The Space is the Thing (and White Cubes are Nothing)

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Viewing through a home made camera obsucra.
From the Camera Obscured (2012)

One of the very few opinions I share in common with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones is a dislike of white cube galleries, spaces which he rightly describes as having ‘have all the joy of a cenotaph’. Like Jones I can see the purpose of them in the context of art’s evolution, it’s rejection of past orthodoxies, but like him I also distrust the way one convention seems to has been replaced by another which has come in time to be treated just as unquestioningly, and is now just as in need of breaking down. Jones describes the white space of a gallery as a sanctifying force, the equivalent of a frame on an oil painting designed to convey authority and value. I’d go further back in to the history of art, to it’s use as an object of religious veneration. If Kazimir Malevich’s ultra-abstract suprematist compositions like his 1915 painting Black Square are sometimes compared to Russian orthodox icons, the minimalist space of the modern art gallery maybe makes a fitting place of worship in which to commune with them. That’s precisely what these spaces often become, sick shrines, although it’s a matter of debate what exactly is being worshipped and I’m not unsympathetic with Jones for suggesting it’s often actually money, not art which is on the high altar. There have been some other fine critiques and contestations over the white cube, including the experimental website Whitecu.be, which was ultimately shut down by lawyers acting on behalf of Jay Jopling, founder of the London gallery of the same name. This case also says much about the interactions and unease that exist between the art world and the internet.

One might say the pristine emptiness of a high end white cube gallery demonstrates a necessary level of respect for art, that it allows it be regarded in it’s wholeness, uninfluenced by external distractions. I would suggest it often demonstrates the opposite, it suggests work which needs to be imbued with an aura by the space because it lacks it in it’s own right, and has an effect which is so weak and pallid that it requires all other distractions to be closed off in order for it to effective. Indeed I often sense that some works actually suffer by being housed in such bland surrounds, precisely because the sort of cross pollination that white cubes seem designed specifically to avoid is often what activates art and makes it interesting in surprising ways unanticipated by the artist. That becomes particularly true when it comes to photography, because while fine art is a rarefied exception, photography is a mass medium. And when does photography really behave like this in the real world? Whether you view them in a book amongst the jostle of a train journey or the birdsong and breeze of a summer afternoon, or view on them on a website where they compete with text and adverts, the idea of the photograph displayed entirely on its own is an increasingly odd one. This all before one even considers the question of audience, and the reality that the space where work is shown necessarily prescribes who is able to see it.

In my practice I’ve found it far more interesting, challenging, and ultimately productive, to display work in spaces which bears a close relation to the subject matter. That’s included exhibiting my series on history and the European recession at the European Union’s permanent representation in London, which led to a series of fascinating conversations with workers at the representation including its head about the direction the European Union was heading in. Another example was showing my series on gentrification and redevelopment at an art school due to be demolished to make way for luxury flats. We printed the images in the architecture department on the large format plotters normally used to produce architectural plans, and this led to a series of really interesting conversations with architecture students about the new buildings of London and how they saw their profession. It was a relief to find many shared my feelings, and saw their practice as one which desperately needed to be more socially engaged.

I’m currently showing my 2012 series The Camera Obscured in one of the cells of a former police station in Deptford as part of the Urban Photo Fest exhibition [Taking] Control. The series examines the prohibitions on photography in certain areas of the City of London, by employing a series of rather ridiculous home-made camera obscuras. Using these I produced detailed drawings of sensitive locations, the intention being to entice police officers and security guards intent on stopping me into a discussion about the technical and philosophical dividing lines that separate a photograph taken with a modern digital camera from a painting by an artist like Canaletto, himself an avid employer of camerae obscurae. The space of the cell is apt (not least because I spent much of the project fearing I might end up in one) because it’s form is in effect the same as a simple camera obscura, it’s not for nothing that Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the panopticon and Michel Focault’s subsequent reimaginging of it have both been influential on photography studies. The space is also an interesting one to work in because it is so deeply uncompromising, with none of the usual methods used for hanging a show possible in an environment of concrete and tile walls and austere lighting. [Taking] Control is open each day from 10 am to 6pm and continues until November 8th at The Old Police Station. 114 Amersham Vale, London, SE14 6LG.

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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).

