Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – a report from 10 & 11 October 2008

As blog mechanisms usually load up the most recent post first, so I have chosen to write this report in a manner to reflect that: to report backwards through a packed two-day conference at Tate Modern, centred on the idea of the landmark exhibition.

Fittingly, Saturday ended with Reesa Greenberg on memory as replica, riff and reprise, and a call for greater use of the internet to act as a repository for archival information about exhibitions. She spoke of ideal metasites where the wealth of digital information could be collected and stored, and I was mindful of the words I would write here as another layer in her idea of a public rather than private vault.

Twinned with this was Walter Grasskamp’s presentation about the various documentary strategies for Documenta and Münster sculpture projects, and the separate ability of each project to include their own histories within their displays. His memories of discovering filing cabinets full of non-annotated material at Documenta were evocative, particularly so when he described the journey of a single unnamed photograph. Able to identify the year and position of the photographer by means of the painting visible in the frame, it was only on publication that the person behind the camera – Hans Haacke – came to be known. Haacke was the conference’s own riff.

Preceding this session was a discussion of the biennial as a landmark phenomenon, chaired by Sebastián López. Chin-tao Wu’s stark graphical representations of the power implications of the biennial according to nationality and residence (and as a bonus slide, gender), helped to sharpen ideas about globalisation in international exhibitions, international curators and the locality of a biennial’s site. Recalling the development of the biennial from the earliest biennale ‘mama’ (Venice, of course), Carlos Basualdo suggested a return to the origins of the biennial to provide a clearer sense of where we find ourselves today. In her comments, Lynne Cooke reminded us of the unique perspective of each biennial, suggesting the Sydney biennial or Carnegie international to illustrate her point. The breadth and depth of this panel was extraordinary – each response to a question from the floor was met with many examples from actual experience. During the discussion I was distracted by the idea of ‘elsewhereness’: how ‘elsewhere’ can become is a criteria in its own right. I kept retracing Chin-tao’s graphs.

The entire morning session on Saturday was devoted to Lucy Lippard, introduced by Teresa Gleadowe. Adamant of her status as writer (even her self-titled ‘compiler’) rather than curator, Lippard nonetheless spoke of her close relationships with artists and exhibition-making. She described how her exhibitions were a response to a particular situation, often a political situation – this is the continuum between the 1969-74 ‘number’ projects in which she has been involved, but includes the 2007 exhibition Weather Report: Art & Climate Change at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. I was interested in her roots: a photo of herself when she was working within the library at MoMA was another of this conference’s representations of personal histories that formed a continuum between the speakers. It was here where she talked of the idea of the suitcase exhibition – one that could easily be packed up and shipped out for display elsewhere. Her later c7500 show was, she says, almost a suitcase show, centered on women in conceptualism. She made particular mention that it was rare for curators to travel with their exhibitions – this was quite a contrast to the ease with which the idea of curating on a global scale was to be discussed later that afternoon.

The previous day’s sessions concluded with Koen Brams’ detailed contextualisation of Jef Counelis’ 1960s film of Daniel Buren. This archival film was the focus for widening ripples of influence and interrelationship, of carefully constructed and deconstructed representation.

Daniel Buren, Linda Morris and Guy Brett were the preceding panel. Chaired by Chris Dercon, I watched the audience shift towards the edge of their seats. For me, Buren’s presentation captured something of the tautness of his work, stretched around, between and in front of the frame of the institution: it was seamless and provocative. I noted his line: “Inside the museum you are very free, outside it’s a different story.” Linda Morris’s presentation on the relationship between museums and dealers pinpointed something of another ‘different story’: her call for an analysis of these relationships as the basis for curatorial study refreshingly shifted a focus to a very relevant market-related subject. Guy Brett’s reflection on the ephemera of the exhibition was also a call, this time for the stories of memory and experience.

Immateriality continued in the day’s second session, centred on Les Immatériaux (an acknowledged landmark exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985). John Rajchman spoke of the freedom that this exhibition gained from the history of art and a critical theory, enabled by a new relationship with philosophy. Reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre, Nathalie Heinich talked about the exhibition’s innovations, particularly the survey, which she pioneered using sociological methodologies. Throughout this series of presentations, Les Immatériaux’s catalogue – or album – was referred to in its capacity as re-orderable sheaf of information. Also I recall Heinich’s explanation of the audio-guide as an epitome of innovation and the unfamiliar: the guide was triggered by a visitor’s movement, but most visitors wouldn’t move until the guide started… I imagined a gallery entrance clogged with bewildered headphone wearers, shuffling the loose leaves of the catalogue. In Suely Rolnick’s focus on Cildo Meireles' Red Shift, there was an intentional sense of a loss of reference through the seemingly illogical progression through this particular work – a personal experience acting as metaphor for a political meaning. The discussion, led by Anthony Hudek, worked around the lessons of Les Immatériaux, not only in the way it existed in its own right, but also the legacy of debate triggered by its activities.

Hans Haacke began the day with a photograph of a red rose – saturating the screen of the famously red Starr auditorium. Pervasive in his presentation was the remark that art is produced in a 'continual social universe'. Haacke’s rigorous research is evident in the confidence with which he articulated the continuing contexts for his work. His keynote paper and conversation with Tate curator Achim Borchardt-Hume set a tone for the two days of good humour, openness, challenge and change.

And so to the beginning. Nicholas Serota’s introduction touched on the way in which the definition of exhibitions and curators have moved away from traditional meanings. It was another riff for the conference: the ability of exhibitions – and those who make them – to deal with a constantly changing (and broadening) context, and ways with which we can recall the importance of those moments of shift.

Landmarks are something we steer by, and this conference went some way to helping provide a map. Or, at least a key by how we might be able to recognise a landmark when we encounter it: a tricky thing to do without a historical perspective. Which of our landmarks will endure?
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968

Hans Haake (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Welcome to a new contributor Oli Harris, a London Consortium student, who was at the Tate's symposium Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968 to cover the first day of the two-day event for The Forum.

When does an exhibition become a landmark? Well, if people are still talking about it twenty-three years later, the chances are it deserves some historical reckoning. Jean-François Lyotard’s and Thierry Chaput’s 1985 exhibition for the Pompidou Centre, Les immatériaux, dominated the first morning of the Tate’s symposium. It has enjoyed a recent resurgence of interest – a ‘reactivation’ in John Lajchman’s words -and it is easy to see why.

Les immatériaux is perfect for those building a history of the exhibition as intellectual discourse, and the curator as auteur. Lyotard attempted to engineer an unapologetically philosophical experience. He chose Les Immatériaux as a tool with which to bring visitors ‘into the dramaturgy of postmodernism’, throwing together signs, sounds and technological artefacts as part of a bewildering display. Visitors were left with no clear route to follow. They wore headphones through which the voices of leading theorists provided a counterpoint to the visual exhibits. Guide sheets were unbound so you could shuffle them, guided tours replaced by group discussions outside the exhibition. ‘The exhibition is exhibiting itself,’ in the words of one excited commentator.

