Feeling like I am spinning many a plate at the moment (new house, wedding to plan, birthday, work, imminent arrival of dog from overseas etc etc) has meant I have somewhat been delayed in writing a blog post about my visit to Format Festival in Derby last month. This week however, I have been spurred on to put fingers to keys after visiting the Deutsche Borse Prize at the ‘mecca’ that is the Photographer’s Gallery and spotting a few things that has made my mind tick over.
Firstly, I absolutely loved Format Festival. I thought it contained some brilliantly printed, curated and displayed work and brought together some really unique pieces with people who showed a real interest and passion for what was going on around them there. Everyone I met had a positive comment to say; a smile on their face and in most cases a story to share. Beginning in the Quad, I was met with some big names- Cristina de Middel, Larry Sultan to name only two. The theme of ‘Evidence’ was subtle and obvious in equal amounts. Some work couldn’t have been shown under any other theme whereas some fitted it subtly enough for you to have to search a little deeper for the connections. Andrea Botto is a good example of the former, with his project KA-BOOM. Displayed in large frames and surrounded by documents and smaller photographs, the work is a snapshot of time, contemporary demolition of places around the world and in turn, evidence of these places ever existing and their exits from many a skyline. The work was beautifully printed, even when viewed up close- a rarity now as a lot of photography shows seem to be getting seemingly lazy or complacent with their print quality. The work was intriguing and I was in awe of the colours gained from using medium/large format equipment.
Miti Ruangkritya’s Thai Politics had an air of both humour and darkness surrounding it. The work that was displayed at Format was Where’s Wally-esque making use of the huge available image bank that is the Internet and social media before pulling the imagery together using Photoshop, addressing the Thai protests happening in Bangkok since 2006. My personal favourite work in this very first room belongs to Sara-Lena Maierhafer, contained in a pristine and precise book that I was hugely disappointed to find was only printed in an edition of 20 but understood why when I looked at the detail that went into each copy. Maierhafer addresses fact and fiction in photography which is not only an interest of mine, but it was thoughtfully displayed with collage, image and text making the work a multi dimensional piece. This isn’t unusual I know, but as the work was book first and exhibition after, I felt the multimedia aspect of the curating was essential to the experience of the viewer. Providing these different platforms ensured that I didn’t glance over the framed imagery and instantly forget, I was forced to consider what was in front of me, take in all aspects of the piece, just as you would open a front cover of a book and look inside. It was this particular pattern that I have spotted throughout these exhibitions and then at Deutsche Borse. Photographs are no longer alone in galleries. Yes, there are your simple framed print exhibitions (Nikolai Bakharev is a perfect example) and this will carry on for as long as the photograph lives, but as a regular visitor to many exhibitions I can’t help but notice this surge in trend.
Whether it be further images displayed at different heights with different hanging methods such as pins or shelves, or additions of handwritten notes and found imagery, it seems that the photograph’s (and photographer’s) intentions are now safer when accompanied. Without bringing up the aging discourse of ‘is photography art?’ (which I seemed to have just done regardless) it appears that now photography is well and truly embedded in artistic fields as well as its own, it is time to bend the rules a little. The British Journal of Photography dedicated a whole issue recently to photographers using the medium in a much freer, abstract way than say, the documentary heavy 1980s and 90s concentrating less on subject and more on process, output and materials. This, coupled with the growing love (one I share on a huge scale) for photo books as a vehicle of distribution and dissemination it seems the print alone is no longer a valid way of getting your point across. Photo books are beautiful crafted items that often warrant exhibition themselves. Recently whilst in New York I visited the Chinese Photobook exhibition and then again whilst in London. A whole exhibition (and by no means the first) dedicated to photo books of a nation. Some of which you couldn’t touch, and some you couldn’t even see in person. Videos of other people leafing through these books displayed as proudly as artworks themselves, small crowds gathering to catch a glimpse. Once upon a photography time, these images would be forced out of these books and hung blown-up on the walls, alone. Now more than ever it seems, it is important to cherish the way the photographs are displayed, the original curating within the book and keep this as intended to support the photograph’s journey as a process.
Many exhibitions I visit (including both the aforementioned) accompany their exhibits with plinths and a few copies of the supporting work in book form as well as carefully selected objects and documents. For me as both photographer and viewer, these additions come as a welcome element. I understand more about the photographer as a person but also more about the project. I admire the project in full, sometimes with the inspirations displayed right next to the ‘finished’ item itself just as I did with Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City at The Photographer’s Gallery two weeks back. Their work was a visual delight in comparison to some of the sparse rooms (sorry Bakharev) contained in the prize. Not only were there huge light boxes displaying hundreds of images, but also around them were archival materials, maps, found imagery and architectural plans. The materials together told a story, placed more narrative on some already very powerful photographs. It may just be me as a collector that gets truly excited at these additions to exhibitions but I do not believe I am the only one who has walked away from some exhibits feeling underwhelmed at the lack of information that seeps from a collection of documents that are meant, at the simplest level, to be replicating reality.
The additional materials add to a particular photographer’s style and subject too. When viewing Sputnik’s work back at Format, their ‘adult’ images were contained behind velour curtains. A necessity perhaps with a young audience, but the sleazy choice of cheap materials gave a further nod to what was underneath the curtain, making the audience take a leap and look behind it rather than catching a sneaky glance. Photography is becoming a performance, rather than a 2D hobby. Photographers have never had more scope with a medium that has suffered its battles throughout history, a medium that has forced its users to break rules, follow rules, make rules, and then now it seems- to break them again. To me (again, probably biased as a photographer and photo book enthusiast) the growth of photography at the moment is defying prediction, with self-publishing and online distribution providing more amateurs than ever a platform and a voice to show off their work that deserves to be seen. Coupled with a new age of a mash up of art/photography mixed media/multi platform exhibitions it is hard to envisage what is next for the field, but I can’t help but be excited for what lies ahead. For me, as someone who has fallen in and out of love with photography at various points in its turbulent timeline (Fujifilm discontinuing Provia 400x was a particularly low point) noticing trends such as this one fills me with confidence about the medium’s future and its ability to constantly twist and astonish with new and exciting exhibitions, photo books and projects.
