Trevor Paglen wins Deutsche Börse Prize 2016

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Open Hangar, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~ 18 miles, 10:04 a.m
From Limit Telephotography, Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen has won the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography prize, for his exhibition The Octopus, which explores contemporary surveillance and was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 2015. This annual prize rewards a photographer for an exhibition or publication which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the preceding year. Each iteration of the shortlist varies greatly, some years which offer a fascinating cross section of diverse directions in photography, to others where it can be quite hard to detect how any of the shortlistees were considered to have met the prize’s admittedly ambitious rationale. Previous incarnations have featured the likes of Walid Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Stezaker, Sophie Ristelhuber, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Mikhael Subotzky, and Zanele Muholi. This year the shortlisted works ranged from Erik Kessel’s ambitious installation of his moving project Unfinished Father, to Tobias Zielony’s The Citzen, a collaborative project with refugee activists based in Berlin. For me though Laura el Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a self-published photobook on the Egyptian revolution, and Trevor Paglen’s exhibition were always the front runners. My heart hoped that Tantawy’s work would be recognized for its raw power, narrative skill, and continued resonance, my (somewhat cynical) brain on the other hand felt that Paglen would likely be the one to win. Viewing Paglen’s work is a mixed experience for me. His chosen area of investigation, the activities that states get up to when they think their citizens are not looking, are ones which I find important enough to spend a sizeable part of my own time researching them (and many of the issues I am about to discuss are ones I have myself struggled with). What bothers me is that the modes that Paglen chooses to address these worlds seem more often about producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.

Paglen’s work feels like a rather straight form of art documentary, perhaps even indeed it might be considered good old fashioned documentary, an apparent revealing of something which demands to be seen in the age old tradition spanning back to Hine and Riis. In his Limit Telephotography series for example Paglen uses very long lenses to photograph sensitive sites which cannot be more directly approached, sometimes recording subjects which lie a dozen miles or more away, through layers of dust, heat haze and so on. In another series The Other Night Sky he uses long exposure astrophotography to record classified satellites as they pass over head. The resulting photographs in both cases are very beautiful, at times verging on the abstract, and like an abstract image they show almost nothing recognisable at all. We must take his word for it that we are viewing a spy satellite amongst a thousand star trails, and not simply another star, an innocuous civilian satellite or a tumbling piece of space junk. In this respect, and also in his penchant for arcane technical names in his image titles, Paglen’s photographs often remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic projects. Fontcuberta’s works often take the form of visual practical jokes which drag you in one direction before disclosing that what you are looking at is actually something rather different. In his world what appears at first to be a constellation of stars in a distant reach of space is a moment later revealed to be a cluster of dead insects on his windscreen, as in the series Mu Draconis. I’m not sure how much of a sense of humour Paglen has, but of course this sort of temporal telescoping can be a clever strategy even when the subject is far more serious, and it can be employed to some very thoughtful ends. I think specifically of Sophie Ristelhuber’s Fait, a work which challenges an audience to question what we are being shown, and what exactly the camera is supposed to be revealing in the abstract desert battle spaces of the First Gulf War, where the meaning of scale and distance are obliterated by the cameras lens, whether it is held in the photographer’s hands or mounted in the nose of a guided missile.

Paglen’s photographs are also rather performative, by which I mean the process of making them often feels more interesting than the resulting image or the information they impart. In viewing the Limit Telephotography series for example I find myself wondering of the value (beyond the value of the performance itself) of lugging heavy camera equipment to the top of remote hills when high resolution satellite imagery of these same sites are available to view anytime, anywhere (here for example is Toonpah Test Range Airport, likely the site featured in the photograph above). This of course is not to believe that existing forms of imagery are any more neutral, or necessarily more useful than Paglen’s, and as I know from experience, these types of performances can sometimes be quite effective ways to counter authorities who often fear exactly these types of public spectacle. I suppose what I want is still to have the image before me reveal something I did not know. Part of the problem with that is even if one could reveal these classified sites undistorted by heat haze, or clearly capture a spy satellite as it passes overhead, as has been done by some observers, a photograph tells us little about these things and the world that they belong to. Photographs, particularly single photographs but even sets and series, are incredibly bad at showing the structures, networks, histories, agreements, and more which underlie their subjects. Photographs by dint of their self-contained, enclosed nature, have an unfortunate tendency to appear complete, as if the world depicted within them were as self-contained, self-explanatory, and frankly simple, as the four sides of the photo frame.