So Les immatériaux was a landmark, but was it any good? Whether it hung together internally seemed less certain by the end of the morning’s session, with Nathalie Heinich conceding how badly some of its concepts had aged. In retrospect, the following year’s less showy ‘Vienna, Birth of a Century’, proved the more ground-breaking exhibition. Les immatériaux could be seen as merely a logical extension of the Centre Pompidou’s own multi-media ambitions - and its labyrinthine structure. ‘Good for those with a cultural frame with which to orientate themselves; disorientating for the uninitiated.’

Nathalie Heinich (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)

One of the biggest problems, it seems, were the headphones, which just confused most visitors. From what I could gather, these picked up short-wave signals according to where the visitor moved – a piece of technology that brought back fond memories of Rock Circus, Madame Tussaud’s ill-fated, musical spin-off. Visitors to Rock Circus were also given headphones, which operated on identical principles to Lyotard’s - a thought-provoking chain of influence to research.

The Centre Pompidou inspired Jean Baudrillard’s essay on the ‘Beaubourg Effect’, his vision of a museum-world of endlessly reproduced simulacra. John Rajchman suggests that the ‘Beaubourg effect’ has been well and truly superseded by ‘the Bilbao effect’. Bilbao stands for the very real way in which contemporary art can make an impact on the world – if not by its content or message, then by its sheer existence within a glittering new institution. As a tool of urban redevelopment, art still lends immense geographical status, as it has long leant status to corporations and brands.

John Rajchman (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Hans Haacke touched upon the recent use of biennales as a political statement in Johannesburg and Guangiu, South Korea. The issue of ‘artistic capital’ and its exploitation proved to be the theme for Haacke’s retrospective talk, as it has been for much of his career. Haacke led us from the 1959 Documenta exhibition, in which he was the unwitting pawn in Cold War culture wars, to the day’s symposium itself, in a museum whose ambitions are unimaginable without corporate funding. [See Martine’s post on 23/5/08: ‘Why has ‘commodity’ become a dirty word?’ ] Haacke conceded, however, that institutions were in a bind, dependent upon more funding than they would ever receive through public channels.

Talk of the US’s use of Abstract Expressionism as an unthreatening symbol of political freedom made me wonder how safe and apolitical much British conceptual art is today – and how convenient this might be for collectors. Haacke spoke of his 1984 show at what was then the Tate Gallery, in which a Victorian-style portrait of Thatcher incorporated a list of Saatchi & Saatchi advertising accounts. Among these were the Conservative Party and the South African Nationalist Party. The piece may or may not have had something to do with Charles Saatchi resigning his position on the museum’s Patrons of New Art Committee one month after the show’s opening.

There is something crucial missing in current narratives of contemporary art, Lynda Morris argued: the role of the dealer. Morris placed this traditionally shadowy figure at the centre of conceptual art’s development. Using an impressive array of statistics, drawn from research conducted by the late Sophie Richard, she sought to demonstrate that between 1967 and 1977 galleries were less concerned about which artists they were buying, than by who they were buying from. Konrad Fischer looms largest, an artist-dealer-curator responsible for 31 percent of the conceptual art sold to public galleries in Northern Europe at one point. Though not that financially successful himself, his sales to other dealers, and the shows he curated, paved the way. Morris: ‘We urgently need more study of how contemporary art accrues value’.

Conceptual art is surprisingly expensive, she argued. Conceptual Art was also the first movement since 1945 in which US and European artists were treated equally. Figures like Fischer connected Europe and the States, establishing the prices of radical artists across continents.
Lynda Morris, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)
Here’s one theory: the dealer becomes more important in proportion to the experimental nature of works. As the artistic value of a piece becomes less clear to those outside the scene, dealers step in as essential guarantors of financial worth. The rise of Conceptual Art occurred at a time when the experiments of a previous artistic generation began to fetch serious prices. ‘Difficulty’ was now an indubitable sign of modernist credentials. But the more works challenged the boundaries of gallery and museum, the more an intermediary figure was needed for all those collectors who saw investment potential but had no idea which was the right installation etc to buy. Some conceptual art is expensive, as Morris’s survey showed, but it is a tiny fraction. Who decides this fraction?

...Since 1968’. The year loomed large over these discussions. How could artists exhibit in an institution, when art was a weapon to bring institutions down? Daniel Buren provided a breath of fresh air, as his witty minimalism has done for four decades. His ‘what is this “institution”?’ sounded like the most radical question of the day. As Buren points out, they wanted change in the art world and things did change. It can feel like some in the art world have been fighting for so long they’ve forgotten what they were originally up against. The symposium highlighted a masochistic loop - a very restricted loop – that sees the art world enjoy flagellating itself over its own success.

Daniel Buren, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)

Buren has a history of side-stepping complacent idealism. He was careful to note that after the 1971 Guggenheim International, in which he was asked to remove his 65 by 32 foot banner with trademark stripes, he declined the assistance of various ‘anti-establishment’ art collectives, as he didn’t subscribe to their agenda. The banner was intended to bisect the architectural space of Wright’s museum interior. An inoffensive work in itself, it turns out the controversy was stirred up, not by curators, but by Donald Judd and Don Flavin, who felt it interfered with their own displays. It was a US/French stand-off that still rankles, if the tone of a recent New York Times review is anything to go by.

Text by Oli Harris
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Transatlantic Art Conversation: A Serial Discussion

Noah Purifoy's place, Joshua Tree, Inland Empire,
All photos © Miranda Gavin 2007

In what will become a series of free-form conversations, I'm hoping to take some discussions further afield and use cyberspace to connect across continents with artists of all persuasions and backgrounds.

For the first in the series, I would like to welcome Johnette Napolitano to The Forum. Johnette was the lead singer and bass player for LA bands Concrete Blonde and Pretty & Twisted (with the late Marc Moreland of Wall of Voodoo). She is currently a collaborator in the UK group Catfish Scar. Johnette composes music for films, is an environmental artist having studied in Mexico with Juan Quezada, and has also studied Flamenco dancing and singing in Spain.

Johnette, I’m just going to start with a quick fire succession of questions. Feel free to Answer, Ditch or use as a Springboard. I guess what would be interesting is your take on the street art situation in Los Angeles. First, what does Street Art mean to you? Is it Public Art? What about tagging and graffiti? And, is something lost in the transition from the street to the gallery when work is decontextualised?

I'm from LA which has a long urban history of public art that I attribute to the Mexicans, the original Californians...the first street in Los Angeles, Olvera Street, has a mural by one of the most important Mexican artists in history David Alfaro Sequiros. It was whitewashed back in the day for political content. It's more popular knowledge now that Diego and Frida Kahlo Rivera were just as well known for pissing off people with their art as they were for the art itself, probably more so.

The first thing that comes to my mind before anything is preservation and the way they've built a glass dome over Old Las Vegas, as if the whole world's about to blow like in a Ben Elton novel and we're designating biospheres and now 'culturespheres'. Art is always a matter of taste, so right away you're bound to have a problem.

They just busted somebody out here in the desert for tagging the Coachella Music Festival. For the last few years, the guy put it all up on YOUTUBE. Ah! vanity, my favorite sin. He owes lots and lots of money for damages… You know, there are so many reasons why street art exists, it really would be a regional study, and depend very much on the local history. Street art has been downright necessary and downright a nuisance, but there you have it, it’s the perception thing. Like a tattoo is a badge, a symbol of a tribe; a 'tag' was marking territory.

