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.

Highlights and Trends: Paris Photo 2016

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Archive Pierre Molinier, Maison Européenne de la Photographie

Like all contemporary art fairs, Paris Photo is a photography business and be in no doubt about the proper order of those two words. It was notable that even outside the event one had to run a gauntlet of ticket touts offering illict entrance to the fair. It wasn’t vastly different inside, where there are certainly some touts active only wearing suits and displaying more discrimination about their clientele. It was interesting to arrive in Paris just a few days after a session with my MA students discussing the transition of documentary to the gallery. One of the questions we discussed was that old sticking point of what makes something art, something we failed to reach a conclusion to but which led to some interesting observations, including that something (perhaps anything) can be art if someone says it is, but whether it’s good or bad art is another matter entirely.

Paris Photo evidences the truth of this, with an enormous amount of photography desperate to assert its artistic value in the most obvious of ways, through process, size and other ostentatious displays. As I noted last week art is often encouraged to exist in the artificial vacuum of the white cube gallery, but the reality is that it’s meaning is often defined in the most interesting ways by what surrounds it. Amongst the ocular and aural noise of the huge Grand Palais, the photographs that were content to sit on the wall quietly, sometimes neglected in the dingiest corner of a gallery’s booth (I saw a print by surrealist Maurice Tabard hung on a cupboard door) were often the most pleasurable discoveries when you stumbled across them. The typology, the calling card of art photography, appears alive and well, with a staggering variety from Ursula Schultz-Dornburg’s Becher-esque photographs of bus stops to Luis Molina-Pantin’s series of Mexican door intercoms. Often it’s the ones that feel more casual, the latter in this case, that work. Ditto photographic abstraction which is abundant and almost to a man dull. For the most part contemporary journalism and documentary are absent which perhaps says much about it’s percieved worth. One encounters weird anomalies of course, for example James Hill’s photographs of Afghanistan circa 2001. In one image an elderly man prays against the backdrop of a sky filled with the white loops of contrails left by American bombers. Then there was Daniel Blau selling the purest documentary in the form of vintage NASA prints of stars and military shots of atom bomb detonations, showing that anything can be repurposed as art if the price is right.

Prints exhibiting texture and sculpture were less in evidence than at Unseen Photo Fair earlier in the summer but still represented especially amongst younger artists. Some of these managed to make something unique without appearing to try too hard. Tom Lovelace’s cinema pinboard (transformed by the sun into a natural photogram suggestive of a Mark Rothko) is a neat example, although displayed without explanation I expect the idea is lost on most. Another nice twist on this came in Timm Rautert’s framed boxes of darkroom paper, each box containing an unseeable photographic print. The boxes are themselves rather beautiful objects carrying a timely commentary on analog fetishism, and almost don’t need the added conceptual twist of containing the photographic equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. A few artists even riff on what you might call the textural turn, for example Ben Cauchi’s photographs, which from a distance appear to be crumpled prints representing exactly this type of sculptural photography, until you get close and realize they are just normal photographs cleverly lit. As I said in my write up of Unseen, the sculptural trend isn’t inherently interesting but it definitely serves a purpose in the context of the photographic art market’s inherently contradictory need to limit a medium which in reproductive terms is entirely unlimited. And how glaring that contradiction is in the Grand Palais. You might feel that a vintage Edward Weston for €230,000 is sort of understandable, it’s all about the history I guess and for institutions and perhaps some collectors owning an object with lineage is worth that sort of price. But I feel that prices even a small fraction of this hard to rationalize when you come to contemporary works, irrespective of who the photographer is. It makes you realize how much art can be like trading currency or junk bonds, a game which perhaps will get most interesting when the wheels finally start to fall off and someone with some influence abandons the ridiculous game of treating photographs like paintings.