Photographs have to be used in clever ways to avoid this tendency, and to remind viewers that is being seen is a small part of a complex set of processes and networks which make up our globalised world. Unfortunately these forms of treatment are often anathema to the sort of laboured, precious presentation that galleries tend to demand that photographs are given (and which may well be an important factor in Deutsche Börse’s collecting rationale, I think an important aspect of this prize and one which is seldom discussed). A useful photograph is not a precious physical object, it is a raw aggregate of data, something waiting to be rendered out in many senses of that phrase. It is phrase in a sentence, a node in a network, a marker on a map. When I view Paglen’s work I see raw material, waiting to have clever things done with it which will say far more about the organisations that interest him than the photographs alone are able to (to some extent this starts to happen in his series on undersea cables, but for me it is only a start). Reworked and deployed in this sort of way I think the work, as well as starting to explain it’s subject much better, would also start to pose a far more direct challenge to these entities. Of course Paglen might not feel that’s his job to do this, which is fair enough, but I consider this to be an essential part of this type of work. Such a challenge is not by any means easy to make, and as I said before I critique Paglen’s work here from a point of common interest since these problems are exactly the same ones which have troubled me about my own work on intelligence gathering. His failings (if you want to call them that) are also my failings, and the failings of a great many other photographers and visual artists working in this area who often remain more heavily weighted towards the role of being an artist than of being a researcher or activist (more thoughts on this soon).

The exception to most of what I’ve said here and by dint of it I think by far the most interesting part of Paglen’s work to date is a completely non-photographic part, indeed it’s a piece which verges on conceptualism for it’s artistic effect. It’s the Autonomy Cube, a Perspex box housing a custom motherboard developed by Jacob Applebaum (until recently a core member of Tor), which acts as an entry point to, and a relay for, the Tor network. Tor acts as a series of relays through which internet connections can be bounced, making it far harder (although by some accounts not impossible) to track the browsing habits and other information of people who use it. Like the wider use of electronic encryption, it has become part of an intriguing reputational battle in the aftermath of the Snowden document leaks, often depicted as an unholy gateway into the dark web and the preferred the tool of child pornographers and criminal hackers seeking to elude the authorities, Tor can just as readily be the means of journalists seeking to avoid surveillance, or ordinary citizens who don’t see why their browsing habits should become corporate property or be collected by dubious government information gathering programs. Intelligence agencies also often deploy the spurious logic that increased use of networks like Tor will require them to use ever more invasive means of information gathering, failing to recognise that it was precisely their development of invasive programs like Prism and Tempora which have led to a growing number of people to employ these technologies. The more relays Tor can call on the stronger the system is, and so by installing this router in a gallery Paglen does finally do something which poses a tangible challenge to the activities of intelligence gathering organizations like the United State’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, and even more gloriously he implicates the notoriously apolitical art world in the process at the same time (each time I see the autonomy cube installed, as it also is at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, I wonder with glee what gallery wrangles might have taken place before it was agreed to). By the additional step of inviting gallery visitors to connect to the router and exploit its offer of anonymity, Paglen exposes visitors to what previously might have seem mysterious or even taboo, and implicates them in a deeply modern analogue to older forms of civil disobedience. In the digital age, taking hold of our own data, and enforcing our privacy even against our own governments might be considered one of the final truly subversive, and genuinely challenging acts.

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

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Trotters Independent Trading co. van,
from Only Fools and Horses (Flickr)

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.

The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II

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Annie Leibovitz

It’s been said that prostitution is the oldest profession, and espionage the second oldest. Public relations might well be the third, and certainly for as long as we have had formal rulers, their artistic depiction has played an important role in creating a sense of their status amongst the public. This has particularly been the case in Britain, where paintings of Kings and Queens have always tended to be tightly controlled, the right to produce such images sometimes licensed to a single court appointed artist and subject to a high degree of vetting. In other words the public relations gauntlet which must be negotiated in the process of photographing the political rulers of the present is nothing new, nor are image makers willing to do exactly as they are bid by these figures and their attendants.