What about the readymade type found art that you showed me in Joshua Tree, Inland Empire, California? Is the definition of the work to do with the location of the work or is it about an attitude? Why do people create this type of work?
Now you bring up Noah Purifoy's place out here in Joshua Tree. There’s two acres of a man's vision. Again, it’s a matter of taste. I would take Noah's over any museum in the world; but to others it's junk. Nowadays outsider art and reclaimed art are more mainstream. Today you can find Howard Finster's work in galleries... and it's great. I'll bet that walking through his place in Athens, Georgia, is even more amazing, but how many people will have that opportunity? I remember a discussion with someone I was working with once and they had issues with the internet and art, virtual tours of the Louvre, etc...

Of course, immediately, I remembered when we were at The Louvre and what was much more interesting than the postage-stamp sized Mona Lisa were the surrounding throngs, gawking, and flashing their cameras... ouch! The Mona Lisa is pretty much better on any postcard than in person. So you have to concede that seeing anything.... even a penguin, for that matter in its natural habitat would be a whole different thing than seeing it in a zoo. Then again, you have a panda or a polar bear or platypus and you are lucky to see it at all, we just have to accept where we are in whatever cycle we're in. I thought that was elitist. If a kid sees a piece of art on the internet, and in fact that is the only chance in his life he will get to see it at all, I will be very grateful. Art, being organic, is threatened, like everything else organic. Because human beings are organic. So far, except for a few tits here and there. Which are also Art. So there we go…

Finally, can you tell me a little about your work Saints & Crosses which will be on show next month in California?

This is work in wood and tin. I’ll be shooting and describing some of the pieces online so if you don’t live out this way and are interested you can view. If you visit the gallery over the course of the month bring a photo of a loved one for the Dio de los Muertos altar. Nothing irreplaceable, obviously. Live flamenco music and dance, and the gallery features a biodiesel station in the back,"

Johnette will be exhibiting this work at Art Queen, Joshua Tree, Inland Empire, CA on 4 October at 20:00.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Photography and Film

Photography © Kevin Linnett

Katherine Leedale, a participant in the no.w.here Photography in Film & Film in Photography workshop, displays the piece she developed over the 2-week course.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taking the street out of Street Art: Part 2

Photo credit: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Photo credits, all above: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Thanks to JJ from Art Review for allowing us to post the photos he used in his presentation at the Tate's Collecting Street Art talk (see earlier posts). Since the talk, I keep coming across street art, for example, the work below which is outside the National Union of Journalists HQ in King's Cross. The woman working on the reception desk of the offices where it is located wondered if it was a Bansky (I said that it was very unlikely as he uses a stencil technique). She then added that she watches people who are walking by and a lot of them stop to look at the work more closely. Later, she sees them smiling or chuckling to themselves. Now that's what I call fun.

By the way, who is the artist and are there any more works like this around?

Photo credit, above: Miranda Gavin, 2008

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Streets are not safe

Street Art
Installation View 2
2008© Tate Photography

Can the art that was commissioned by Tate Modern to adorn the river facade of the building displayed until the 25th of August be considered “street art”? Well, it's not in the street, it's not the result of a spontaneous initiative, it didn't appear overnight without permission. The works might have been assembled under the name Street Art, but that's just the title of an exhibition of murals from artists who have been known to paint in the streets but who are also represented by galleries and make a living out of painting on more market-friendly surfaces than walls. This is certainly not an invitation to urban artists to use the walls of the Tate as a wall of fame.

Pure Evil summed it up best – as you would expect from pure evil – during the talk on Collecting Street Art: When street art is not in the street, it's just art. Is the Tate perhaps hoping to attract a new audience or to appear more dynamic and open to all cultures by creating a somewhat contrived association with counter-culture? read more

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Performance Art

Cy Twombly Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina), 1985. Cy Twombly Collection © Cy Twombly.

As I recently wandered around the Cy Twombly retrospective, my eye was caught by a series of 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea. Executed on small squares of white paper whilst Twombly was staying in Sperlonga, a tiny fishing village perched on the coast between Rome and Naples, these works are at once drawings, poems, and, it seemed to me, musical scores. Numbers march at intervals across the surface of the drawings – you can almost imagine the artist beating in time as he put them down – ‘one, two, three, four – five.’ Horizon lines merge into stave lines. Splodges of plaster and accented pencil marks – whilst conjuring up waves and spray – become a score for their own performance.

The Theatre Of Possibilities, a concert held last week by the Almeida Ensemble directed by Richard Bernas, brilliantly complemented the drama and musicality of Twombly’s works. As Tom Service observed on the Guardian blog, this was no mere shoe-in to coincide with the exhibition. Instead, it opened up an illuminating perspective on Twombly’s performative mode of working, aptly summarised in Bernas’ programme notes by a quote from the New York critic Harold Rosenberg, made in 1952: “at a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act… what does on to the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

The importance of music for Twombly, and the extent to which it has influenced his painterly vocabulary, was clearly evidenced by the evening’s programme. It opened with a recording of Voile d’Orphee by Pierre Henry, a pioneer of electronic composition, which, with its complex textures and classical allusions, forms a musical correlative of Twombly’s painterly technique. Two songs by John Cage, who was with Twombly at Black Mountain College between 1951-52, followed; Experiences 2 and The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs, which both transpose modernist texts (by e.e.cummings and James Joyce respectively) into unaccompanied folksong arrangements for the voice, whilst the evening ended with Monteverdi’s Combattimento, performed with relish and gusto by the Mezzo-Soprano Sally Burgess.

A particular highlight was John Cage’s Fourteen, an orchestral late work imaginatively staged at the Almeida (for what was, incidentally, its European premier) by Ellie Rees, with the musicians positioned between a fretwork of cables. As part of the piece, Bernas delicately threaded fishing wire into the bowels of a grand piano and slowly scraped it across the steel strings, to emit an almost continuous frail keening sound. The noise, according to him, is akin to ‘strangling a hamster’ – but at least you know the hamster dying a ‘slow but interesting death.’

The timings and tensions of Fourteen make for a listening experience during which you become intensely attuned to the moment of enactment. Twombly has said of his technique “each line is now the actual experience with its own history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realisation.” This sensation of realisation is apparent in Fourteen as it is in Poems to the Sea.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Taking the street out of Street Art: Part 1

There are some clear no-nos when chairing a talk and wearing shorts (call me old fashioned) is one of them, whether you are male or female. Unless there's a point in drawing attention to your legs, it just distracts from the conversation. I couldn’t help it. I was sitting in the front row of the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern trying to keep focused on the guests (who were either wearing jeans or were suited and booted) but the expanse of leg flesh revealed by the moderator, who was sandwiched between the four speakers, two on either side, kept commanding my attention.

Shaved or waxed? I wondered as I also surveyed the way her flesh puckered up when pressed against the seat of the chair - it was a salient reminder of how one can be blissfully unaware of how one is seen, especially when seen from a different vantage point. In this case, the stage is raised so that the front row have to look up... Once, when I was waitressing in Shaftesbury Avenue, London while studying for a degree in photography, a male customer, kindly and bravely, pointed out to me that there was a long red cord dangling between my legs. Horrified, I rushed to the bathroom only to find that the red thread detail on my knickers had started to unravel. I was wearing a very short black suede miniskirt. What’s more, I imagined that the customer may have thought it was a bloodied tampon thread but decided that over explanation would just make an already highly embarrassing moment worse.