Perhaps hedging their bets because of the pressure to recoup their costs (I heard speak of around €20,000 for a booth) many of galleries opted to show a little of everything, with clusters of old and new, photojournalism and art, but this approach usually felt dysfunctional and rather as if they were showing nothing very much at all. In contrast to this tendency the ones that made something of a stand by offering a coherent display really stood out. East Wing Dubai got a tip of the hat for this at Unseen, and they did the same again although perhaps not quite as compellingly. In a similar way the Paris-Beijing booth was turned over to a display of Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine, a wonderful collection of Chinese vernacular photography rescued from the city’s municipal dumps. These degraded and distorted the images are a fitting metaphor for historical adjustment and technological change. A nice touch was a light box table in the middle of the booth piled high with the original negatives which visitors were encouraged to inspect with a loup, in contrast to the hands-in-pockets-and-don’t-get-too-close-to-the-merchandise vibe in some of the other parts of the fair. For me the highlight of the more ‘curated’ displays was the whole of James Danzinger’s booth turned over to Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train. A series shot from the locomotive that carried the younger Kennedy’s coffin to burial in 1968, Fuso captures Americans coming out to pay their final respects, holding signs, smiling, saluting and shedding tears. In each image the subject is isolated in a bubble of sharpness, their surroundings blurred out by the movement of the speeding train. Both as an important moment in time and for its resonance with the current divisions in the United States the series is beyond moving. I’ve got to admit I was almost tempted to ask for the price, but the old truism that ‘if you need to ask then you can’t afford it’ came to mind.

Predictably many of the memorable bits were away from the main event. Le Bal’s Provoke exhibition was one, and while part of me would have preferred something I’d not seen so many times before the curation of the show was so excellent that it made this familiar material feel fresh and exciting anew. A particularly nice touch were deconstructed facsimiles of the original issues of the radical photography magazine pinned to the walls, allowing visitors to study them in detail. ‘Unlike today we thought of the camera as a weapon’ Nobuyoshi Araki says in one of the wall texts, and it is the political agenda of the work that is partly what excites along with the iconoclastic attitude towards photography. The abandonment of the idea of the camera as a weapon (however flawed an idea it is) explains much about why so much in the Grand Palais is dull beyond belief. Provoke and it’s contributors had an ethos, and that made them dangerous, but were it around today it would also probably make it deeply unfashionable. At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie the Andres Serrano show was worth a look, particularly for America his series of vast portraits made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks which echo August Sander’s similar documentation of Weimar Germans. A photograph of president elect Donald Trump is one of the first you see, aptly flanked by a child beauty queen on one side and a crack cocaine addict and model on the other. Serrano’s massive prints are partly engaging for the way they reveal the small imperfections in even the most superficially perfect people, but doing so without suggesting these imperfections are shortcomings, more part of what makes us who we are. The really uncanny thing about Trump is noticing the way he lacks even the smallest blemish or scar, even the child beauty queen showing more sign of this very human imperfection.

My highlight of the entire trip however was the exhibition upstairs Archive Pierre Molinier. A house painter turned artist, cross dresser, and hedonist loosely aligned with surrealism, Molinier produced a series of erotic self-portraits blending photography, drawing, and collage to bizarrely brilliant effect. It’s hard to know what to compare his images to, the thought that came to my mind was that had Otto Dix employed photography and had a penchant for transvestitism, sodomy and mixing colour pigments with his sperm (as Molinier did) he might have produced a series of images a little like these. Mollinier’s photographs and photomontages vary between the funny, the smutty and the downright creepy, but the overall effect of the exhibition is powerfully moving. Despite André Bréton championing his art, Mollinier lived a marginalized life and killed himself in 1976, which in the context of Paris Photo would seem to make it worth quoting the critic Frédéric Beigbeder. Writing an essay to accompany an auction sale of Molinier’s work last year, a text which might normally be a congratulatory piece aimed at the soon to be owners of the artist’s work, Beigbeder instead offers this apt truth: ‘true artists die in suffering, poverty and anonymity, while decades later the high classes pay tribute to them as they eat their truffle risottos’.

My visit to Paris was brief and so I didn’t look at as many books as I might have normally, skipping Offprint entirely to save on time (and also because such large book fairs also often have a strangely depressive effect one me). The Aperture Photo Book prize had a few interesting titles in the long list but there was also quite a bit that was bland and the knowledge that is a paying prize is hard to escape when noticing this. As I wrote recently of the prize, when you charge entrants for a competition you can’t expect it to reflect the best, only the best of what can afford to pay. The winner, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX is a competent book, beautifully photographed and printed. I appreciate what Halpern is doing but at the same time in its intellectual abstractness it’s a league away from the photographic terrain that I like to spend my time traversing. I found the offerings at the boat-borne book fair at Polycopies more rewarding. Some highlights included Marco Tiberio and Maria Ghetti‘s Immo Refugee Camp, a typology of the Calais jungle’s informal structures which in it’s published form masquerades as an estate agent’s brochure and Dear Clark, Sara-Lena Maierhofer’s compelling investigation into identity via a non-receptive con man (the book also appears in Aperture’s shortlist). For the photo history buffs Javier Viver’s Révélations. Iconographie de La Salpêtrière is a wonderful catalogue of the hospital’s pioneering medical photography including the profound and troublesome work of Freud’s mentor Jean-Martin Charcot and his collaboration with pioneering chrono-photographer Albert Londe. At all these places there was such lavish overdesign on show (inserts, French folds, etc), which rather like the gallery penchant for cleverly manipulated and distorted prints really needs to be taken to be analysed, and taken to task.