Historically royal paintings were potently political and highly constructed, laden with symbolism which was designed to carefully hint at the character and role of the Monarch depicted. Carefully choosen imagery helped to broadcast a sense of the times in which that person lived, and their role as leader of the nation within those times, whether as warrior, peacemaker, or something else entirely. Few monarchs took such care with their depiction as Elizabeth I who was painted with remarkable frequency during her life and reign. Paintings of Elizabeth overflow with allegorical objects and characters, all intended to broadcast a certain vision of her in the minds of those who stood before these images. In early examples items like pearls and moons alluded to her virginity and purity, she sometimes held a book to suggest studiousness and religiosity, while a red rose would symbolise her loyalty to the house of Tudor.

Later paintings increasingly drew parallels between Elizabeth and classical mythology, part of the process of raising her to an almost god like status. They also emphaisised her military leanings, and in some her dress is exaggerated in a way which starts to suggest plate armour, an important allusion for a female Monarch ruling in a time of instability and the lingering threat of invasion from Catholic Europe. Perhaps most fascinatingly the emphasis on symbolism in these paintings went so far as to completely compromise their realism. Despite renaissance innovations in the use of light and shade to create more dramatic and realistic depictions of shape, techniques exemplified by her father’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth reputedly disdained shadows in her portraits, viewing them as contradicting the image of purity and youth she had so carefully cultivated. The result of this Royal intervention into aesthetics was a distinctive style of court portraiture which remained remarkably flat in contrast to the ever greater verisimilitude of court paintings in other parts of Europe. Elizabeth was obsessed in short with the power of symbolism and allegory, the enormous power of applying them properly, and the equally grave damage they could cause when they were not properly prescribed.

This genre of portraiture persists to some extent today albeit in photographic form, with three portraits recently ‘released’ by Kensington Palace to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Taken by court appointed celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz, these are perhaps not such careful cultivations of subject and symbolism as their Elizabethan forebears, but they still might be read for similar meanings and insight. I feel it is irresistible to read them for answers to the essential question of the role of a taxpayer funded hereditary monarch is in a 21st century democracy, not least a democracy struggling to pay for essential services like disability benefits and healthcare, and a society beholden to neoliberial ideas about work and earning. In such a society the images of the inherited wealth and power which the current Queen’s Tudor namesake so consistently broadcast to her subjects are hardly welcome ones. Perhaps reflecting that we don’t find Elizabeth II depicted in regal dress as she was the last time she found herself in front of Leibovitz’s lens, a session which took place back at the very start of the global economic recession).

Instead we see a monarch taking on a much more normal guise in a series of almost informal settings, surrounded variously by grandchildren, with her daughter, and her dogs. The subtext one feels they’ve aimed for, as if it needed spelling out, is that the monarch isn’t the all-powerful god figure or magisterial head of state she might once have been presented to us as. Instead she is a sort of fuzzy and benign babysitter, responsible for overlooking her brood of grandchildren, standing in here perhaps for the succession of short timer politicians who periodically shuffle into serving as her prime minister for a few years (she’s seen 12 of them to date) before presumably shuffling off again to a nice job as a corporate advisor. It’s inevitably tempting to connect specific prime ministers to particular children in this group portrait, in which case the girl to the left of the Queen clutching a handbag almost as large as she is would undoubtedly be the late Margaret Thatcher. I’d peg current PM David Cameron to the small boy in shorts on the right who looks on the verge of tears and like he just wants the whole thing to be over.

This attempt to normalise the Queen falls flat mostly because of the glaring opulence of the surroundings. ‘I didn’t realise they had so much Ikea furniture’ quipped one person in my Twitter feed. However any sense of this as a naturalistic family grouping is also shattered by the awful crapness of the photograph, in particular the way the subjects are so over lit and over-processed that they appear to leap off the background behind them. The lack of relationship between sitters and their surroundings callsto mind a photograph of Judge Dredd as a baby which appears in the original rather fascist 1995 movie adaptation. In-plot forensic examination of this photograph later reveals is a composite fake constructed to hide the grim reality of a child secretly reared in a government lab as part of a genetic experiment. With the exception of the baby on the Queen’s lap, the children look as if they have been photographed in isolation and inserted like Judge Dredd on to a backdrop to which they bear no spatial (or emotional) relationship. The more I look at this image the less sure I feel that it’s a single exposure, which needn’t matter (since, lest we forget, this is not journalism) except in the sense that it reveals the extent of utter construction that still takes place in the making of a monarch’s state portrait, and of course, the complicity of the one who makes it. For all that’s undoubtedly changed since the time of the Tudors, it would seem that the shadows (or the lack thereof) still have it.