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the Drone War Home

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A camera mounted on a drone which belongs to ISIS, shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah AP (source)

In a globalised world nothing exists in isolation, and it has often been observed that whenever a country engages in an overseas conflict, something of the nature of that conflict often returns with the men and women who have fought there. In his book on the Soviet-Afghan war, the journalist Artyom Borovik described how Russian soldiers returned to the Soviet Union not only laden with contraband and psychological disorders, but he argued they also carried something far more insidious. Pondering the consequences of the war, Borovik wrote that ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what we managed to teach Afghanistan. It is relatively easy however to assess Afghanistan’s effect on the Soviet people who worked and fought there. With a mere wave of [Soviet premier] Brezhnev’s elderly hand, they were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering, and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.’ When the Afghan war began the Soviet Union was already a dying project, a body politic in the image of it’s ailing and elderly leadership. However the influence of Afghanistan, Borovik argued, was like a secondary infection in an already terminal patient.

The idea that the war returns in unexpected ways with the people who fight it is probably no less true of today’s conflicts, even if in some respects these wars are very different. As I wrote last week, the military hardware and tactics which are being brought to bear on the streets of US cities in response to protests like Black Lives Matter will all call to mind images of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for which many of these technologies were originally developed and manufactured. Under the Excess Property or 1033 Program, the US government routinely dispenses surplus military equipment around the country for use by police forces, with materiel worth $449 million reallocated under this program in 2013 alone. There is much to suggest that the availability of something makes its use appealing in order to justify the fact that it has been made available in the first place, the explosion in the deployment of SWAT teams since the 1980’s would seem like an apt example. It is harder of course to argue the case that these conflicts have influenced a mind-set which produces police brutality, but there is certainly an observed tendency towards former soldiers entering law enforcement. Convincingly evidenced (much less empirical) estimates are hard to find, I’ve read anecdotal claims which suggest between a quarter and a half of US police officers have a recent military background. Whether those experiences contribute towards a higher propensity towards violence is also hard to say, one piece I read claimed that 75% of former soldiers applying to police forces are rejected in part because of issues with attitude.

Aside from the high powered sniper rifles and mine resistant vehicles deployed in US cities (both of which would likely have been familiar to Borovik during his time in Afghanistan) many of today’s conflicts are typified by a new type of weapon, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones. The United States wasn’t by any means the originator of this technology but it has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, successive governments recognising in drones an opportunity to avoid politically toxic military casualties. What I’ve often thought is interesting about the US drone program is less its, for now, rather exceptional scale and scope but rather the likelihood that it will serve (indeed already is serving) as a model on which other countries and armed groups develop their own drone programs. The fact that groups like ISIS are deploying crude homemade drones like the one pictured above for purposes like reconnaissance and artillery spotting in locations like Iraq is not coincidence. This extends beyond pure technology and into the legal and moral consequences of drone use. With the United State’s drone programs making such extensive use of legal loopholes, and so devoid of accountability, this sets a precedent for other countries and organisations who might follow suite.

Finally, beyond the influence of US drones on overseas battlefields, what interests me is the possibility with this technology that there exists something of the same capacity to ‘bring the war back home’ that one might expect in a conventional conflict. Last week Micah Xavier Johnson, who was suspected of having shot and killed five Dallas police officers, was himself killed by an explosive device attached to the manipulator arm of a police bomb disposal robot. Citing the danger of tackling the suspect conventionally, the police instead employed a robot conventionally used for disarming explosives, in other words intend to save and preserve life, in order to kill someone. There are precedents for this in Iraq, with soldiers anecdotally using a multipurpose remote controlled robot known as a MARCbot mounted with an anti-personnel mine to investigate suspected ambush locations and sometimes even to kill. The leap from employing this tactic in an active conflict to a law enforcement situation is huge, and while the domestic arming of a bomb disposal robot is for now an isolated, improvised incident, so too have been many such precedents which later become the norm, including of course the military drone program itself. When more and more of the US fleet of armed and unarmed drones start to reach retirement or battlefield obsolescence, it will be interesting to see in what new roles they might start to find back on the home front.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry is the Hardest Word: Terrorism and Refugees

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Fedja Grulovic / Reuters

Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum, that thing in the stadium of the photograph that pricks you, and makes the image personal. In a time when such massive numbers of images are produced of the mundane and day to day (to say nothing of exceptional events) his idea perhaps needs refiguring. At the risk of mauling a beautiful conception of the proccess of reading photographs, one might also think beyond individual images, and speak also of a stadium of all the images produced in response to an event, the galleries, tweets, statuses, and more encountered in the moments and hours after an attack and the cumulative effect they have, might be thought of in contrast to the single image amongst those many, the image which pricks, stops you in your tracks, and lingers on your mind.