So there were of course some wonderful gems to be found at Paris Photo, but rather like Sauvin’s trawling of rubbish dumps it took time and a strong stomach to find them. I calculated that I found one image actually worth spending time over for every thirty minutes I spent exploring the main fair, whether that is a good ratio and how it compares to previous years of Paris Photo, I dare not determine.

The GIF of Life: Vestigial File Formats as Documentary

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GIF spoofing Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 Human and Animal Locomotion

Computer file types come and go. It’s unlikely you’ve recently opened a .PCX for example, a type of image file now so redundant as to virtually be regarded as jurassic. That redundancy came less because it was a particularly specialized format, at least by the standards of today, but because it had it’s moment in the early stages of widespread computer use, served its purpose and was superseded by the advance of technology and newer file types which did a similar job better. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of comparable examples of these digital fossils, but then there are also the freakish exceptions, the vestigial survivors which remain either because they simply do their job so well that there isn’t a need to come up with an alternative, or which end up remaining in use more out of fluke than anything else.

One example of the latter is the Graphic Interchangeable Files better known as the GIF. GIFs are a joke, or at least in many of the diverse cultures of the internet they are the universal shorthand for one. GIFs might have once enjoyed a useful role following their introduction in 1987 in the era before fast internet connections and streamable video, but today the format’s purpose is today largely consigned to that of conveying the Internet’s numerous memes in moving form. The web is awash with animated GIFs of funny things, from clips of cats going berserk at the sight of a surprise cucumber to Monty Pythonesque animations based on renaissance paintings. Entire online conversation are conducted through the exchange of humorous GIFs and sites like Giphy exist purely to fulfill the need for them in the context of these conversations. A famous and rather neo-Fordist sounding trademark of the Apple corporation was that whatever you need ‘there’s an app for that’. In humour terms one might say similar for GIFs. Whatever joke you want to make, whether tasteless or witty, rooted high culture or deep in the gutter, there’s probably a GIF for it, and if there isn’t? Make one. Predictably the GIF’s resurgent popularity has seen those outside the internet’s anarchic communities attempt to cash in on it. A range of companies have run GIF based marketing campaigns with varying success. In 2015 the British Channel 4 news program introduced Newswall, a slightly awkward website displaying the news of the moment in GIFS, a project which ran for about eight months before it was shut down. While often quite funny Newswall also made very clear the difficulty of using GIFs to discuss controversial or troubling issues without appearing to make light of them. In 2016 Coca Cola introduced a new slogan and promoted with a GIF maker which allowed internet users to add their own slogans to short video clips from Coca Cola adverts. Predictably it was quickly trolled by internet users and had to be taken down.

The GIF’s currency as digital shorthand for humour would seem to lie in a few of its unique characteristics. It has always been comparatively shareable, making low demands on bandwidth and storage compared to streaming video, although this is less an issue today. By popular demand social networks like Twitter and Facebook are gradually reintroducing support for them but in an example of how unnecessary the GIF’s low bandwith demands now are the GIFS displayed on Twitter are actually resampled and displayed as MP4 video files. A more important element which is perhaps often overlooked are the aesthetics of GIFs. In their humorously disjointed looping, their silence and their fractured visual quality they call to mind early cinema, particularly the jerky slapstick of Chaplin or Keaton, and certainly these early films feel in a strange way most at home in the format of a GIF. It felt particularly apt while researching this piece to stumble across the animation above, a homage to Edweard Muybridge, who in his experiments with high speed sequential photography laid the groundworks for the developments of later pioneers like the Lumière brothers. Perhaps the association also goes beyond the aesthetic. I sense that for a certain generation which grew up during the early stages of the internet, the GIF has a certain nostalgia value perhaps akin to the nostalgia that the aesthetic of the cinema or television screen was to previous generations generations. Rooted in our earliest memories and experiences of the interne,t we have a bond to them which the advance of technology has struggled to break.