New Project – A Model Continent

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Venice, Italy. From A Model Continent

I’d like to introduce a small project which I have recently published. A Model Continent documents a theme park in Belgium where European national landmarks are reproduced as scale models. Part funded by the European Union, the park showcases an idealised continent where once divided nations co-exist in peaceful harmony.

The requirements of a tourist attraction however creates unintended juxtapositions between these models and their surroundings. The model crowds at momentous historical events are noticeably small, roads and bridges end abruptly in mid air, and the branding of corporate sponsors are incongruously inserted into the scenery. Even the selection of which monuments are included in the park reflects a very loaded sense of which parts of Europe’s history matter, and which do not. These awkward contrasts seem to speak of the difficulties of the real continent to which this park refers. Rather than an exemplar of harmony, Europe is an increasingly a divided union, wracked by financial, political, and humanitarian upheavals, and where the lessons of history are often forgotten in the search for comforting but simplistic narratives.

I first encountered the park during my travels around the continent in 2012 documenting the difficulties being caused by the financial recession and Euro crisis. Even then I found the park fascinating and planned to return to it. Three years later I finally have, and it says something about the present state of the continent that many of the same issues remain pertinent, and if anything have been added weight by the refugee crisis and news of an impending British referendum on the country’s future membership of the EU. The series is published as a small postcard book which can be kept intact or disassembled and the individual cards posted or displayed and is available now from my online store.

8 Latvia - Freedom monument

9 Great Britain, White Cliffs of Dover

9 Spain, Palace of the Escorial

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

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High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.

Gazing into the Algorithmic Abyss: On Microsoft’s Tay AI

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‘Tay’

Algorithmic automation is becoming an ever greater part of advanced socieities, and barring a return to the dark ages these technologies will continue to make their presence felt in more and more fields, from finance to healthcare, to imaging and journalism. The conversation between the camps that promote and oppose this ‘algorithmitisation’ of our societies generally seem to figure these technologies as being essentially neutral, and more likely to be dangerous because of dumb machine stupidity than anything else, much in the same way that acar left on a hill with the handbrake off is dangerous. This feels like a natural extension of the ‘gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people’ argument which has often typified our attempts to understand complex and controversial new technologies. This was always rather a fatuous argument though at least in the sense that guns are explicitly designed to kill, that function is embedded in the technology in a way which can’t be extracted, (and it becomes an irrelevant argument the closer algorithms and AI get to self-awareness). To a greater or less extent I would say something similar occurs in all other technologies, the context of their creation always being inescapable from their later use, however they are retooled. One can’t, or at least shouldn’t, think about the rockets which are used to put men or satellites into space without also thinking of their technological ancestors, the V2 rockets which were explicitly designed to destroy cities. This being the case there is an important but it seems largely unheld discussion to be had about the extent to which algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligences might carry similarly vestigal and troublesome motivations in their code.

Microsoft’s Tay AI offers an insight into this idea in several ways. Tay was a twitter bot developed by Microsoft, designed to behave like a teenage girl but also crucially to learn from it’s interactions with other users. Within a day of her launch Tay had just done that and as a result of her interactions had become a misogynistic, Hitler praising, conspiracy theorist, who advocated voting for Donald Trump, until an embarrassed Microsoft pulled the plug on her. Twitter is no lab, it’s full of people who like to troll and disrupt experiments like this, but this is precisely what’s important about this example. When algorithms which have been developed to operate in closed systems and controlled environments are released in an unpredictable and perhaps even hostile world the results are very hard to anticipate. A similar example perhaps was the pricing war which took place between two Amazon algorithms, and which led to a relatively obscure book on fly biology rapidly increasing in price until it peaked at $23,698,655.93. This was the result of two algorithms set to monitor and adjust prices, but which didn’t take account of the way their combined actions would create a sort of algorithmic feedback loop, leading them to constantly ramp up their prices until the error was spotted. Algorithms don’t just have to anticipate their encounters with people now, as the world becomes ever more crowded with lots of them doing different tasks, the possibilities of their encountering each other, and the possibility of those encounters having unforseen consequences becomes ever more likely. This was a war over pricing, but the word war is instructive here. Could we one day see the algorithmic equivalent of the Petrov incident?

