rarely are. With odd exceptions the only thing the arts can be said to really change are people’s thoughts, but this cognitive change is the essential first step which leads to those affected by it to agitate for real change. To be a dour realist again, I also know that most arts and photography projects reach only small audiences and preach largely to the converted, this is partly the result of complacency on the part of those in the arts, and we need to look for ways to change this.

Whatever else happens over the next five years I hope other photographers and artists will recognise and embrace the power they possess, however slight it might be, to draw attention to injustices and challenge official narratives. Drop all this artistic self-referentialism, this pathetic pandering to ingrowing cliques of curators and critics. This stuff is beyond irrelevant. Speak to the people who have a power to shape more than just your career. Art is a voice, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but it should always be raging.

Cut Off: On the Demise of IdeasTap

The First Cut A4a

The First Cut,
Lewis Bush 2011

Having used Disphotic’s last few posts to focus on the role of the creative arts in the context of recession and austerity it seems darkly ironic that right now should come news that the creative charity IdeasTap is to close its doors. Established in 2009 by Peter de Haan, part of the dynasty behind Saga, IdeasTap was intended to help young artists, photographers, film makers, musicians and actors weather the storm of the global recession. It has done just that, but it has now itself fallen victim to the current dearth of arts funding in the UK.

Cynical though I frequently am about the relationship between business and the arts, IdeasTap appeared to be an example of how well that relationship can sometimes work. The interests of each seemed clearly separated, and while I can only speak for my own experience there never seemed to be any sense that the commercial interests of de Haan or his companies intruded into the activities of the charity. As a resident editorial artist at IdeasMag in 2014 I produced a weekly photomontage that could be as acerbic and political as I wanted, and there was never a hint of editorial control or censorship of my choice of topics or way of approaching them (in marked contrast to more than a few editorial outlets which had turned similar images down for being ‘too political’).

As an organisation IdeasTap punched above its weight and brought a great deal to the arts in this country. It offered young artists a safe harbour, somewhere to tentatively test the waters of practices like grant writing and project management. It offered employment of various forms, indirectly through its advertising of creative sector jobs, and directly by commissioning its members to teach workshops, write articles and organise events. It formed partnerships with influential organisations like Magnum Photos and offered young people a chance to interact with these authoritative groups directly, starting on the road to establishing networks of their own. It offered financial backing for many, many projects that would have struggled to find money through other means, giving the small injections of capital that can be so key to early career projects, indeed to early careers themselves.

Above all IdeasTap created a network, a way for like-minded creative people across the country and across diverse disciplines to come together, share ideas and meet one another, something no more in evidence than in the outcry that has followed news of it’s demise. I have met many collaborators and made many friends through my involvement with IdeasTap, friends I suspect I will keep for the rest of my life. The fact that for all of this good work, IdeasTap has been unable to secure funding to keep its doors open would seem to speak volumes about the state of arts funding in the United Kingdom. It speaks to regional marginalisation, as the narrowing arts budgets continue to be disproportionately levied on the south east, a region where fewer and fewer young artists can afford to live. It speaks to growing inaccessibility, as the arts become a playground for the sons and daughters of the rich, who can afford to trade their craft for plaudits alone. It speaks to the way the arts have been divested of their teeth, guided and guiled into a sort of corporate adornment, all too often an ashtray for the cigars of plutocrats.

At a time like this, after six years of recession, six years of cuts, and six years of demoralisation, we don’t need one less charity like IdeasTap, we need ten more.

 

Towards a Photography of Austerity

farm security administration logo

Farm Security Administration logo.
The FSA photographic unit’s depiction of the Great Depression was highly influential.

More than six years on from the start of recession, Britain remains mired in what feels like a state of perpetual austerity. Cuts to essential state services like healthcare and welfare are rampant and ongoing, and the poor, sick, elderly, and ‘other’ are routinely wheeled out as scapegoats for problems they have little to do with causing or exacerbating. Whether austerity in Britain is in any sense economically necessary is still a matter of considerable debate (there are have been some compelling arguments that many of the relatively small welfare savings made through it just generate greater costs elsewhere, for example in the prison system). Many, myself included, would argue that it’s motivated at least as much by politics and ideology, particularly the incumbent conservative government’s traditional hostility to statism, and their generally rather Victorian ideas about work, welfare and morality.