Beyond the history and mainstream use of GIFs I’ve recently been thinking about whether and how the format can be used for other purposes, like art, or journalism. GIF art is most definitely a practice (there’s even a GIF art collective) an activity with it’s roots in the early internet but which continues in diverse forms today, and which spans people experimenting with and highlighting the unique specificities of GIFs to others who view the format simply as a useful medium for other ideas they are keen to discuss. Much of this art references the popular use of GIFs as a medium of humour, escalating cheap cracks and meme’s into more sophisticated commentaries on art and culture. An example of this might be Zack Dougherty, who under the name of Hateplow creates GIFS that reference and rework classical sculpture and archaeology, combining the two to offer a commentary on the present. For another example more towards the photographic side of things, Swedish artist Martin Brink has experimented with a range of web based mediums in his work, including producing GIF based images which change with varying drama as the viewer watches them.

I have also been sporadically experimenting with GIFs as a medium for work of a more documentary nature. Recently I became interested in the question of whether the refugee crisis that continues to unfold across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, is leaving traces behind that are detectable from space. Using satellite imagery, I have been attempting to locate markers in the landscape left behind by various actors and agents in the crisis and to show the changes in these markers over time as the crisis also mutates and transforms, as new routes are opened and closed, and new sites appear and disappear. The expansion and contraction of the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle is an obvious example, but others are more nebulous. The construction of the Hungarian border fence for example or the appearance and disappearance of seasonal camps used by refugees working as temporary farm workers in Turkey. Others, like the pathways beaten through the countryside by refugees seeking passage across borders might be barely detectable or may not even register at all on the intentionally degraded imagery available to public view. By imaging the same sites multiple times over several years and then compositing these images into animated GIFs I am trying to suggest the expansion and contraction of the crisis and it’s causes in different parts of the world at different times. In other instances, the locations imaged suggest not change, but inertia. The European parliament in Brussels for example appears in virtual stasis as the crisis unfolds over several years.

As I start to collect more of these I hope that these images will start to form a web of locations, which will in turn be mapped across the affected regions in order to give viewers a sense of how one flows into another. I have published some of these images on my website under the working title Borderlands and I am also releasing these and others as I create them on to GIF file sharing services. The hope being that when seen alongside jerky animations of a sneezing panda or a morose dog, a looping satellite image of a refugee camp blossoming out across the Jordanian desert might, in the jarring moment of an unexpected encounter, give someone pause for thought.

The Transparent Jury and the Opaque Prize

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A Session of the Painting Jury
Henri Gerve, 1885 (source)

Over the weekend I tweeted about finding the same name in both the jury and shortlist for the recently announced Aperture Paris Photobook awards shortlist. The artist, writer and curator David Campany was both a selector for the initial shortlist, and the author one of the five books shortlisted for the Photography Catalogue of the Year award. What was most glaring about this for me was the lack of acknowledgment or explanation of this alongside the announcement, and Aperture’s lacklustre response to my Tweets requesting clarification about what safeguards they had in place. Dissatisfied by their response I thought I’d use the opportunity to discuss some of the problematic issues I see as inherent in most photography prizes, both in their structure as organisations, and more abstractly in their role as supposed arbiters of photographic quality. For a photographer to win or be shortlisted for a prize is regarded as a sign of their ability and credibility, and yet the processes and criteria by which these things are determined are seldom on view to those who submit to this judgement, much less the wider audiences who consume the results as exhibitions and books. Nor do we often ask exactly whose interests prizes best serve.

First of all I should say that I really admire Campany’s practice for its diverse approaches and critical nature, which I see as a much more developed version of what I am trying to do in my own work (and while his role on the jury might be the genesis for this conversation it is not really about him or Aperture). A practice structured in this way can be enormously stimulating, but working across several areas which are traditionally seen as self-contained, standalone careers is also an effective way of complicating your life if you are also mindful of your critical and creative independence and of conflicts of interest. I doubt I need to point out the reasons that working as a critic is challenging if you are also a photographer, often reliant on those you are tasked to critique in one role for your advancement in another. For obvious reasons it also never looks particularly good to sit in judgement over your own work, or even to sit in proximity to such judgment. When I first sat down to write about this my mind was set to how an industry aware of these issues could develop mechanisms which would make it possible for someone to judge and at the same time have their book considered for the same prize. The more I thought about it though the more I found this question highlighting the basic problems with prizes and the methods of their judgement. That a jury system is problematic for appraising the worth of art, that the judging processes themselves often byzantine and secretive, and prizes by their nature self-selective.