If the Amazon example shows what happens when algorithms encounter each other unexpectedly in the wild, what we see in the example of Tay is an extreme parodic example of the danger of technologies which are designed to monitor and learn not from each other, but from us. Learning implies a trust that what is being taught is useful, safe and correct. As anyone who has ever had a sociopathic teacher will attest, learning is not always like that, and a vital part of learning is the student’s own discrimination about what information is useful and when indeed their teacher might be leading them astray. In Tay’s case, her ability to learn but her inability to distinguish and make judgements about the course of her learning on anything but a rather basic level was her undoing. This time it offered us all a bit of a laugh at Microsoft’s expense but it’s not hard to imagine something occurring where a learning system controlling an important asset might do something similarly unanticipated, for all the Three Laws style safeguards that might be built into any such system, as Asimov’s novel I, Robot indicates it’s very hard to safeguard against what hasn’t been anticipated. This becomes more true the more complex these technologies become, when they learn for themselves, and inevitably when algorithms start creating other algorithms. In the 1973 movie Westworld, a robotic theme park becomes a bloody murderfest as the robots break down and turn violently against their operators. Puzzling over a disabled robot, one scientist makes the remark that no one really knows how they work, since these machines are so complex they have been designed by other machines. Science fiction can be instructive, but in reality I’m not really talking about machines-taking-over-the-world stuff here. I think what we might need to be more concerned about are changes and adjustments that these technologies might make to our lives which we may not even be really aware of taking place, but which might still be highly undesirable to us, certainly that has often been the consequence of new technologies in the past.

Some commentators made the point that particularly in terms of her new found misogyny and apparent self-loathing, Tay was an apt reflection of the industry which spawned her, given that the technology and IT industries remains predominantly male and prone to poorly judged manifestations of this (if not out and out sexism). This raises the further important question, which I hinted at earlier, of the extent to which algorithms also reflect the tendencies of their makers in very unintended ways. If code is effectively the DNA of an algorithm, it’s going to become increasingly important to consider whether a developer’s own biases and prejudices might be embedded in various ways into the code they write and algorithm which is the result. In spheres like policing, defence and surveillance where the use of algorithms and in particular computer vision is making dramatic advances, the implications of this question are potentially enormous. If powerful institutions start to increasingly develop and deploy their own algorithms, we need as a public to question the extent to which institutional politics (for example institutionalised racism) could become incalculated into these technologies in the process. While recognising the huge benefits these technologies may bring we need to carefully consider and perhaps start to counter the narratives which regard algorithms and AI as essentially neutral and lacking the prejudices of the humans they are starting to replace. What I think we need to start asking with more and more urgency is if man gazes into the algorithm, what happens when the algorithm gazes back into man?

Liberating the Arts from Corporate Influence

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Exorcism of BP protest at Tate Modern
Photograph by Brennan Cavanaugh

I’m sometimes accused of being a naïve idealist for regularly criticising corporate sponsorship of the arts. In my view these relationship are not only antithetical to what the role of the arts in society should be but are also damaging for any sense of art as a democratic process in itself, where work is championed and celebrated for its artistic merit and social import, not because of the business priorities of those paying the heating bill. Alongside those (relatively few) people who see no problem with these relationships there are also a great many who feel that there is something wrong here, but can see no other way that the arts can survive and flourish than by entering into a Faustian pact with corporations, trading their cultural cache and public good will for the financial capital of large companies. The response I often hear is that corporate sponsorship is simply a necessity in a climate where arts budgets are constantly being cut, as if falling budgets for public projects have no relationship to the simultaneous institution of favourable tax regimes which see multinational corporations sometimes pay less tax on their revenues than an individual citizen pays on their own earnings (a tax liability which sometimes falls still further thanks to the tax wheeze of corporate cultural ‘philanthropy’). I consider it an ongoing project to change minds in both camps. Not only is separating the arts from corporate sponsorship very necessary, it’s also very possible.

The Liberate Tate campaign has been something of a test-bed in the UK for the question of whether and how the arts might be decoupled from corporate interests. The group have waged a long running campaign to reveal the terms of BP’s sponsorship of the Tate group of art galleries (which turned out to be for a rather paltry amount), and also to advocate for an end to that sponsorship. These actions have consisted of a number of highly visible protests, ranging from classic strategies of protest and disobedience like chucking oily black molasses on the steps of Tate Britain in 2010, to appropriating Tate Modern’s own rules about art donations in order to bring a 16 metre wind turbine blade into the galleries’ main space in 2012. Liberate Tate’s actions are invariably cadged in terms of art, for example described as ‘performances’ and designed to be highly visible, taking advantage of the audiences that flock particularly to Tate Modern, the same audiences of course that companies partly hope to influence through their sponsorship.