Several interlinked questions have been weighing on my mind since an interesting exchange on this topic at the end of last year. Given that this campaign of austerity is one of the biggest single issues to affect this country and its people in a decade or more, and considering that it’s effect are likely to be very long lasting, what is being done right now to record it? Can we speak of a photography of austerity? What form might such a photography take, and what might it achieve?

First, there are certainly photographers out there recording the effects of austerity. I think for example of Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia, with it’s focus on the people who have been directly impacted by cuts to services, or by a social environment which seems to be increasingly hostile to people who are unable to work. The same goes for Hannah Mornement’s Food Bank Britain, a project on what is surely the great unofficial emergency service of twenty-first century Britain. Likewise works like Ed Thompson’s Occupy record the public reaction to austerity. These are all important projects. They bring attention to subjects which need it, and hopefully provoke change at some level. At the very least they will stand as historical records, a lingering J’accuse of the economic and social savagery of a government towards its own people. But the thing that they have in common also hints to me at the larger problem with attempts to record austerity, which is the overwhelming emphasis on the visible consequences of it.

This is hardly unique to our attempts to document austerity. It goes without saying that photographers are drawn to the most visible subjects, and it is always far harder and less attractive to attempt to visualise what is beyond being seen. But if we want to talk about a broader photography of austerity then I don’t think this is enough. Any photography of austerity which focuses principally on the consequences will always be incomplete. Beyond picturing the effects, we need to also visualise the causes of the crisis and the negotiations and machinations that lead it to manifest in the way it has, as a campaign against the poorest in society. Of course these things are notoriously difficult to capture in images, and indeed some of them are probably near impossible to record using traditional documentary approaches. None the less some photographers are trying, Mark Curran’s The Market, a long term work on global financial markets, is a relatively rare example of someone aiming to give visibility to the nebulous global forces which rule our lives. Similarly Simon Robert’s Let This Be a Sign attempts to bridge the divide between financial cause and effect and examine the two in one body of work, but these projects are certainly exceptions from the norm.

For my part a big part of the reason I turn to techniques like photomontage and the juxtaposition of images is again the intangibility of many of the things I want to draw attention to. The complicities between politicians and unaccountable corporations, the rank hypocrisies that cadge cuts in terms of a moral responsibility, and so on. As I noted in a recent piece on photomontage, when so many of the conversations and mechanisms that determine the course of our lives operate behind closed doors it becomes vital that we look beyond traditional ideas and forms of documentation in order to draw attention to these things. That can mean using techniques more often associated with art practice or propaganda than documentary, approaches which many photographers (rightly and wrongly) still have misgivings about. But if recording these important topics means making work which is seen as subjective or politically loaded, then perhaps that is part of the price we need to consider paying. Recently I’ve spent much time looking at the work of Trevor Paglen, who very effectively deals with similar problems in his attempts to make visible the invisible apparatus of the American security state.

Moving beyond the method, part of the problem also seems to me to be the enormous scale of this issue. Something raised in the original conversation was the absence of collective action or organisation by photographers and artists. There are national groups like the Artists’ Assembly Against Austerity, but these kinds of organisations seems to much more about showing a united front against austierty than deploying the specific skills of members to change opinions.

With events like the recent Scottish independence referendum we saw the role of groups like Document Scotland in generating interesting work and dialogue about often rather disparate questions of national identity and self-determination. The individual projects that emerged out of this collective effort were interesting, but infinitely more interesting were the invisible strands one could start to detect emerging between the quite disparate subjects that each dealt with. This is part of the great strength of collective action, that the produced effect is very often greater than the sum of its parts, and that it can unite scattered subjects and places in a way a single photographer would struggle to. Above all in this context, such a collective would offer the possibility of starting to draw connecting threads between events happening on the streets of Britain, and decisions being made in closed boardrooms and government offices. There could be a strong case for a similar collective approach to documenting the recession, one which incorporates a diverse range of subjects using a varied approaches.