The simplest method of avoiding such a conflict of interest in a pre-existing jury is an individual withdrawal from the process of judging by the person for whom a conflict of interest has been identified. This, according to Aperture’s eventual response, was their solution. It would be wrong however to think that a temporary withdrawal of a member of the jury resolves the problem in these situations. A pre-existing jury from which one member briefly exempts themselves briefly might feel a lingering sense of loyalty to one of their own, or just as possible depending on the individual dynamics, a sense of antagonism. How can a jury knowingly judge something closely connected to one of their own and treat it in the same way as the work of a normal contributor? The only workable solution at this stage would seem to be full discharge from the process of judging or the complete withdrawal of the work to be judged, but really it shouldn’t come to this stage at all, these problems ought to be screened in the process of recruiting a jury. When I was a child breakfast cereal packets often had competitions on the back, always prefaced with the warning that anyone connected with the competition or related to someone connected with it would be excluded from entry. Simple enough that I understood these rules as an eight year old, and this was for competitions where the stakes were far lower than the average photography prize, so why do we often seem to lack such basic safeguards in photography competitions, where people often sit in judgement over the work of their friends, protégés, and favourites?

These observations in turn raise the issue of how basically inappropriate a jury system can be for the judging of something as subjective and dependent on individual feeling as art. Anyone who has been on a jury or involved in a similar small group decision making process will know the capacity of some individuals to wield disproportionate influence over others. Juries are rarely composed of true equals, and there is always the danger that opinions might be swayed by the more eloquent, vocal or domineering of a group. This not to mention the extent to which a small jury system in an industry like photography often favours the judged who come with developed networks and influence, while working to the disadvantage of new arrivals in the field and those without such cultural capital (is it a coincidence that as I come to know more people in the field I find myself more frequently nominated for things? I think not).

Part of the problem is that a jury system is too attractive to entirely dispose of because it brings certain privileges and associations with it from its judicial origins which we find hard to shed even when this model is put to use in the context of art judging. One is that for the jurors this system offers a certain collective safety and responsibility, that no one person can be held individually responsible for a decision, however blatantly crass, lazy or self-serving. Another, more significant for the purpose of this conversation, is the sense that juries are above reproach or questioning, and that the machinations which lead to their decisions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny. A third is the perception of the jury as an important check on the power of the state, or the context of art perhaps a check on the interests of the powerful organisations who often fund prizes and competitions. The reality of all three of these is troublesome, particularly the third. Rather than acting as a check or balance juries can as easily be a fig leaf for the organisations behind such competitions. It is telling I think that all the major sponsored competitions (The Taylor Wessing prize, the Deutsche Börse prize, The Syngenta Photography Award, Prix Pictet, etc) invariably include a representative or close associate of the sponsoring company on the jury. Not quite an artistic trial by one’s peers.

To me these problems suggest the need for a different model of jurying, of individual judges of whatever number judging in isolation from each other (whether in the same building or on different continents). They might perhaps have some capacity for communication and discourse about the work but would be basically unaware of who their co-jurors are, and a decision would ultimately be made based on an aggregate of opinions of the work put before them. Such a system would also allow for far larger juries than are usually employed. In Ancient Greece the citizen juries of the Dikasteria could be vast, ranging over a thousand people, a safeguard intended to protect against bribery. In the context of photography a large distributed jury also safeguards against jurors with a penchant for promoting their own interests by at least watering down the effects and avoids the tendency that the same predictable names appear on juries again and again (in some respects Prix Pictet’s initial nomination process with it’s representation of every global region seems like a good model for this). Except of course such a mass jury system, while perhaps fairer, would also deglorify the role of the juror as elite industry expert, and prospect of judging a prize remotely would remove the reason that many jurors take part at all, the prospect of a paid trip somewhere nice.

Like an inverted Russian doll each problem in this conversation seems to open up to reveal a bigger one, and in the final instance the biggest of them all is the simple problem of prizes themselves. Photographers seldom stop to question either the byzantine, opaque nature of most photography prizes and competitions, nor do we often ask whether the effect they have on our industry is positive, and if it is, for whom? To tackle the first issue, while photographers submit their works to judging (and often pay for the pleasure) they often have little idea what process of appraisal their works will be submitted to, nor the extent to which judges will have to actually justify their decisions to the artists, audiences or organisers. Despite presenting themselves as arbiters of good photography, prizes are almost never transparent about the processes by which they reach such decisions or the ways that jurors and nominators are selected, processes which ultimately have everything to do with which works are finally selected. Fee charging prizes, of which the Aperture Photobook Prize is one, are also rarely transparent about the purpose of the money they raise, a tendency which is doubly problematic where a prize also raises income beyond entry fees, for example from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship (here again the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is a prime example). No prize that charges a fee can really claim to represent the best in the field of photography on which it focuses, only the best work that could afford to pay.