This week BP announced that it will end sponsorship of the Tate galleries in 2017, after nearly thirty years. Rather than directly credit Liberate Tate with helping to bring this about, BP blamed an ‘extremely challenging business environment’. This can I think be read as a form of coded acknowledgment of the success of the campaign, since the purpose of sponsorship is of course to do the opposite of this. As well often being an accounting wheeze, sponsorship is intended to encourage a positive public and political attitude towards a company, and to permit a favourable business climate where that companies activities will be more easily carried out, and where profit can be maximised. When these activities become the locus of protest they lose this function in spectacular style. What Liberate Tate has done so brilliantly is to both expose BP’s attempts to cynically green wash and art wash its activities by appropriating the same environmental and artistic strategies and besting the corporation at both, while at the same time as hijacking the very audience BP had hoped to sway through it’s sponsorship. If an institution like the Tate can be uncoupled from a corporate sponsor after nearly thirty years of involvement it signals the start of an open season on all such relationships.

Disorder belies Construction: The Selection of Prix Pictet

prix pictet nominators disphotic

A scan of the list of international selectors
for Prix Pictet’s Disorder, recently on show at Somerset house

My slide into teaching has thrown other areas of my practice out of their usual order and at the moment I find myself often only making it to an exhibition in the closing weeks or days of its run. This is not much good for reviewing, but then I did say at the start of the year I was going to do less of that anyway. So this piece should proceed with the caveat that it is not a review of an exhibition exactly, but more of a deconstruction of one from a very particular angle. The exhibition in question is the recent Prix Pictet shortlist at Somerset House, a collection of works by twelve photographers, brought together under the theme of ‘Disorder’. These have been selected from a long-list of over 700, nominated by an international pool of selectors, before the final selection was made by an ‘independent jury’ (although seeing as it includes a former managing partner of the Pictet bank, that independence is a matter for debate). What I want to discuss here is the way that this prize, like any other, is about selections, selections within selections and selections by selections, all more or less consciously directed to achieving a specific end which is only partially about photography. While I cite Prix Pictet as my exemplar, I think similar tendencies are noticeable in every major sponsored prize, and I charge you to look for them the time you go to an exhibition of say, the Deustche Borse or Taylor Wessing Prize, and see if you can’t detect similar things at work.

I’ve often spoken and written on this blog about what I consider to be the uncomfortable relationship between corporate interests and the arts. In particular I’ve tried to persuade that the sponsorship deals between large companies and major photography prizes, particularly prizes with a documentary component, deserve much more scrutiny than they usually get. In particular they require consideration of the ways that this relationship might impact our understanding of what type of issues, and what kind of photographic handling of those issues, are deserving of our attention and thought. When I visited the Prix Pictet on the final day of it’s run at Somerset House these questions of selection resurfaced in the content, form and even the very structure of the exhibition. The most obvious example of this is simply the type of work which makes up the shortlist. The Prix Pictet as in other sponsored prizes studiously avoids projects which engage on any level with the sponsor’s area of activities. Despite the theme of ‘Disorder’ there is no work here which even comes close to engaging with the recent financial crisis, surely the great global disorder of the last decade. This of course isn’t that much of a surprise, while I’ve said before that it would be great to see work like Mark Curran’s or Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s featured in the shortlist for a prize sponsored by a private bank, I am a realist.

More interesting than the obvious exclusion of these sorts of explicitly critical works is how this avoidance of these kinds of topics runs down to quite a subtle level. I found it interesting for example that Maxim Dondyuk’s series Culture of the Confrontation on the Euromaidan protests was shortlisted and not say, Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar’s Barricades works on the same topic. Could that perhaps be because a portion of the latter work focuses on the corruption and disorder of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and might shed uncomfortable light on allegations of his systematic siphoning of state funds into private bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein? It’s possible. What is interesting and somewhat impenetrable are the reasons for these absences and omissions, whether a form of passive self-censorship by nominators and jury, or something more overt and organised. Without seeing the process from the inside all one can really do is to speculate.