With the terror attacks in Brussels photographs with the same sadly familiar tropes emerged, in the vast quantity we have come to expect in a time of mass camera ownership. Images of bloodied victims and shattered buildings, smoke rising in the sky, heavily armed soldiers examining the damage with detachment of one professional inspecting the work of another. Not surprisingly many of these images were reminiscent of previous attacks in other cities, stills and video showing people fleeing through the tunnels from the Maalbeek Station attack calling to mind very similar images from the London terror attacks in 2007. Other images had a local twist to them, not least the staggering multi-culturalism of Brussels on show in many of the photographs, a reminder that even in an age of globalized terror, mass communication and cultural homogenisation, small national differences still have the potential to momentarily jar.

Amongst all these photographs for me the one which really pricked was one taken over a thousand miles away from the bombings. The image above by Fedja Grulovic was taken in the Greek village of idomeni. This border settlement of 150 permanent residents has become a holding point for refugees waiting to cross the closed border into Macedonia, in effect becoming a new Calais for a new Continent as the consequences of the closure of borders across the continent ripple closer and closer to the edges of Europe. The culmination of that ripple will probably be the deal currently being threshed out between the EU and the Turkish government to end migration into Europe completely, an agreement being made despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effective abandonment of many of the democratic tenets the EU is supposed to pride itself on. Estimates for the number of refugees waiting at Idomeni range as high as 12,000, the camp has been compared to a modern Dachau, and yesterday two of the refugees self-immolated in protest at conditions there, although unsurprisingly given the timing and subject matter that event made few headlines.

Grulovic’s photograph, taken at a refugee protest against the closed border, shows a young boy holding a sign which reads ‘sorry for Brussels’ with the last word dripping with childishly drawn blood. The idea of this boy expressing this sentiment over an event occuring thousands of miles away in a city which is the seat of the European Union is made all the more painful by the background behind him. On show is the biblical chaos one would expect in a Hollywood recreation of a refugee camp or transit point, with a great number of exhausted faces looking up from the ground. They are towered over by a man with a megaphone, who may be leading the refugee’s protest but in the context of this image acts instead as a visual shorthand for the ineffective disaster management that has typified the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders and within them. On the boy’s arm is a bandage with a bloom of red that echoes the blood on the sign, although it is unclear if this is a real wound, or a sort of black armband worn in tribute. In a sense of course it could and perhaps should be read as both.

‘Sorry’ is a difficult word, a context specific one even by the standards of a confusing language like English. I say sorry when I hear that a friend of yours I didn’t know has recently passed away, I express sympathy. Being English I say sorry when someone has done something to irritate me, I express annoyance, I am sorry I have had this encounter. I also of course say sorry to express regret at my actions, I apologise for my conduct. In the west we sometimes ask Muslims to say sorry for the actions of their violent co-religionists, which seems reasonable only so long as the rest of us are willing to apologise for the conduct of these people as our co-human beings. The boy’s sign is of course most likely intended as an expression of sympathy, tinged by the knowledge that these attacks will likely lead to a hardening and harshening of European attitudes towards refugees. It might also be read though as an expression of regret, of apology. ISIS attacks in Europe are understood at least to be partially intended to stem the flow of refugees from their territories, who are feared as fifth columnists, cuckoos, enemies within. And so increasingly we shun them. We often tell ourselves that while terror is incapable of a millitary victory against democratic nation states, and that the only possibility of true defeat is would be if in the face of this threat we abandon the essential tenets that define us. Humanitarianism, democracy, diversity, empathy. In the context of ISIS, and other threats like a resurgent Russia seemingly intent on bringing the EU to it’s knees, and seeking to do so in part by undermining the continents unity and sense of self, remaining true to these ideas remains more essential than ever, and yet as the deal being made with Turkey indicates, we are selling out wholesale. Reading that boy’s sign, and looking at the chaos behind him, it’s really hard not to feel that we are the ones who might owe him an apology.