Finally what is most rarely asked is what purpose prizes actually serve, and whether their influence on our industry is broadly positive or negative? This is a huge question which really deserves an entire post of it’s own, but to offer a brief answer I think that that prizes are primarily about generating a useful illusion of success in a field where actual success is inherently difficult or even impossible to measure. This sense of success is useful for all involved. For the artist since it offers an easy shortcut to evidencing their achievement without being side-tracked into obscure conversations about creative or social worth. For the organisations which frequently are behind competitions it benefits their own activities to be seen to be aligned with ‘successful’ artists, even if that success is very much of their own making. And of course for the sponsors, who benefit from the public good will that derives from their patronage of the arts, and who are into the bargain able to subtly steer the sense of what art is successful away from art which challenges their activities (and if you don’t believe that happens I recommend reading this).

Over the years I’ve spent enough time blogging into the void to know that just writing about this will make no difference. There are too many vested interests for the industry to adopt alternative models or even enter into a debate about the role and purposes of prizes without major pressure. As with any number of other problems any real response needs to come from below, but the difficulty with competitions is that many photographers still seem them as something essentially to their benefit, and struggle to recognise the ways they work against them. Like playing the lottery, the hope is always there that next week it might be you, so why bite the hand that might one day feed? What I am really asking is that photographers and artists simply approach competitions and prizes with more questions and scepticism. By entering without question you validate the organisation that runs it, and make it easier for them to ignore the problems I’ve outlined above. So in future look carefully, think twice and if in doubt ask these difficult questions of organisers, and of your peers and colleagues who play a vital role in these competitions as judges, juries, and occasional executioners.

(Update: Aperture have since tweeted me that the conflict was mentioned during the announcement of the shortlist, which is 14 minutes into the video here. This is good, but it dosen’t explain why the same issue wasn’t highlighted on their site where one presumes many more people would learn about the shortlist, or deal with any of the points above about the inefficacy of a judge leaving the room for five minutes while their work is debated).

Highlights and Trends: Unseen Photo Fair 2016

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Hoopla 2016
Clare-Strand / LhGWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images of Power and the Power of Images

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Images of Power on display at Seen Fifteen (Lewis Bush)

In an image saturated world it is fashionable to deny the power of photography. It is so common to hear even reasoned commentators argue that photographs have no impact on those that view them, and that as a result photography is incapable of achieving what so many of its users hope, that is to make some change the world. It interests me that many of those who claim that photographs are unable to alter the viewpoints of their audiences would at the same time demand the prohibition of certain types of imagery, for example images of an extreme sexual or violent nature, on the grounds that such photographs have the capacity to harm or corrupt those who view them. Photographs, mere lines of code or pieces of paper, might not in themselves change the world, but clearly do have an enormous power to influence opinion, change behaviours, and perceptions. Yet at the same time as I believe that photographs do have the capacity to alter us, as any external stimulus does, I also recognise that our expectations about the capacity of images to create change are often unrealistic, even naive. Photographs do not produce change on demand, and they often do not produce it in the ways that we expect it to. Photographs are as capable of changing the world for the worse, as they are able to shape it for the better.

Images of Power, a new exhibition at Seen Fifteen Gallery which I have curated with Mark Duffy, looks at one facet of the power of images, specifically the way that politicians and their subordinates carefully curate and broadcast a public image of themselves, and the way that artists appropriate and subvert these images. These politicians do so of course in the knowledge that such images significantly shape the electorate’s opinion of them, winning or losing voters, and playing a role in their election which can be every bit as important as their actual political policies. For their part the four photographers and artists in the exhibition’ Mark Duffy, Hans Poel, Christopher Anderson, and Daniel Mayritt, all recognise the way the power of these images can be wrested away from their subjects and creators, and how they can be twisted towards new forms which say very different things from their original intention. Their works, all exhibited for the first time in London, and in the case of Anderson and Poel for the first time in the United Kingdom, attest to the fact that the same image can be powerful in different contexts and in different ways.