In any case, and as I suggested at the start of this piece, the inclusion, or non-inclusion of particular works and topics is important because the implication of any artistic shortlist or selection is that what is here is the best, the most interesting, the most significant on a theme. By so carefully avoiding work which engages (whether overtly or not) with the issue of capitalism and it’s attendant inequalities, this shortlist manages to transmit the subtext that the dysfunction of capitalism and it’s institutions is not really worth considering as a form of disorder, and is perhaps not even really worth considering at all. The implication instead for a viewer is that here what you see brought together are the essential disorders of our age, the problems that really deserve our attention and energy. And yet our world is a profoundly interconnected one, and very few of it’s major problems exist in total isolation. What links photographs of riots in Ukraine, car bomb craters in Iraq, floods in Africa and the global decimation of bee populations? Without seeking to be controversial for the sake of it I would say that these are all more or less directly the products of the chronic disorder that is unbridled capitalism, and it dosen’t seem to me that it would take a particularly critical viewer to see that link when considering these twelve projects in rapid succession.

Which leads me on to the arrangement and description of the work in the gallery space, which seems almost to take account of the potential for a viewer accidentally drawing this connection from the work by doing the opposite of what one might think to be the normal aim of curation. Rather than weaving together the connections in twelve disparate works to show how they relate to a central theme, the exhibition feels rather as if it is constructed to make the works in it feel isolated and disconnected from each other. Each artist’s work is very much treated on its own, separated from the others in part because of the rather labyrinthine spatial character of the East Wing galleries of Somerset House which requires different rooms to be dedicated to each series, but also by the way each work is isolated from its neighbors intellectual, for example in the inconsistent texts that introduce and describe each work rather as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than as part of a themed exhibition. The result is a strange show where the only consistency is the elephant in the room of this unspoken connecting theme.

I know what I’ve done here is to make this all sounds rather conspiratorial, as if everything from the selection of nominators through to the rather dysfunctional curation of this show have been planned from the off to deliver a particular and rather malign effect. I imagine this process is probably more passive and unintentional than I’ve made it sound, although perhaps lit by moments of more intentional design. Whatever the case, I hope this short piece has given some cause for thought about the way many prizes are linked to outside interests, and has also caused some consideration of the way that these sorts of events don’t simply objectively reflect the type of issues that matter in the world, nor the photographs that are necessarily the most brilliant encapsulations or critiques of those issues. Rather I hope you will see such prizes and exhibitions are very much constructed selections, from the final exhibition perhaps right back as far as the initial selection of nominators, and I would say all linked back to priority that underpins pretty much all corporate sponsorship of the arts. Public image and an atmosphere conducive to profit.

Metropole at Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design

Metropole-exhibition-banner

I’m excited to announce that an exhibition of my series Metropole opens tonight, Thursday 3rd December at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University.

Metropole records the consequences of the booming value of property in London by using double exposures to document the city’s numerous new corporate and luxury residential buildings as they are constructed and occupied. As the photographs progress these structures merge and overlap, becoming increasingly disorientating and threatening, emulating the feeling of finding oneself lost in a once familiar city. Finally the photographs come to rest on the dark heart driving this urban degeneration.

Metropole was first published in March 2015 and chimed with a widespread feeling that London has become an increasingly oppressive, unaffordable and unequal place to live. The book garnered international attention, being published by sites and magazines across Europe and as far afield as Los Angeles, and rapidly selling out. This exhibition is the first to feature the majority of the series, and includes several images which did not appear in the book. To coincide with the show a reprint of the book is also now available from my online store along with screen prints based on images from the series.

Metropole is open to the public and can be visited daily until January 15th 2016 at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7PF. You can also download a press release for the exhibition and read more about the Metropole project on my site.

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2015 Longlist

Five-Girls-2014-by-David-Stewart

Five Girls 2014, David Stewart

Having reviewed the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize pretty much every year since Disphotic’s creation, I decided to approach it in a different way this year. I’ve tended to criticise the prize in the past for being a public relations figleaf for corporate interests, and also for rewarding photographs which are technically fastidious but conceptually banal and predictable. When the shortlist was first announced back in September I offered a closer reading of the four photographs in it and to test the latter criticism I attempted to predict the winner, suggesting that it would be Ivor Prickett’s photograph Amira and Her Children which would ultimately triumph because of its combination of topical relevancy and visual tropes common to many other winners of the competition.

So first of all I should say, I was totally wrong (it’s been known to happen). The first prize went instead to David Stewart’s photograph Five Girls 2014, which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s, an image which was also long listed for the prize in 2008. Perhaps Prickett’s photograph was too obvious to win, or perhaps someone has been reading my blog (I live in hope). In either case it still says something about the prize’s tendency towards self-referentialism that the jury should select a winner which is a reshoot of a photograph exhibited in the prize seven years before. Stewart’s winning photograph would have gained much from being displayed in the gallery alongside its predecessor, but perhaps this would have said rather too much about how little the Taylor Wessing prize dares to reward innovation.