The second no-no is running forty-five minutes over time. Please, please, moderators/chairs - whatever the preferred term - try and keep to time. This means guiding and reigning in the speakers so that they know exactly how long they have been allotted and keeping to it. People leaving a packed auditorium after an hour because they have to be somewhere else is also distracting. I’m no Derren Brown but unless I am completely inept at reading body language, it was clear from about 15-20 minutes into the Collecting street art talk that this was a cause for concern – regular glances at the clock at the back of the auditorium, pulling of skin on neck and general signs of unease. If there are more than say two speakers, why not extend the talks and make them an hour and a half instead?
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Conversation with the Dead

Still from The Last Silent Movie. Susan Hiller, 2007. Courtesy of Matt's Gallery.

Languages are our most common, yet our most complex and coded
mode of communication. Some, such as English, are used by many people the world over and others are secret or extinct, decimated with the people who had knowledge of them. Susan Hiller's work tends to explore the latter, often via various forms of recording technologies. In the past, she has taken interest in all manners of strangeness, including horror films, UFO sightings and near death experiences. Yet, in conversation with fellow artist and curator Richard Grayson at Tate Modern for the last of this season's Talking Arts series, she explains that her interest in the otherworldly occurrences is not scientific or ironic, rather it stems from a curiosity for what can be experienced, felt, believed in and yet evades explanation.

Although The Last Silent Movie, her current exhibition at Matt's Gallery
might appear to be somewhat different, it is still very much focused on documenting and allowing the audience to witness what has disappeared. Indeed, it focuses on a series of recordings of 25 languages that endangered or have disappeared altogether. Ranging from crackling songs to rhythmic incantations and whistles, the sounds are accompanied by their translation, when available, as subtitles on an otherwise black screen. Comanche, Welsh Romany, Cajun all sound wildly different but speak of a same underwritten history, that of the people who are not alive anymore to tell their story. Indeed, there is something otherworldly and touching about the fact that the voices we hear belong to the dead and that Hiller found the recordings, meant to preserve the dialects in the silence and isolation of anthropological archives.
There is an uncanny synchronicity between the effect of these disembodied voices and some of the documentary photographic images that can be seen at Tate Modern this Summer as part of the Street & Studio: an Urban History of Photography exhibition. Both photography and sound recordings are traces of what once was. The light refracting off a particular scene that might have taken place more than a century ago made it possible for us to see particular representation of it now. The sound waves emitted by a man singing about a cricket in a language that nobody speaks anymore allows us to hear him today, long after his death. There is something particular about the possibility to access the past in the present time that is unique to recording technologies whether they are ancient or the latest development. Just like language, it is a highly coded experience: we know that the person we hear or see is not there, we realise how the technology works. Although it might not be seen as a full fledged language, it is a form of communication, a way for the dead and the forgotten to reassert their existence in the present.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Public Partnership

I picked up a couple of useful pointers during Friday’s Street Art talk. First of all: if you’re ever seized with sudden yen to slap a subversive poster on a billboard, tape over a road sign, rip up a few paving slabs or set fire to a CCTV camera, hang fire until Sunday morning. According to Brad Downey, one of the two artists speaking, this is the prime time for committing acts of street art when you can get away with pretty much anything. Secondly, if the police happen to take issue with whatever you’re doing – even if it is a Sunday – then don’t, whatever you do, run. Instead, ‘tell the truth; tell them what you’re doing’, and they’re more likely to laugh than arrest. This from Mustafa Hulusi, the other artist present, seconded by Downey, who attested to his experience in this area with his opening gambit: ‘Hi, I’m Brad Downey, and I’ve been arrested seven times for making sculpture.’ (Although this statement goes some way to indicate that however charmingly you explain yourself the police will still arrest you. But then, perhaps Downey’s art just wasn’t their thing).

Apart from dispensing practical advice, the talk, guided by the curators of the Street Art exhibition currently emblazoned across the ex-power station’s flank, revolved around the experiences that Downey and Hulusi have had when engaged in ‘subverting the public sphere.’ Hulusi, who now has a flourishing fine-art practice, regaled us with an entertaining account of how, graduating from Goldsmiths in the early 1990’s and facing the bleak realities of the job market, he took a job with a flyposting outfit. Having been fascinated by the ‘world of images’ and posters during his degree, Hulusi now found himself appropriately embroiled in an industry which contributed directly, in its nebulously illegal fashion, to the daily construction and deconstruction of London’s visual make-up. Good as the money was, the job had its downsides: namely, coming into violent conflict with an angry competitor who wanted Hulusi off his patch, and a serious encounter with the Belgium Police, who did not merely arrest Hulusi but interrogated him on suspicion of terrorism.

Like Hulusi, Downey has come into his fare share of conflicts when venturing into the public sphere with subversion in heart and mind. He showed a series of videos that followed him on his quest through the streets of various metropolises to ‘make the biggest piece of vandalism but make it as happy as possible.’ I found Downey’s express aim to use whatever the street provides to make a monument – ‘coming with nothing, leaving something’ – the most appealing aspect of his work. He feels there ‘is already enough information’ on the streets; the challenge lies in ‘shifting it around’, refiguring what is there so that people look afresh. One piece, created in East Berlin on a crisp Sunday morning, sees Downey taking a crowbar and prising up a step-pattern of grey flagstones, as dour communist architecture bristles all around him. He lines the slabs up at right angles to the spaces they have left in the pavement to create a Carl Andre-esque arrangement – then, as he walks away, tips the nearest one over so they cannon into each other like dominoes.

But here’s the rub: visually arresting and conceptually interesting though the sculpture was, I couldn’t help worrying about someone falling over it on the way to the shops. I put that out there in the full knowledge that it makes me sound like a hopeless reactionary: however, health and safety issues aside, street art, and the artists who make it, need to answer the challenge of who has the right to put what where. Not especially a legal right in any strict sense of the word, but rather the ‘rights’ of the other people who use the public space. If you’re operating so explicitly in the public sphere, is it important to temper your own wishes with a consideration of how the other people using the space might feel about the works that suddenly appear in it? Or are such considerations not only irrelevant but impossible to determine? As Downey and Hulusi’s experiences demonstrate, the arena of street art is a contested one. The art itself feeds off this, and rather than avoiding such questions, often seems to court them openly.

A response to this was what the title of Friday’s talk ‘Public Space: who’s it for’ seemed to promise. Potentially, the conversation between Downey and Hulusi – a practicing street artist and an artist who has frequently insinuated words and images into the public domain – could have generated a fruitful interrogation of then issues attendant on art in public spaces. Yet although the talk touched on them, it floated along on top of the artists’ experience without making any wider connections, or joining up the points made between them. Hulusi did begin to do this when he talked of the need to ‘determine what is a public space’ and decide ‘what do you want to do with your public spaces’, opening up the possibility of street art as an antidote to the shabbiness of much visual data displayed on our streets. He pointed out a little-known fact that over 80% of the billboards around London are actually illegal, clinging to the edge of buildings without proper planning permission. Which gets you thinking: if the adverts are as illegal as the art, well, we might at least have something interesting to look at…

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film in photography and photography in film

Photography in film and film in photography workshop ; a journey in two parts led by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler of No.w.here

The relationship between the still and the moving image has never been a simple or linear one. It is not that the invention of photography at point A led slowly but inexorably to point B where cinematic moving film was invented at which point (um, C?) the two happily travelled along parallel tracks. Some of the earliest photographic experimental works by Eadweard Muybridge were dedicated to capturing movement – of horses and dancers, frozen but animated, held in a tension between the static and the kinetic and also between the world of art and science.