Artists Shrug: Other Realities Are Available

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‘Hercules takes the burden from Atlas and bears the cosmos’
Stich von Heinrich Aldegrever, 1550

Only reading books which agree with your world view has always seemed to me to show a basic lack of confidence in your beliefs. Far better to intentionally encounter books which rub you up the wrong way, whether politically, intellectually or stylistically. If you emerge from that encounter with your original convictions still intact, then either they are pretty well reasoned or you are just robustly delusional. At the very least you might emerge with a different perspective on something, a fresh set of ideas, or a better understanding of the people who take the opposite stance from you. To this end, when I was about seventeen and interested in testing some of my nascent left wing views I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book which runs counter to my politics, not to mention my taste in literature, in almost every way. Atlas Shrugged imagines an alternative United States which has started to grind to a halt, as its innovators and producers – in the novel mostly represented by industrialists and entrepreneurs, rather than artists – are being sucked dry of their energy and genius by the majority of the population who Rand portrays as parasites unable to produce or innovate themselves. In response to this a growing number of the innovators start to disappear to join a secret organisation, leaving their industries to collapse in the hands of those who have appropriated them. As the rather obvious titular metaphor implies, when Atlas the Greek Titan who bore the globe decides to shrug, the world will feel it.

While I could write a post on why I think Atlas Shrugged isn’t a great novel and why I find it’s politics broadly objectionable, this blogs remit does not include literary and political criticism. What I really want to talk about instead is the core idea of the book, that of dictating the terms on which the products of one’s labour circulate, or perhaps of withdrawing those products all together. In this climate of scarce opportunities and numerous creators often arrayed against each other in unnecessary competition, the work which we invest so much into is also often seen as a deeply disposable commodity, which requires little emotional or creative investment from viewers, or from the people who publish it, a tendency tied also to the idea that art is self-indulgent and without importance. All too often creative work is treated like filler to take up space between the really important content of adverts. My heartache of yesterday is today’s click bait, tomorrow’s broken link. It hurts to see the way so much hard work by talented people investigating important issues enters the meat grinder of the internet, is churned through click bait sites that offer no insight or thought of their own to the work but just want to use it to generate some page viewers, before being spat out the other end into the dustbin of ‘unexclusive’ or ‘overexposed’ content. The problem here for me is that while I don’t believe art deserves the rarefied (and largely financial) status generally afforded to it by contemporary art galleries and auction houses, I do believe that art has a range of very important functions in society, and processes and activities which deflate and erode art’s societal status need to be treated with as much concern as those which unrealistically overinflate it.

It’s a funny thing that Rand who was an émigré from Soviet Russia and was vehemently anti-communist, was talking about something in Atlas Shrugged not that dissimilar from Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, the process by which Marx believed capitalism divorces workers from, amongst other things, the products of their labour. I’m no Marxist, indeed as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know my attitude to theory is not ideologicaly dogmatic. Rather I try to view theory as a set of spanners, which you try out and discard until your find one which works for the job at hand. Marx’s idea is one I’ve been thinking a bit about recently in relation to art, and particularly forms of exploitative working relationships like artistic internships. As I indirectly suggested in War Primer 3, interns might be seen as part of the proletariat of the art world (to be sure a hetereogenous group which crosses many borders, social and economic groups, from well heeled interns to the construction workers of the newly emerging art super powers). I’ve also been wondering about the extent of the alienation that contemporary forms of display and circulation create between artists and their works. Whether the ‘clickbaitification’ of creative work is as damaging our relationship to our own practices and work as is it’s rareification. If the answer to either of these is yes, then it becomes an enticing project to think about ways to wrest back control over work by taking efforts to very consciously define and control the dissemination of it? In the coming weeks I will be writing more thoughts on how this might be done in ways which are both overt and confrontational, and others which work much more within the systems of exchange and influence that typify the art world. The assumption that the current status quo is acceptable, normal, or inevitable is a mistake. and in art as in the domains we often try to influence through our work, we need to believe that other realities are possible.

Review – Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

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The Arbitrator
from Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

One of my aims for this year is to drastically reduce the number of reviews I publish here. For a brief period this way of engaging with work was good for me, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction when people described me as a critic. Increasingly though I dislike the word with it’s implication of being an all knowing arbiter or judge of what is good and bad in photography. I would much rather use this platform to share thoughts which more generally reflect on the shape and direction of the medium, rather than as a way to pronounce judgement. It seems a little suitable to draw my reviewing phase towards a close by returning to a new title by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a duo who’s work I have often written about in the past, sometimes quite savagely. In spite of the commonly held belief that I have some sort of vendetta against the pair, I think that of all the work made in recent years on the fault line between art and documentary practices, theirs is amongst the most interesting. War Primer 2, for all my criticisms of it, was also quite brilliant, as a photographic strategy and as a critique of contemporary events. In general it’s always been a policy of mine not to write about work I really hate, because what after all is the point of expanding energy on something which you consider to beyond hope?

