Spiking the War Primer

war primer 3 spiking the war primer

War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.

Artists Shrug: Other Realities Are Available

atlas and hercules

‘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.

A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

war primer 1 and 3

The 1998 Libris edition of War Primer (bottom) and the 2015 War Primer 3 dummy (top).

In response to a few requests I wrote a piece last week setting out how I start to think about and approach a new book project. I talked about the importance of considering whether a project is really suited to being a book, and then spent most of the piece discussing narrative and editing strategies that I’ve found have worked quite well when teaching. It might have seemed a little odd to give over so much of the post to discussing something which isn’t directly related to book design, but the way you construct a narrative from a series of photographs is I think the single most important thing about a book. Every other element can be amazing, but if the order of the images is vague, or worse, without any extractable meaning, then it’s all for nothing. As anyone will know who has ever been shown a very version of a project which still looked amazing, a book live and dies by the order of its pages and too many books labour over a beautiful design while being are willfully or accidentally obscure and arcane about their messages.

Assuming you’ve constructed a narrative that works for your subject, the next question for me is how I get this narrative to sit on the page, and what design details I incorporate to really try and pull the whole book towards the topic. For me a well-designed book is one where all the elements speak to the central topic, but not in a way which is flashy, over the top or distracting from the core subject. Naïve or clumsy design is one thing, far worse for me though is a book that’s been completely over-designed, to the extent that the photographs and other content are overwhelmed. If you’re looking to work with a designer I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t seem sympathetic or engaged with the subject or seems too eager to put their design signature on the finished book.

Once I’ve established a narrative the first thing I start to think about it layout. In truth often narrative and layout start to evolve and suggest each other at the same time so like many of the categories I’m talking about here this is something of an arbitrary distinction. I tend to use layouts structured around grids which is a somewhat rigid way to design but makes it far easier to be consistent through a book and to arrange things in a way which echo things on other pages. For example with Metropole a grid structure made it easy to have all the texts in the book echo the size and positioning of the cover title, a minor detail but an important one to the design. It also helped in lining up elements within some of the photographs.

At this stage the book will be starting to look pretty complete and I might start to think about any smaller elements that I might want to include in the book to tie together the design or theme. In The Camera Obscured I found that I wanted to leave quite a few blank pages but these looked a little odd, so I spent some time researching old printers marks looking for one which fitted the theme, until I found one shaped like the sun. I also felt the cover, which was text only at the time, needed something extra and spent some time researching old treatise on optics looking for decorative elements I could extract and use. Personally I think less is more with these details, and once again they always need to tie back in to what the book is ultimately about.

I’ve left fonts until last to mention, but in practice the choice of a particular font can occur at any point in a project. Personally I like to use fonts which have some echo of the central theme of the book but without that echo being overwhelmingly obvious. Sometimes I have one in mind even as I’m still shooting, at other times I spend hours searching through font databases looking for one with the right character. For Metropole I used Gill Sans Light for it’s slight art deco styling which I thought neatly echoed the origins of the book’s title. Sometimes the choice is defined more by practically and for Numbers in the Dark I knew there would be a great deal of text so I looked for an easy to read font that also had an echo of a computer or typewritten font. I eventually found what I wanted in one called Inconsolata.

I know there remain a host of topics I haven’t discussed, but I hope that the guiding principle of considering how each decision relates to the topic you want to talk about will answer many of these. I also know I’ve made it sound rather like a book can go from a scattering of photographs to a finished item in one easy draft. In practice it often takes many redrafts and revisions. Metropole is only thirty pages long and went through about six versions, and Numbers in the Dark has been through eight versions so far and is only just reaching a finished state. Whether you’re working on a ten page photocopied zine or a hundred page leather bound opus, take your time, think about every detail in relation to the topic and the book will reward you for it.

New Project – War Primer 3: Revised Edition

War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (16)

To mark sixty years since the original publication of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel I have drastically revised and updated my 2013 book War Primer 3, and republished it as a new e-edition.

War Primer 3 is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. In this unique examination of war and photography first published in 1955, Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind images of conflict through a series of short poems modeled on the funerial epigrams of the ancient world.

Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original text. While in some respects brilliant, in other ways Broomberg and Chanarin’s follow up was also deeply problematic. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of uncredited, unpaid workers in its production, things which seemed difficult to reconcile with Brecht’s politics.

In response to these concerns, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I reworked Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a work primer, a meditation on inequality, labour and capital. By restructuring the book around the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History, and adding new images and text, I sought to produce a small tribute to the unacknowledged workers who keep the engines of the world turning.

Producing this new revised edition has involved completely re-photographing a copy of War Primer 2 and using these images to build up a new, high resolution version of War Primer 3. Many of the spreads have been redesigned in the process, with different images used in order to explore the subject of inequality in more depth, and with more nuance. The e-book also includes a comparative section showing the evolution of War Primer across its three versions, and also a selection of essays on the project.