Later the two media began to feed off one another. The lush and carefully staged cinematography of American Beauty appears to both have borrowed from and strengthened the eerie suburban mythology which Gregory Crewdson represents in his large-scale, large-crew works.
Cindy Sherman has also borrowed extensively from that culturally recognisable language of feature films to create her series of still self-portraits. Sherman was invoked a lot over the course of these two days of exploring the relationship between film and photography. She featured as the patron goddess of genre-stretching in the discussion on the first day – the day in which we watched a boggling array of works which examined, tested, and inevitably, questioned the validity of a distinction between the two forms. She was name-checked in the commentary on a series of still portraits on the second day – the show day in which participants demonstrated works made especially for the workshop or which were part of an ongoing interest in a particular aspect of one of the two media. One of the interesting things about her work for me is the invocation of a narrative far beyond the limits of the frame of the photograph. Through placing some familiar visual clues in a constrained environment she plays with our expectations of what might or might not unfold in the scene beyond. This was also the effect of a more ‘conventional’ film which took the form of the secondary school science video – the Charles and Ray Eames Powers of Ten rocketed back out from a quietly picnicking romantic couple, the camera moving ten times further out every ten seconds into the cloudy nebula of space and then shooting back into the minute proteins that make up their - mine, yours - DNA. Patterns began to inevitably emerge between the structures of the universe and the structures of human skin and a narrative of creation began to shape itself. The guiding provided by the voiceover and the circularity of the motion reinforces those patterns.
We moved onto films with a more overtly political agenda - plays between the all-seeing imperial eye and the staunch gaze of those it oppresses demanded a readdress of that version of history which will allow only one interpretation; Ken Jacobs’ fit-inducing Capitalism Slavery and Capitalism Child Labour created a shaking, oscillating and insistent moving image from stereoscopes of cotton pickers that will not let the viewer escape implication in the exploitation of human beings. It simultaneously enforces a physically nauseous reaction that impacts on the viewer in a way that hundreds of modern documentary reportage photographs could not. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi guided a motion camera over a photograph of colonial holiday-makers in Sri Lanka, the motion and carefully chosen moments of lingering bypassing the snapshot aesthetic.
Taken at one sitting, my mind began to stretch beyond its natural capacity to absorb any more visual information, to contemplate any more layers or impactions of meaning, to tease out a back-story or wonder why the film or slide show resisted that process so thoroughly. Being fed fresh material without much comment or discussion was a rich way to begin the process. Thanks must go to Karen Mirza and Brad Butler of no.w.here lab for their refusal to dictate but their sharing of two vast archival minds. We all left to return two weeks later with work to show.
More to follow on this.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Acts of Defiance

Actor Holly Strickland tells The Forum about what it was like to be involved with Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp.002954-003064: A Public Reading, recently held at Tate Modern:

"To coincide with the opening of 9 Scripts from a Nation at War, a collaborative work by Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander and David Thorne currently showing in the Level 2 Gallery, the artists, with the assistance of Tate curators Amy Dickson and Rachel Taylor, staged a public reading of transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, between July 2004 and March 2005. I’m proud to have been one of the eleven readers at the event.

In response to complaints regarding freedom of information, the US Department of Defense made transcripts from all 558 tribunals available to the general public via the Internet. The artists contend, however, that the sheer volume of material generated by the tribunals (over 10,000 pages) has effectively obscured them from public view. Using the transcripts in their work is a gesture towards making them accessible to a wider audience. Certainly, I had no idea of the existence of these documents prior to the reading – you would only come across them if you were looking for them. They are well hidden, frequently moved around on the Department of Defense’s website and in PDF format so impossible to find through a text search.

My background is in acting, so this was how I initially approached the documents. I found it incredible that the 18 tribunals had not been specially selected by the artists for their dramatic qualities. The section was chosen randomly so that it might provide a representative part of the whole, with the material itself remaining as unburdened as possible by artistic or political bias. As an actor I have often heard directors talk about not getting in the way of the text, and this is similar to what the artists seemed to have in mind for the reading. It was impressed on us that we should not be aiming to recreate or act out the tribunals; our prime concern should be for the words to be heard.

We were a deliberately diverse group of people, from various professions, and those of us who were actors were given special instruction to approach the texts differently than we would a normal script. The artists were not interested in characterisation in a conventional sense. The roles we were playing, such as Tribunal President, Detainee and Personal Representative, were common to all the tribunals, and with each tribunal we changed role. We were not to impose any characterisation to differentiate our various roles, but remain in the role of reader throughout. This idea of playing a role was a key concern in the reading, as it is in ‘9 Scripts’, where each video installation corresponds to a different role in society - ‘Citizen’, ‘Student’ or ‘Soldier’.

The installation for the role of Detainee comprises three video screens showing recordings of the Combat Status Review Tribunal reading that took place in New York last year. The governing principle of the CSRTs was to define the specific role of ‘Enemy Combatant’ as identified by the United States in the ‘War on Terror’; the ostensible purpose of the tribunals bring to determine that each ‘detainee’ had been correctly classified as such upon their incarceration. As a response to decisions made by the Supreme Court that detainees had certain minimal human rights, including the right to contest their classification and therefore their detention, the tribunals gave them their first opportunity to speak on their own behalf. However, what became clear as we read was that these hearings were for the most part played out as a formality, and that no matter how the detainees’ scripts varied from tribunal to tribunal - wry or raging, obliging or uncooperative - the officials’ behaviour remained largely consistent in fulfilling their roles, arriving at an unchanging, uncertain conclusion.

Looking at the documents objectively, they are textually fascinating. Considering that they are concerned with defining an individual’s status, the definition of such individuals within the transcripts was often decidedly blurred. The point of view of the Detainee was refracted through many other roles within the tribunal, such as Translator or Personal Representative, and this was reflected in the at times confusing interchange of third and first person narratives. For example, reading the part of Personal Representative sometimes involved reading a Detainee’s statement, in which case the Personal Representative would use the first person, not speaking on behalf of the Detainee, but speaking as them. The transcriber of one tribunal put the words of the Detainee entirely in the third person, a characteristic of the text which, preserved in the reading, created an odd sensation of the Detainee being dislocated from the proceedings.

The effect these shifting subject positions had on us as readers was intensified by the rotation of roles. The stage was set up so that each seat corresponded to a different role and at the end of each tribunal we moved one place along. This gave us the opportunity to experience the tribunal process from many different angles, a prospect described as ‘delicious’ by Jon Snow, regretting that he had to leave after the fourth tribunal to go and read the news! The rapid changes of perspective this afforded was intellectually enlightening but, to an extent, emotionally restricting; another instruction during rehearsal directed specifically towards the actors amongst us was that we were not to try to ‘live the part’, to borrow a Stanislavskian phrase, or attempt to become someone other than ourselves, which is what I usually aspire towards in my work. I suggested that our approach was closer to the Brechtian idea of ‘showing’ rather than ‘becoming’ a role. This seemed entirely appropriate considering the political nature of much of Brecht’s theatre, and his technique of encouraging his actors to see either side of conflicts by swapping roles around during rehearsals.