Mark Duffy’s series Vote No.1 consists of rephotographed vignettes of the political billboards which litter the Irish landscape at election time. In the process of being installed and later during their subjection to the elements, these billboard accumulate strange imperfections which Duffy captures. Foreheads are penetrated by bolts, faces are scattered with grass trimmings, and a fly climbs down a politicians face. Hans Poel’s series Petting Politics also consists of vignettes, this time zeroing in on the cynical photo opportunities that politicians often employ in an attempt to appeal to their voters, appearing alongside cute animals and children in an attempt to show voters their humane side. Cropping the original image away only to the child or animal, they become a sort of bizarre proxy for the politician.

Christopher Anderson’s series Stump consists of merciless photographs of politicians and their supporters, taken during the 2012 presidential campaign. Here Anderson subverts the careful stage managing of these events such as was seen at the recent national conventions using a combination of photographic technique and unconventional editing to produce a series of brilliant ruthlessness. Finally, in the case of Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces, which profiles the one hundred most influential figures in the City of London, a different strategy is at play. It is one not so much of twisting the images which power projects, but of revealing the powers that sometimes intentionally elude visibility, and which also in the process sometimes seek to evade public oversight and accountability. In its choice of subject and in it’s echoes of Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, Mayrit’s work acknowledges both documentary photography’s preponderate over emphasis on the victims rather than perpetrators of crime and wrongdoing, while also reflecting the fact that in hyperimaged modern era invisibility is as much of a power and a luxury as the ability to cultivate and shape one’s image as so many politicians do.

Images of Power runs at Seen Fifteen Gallery, London until September 11th 2016.

The Trump of the Will: Reading the Republican National Convention

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Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention
Paul David Morris/Bloomberg (see end for full caption)

Politics might have famously been described as ‘show business for ugly people’ but it has also always been ripe ground for photographers (think of Winogrand’s brilliance at the 1960 democrat convention or more recently Chris Anderson’s images from the 2008 presidential campaign). It remains so even in an era of ever more astute media control by politicians and their campaign teams, and despite nominee front runner Donald Trump’s worryingly firm grasp on the press the photographs coming out of the recent Republican National Convention have been really pretty remarkable. Reading The Pictures have done some great close reading of images of the wider conference, but besides some fantastically strange images of delegates and candidates, the centrepiece images are those  of Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. There are so many images of this slightly over an hour long performance and so many of them are begging to be taken apart. The image I’ve picked out above by Paul David Morris is there not because it is the most striking, but because it combines quite a few significant elements where others tend to focus on just one. Getty have a great wider selection of other images from the speech here.

The speech’s staging could not be more bizarre, and certainly it has the pomposity of fascist propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s genre defining Triumph of the Will, from the enormous ‘TRUMP’ banner on the video screen overhead, the ranks of flags behind him, down to the ring of black clad heavies who ring the stage like an honour guard for hire. At the same time the staging also feels like a homage to fictional parodies of fascism and authoritarianism, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to George Orwell’s 1984. In terms of that latter example Trump’s hour recalls the book’s Two Minutes Hate, mass meetings where citizens sit in front of giant screens and are bombarded with images of the enemy before the soothing face of Big Brother appears to calm them, a spectacle so overwhelming that even the book’s deeply cynical narrator finds himself caught up in it. The bombast of Trump’s acceptance speech is hard to overstate and it’s fully worth a watch to get a sense of why so many people are so insistently comparing him to demagogues like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While I can imagine that Trump’s rehearals might look something like Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs of Hitler preparing his speeches, I’ve got to admit that it’s a comparison I find hard to swallow. Emulating the rhetoric of fascism doesn’t in itself make you a fascist (if it did Trump would only be the latest in a rather long line of democratic politicians to stand guilty of this) although I have always felt that political pomp and overblown charisma should almost always be regarded as a warning sign, a mask or veil over something else. As the premiership of Tony Blair very effectively demonstrated to the United Kingdom, a politician with some charisma, or even just the illusion of it, can be a very dangerous thing. In Blair’s case it masked a zealot, in Trump’s case it barely hides an ambitious opportunist, who unlike many of the authoritarians to whom he is being compared probably really believes in very little at all.

Beyond the rhetorical flourishes and ridiculous staging, there is something undeniably dark here, that is the profoundly bleak image that Trump paints of a United States on the verge of implosion, and the equally bleak promises he makes about how he will solve this. Following the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union it was astutely remarked that England, the country which had once colonised half the world, had now fallen prey to the fantasy that it was now itself being colonised by those it had previously subjugated. Something similar might be said of the United States today, a country seemingly fascinated by the vision of its destruction, which lacking a genuine existential threat from without its borders now appears to be doing everything possible to realise that fantasy from within. Trump’s speech felt like the Two Minutes Hate in protracted form, a reeling out of a succession of enemies, from Mexican immigrants preying on all American girls to the Islamic State plotting to destroy the United States from the other side of the planet, all climaxing in Trump’s soothingly ambiguous promises of safety.