Although it’s early days, the recent election of Syriza in Greece on an anti-austerity platform demonstrates that people can decide to reject austerity in favour of something else (and it’s interesting to note that Greece has a far better developed photographic response to the crisis, for example the Depression Era collective). A precursor to that rejection has to involve showing people that the policies of austerity are the products of particular political decisions, not the demands of some abstract market deity which must now be appeased at any cost. As Marco Bohr pointed out yesterday, photographers have a very real power, and a very great part to play in making this happen.

‘Use Photographs as Weapons’ On the Value of Photomontage

olive branch
Branch of Peace
Lewis Bush for IdeasTap

This is my final week as resident editorial artist for the creative charity IdeasTap. Over the past nine weeks I’ve produced a photomontage each week in response to events in the news. It’s been a great experience and I’ve had a lot of fun rediscovering a technique which was one of my entry routes into photography, but which I had entirely neglected in recent years. To mark the end of my residency I thought I’d put down a few thoughts about the medium, and argue that despite existing since the birth of photography, the true potential of photomontage is only being realised now, with the advent of digital imaging and mass engagement with photography.

Political photomontage is a medium with a huge amount of power, but it’s also one which comes with masses of baggage, and this I find is the biggest challenge to its use today. For older generations it sometimes remains a medium marred by its use as a propaganda tool by totalitarian regimes. For younger generations it’s often rightly seen an inherently political technique (a big claim, one perhaps to explore in depth another time), and the problem I’ve found with that is that this sometimes jars with the deep unfashionability of politics, and of generally holding strong views about anything.

This unfashionability has permeated into the art world at large and as the veteran monteur Peter Kennard has noted, it is very easy as someone who works with photomontage to be accused of naivety for expressing strong opinions about complex subjects. Yet artists have always been involved in, and forthright about, the politics of their time. Part of the reason we sometimes fail to detect this in the art of the past is because we stand outside the political context in which the work was originally made, as a result we struggle to read the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle commentaries or criticisms that the work implies. As a result it’s easy to suspect that art has always been apolitical, when it is the opposite. It is only in recent years that in Kennard’s words, art has allowed itself to be ‘abstracted out of the real world’.

The overtly political character of photomontage therefore makes it a continuation of, rather than a deviation from, the art of the past, but what is it’s relevance today? As Dawn Ades has noted photomontage belonged from the very beginning to ‘the technological world, the world of mass communication and photo-mechanical reproduction’. Nearly two centuries on from photography’s invention we live in a world which is more saturated with images than ever, and one where our emphasis on speed makes textual communication less and less appealing. Photographs instead stand in more and more for verbal communication, for example on platforms like Twitter and Snapchart, which emphasise brevity, ephemerality and the visual. To put it another way, we are primed to read photographs and ready to accept them as a form of free standing communication in a way we perhaps have never been before.

So given this readiness to embrace and read images, why use photomontage instead of, or as well, as traditional photography? Because despite the shared raw material, these two mediums are both capable of drastically different things. As I noted in an interview with IdeasTap, there are some things we simply cannot photograph. Many of the world’s most pressing concerns are ephemeral, invisible or unreachable, whether by accident or intent. Photographing the machinations of global finance or the casual relationship between human activity and climate change is a tall order at the best of times, but add to that the fact that companies and governments are ever more cautious of allowing press access to their activities and it becomes harder still. Photomontage acts on one very simple level as a way to visualise the things we can’t see or photograph.

But beyond its ability to penetrate the shady corners in which global power resides, photomontage has an ability to disrupt the images that these authorities use to represent themselves to us, appropriating the symbols that companies for example use to represent their undertakings, and displacing these into situations that hint at the true nature of their activities. As John Berger notes, the true power of photomontages lies in the way it disrupts these symbols, by extracting them from their familiar surroundings we can see that ‘the natural continuities within which they normally exist have been broken, and … they have now been arranged to transmit an unexpected message’. In this way photomontage has another power which straight photography invariably lacks, an ability to penetrate the surface of things and reveal the mechanisms underneath. This I think is the power of photomontage at it’s rare best, when, to paraphrase Berger, the appearance of things themselves reveal how they deceive us

View my photomontages for IdeasTap.