With the rotation of roles and some speeches becoming detached from the speaker through use of the third person, the roles did not in fact lend themselves to close identification. However, the artists did not want us to read at a remove, but to allow the texts to affect us and, if possible, to let that animate our reading. Indeed, some of the statements and exchanges were so moving, it was impossible not to become swept up in and carried along by the emotion of the situation.

All this came to inform my reading as ‘Narrator’ in one tribunal. This role was created by the artists to encompass the sections of text in the transcripts that were not assigned to specific speakers. Suddenly, during a long speech, I was taking on many roles at once and the conflicts described were played out by a single voice. This contrasted sharply for me with the tribunal where I played the Detainee, but at which the Detainee had not been present. I attempted to communicate this non-participation in the process by fixing my gaze outwards, and not following the script. Another role created by the artists for the reading was that of ‘Witness’, but it was never embodied and was merely represented by an empty chair. The reason for this was that although detainees had the opportunity to call witnesses to speak on their behalf, in the tribunals we read potential witnesses were mentioned, but were never present. The idea that someone who was being held indefinitely, without sentence because without trial, would nominate, for example, a family member to be hauled out to Cuba for questioning by US military was striking in its ridiculousness.

The systematic flaws in the tribunal process frequently exposed themselves or were brought to attention by the detainee. It is a situation that exists in British law, but most detainees were flummoxed by the catch 22 of wanting to address the evidence responsible for their detention but being unable to do so because such evidence remained classified. In reading the part of Detainee, you could not but become affected by this exasperation. The transcripts were also revealing of how even the officials were not privileged with certain information. At one point, reading Tribunal President, I had to admit to ignorance to an important statistic, and Juliet Stevenson’s Detainee induced in me acute embarrassment during our exchange. However, although this was what I was made to feel, I was able to resort to a role that assumed authority over whatever challenged it, and paper over the upset. It was an electrifying moment for me as a performer, although I wondered whether the actual Tribunal President would have been as sensitive to the impassioned arguments of the Detainee.

Nonetheless, I wanted to be careful that the highly emotive quality of the tribunals, along with the vogue for antipathy towards the United States’ government, did not leave me with an unbalanced view of the story the transcripts told. It occurred to me that by aligning sympathies with the underdog and anti the establishment, I had myself opted out of interrogating the veracity of some of the detainees’ statements. But as Sam Roddick pointed out to me, with the passionate conviction of someone who has devoted their life to campaigning for human rights, guilt or innocence doesn’t come into it, it’s about just process.

This word ‘detainee’ now chills me. So seemingly benign, what it has come to signify to me is indefinite imprisonment without recourse to an impartial judicial system. When, in one of the breaks during the reading, news of reached us of an announcement that Guantánamo detainees had at last been granted a hearing in the US civil courts, it sent a collective shiver down our spines. I’m not suggesting, of course, that we felt we had in any way effected this decision, but this extraordinary coincidence certainly reinforced my sense that we had been engaging with art that was of immediate and urgent relevance to life outside of the gallery. Just a day earlier our government had secured parliamentary support for 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, and my resulting uneasiness was heightened by my encounter with the CSRT transcripts.

Yet, and I’m sure that this is not only my performer’s vanity prickling, I didn’t feel we had the audience I was a) expecting and b) thought the work deserved, in spite of the reading lasting several hours and visitors able to drop in and out at will. Holding this one-off event on a weekday afternoon immediately excluded a large amount of people; the standard response from most of my acquaintances was ‘Oh, it sounds really interesting, but I’m at work’. There were posters inside the Tate Modern and a listing in the guide, but the publicity for the reading did not seem to stretch beyond the institution itself. I wondered whether the Tate might have been reluctant to give its unmitigated support to a piece so politically polarising, or if there were other reasons for what I consider to have been vital work going largely unnoticed."

- Holly Strickland

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Get Together

The Forum is now on Facebook! Join the group and invite your friends here

And here is the rest of it.
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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Liberal Arts

Ironically, Shami Chakrabarti’s last job before she left the Home Office saw her drafting anti-terror legislation. This institutional-insider’s perspective, together with her legal background and front-line human rights activism as the current Director of Liberty, made her a particularly apposite speaker to lead a talk and discussion in relation to 9 Scripts From a Nation at War, currently showing in the Level 2 Gallery.

This ten-part video installation explores the way words and their definitions have been shuffled around, stacked together and split apart by lawyers, the military, politicians, journalists and the public in response to the Iraq conflict. This results in a maze of casuistry in which any surety is lost – as one installation title has it: ‘We are the good guys, at least in the version we like to stick to.’ Demonstrating that moral and ethical questions can often seem composed of many shades of grey rather than black and white, 9 Scripts From a Nation at War sparks a multitude of questions about the rights of the individual in relation to the state and the rest of society.

Although the video pieces frequently address these issues from an American perspective, Chakrabarti was quick to translate them into a specifically British context, arguing that in the UK ‘“human rights” have become dirty words’, and that the need for debate regarding the status of human rights in Britain is now particularly pressing. She cites as evidence attacks from politicians and the press on the 1998 Human Rights Act, which made the rights set out by the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and posits that Britain has ‘been on a slippery slope since the 1990’s’, with 9/11 acting ‘as the catalyst’ which accelerated a tendency to circumscribe civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.

Interestingly, Chakrabarti links the undermining of human rights with the current emphasis on the concept of ‘citizenship’, which she feels can foster a dangerously polarised ‘us and them’ mentality, and prioritizes an inward-looking nationalism at the expense of the more universal idea of ‘humanity.’ Guantanamo, she feels, has been able to come into being precisely because it perches just beyond the borders of America, and in citizen-speak can easily be classified as an irrelevant ‘elsewhere’.

As the ensuing discussion demonstrated, the debate surrounding human rights covers complex territory, throwing up the kind of questions that generate a myriad of arguments and counter-arguments. One audience member asked Chakrabarti if she could conceive of such a thing as ‘ethical violence’, another if she felt that the concept of human rights is in danger of being arbitrarily ethnocentric (answers: yes, in certain situations, she could see the necessity of having to ‘take a life to save life’ and no, for Chakrabarti human rights are by definition needs and aspirations which unite people throughout the world).

Difficult as such discussion can be, they go a long way to stimulate the independence of thought that works such as 9 Scripts From a Nation at War also promote. Both provide an area in which the individual can begin to formulate their personal response whilst learning to balance it with the considerations and perspectives offered by others. Chakrabarti for one is certainly encouraged by what she describes as the movement of the human rights debate ‘into the cultural sphere’, stressing that ‘human rights can’t just live in the courtroom.’

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Scruples Behind the Lens

Editing is often an act of extreme violence that should never be exercised upon oneself. That's why professionals are hired to wield the ax that cuts through the redundant sentences or the not-quite-right photographs that, as the author or the artist, you've grown attached to in spite of their shortcomings.