Perhaps partly because of these fictional as well as factual references it might be difficult for anyone who recognises these cultural markers to take Trump and the party that now supports him at all seriously. The whole convention feels as if it’s been organised for as an exercise in cultural reference spotting, right down to photographs of delegates who uncannily resemble grown up versions of Diane Arbus’s 1967 photograph of a young pro-Vietnam war demonstrator with his straw boater and ‘bomb Hanoi’ pin badge. Is this a fiction, or just another example of history repeating itself in a country which so often seems to pride itself on it’s supposed lack of history? Quite a few left leaning Americans seem to already be writing Trump off as not having what it takes to reach the White House. Thats exactly what we told ourselves in the United Kingdom about those who wanted to leave the European Union, that those leading the campaign were liars, inconsistent, and unsubstantial and that their supporters were uneducated, bigots and idiots. Some of that what we believed was true, but we let our own bigotry obscure the fact that in many cases these were also possible who over the past several decades had profoundly lost out while we gained. The fact that Trump’s support base forms a rough analogue to the support base of the UK’s leave campaign is well worth dwelling on and you might consider this post a warning to the American left not to underestimate the will of these people, or to make the same mistake we did.

Whatever happens in the autumn, Trump’s campaign marks a political watershed as much as the referendum did for the United Kingdom. A moment of empowerment not just for the traditional right, but the far darker ideologies at its fringes. Between 1936 and 1944 the German writer Friedrich Reck kept a remarkable diary of life under Nazism, describing with the astute observation and invective that only a truly savage cultural critic could muster how the country was ground into the dirt by Nazism. Reck describes encountering Hitler at several points during his rise to power and marvels at the fact that this entirely sordid figure, indeed to repurpose Graydon Carter’s description of Trump, this ‘short fingered vulgarian’, could hold the German people so completely under his spell. The book makes for instructive reading today, not least because Reck recognised in his diary that the politics of Nazism and the experience of living under it meant there was simply no way to return to the Germany that had existed before Hitler, an observation which in a drastically watered down form might well stand for post-referendum Britain, or a the United States after Trump. Shortly before Reck was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he would die he wrote a poignant address to the liberators he foresaw arriving from outside Germany.

‘…we cannot go back to the life we shared with you yesterday, a life which you will spread before us so temptingly when you return. We have suffered too much to believe any more that the way to what we see as the Absolute can go in any other direction than on through the deep valley of sorrow.’

New Exhibitions – Very Now and City of Dust

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I have two exhibitions opening in London today.

Very Now opens today at London College of Communication with a private view on Tuesday 12th July. Curated with my colleague Max Houghton to coincide with the college’s Festival of Art and Journalism, Very Now draws together pieces by a series of artist and photographers working at the intersections of art and journalism. From Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, which reenacts a key clash in the 1984 miners strike, to Laura El-Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a highly personal account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, these works illustrate and reflect on the exciting possibilities of hybrid practices. Alongside these works are displayed a series of reactive projects produced by groups of UAL students, working with disparate ideas and approaches, from reworking the documents of the Courage Foundation’s Edward Snowden Archive, to using mapping and public data to consider the changing face of the local area where the college is situated.  More information is available on the college website, and Very Now continues until 12th August.

City of Dust opens at Westminster Reference Library today with a private view on Wednesday 13th July. An interim exhibition of a project which I have been working on gradually over the past four years, City of Dust looks at London as if it were a living memory palace, an imagined space scattered with symbolic objects each resonant of a different aspect of the city’s past. In the proccess the work ruminates on the relationships between walking, memory and urban space. Like my previous book Metropole, City of Dust offers a commentary on the pace of change in the city, the destruction of the past and the gradual transformation of London into an amnesiac metropolis. Alongside the exhibition a newspaper based on the show will be available free for visitors to take away and there will be a reading table of books from the library’s collection. More information is available in the press release, and City of Dust continues until 23rd July. It would be great to see some faces, familiar or otherwise, at both of these events so please do come on down to either.

For more information on either of these you can contact me through my website.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #4: The Discovery Award

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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

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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.