Onwards then to the real purpose of this post, which is to look at the wider long list, a selection of images which can shed a little more light on the direction the prize might be taking than the shortlist of four photographs. In recent years however there has been less a sense of movement or direction with the prize, and rather one of inertia and I regret to say that this remains the case. The smattering of celebrity portraits which one encounters very soon after entering the gallery rather sets the tone. Examples include portraits of the actor Peter Capaldi by Paul Stuart, and of Barack and Michelle Obama by Gillian Laub. In some respects I wish the prize excluded these sorts of images entirely, since with rare exceptions celebrity portraits never seem penetrate beneath their subject’s well-rehearsed personas (I would say that Anoush Abrar’s portrait of Kofi Anan, shortlisted in 2013 is a notable exception to this).

This year I felt Tom Oldham’s photograph of the artists Gilbert and George was about the closest things got to an insightful celebrity portrait, but only by dint of photographing them from behind and hinting at the artists’s advancing age rather than doing battle with their carefully cultivated image. Another exception was Noriko Takasugi’s portrait of the artist Yayoi Kusama stands out for it’s boldness amongst the mostly drab colour palettes of other photographs on show (although perhaps a greater challenge for a photographer would be to take a drab portrait of Kusama). In this image the artist sits in front of a vibrant print emblazoned with a pumpkin, the vegetable’s shape a perfect match for Kusama’s pulsating bob of bright red hair. Judging by other portraits this pose is Kusama’s preferred one when being photographed, but the skilful composition means Takasugi manages to put her own mark on it.

The stronger photographs in the long list are perhaps inevitably those of ordinary, unrecognised people. Special mention should go to Kai Weidenhofer’s two photographs of children from his project Forty out of one million which explores the fate of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Bright eyed and looking curiously towards the camera, what pricks one is the realisation that they are all casualties, and two of them are missing limbs. One portraits shows two young girls, one of them a toddler, the fleshy skin of her upper leg pours over the top of the prosthetic, the foot of which is jammed into a tiny child’s wellington boot. The other girl, perhaps her sister, wears a pink leg brace which matches her hoodie. It’s a tragic image, but not one which is entirely devoid of hope. Birgit Püve’s portrait of Fagira D Morti from her project Estonian Documents was another strong and strange image which left me wanting to know much more, and this and Wiedenhofer’s photographs evidence a notable trend amongst this years longlist for images drawn from much larger documentary or artistic projects.

Despite the Evening Standard heralding a longlist of experimental ‘gems’, I found that in fact it disappointed once again because of the utter lack of experimentation or diversity. I’m a realist, I don’t expect the main prize to go to anything profoundly challenging, but as I’ve often said before it would be nice to see the longlist at least used to reflect a wider sense of what portraiture is. Rakesh Mohindra’s portrait tryptch Desmond is by far the most conceptual, combining a conventional portrait with a sheet of braille and a still life. Ines Dumig’s portrait, part of a series looking at the asylum process in Germany through the experiences of a young Somali woman, is another one which bucks the trend, turning the portrait on its head by masking her subject’s face in impenetrable shadow. These exceptions however are in a real minority, and there is nothing among them which is truly challenging in the way that I hope to see each year (for more on that see the end of 2013’s Taylor Wessing review).

The shocking shortage of innovation in the long list is absolutely not due to some inherent limitation of photography. Photography is transmuting itself out of all recognition at the moment, in ways which are variously terrifying and exciting, but the effects of which the Taylor Wessing prize seems either ignorant or indifferent to (or to be charitable to the jury, perhaps this is simply the only type of photography that gets submitted). Equally the idea that portraiture or the representation of the human form is as static a genre as these annual exhibitions would suggest is almost laughable when one looks at the way artists in other media have and continue to constantly reinvent both. Rather than visiting this exhibition and feeling that I am seeing the brightest and best of one strand of contemporary photography, my feeling instead is much the same as when I review some chapter in photography’s distant, historical past. Aha, that’s how they did this then. How charming…

(Critical transparency: exhibition seen with a press ticket during normal hours. I studied with Noriko Takasugi, although I was drawn to her photograph before I knew who it was by. I also briefly taught Ines Dumig. I have never entered or been otherwise involved with the prize.)