The leader of the Urban Portraiture workshop, Melanie Manchot , summed it best when she said : “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.” Thankfully, no babies were harmed in the second week of this workshop as the participants submitted examples of their very own photographic work to the critical abilities of their peers. Ranging from candid street photography to improvised studio portraits, the works were displayed on tables like the many offerings of a breakfast buffet, quite appropriate on this gray Saturday morning.

Some projects stood out for the strategy that they employed. For instance, one participant used a single red circular (magic) carpet and a brick wall as an improvised set to photograph children. The recurrence of this device in a series of about 20 photographs steered the focus away from the context and allowed for the children's personalities to come across in wildly different ways. One series simply depicted the people that the photographer regularly encountered on her street in the form of candid color portraits. Beautiful in its simplicity, this project was well executed and inevitably satisfied a form of curiosity that we all have about the people around us. What is their story? Where do they go when they take the bus every morning? What does their house look like? Another project pushed this form of curiosity one step further by documenting the lives of the residents of the Elephant and Castle area of London. Instead of taking portraits of the people themselves, the photographer created spare images of their beds as they leave it in the morning. The resulting images are haunting and, paradoxically, they represent presence just as well as absence.

Other projects were more memorable for what they represented or for their specific aesthetic. That was the case of a few series of surreptitious photographs of random people taken in public spaces. I was surprised by the double standard that they generated. Indeed, one a group of intriguing images of men photographed in the street led to comments about seduction and mystery as well as parallels with the work of Sophie Calle. Yet, a series of portraits of women shot in similar circumstances was referred to as predatory. Perhaps this tension can partly be explained by the fact that the former project was produced by a woman and the latter by a man. Yet, there were other elements that impacted on our reception of these images. The respective photographs looked very different: the men were depicted in sharp black and white from a significant distance, whereas the women had been shot in color, fairly up close and the pictures were shot from the hip level leading to an unusual composition. These aesthetic differences certainly impacted on our understanding of the photographs along with the mode in which they were presented. The first series made use of the narrative device of the triptych in small format prints to direct the attention to the subject’s story, whereas the other series comprised individual medium format prints, focusing on the subject's appearance rather than her actions or the context. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we would have reacted in the same manner had we not known the gender of the artist... Is the photographer always a bit of a predator?

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A thing about things

Cornelia Parker is obsessed with things: old things no-one wants any more, things salvaged from the dump, things unearthed in pawnshops, fleamarkets and dingy antique shops, things tarnished with a thick patina of accumulated history – things that have the ability to ‘make the hair on the back of your neck stand up’ with their sense of presence and past.

Throughout her talk, the joyous and groundbreaking exhortation of the American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams – ‘say it: no ideas but in things’ – hummed through my mind. Parker may be working on the other side of the pond, decades later, and in a different medium, but like Williams she is attuned to and tremendously excited by the power that can be exerted by an old cup, a ring, some scrumpled up newspaper.

This, though, is to misrepresent Parker a little bit. When things are around her, they often don’t stay things in their pure state for long: she likes to tamper with them, add things to them, or insinuate them into places they shouldn’t really be. She enthuses about having bought a piece of the moon and lobbing it into a pond, and talks with a mischievous glint in her eyes about an attempt – vetoed by a combination of authorities – to smuggle a piece of Emily Bronte’s hair into that of Nelson’s on his column.

She seems to delight in visual – and verbal – tricks and puns of the kind that are at once entertainingly silly and gracefully eloquent. I am particularly taken by her account of a work that involved throwing a lead mould of the work ‘gravity’ over a cliff, to see what effect ‘the thing itself’ would have on the human linguistic representation of it. Unsurprisingly, it reduced it to a garbled lump. Williams might well have been cowed by such a violent coalescence of idea and thing.

Parker’s work gleefully inhabits the varied uses of the word ‘thing’: at once used to refer to the specific and physical (the very thing), together with the vague and indefinable (something). This duality gives her plenty of room with which to play, and stops her work from either becoming restricted to the purely physical or lost in the tortuously theoretical. Interestingly, she distances herself from the ‘conceptual’ label, saying that she thinks of herself ‘as an intuitive rather than a conceptual artist.’ This is also underlined by the fluidity of her approach to ‘things’, repeatedly describing their capacity to accrue meaning, to mutate and change.

Her attitude to her own work is, refreshingly, by no means an exception – ‘once you’re done with it, it has a life of its own’ – she enjoys the fact that objects and images can take on extra significance after their making. For Parker, we are surrounded by stuff, and she ‘likes the idea somehow that stuff stands in for us’, taking continued inspiration from the transference of histories, thoughts and emotions that results from our everyday interactions with the things around us.
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Friday, June 6, 2008

Truth and Ubiquity

Joel Sternfeld
Attorney with laundry, corner Bank and West 41 street, NYC 1988
Museum Folkwang, Essen © Joel Sternfeld courtesy Pace/Mac Gill Gallery, New YorkC-Print138 x 111 cm

“Photography is truth.” once said the French director Jean-Luch Godard , but who owns this truth? The photographer? The subject? The image itself? Why have we come to expect truth from photography in the first place? Staging Authenticity. Photographic Stories from the Street and the Studio, the course led by artist and lecturer Joy Gregory aims to explore these questions.

The emergence of photography revolutionized our way of seeing the world. Actual events could be represented with a device that allowed for a recording of the refraction of light, we could literally write with light. The fact that the image was framed and exposed in a certain way by the photographer did little to deter the people who attributed the unquestionable veracity of the image to the optical device. Doesn't that amount to saying that the brush did the painting rather than the painter? Although that awry reasoning has long since been deconstructed and invalidated, it still has a recalcitrant hold on the people's imagination.

Documentary photography is the genre that might be the most problematic with regards to questions of truth. Street & Studio. An Urban History of Photography, the current exhibition at Tate Modern (22 May until 31 August 2008) testifies to the overlap between a documentary function, requiring some notion of truth, and an aesthetic one, privileging form. The juxtaposition of images originally meant to record facts and events with slickly composed portraits also raises the following questions: what is the difference between art and document? Do these genres have a different visual language? Should they be displayed and used differently? Needless to say that Staging Authenticity will address these interrogations over the next few weeks.

In order to anchor our thoughts about truth and photography with examples, we moved from the seminar room to the gallery in order to take a good look at the images of the pioneers of documentary photography: Lewis Hine who documented child labour; Arnold Genthe who took a particular interest in San Francisco's Chinatown before the earthquake of 1908; Paul Strand who developed his practice around the candid image. Encouraged to comment on the images, one person noted that the titles of the works in Genthe's Chinatown series had a racist connotation. Although, admittedly, the portrait of a reclining oriental man bearing the title Dead to the World. Opium Fiend was not exactly an example of subtlety, this comment appeared to generate a flurry of discomfort. The “truth” that Genthe chose to represent was very much of its time, not burdened by political correctness, and resonated quite differently in the current context.

So truth in photography requires a certain exercise in constructivism (or reconstructivism if such a thing existed) in that not only do you have to consider the point of view of the photographer, but that of the subject, the context in which it was taken and the time in which you are encountering the image are just as important. In other words, forget the 1000 words that a photograph can apparently summon. If truth is what you are looking for, you might have to think in terms of a 1000 points of view. And even then you might be surprised: we encountered a portrait of Arnold Genthe holding his camera... and the photograph was attributed to him. Perhaps next week we will talk about ubiquity.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mind Your T&Cs - Getting it Right

Pound for Pound, © The Forum, May 2008

Shoot London offered the chance to get snapping in a fun way but it is also a commercial venture and teams were offered the opportunity to submit their work to its online photo library website Shoot Bank which is currently in production.