Broomberg and Chanarin’s new book Spirit is a Bone does what I would say the duo do best, which is to collide quite different photographic sources and influences into something very interesting and maybe just a little messy. The best resolved and polished projects are sometimes the least interesting, the ones with frayed edges often the most thought provoking and the most open to intriguing readings, and I think that is particularly true of their work. In this case they are colliding the structure of August Sander’s seminal documentary project Face of our Time with a contemporary surveillance technology. Sander’s work is so well known as to hardly require introduction. It consisted of a huge and somewhat idiosyncratic attempt to document the make-up of early twentieth century German society through an extended series of portraits. Documenting people by profession, vocation, politics and other esoteric markers, Sander produced hundreds of portraits between 1911 and 1929 when the book was published, quickly becoming a key work of Neue Sachlichkeit. The work was overshadowed by the rise of German Nazism, both because the Nazi party reacted badly to Sander’s vision of what Germany was, but also perhaps because in the longer term the use of systems of racial and political categorisation in Nazi repression has cast Sander’s own methods in a light which can seem awkward to contemporary viewers.

The surveillance technology which Broomberg and Chanarin employ is a form of facial recognition software system developed in Russia from ANPR. This new system creates a three dimensional model of a subject’s face by compositing viewpoints from multiple CCTV cameras as they move about a city like Moscow. The result is what the developers call a ‘non-collaborative portrait’ in reality a point cloud but rendered as a three dimensional photograph imperfectly mapped with skin and other details for the benefit of human viewers (a good reminder that what we think of as facial recognition vision is never what the machine sees). Using this technology Broomberg and Chanarin have photographed a series of contemporary Russians whose occupations or identities correlate with the categories used by Sander to title his portraits of early twentieth century Germans. Facial recognition technology has evolved since its earliest days in a cat and mouse game between it’s developers and those who are conscious of it and seek to evade it. As each side innovates the other must respond. What this technology takes account of it that while clothing, hairstyles, expressions and other features might be changed to fox cruder automated recognition, the shape of the face, and the underlying skull, are unique and permanent. In this sense this technology then has a resonance with the discredited practice of phrenology, the determination of character through measurements of the skull, something very much in vogue in Sander’s time, and in which photography had an awkward complicity.

The 3D images (I hesitate to say photographs, but perhaps that’s exactly what they are) that result from this contemporary surveillance technology are compelling and strange, disembodied faces which at times disintegrate into seams and glitches. The duo have compared them to digital death masks, but this comparison, while undoubtedly making for a catchy headline is less apt I think than describing them as digital life masks. The life mask has been overshadowed in contemporary knowledge by its rather more morbid sibling, but for a time enjoyed a similar vogue and there was particularly a market for life masks of the celebrities of the day. In the era before photography, the life mask was something with some comparable traits, an object which bore a direct and very tangible physical relationship to the person it represented. The process of making one was long winded and in some respects quite coercive, also not unlike early forms of photography. Reportedly when Beethoven sat to have his made in 1812 he panicked mid-way through the process, overwhelmed by the intense feeling of being smothered by the heavy plaster mould, and in the panic the mask was destroyed and had to later be recast.

There is an apt metaphor buried in here I think for our relationship with technology and the way that surveillance is less a subset, category or consequence of technology. Rather it is starting to feel like something which is inherent to almost all the technologies we own and use, from smart-phones to smart-kettles, and even technologies which were never intended for surveillance now seem to be routinely retro-programmed to fulfil this task. We live within a web of devices in public and private which survey and monitor and which we only occasionally and briefly feel the burdensome weight of as they cast their sensors across us. In the rapidly progressing field of automated visual surveillance, the technology featured in Spirit is a Bone is now relatively out of date, an acknowledgement which inevitably makes one wonder what new nightmares are currently being developed and deployed. In an interview included in the book, Professor Eyal Weizman of Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre draws the conversation towards the algorithmic anticipation of behaviour, a practice with evident resonances of phrenology, and another growth area of surveillance, often justified by it’s proponents by reference to the imperviousness of terrorist cells to traditional forms of infiltration and observation. To think these technologies and their ramifications are simply limited to the presumed future-guilty is a mistake, they judge us all, and make potential criminals of us all. At what point I finally wonder will the weight of these technologies induce more than mild curiosity or slight alarm. When will begin to feel the smothered by our digital life masks.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself, also NB in case you didn’t read the first paragraph closely I have some form with the work of Broomberg and Chanarin)

Terrordrome: Islamic State and the Savage New Times

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Videodrome

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

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

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

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

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