View more of my photomontages on my site.

Review: Erwin Blumenfeld at Somerset House

grace kelly 1952 - by erwin blumenfeld
Erwin Blumenfeld, Grace Kelly

It’s always tempting to be lured into an exhibition by the great stories that exist behind a photographer and his work. In the case of Erwin Blumenfield, a man who went from being an exile with a single suitcase to one of the most sought after fashion photographers, those stories are backed up by equally great pictures.  Growing up at the start of twentieth century in a German-Jewish family, Blumenfeld was immersed in avant garde art movements including Cubism and Dada (he was friends with George Grosz). Increasingly disaffected with his job as a small time shopkeeper peddling leather goods he became interested in photography and started to photograph his customers, sometimes nude.

Moving to Paris in the mid-thirties he continued to experiment and develop his style, and began to work commercially as a photographer until the advent of war forced him to flee to New York where he began shooting fashion for clients including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. This current show at Somerset House covers thirty years of his career, from his experiments in Paris in the thirties, through to his defining fashion photography of the forties and fifties. Whatever your feelings about the genre (I can probably count the number of fashion photographers I admire on one hand) it’s hard not to become absorbed in Blumenfeld’s work, which is consistently eye catching, innovative, and often very clever.

While he was clearly an expert at shooting relatively conventional fashion photographs of beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes, Blumenfeld also clearly never forgot his early exposure to avant garde art, and his photographs constantly reflect these influences. He experiments with a dazzling array of photographic tricks, including shooting models through fabric and glass, combining multiple exposures, solarising prints and over-exposing them almost to the point of removing all detail, not to mention his brilliant use of colour. It’s evident from the work on show that he was constantly pushing the limits of what his clients would accept, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Also on show alongside dozens of prints made from Blumenfeld’s colour positives are original copies of many of the magazines his photographs were printed in. This makes for an interesting opportunity for comparison and reveals some surprising truths, for example the extent of the tampering and airbrushing applied to many of the photographs before publication. It’s always easy to think of the unrealistic images projected by the fashion world as a relatively new thing, a product of the era of photoshop, but clearly even seventy years ago the image of beauty being projected by major publications was already beginning to disconnect itself from the raw reality produced by the camera (let alone the reality in front of the camera lens).

What is also very interesting is the extensive digital restoration undertaken on Blumenfeld’s now faded colour positives, restoring them to something like they may have looked when he first shot them. A small display demonstrates the transition from faded browns and oranges to corrected colours which suddenly appear staggeringly contemporary, they look less like fashion photographs of the fifties and more like a retro or vintage shoot done in the last decade. It’s strange to think that we are so used to a certain language of photography that even subconsciously our notion of a photograph’s age is sometimes determined by something like its palette.

A man professionally and personally obsessed with beauty, Blumenfeld is meant to have had numerous affairs (some have even suggested he had one with Cary Grant). His life ended as strangely as it was lived, increasingly dismayed at his own aging, he is supposed to have intentionally exacerbated an existing heart condition by repeatedly running up the Spanish Steps in Rome in order to induce a heart attack. He left behind him a remarkable and influential body of work. If the photography fashion world is notoriously derivative, it’s worth visiting this show just to see who most people have been copying for the last sixty years. Erwin Blumenfeld Studio is on at Somerset House until 1st September 2013.

The Right to Copy

raoul-hausmann-elasticum-1920
Raoul Hausmann, Elasticum

This is part one of a double post on copyright, curation and photography, part two here.

The issue of appropriation art and copyright is one I’ve mulled on a lot, probably because it’s a device employed by many of the artists I admire, and because it underpins quite a sizeable chunk of my own creative practice. From the photomontages I made when I was first getting into photography through to my recent rehashing of Brecht’s much mutilated Kriegsfibel, I’ve always found something devilishly enticing about borrowing and reworking existing material, twisting it this way and that in order to make a new point.

And yet I’ve also found it devilishly problematic, because I’ve also had my work appropriated (although always by people trying to get a few hits or score a quick buck, not make an artistic point) and I know how unpleasant it can be to lose control of something you’ve created. Not long ago I wrote a short piece on this dichotomy of being both victim and perpetrator, and underlying this piece was the question of whether there are ever circumstances where it is acceptable to break copyright and use another person’s work without permission, an idea I want to explore a little more coherently here.