If you sign a contract make sure you understand all the terms. Thankfully, the Shoot London team provided an A4 sheet giving a brief definition of Royalty Free (RF), which is the only licence option they offered contributors. However, there is another licensing model in use, which offers greater control, and that's Rights Managed (RM). I urge anyone taking photographs for competitions or events to read the T&Cs carefully and get savvy about what's on offer; this includes knowing the difference between the common licensing models in use, copyright and model release issues. Here's why...
Shoot Bank is using a Royalty Free (RF) model for the photos from its Shoot Experience events and competitions.

What is the difference between RF and RM?
The basic distinction is that a Rights Managed license is defined by USE, whereas Royalty Free is a license defined by UNIT.

Rights Managed (RM) license fees are based on specific USE. Since all uses are recorded, clients will know ahead of time if there are any conflicts or concerns. The RM model allows clients to license an image with varying degrees of exclusivity, such as by category or geography in a specified time period.

Royalty Free (RF) licenses are based on UNITS and the RF license fee is essentially a standardized ‘purchase price’ for that unit. A unit could be a single image, a collection of images, or even a subscription period allowing unlimited access to images. The terms of an RF license grant clients virtually unlimited usage rights, so that the same image can be used by any company for any number of uses with few restrictions.
(These definitions are from the Pro-Imaging website page Stock Licensing Models. Accessed 29/05/2008 )

RM offers more protection and control over use. When a RM license is purchased it is good for that use only and for a limited length of time.

Copyright is not transferred with either the royalty-free or rights-managed license. Contrary to what some suggest, RF images are licensed; the license simply requires no future royalties (license fees) to be paid for extended use or if the image is used in various ways.

Images of people (and in some cases, property) without releases, should be licensed RM to control unauthorized commercial use.
(These points are from Acclaim Images – stock photography website. Accessed 29/05/2008)

The T&Cs for Shoot Bank stated that: This license means that the photograph is brought for a one-off fee that is "at a chosen size" where "the buyer is free to use it in as many ways (within permitted guidelines) as they wish. Other buyers may also buy the same RF rights to the photo - so one buyer cannot buy exclusive rights to a photo. With RF licensing only, these photos are likely to be used on websites, in brochures and flyers, not for large-scale advertising campaigns.

"It is likely that you have appeared in one of your photos from today's event. In order to sell photos commercially with recognisable people in them we need consent from the person in the photo. Shoot Bank will give buyers the information to ensure they use your photos in the appropriate way. They will not be permitted to use photos containing recognisable people in any way that may be seen as derogatory or offensive towards the person/people in the photo."

One clue in the day’s event, Out of sight, Out of mind, was realised by some teams by photographing a homeless man and his dog sitting on the walkway along the Thames. I don’t know how many people actually asked the man for permission to take his photograph or even explained what they were doing but it is a point that needs to be made as it is raises ethical and moral questions regarding what one photographs and how. Photographers need to be aware and sensitive especially when 60 groups descend on the same places causing bewildered shopkeepers and locals at Gabriel’s Wharf to ask The Forum team “What’s going on? Why are there so many people running around taking photographs?” If photography is all about communication then it helps to get the basics right.

Furthermore, without the man’s consent, i.e. through getting him to sign a model release form, photographs in which he is clearly recognisable cannot be exploited commercially. This refers to non-press use of the images, however, taking a picture of someone in a public place for press purposes is not problematic. In fact, the right to take photographs in public, including street photography, is subject to on-going debate, especially in the light of Metropolitan Police anti-terrorism campaigns as posted on iN-PUBLic's blog. I will look at this in detail in a future post as it ties in neatly with the Tate's current exhibition and course programme Photography in the Street and Studio

The photo library also wants exclusive rights to sell these images. Payment is at a 50:50 split, divided between all team members (that is a team of four).

Reading through the Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) and after a discussion with the other members, I was unwilling to submit images to Shoot Bank. I have written and reported on issues around photo libraries, rights grabs and Intellectual Property for consumer magazines and have reported on conferences, such as the NUJ Photographers conference where invited organisations including the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA) and the Designer and Artists Copyright Society (DASCS) debated these issues. I am also a member of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists.

It is up to the individual to make a decision but it should be an informed one. In an age of increasing media convergence where authors need to keep up-to-date with trends and legislation, the old adage seems pertinent: Forewarned is forearmed. What do you think?

Useful links to relevant organisations and articles:
Stock Artists Alliance (SAA)
Beyond the Lens
National Union of Journalists

British Journal of Photography
NUJ London Freelance Photographers' section
Richard Dedomenici whose art shenanigans joined The Forum for the day

Definitions of:
Royalty Free
Rights Managed

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The streets are paved with gold!

Well, that of the photographic, rather than the Dick Whittington variety at least. As the Tate Modern’s current exhibition Street and Studio amply demonstrates, the camera and the street have a longstanding affiliation, with many photographers deriving their inspiration from the highways and byways of metropolises the world over.

Shoot London, organised in collaboration with Shoot Experience, challenged participants to produce a series of images from the concrete pathways threading the environs of the Tate Modern – with the negligible qualifications of a six-hour timeframe and a specific set of encoded directions. Undaunted, the Forum team set out on a race (gentle amble after chatting about ‘tactics’ for at least an hour over coffee) to decipher the photographic treasure trail that had been laid for us, armed with three cameras (one of which we knew how to use), a mangy but trusty A-Z, a plastic fish and a fake ear (props, not private peccadilloes).

Ten clues would lead us, and the sixty or so other competing teams, to ten different locations along the river - and at each location we had to take a photograph. This all sounded straightforward enough, but became much less so as we desperately attempted to create an image which simultaneously demonstrated we had cracked the riddle, captured a specific sense of place, and found an innovative way of looking at bits of London as wearily au-fait with the photographer’s lens as St Paul’s and Borough Market.

As with any set task, the parameters were at once limiting and librating. The most successful images to emerge from the days hunting were those that found a humorous way of re-inventing the clue – such as the woman who lay down gamely on the bank of the river Thames whilst her team mates endowed here with a pair of wings and a halo in the surrounding sand (Clue: ‘Gabriel’s Wharf’, of course) – or those which captured a moment of spontaneity, like the simple but effective image of three figures leaping on the Millennium Bridge silhouetted against their umbrellas.

Yet whilst the rule of the day was fun and enjoyment, there were some interesting things to come out of the slideshow showing everyone’s images that rounded off the end of the day. It was fascinating to see the details that other people had picked up on - and, despite having scoured our brains for new interpretations and alternative shots, it was revealing (and a little chastening) to see how many times the same angles and ideas were repeated across other submissions. It was also particularly informative to notice the capacity of tiny differences – in depth, tone and composition – to differentiate two photographs of the same subject and cause you to dismiss one in favour of the other. An enjoyable, if exhausting day, there were more than a few little technical and conceptual gems to mull over and bear in mind during the next encounter with a camera.

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