You can now download the e-book of War Primer 3 here.

You can also download a press release about War Primer 3 here.

  War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (18) War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (20)War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (17)

Ten Books Every Year: Self-Publishing and Print on Demand

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War Primer 3

For a while I’ve been meaning to sit down and pen a few thoughts on the subject of self-publishing, and specifically print on demand publishing. My hand has been forced a little by the appearance of a nice interview with the Artists Book Cooperative over on The Photographer’s Gallery blog. ABC’s members have pretty much written the book (excuse the pun) when it comes to this form of publishing and the interview does a great job of outlining many of the things that I think make print on demand books a powerful means of expression and dissemination for bibliophile photographers.

Still I have a few thoughts to add, on the practical and philosophical side, and also a few words of caution for anyone just starting to get into this, ways to maybe save a little time, money and heartache along the way. I’m by no means the most experienced self-publisher, but I am a fairly profligate book maker (you can see a few of them here) and over the past couple of years almost every book I’ve made has been done through print on demand publishers. I’m hooked on discovering all the possibilities this apparently rather restrictive form of publishing offers, and so here are a few of the things I’ve learnt so far.

The most obvious advantage of print on demand publishing is that you don’t need to find a traditional publisher. Experienced publishers can bring a huge amount of expertise and useful connections to a project, but not every project needs those resources or that scale of reach, and traditional publishers can equally be undermined by issues like their commercial considerations and slow production speeds. It’s also worth noting that some conventional publishers expect the photographer/author to invest substantially in the production of their book, which can rule this route out to many of us. While print on demand of course requires some financial investment, the amount you choose to invest is very scalable. I often just order a few copies of a book to start with until I can gauge how interested people seem to be in it. Once I think I can shift a few I scale up the order, maybe to ten, maybe to a hundred.

These low costs and this flexibility and speed of ordering has lots of advantages. For example you can order multiple drafts of a book before you settle on the final design, with no need to rely on an inaccurate dummy or an electronic version to judge your design before sending it for final printing. Equally you can feel free to experiment and rework these drafts by hand, sticking in inserts, customizing covers, even cutting out or pasting in whole sections of the book. The fast speed of print on demand production also makes it very nimble compared to other forms of publishing. For example with War Primer 3 I produced the content in a week, designed the book in a few hours and had a copy of it on my desk about a week after that. This is amazing when the book you’re making relates to a current issue that you want to respond to as quickly as possible.

One of the things that I particularly like about print on demand is that there’s not much danger of getting bogged down in the material faff of book making. I love beautiful books, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened a fantastically produced photo book and found the content utterly underwhelming. Print on demand books tend to be rough and ready and while many printers offer premium features they often aren’t worth the money (and in any case can never compete with the quality of a well-produced bespoke book). As far as I’m concerned content is king, and the material simplicity of print on demand books push the photographs and text to center stage and minimise the distraction and fetishisation of their container.

I hear two common criticisms of print on demand that I’d like to both partly acknowledge, and also to some extent disavow. The first is that print on demand can be pretty expensive particularly as books get bigger and more complex. This is completely true, particularly if you start including premium features. That said it can also be astoundingly cheap. One of my books The Camera Obscured, costs so little to produce that I sometimes give copies away as a sort of expanded business card. The book format I use for it is really intended for text publications, not photographs, but when used for the right project and with a bit of tweaking it works just as well as a much more expensive format aimed specifically at photographers. This reflects a truism about all print on demand, that often the most obvious book format for a project isn’t the best one, and you’ll really be rewarded for taking your time and experimenting with different options.

The second criticism is that of quality, which unsurprisingly tends to be lower than you might find in a bespoke self-published or professionally published book. Things like printing and cutting consistency can be quite variable from publisher to publisher, and from print run to print run. This is just something you have to keep an eye out for and have a slightly philosophical attitude towards. Usually you might be the only person who’s going to notice a defect, but I’ve also found that printers are usually very willing to replace books with even rather minor printing defects without quibbling. When you think of the scale these companies work at, printing ten books gratis to keep a customer happy is probably nothing to them.

These limitations just have to be kept in mind when you’re designing a book project for print on demand publication. While it’s not always ideal to have to alter your project to suit the format you’re going to be putting it into we do this more often than we might acknowledge, whether in cropping a photograph to fit a magazine page or down-scaling the quality for web display. I think it is significant that I often hear these criticism from people who seem to want to use print on demand in the same way they would hope to use a traditional book publisher. It frustrates me a little that people often see self-publishing in general as little more than a springboard to recognition from a traditional publisher, it’s less readily acknowledged that it can be a totally legitimate end point in itself (although that has certainly improved in recent years).