Most photographers I’ve spoken to seem to consider appropriation inherently wrong, that to use another person’s image without permission is never acceptable. By contrast appropriation as a creative technique is rather more readily accepted in the fine art world. I’ve pondered whether this might stem from photography’s innate reproducibility making any appropriation a greater challenge to the original ownership of the work. Where a painting or collage including appropriated material exists as a discrete object, and copies are usually quite obviously copies, the same perhaps cannot be said for a photograph that includes appropriated material, particularly where that material exists intact and unaltered.

It probably also reflects the fact there is more of an accepted tradition of appropriation in fine art, going back a century or more, of which the Dadaists are amongst the earliest and best known. In his 1931 essay Photomontage, Raoul Hausmann defined Dadaism as a form of cultural criticism, an interesting way I think of viewing all forms of appropriation, akin to quoting from visual culture as one quotes from a book. Equally from a moral standpoint I think somewhat similar rules should apply, where viable some degree of referencing should take place, credit should be given where it is due (although I’m not advocating that appropriated artworks should come with a mandatory bibliography).

In the art world there also seems to be rather more legal clarity about the acceptability of appropriation. Although I normally rather dislike TED videos (this is a pretty good summing up of the reasons) I stumbled across this rather interesting one Copyright and the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction given by Eric Doeringer, in which he makes the distinction between derivative and transformative appropriation. Derivative appropriation is rather straightforwardly enough where no significant change is made to the work, where profit is sought from the work as it already exists and where it’s final use evidently impacts the ability of the original creator to profit from their work. This is fairly self-evidently wrong.

The definitions of transformative appropriation are more unclear, but broadly speaking it is appropriation in which the work is changed to some extent. In the video Doeringer suggests Richard Prince’s appropriation of photographs from Patrick Cariou’s Yes, Rasta project as an interesting example of tranformative appropriation where the acceptability is muddy. In the ensuing court case Prince cited a defence of fair use, that he was making reference to Cariou rather than plagiarising his work. He was ruled against but subsequently appealed and won, setting what looks to be an interesting precedent. Legally speaking this case, and this video is in an American context, but it still looks to be an example worth noting for anyone working with appropriated material, wherever they are based.

The issue also with derivative versus transformative appropriation is that the distinction may not always be at all obvious, i.e. no transformative process might have taken place. The context in which work is placed can have as much bearing on the transformative quality of the appropriation as any physical alteration (Duchamp’s Fountain is an obvious example of this). Doeringer cites his own work, specifically The Bootleg Series, in which he produced cheap knock off versions of works by famous artists. Damien Hirst facsimiles that sell for a few dollars rather than thousands for example. The work is not substantially changed, but the idea of selling these prints on roadside stalls ‘like the guys selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags’ is central the the transformative aspect of his appropriation.

The title of Doeringer’s lecture is apt, but also misses a trick. We live not so much in an age of mechanical reproduction as one of electronic reproduction, and for photographers this fact is far more problematic than for non-digital artists. The need to maintain a certain level of profile in the online world, is offset by the ease with which one’s photographs can be downloaded and reused by someone else (the backlash over a recent government bill which seemed to relax copyright on ‘orphan’ photographs demonstrated just how contentious this is). In such a context I rather feel we are left with two responses. The first is a clampdown, to lobby for stricter copyright legislation, to sue digressers and punish them mercilessly. The music industry tried that and well, we know how that worked out.

The other option is to accept that the notion of rigidly enforced copyright is in some respects increasingly anachronistic, and to pursue copyright not in terms of a principle but in terms of practicalities. Some are already doing this, at Magnum’s recent AGM they announced they would no longer be chasing web users who posted Magnum copyrighted photographs on blogs. I’ve called on anyone who wants to download and appropriate my appropriation of someone else’s appropriation. We live in an age of constant rehashing, referencing, appropriation and jamming. Photographers are in many cases lagging behind this, and need to wake up and smell the copydex.