Make no mistake, print on demand publishing is as much a vanity project as conventional photo book publishing, but it also has the potential to be much more interesting. Freed from the pressure to be commercially appealing, print on demand books can be very funny, subversive, and reactive. Conventional wisdom often seems to be that photo books are almost like holy objects, which the photographer must sweat and slave over years, producing perhaps one book every decade. I say forget the conventional wisdom. You learn by doing, and when print on demand books are as cheap and readily accessible as they are now there’s no reason not to embrace them.

Don’t make a book every ten years, make ten books every year.

Open Source Self-Publishing

war-primer-3-1

After what was initially a great response to my launch of War Primer 3: Work Primer last week I hit up against a bit of a wall. The project had at first spread reasonably far by word of mouth, with the book notching up two thousand views on Issuu in a day, pretty good going for a work which undoubtedly has quite narrow appeal. However going beyond this it has proved really difficult to get any photography or visual culture titles and websites to show any interest in the work, or to persuade them to write even a short piece on the book and the issues of artistic appropriation and exploitative labour practices that spawned it (you can read more about these topics here.)

For a while I wondered why. Perhaps it’s because they just see the project as rather mundane, it is after all, a derivative of a derivative. On the other hand perhaps it’s too controversial, maybe writers and editors don’t want to risk souring their connections to influential individuals and institutions by running a piece on it. Maybe none of them even bothered to read my messages. Either way dozens of e-mails and tweets to publications big and small have met with only a handful of responses, and only two sites to date having the balls to actually run it.

Increasingly frustrated I started turning to the photographic community for advice, initially just for suggestions for magazines and sites that might show some interest in the work. However I got more than I bargained for when Andreas Schmidt suggested making War Primer 3 an open source photo book. His idea was to encourage people to download the PDF of War Primer 3 from my website, and then print their own version through print on demand publishers like Blurb.com and Lulu.com, and to sell their new copies of the book via online stores. The only restriction being that the new printed versions should be sold at production cost, not for profit.

I love this idea because as well as being an answer to the problem of how to more widely distribute War Primer 3, it adds to the project on several levels. The book was already about the issue of appropriation and reuse, so the idea of people appropriating my appropriation to produce a series of ramshackle bootlegs seems like a wonderfully logical one. Hopefully it encourages some wider ownership of the work, beyond the limited edition books of Broomberg and Chanarin, and even beyond the unlimited digital edition of my iteration.

It could also be really interesting because as Schmidt pointed out the lack of standardisation and the variety of paper and format choices available through print on demand publishers mean that each new version of War Primer 3 printed in this way will most likely be a unique edition. There could ultimately be dozens or hundreds of different version of this book floating around, from big, expensive colour hard back editions, to small, black and white pocket books printed on cheap paperback grade paper. Participants could also alter the book more profoundly, for example playing with the page ordering, or adding new images or text as Schmidt has with his version War Primer 38.

So if you’re tempted please download, upload and print away the PDF of the book can be got by clicking here or you can download the book as a set of high res jpegs here. Then it’s just a case of laying the book out in whatever design software you use (for example Indesign or Blurb’s own Booksmart software) exporting and uploading the new book ready to print through the site of your choice. I’d love it if anyone who does so can send me links, either to their version of the book in an online store, or better still photographs of a printed version, and I’ll compile a list of places selling it and photographs of the different ‘editions’, a library in effect of a single book.

I’m off for a holiday in the middle of nowhere for a few days now where I will be writing away ready to return to the usual schedule of critical writing from next Monday.

War Primer 3: Work Primer

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I know Monday is usually the day I post a bit of critical writing and so I apologise to anyone (if anyone) waiting on tenterhooks for this. I just wanted to share something I’ve been working on over the last few days, in response to the issues raised by many interesting conversations about the value of photographic appropriation, exploitative intern use in the art world, and the worthiness of this year’s Deutsche Börse prize winner.

War Primer 3: Work Primer is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Deutsche Börse winning War Primer 2 (2011) itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfibel. In this unique exploration of photography and conflict Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind Second World War photographs with short poems modeled on the funeral epigrams of the ancient world. Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book, by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original texts.

While brilliant in some respects, Broomberg and Chanarin’s followup was also deeply problematic, for a variety of reasons some of which I have outlined in my review here. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of unpaid, uncredited intern labour in its production, both things Brecht would most likely have baulked at.

In response to this, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I have reworked the digital edition of Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a ‘work primer’ on economics and labour, past and present, at home and abroad. To do this I have replaced Brecht’s original epigrams with text from his poem A Worker Reads Historya meditation on history’s forgotten, and reordered the pages of the book to loosely match the words of the poem. To these pages I have added new text and images. The result is a small tribute to the forgotten of today, the unacknowledged workers, labourers, and slaves that keep the engine of the world, even the fine art world, turning.

More on the project here.