Extract from my Independent Project Proposal:
Throughout the last module I feel the ‘Garden Book Club’ work was some of my strongest, helped by my growing knowledge of practice as research. During the module I struggled to pinpoint the practice and now I have done this I feel it would be an important time to concentrate on honing it further through my independent project. I am going to concentrate on exploring it further by strengthening the research aspects and integrating this with a developing practice that holds more purpose when relating it back to theoretical work. The outcomes at this stage will be documented and reflected within a physical sketchbook as well as continuing with my online journal. At present, I predict the work will be presented in book form, most likely accompanied by a group/individual exhibition.
‘The are actions, recognitions, and judgments which we know how to carry out spontaneously; we do not have to think about them prior to or during their performance, We are often aware of having learned to do things; we simply find ourselves doing them. In some cases, we were once aware of the understandings which were subsequently internalized in our feeling for the stuff of action. In other cases, we may have never been aware of them. In both cases, however, we are usually unable to describe the knowing which our action reveals’ (Schön, 1983, pp 49-69)
Reflecting-in-action requires a certain level of existing tacit knowledge upon which spontaneous judgments can be trusted and made. Prior to starting the independent project, I had begun to build confidence in my practice by shifting the worry of the ‘end product’ to attempting to work through my practice questions by making. By doing this, I was able to take risks and essentially ‘take myself by surprise’ with my own practice. Knowing for a long time that I wanted to start to explore research areas such as nostalgia, the photo book as a distribution vehicle and use of the found image but feeling like I had no solid way of confidently researching, I have been making decisions based on my last decision made, and reflecting-in-action as I go, using only past work and a rough research plan as my guide. This has worked well for my progress as a practitioner and the project as a whole, as the creative risks (using a newspaper instead of an exhibition, eliminating other media for the project concentrating on collage) have assisted the ‘overallness’ of GBC as it stands and demonstrates a clear journey from a complex unresolved idea. Reflecting back to this time, it is easy for me to see how it has matured and changed in both content and strength, shaping to fit the areas where my theoretical interests lie.
As a photographer, documentation has generally been a well-debated part of my arts practice and one I have commented on throughout my MA. Documenting photographs in situ didn’t hold much value to me, and as Nelson (2013) comments, I was held with a constant fear my practice will eventually be subjugated to the writing elements leaving visual documentation in a firm second place. As the photographs in the last post show, I have distributed the Garden Book Club newspaper in York and Leeds. Documenting this event was not only essential to the process to prove it had taken place, it also holds value of the newspaper. Rye commented on DVD recordings not being able to capture the essence or magic of an original performance, lessening the event by reproduction. This is the same way I feel about photographing photographs, there isn’t really much value held by doing so. Photographing the newspaper in situ however, does not lessen its value but rather strengthens the outreach it has to further audiences. Furthermore, it did not interfere with the process, distribution or affect any future exchanges of the newspaper between possible readers or viewers. To photograph it taking place was simply to document the overall performativity of the project, a cataloguing exercise for a personal archive.
Nelson, R. (2013). ‘Supervision, Documentation and other Aspects of Praxis’. In. Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances. Palgrave: London pp 71-92
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books: New York.
‘Play is the primal force which built our early selves, and can revivify and infuse our adult selves with a craving for action and innovation. Play is also an attempt at self-mastery, whether shaped from the outside by education or impelled by internal dreams of a better, more integrated self’
Play as imagination
I was surprised to read in Pat Kane’s The Play Ethic that the place of Victorian public swimming pools, sports halls and parks were brought in by authorities in order to maintain the physical health of the working classes, in turn ensuring the efficiency of the workforce. Although work and play are somewhat linked in my mind, I had never really put much thought into the idea that play creates better workers. In my logic, we work in order to afford to ‘play’. Kane’s chapters, split into simple headings covering all possible aspects of play made me consider Garden Book Club in many different ways, not only through content but as an art project on the whole. ‘Play as risk’ helped me consider the audience to which the work was directed and give more thought to the response the project would receive. ‘Rise of the Soulitarians’ examined the role of the internet with play, in turn helping me ask myself questions about the role of my online presence in terms of the work I am currently making. It sparked an interest in including more of an online platform for the newspaper after it had been distributed, in the form of a submission/response website for GBC.
Although I cannot directly make this cognitive comparison for definite, as a child I felt I had one of the strongest imaginations of my peers. I could play alone for hours, for days in fact without the aid of many props or inclusion of any other person. Growing up, I managed to keep hold of this imagination, applying it creatively, dreaming intensely and ensuring it was exercised in fear of it slipping away. I couldn’t imagine losing the ability to think beyond the real world, however hard it was forced upon me to become ‘grown up’. I remember the peer pressure of getting rid of toys, all of which had personalities, a voice and a heart to me. Choosing an academic path that would lead me to studying a creative subject ensured that my imagination was applied to art work, photography and later on, psychology. Never stifled, I was able to weave creative play into my everyday world. It is this imagination that helps me create collages; which in turn were born from a frustration of not being able to translate visions through a type of mundane photography. The world that has been created for GBC is entirely imagined, and intended to be lighthearted and playful. Having the chance and reason to extend my ideas into art helps me produce considered yet arbitrary choices that can be applied to existing theory and current debates within photography and art. A type of adult play I guess? The content of the work is playful- it asks the audience to see it for what it is and take them back to the imagination that work and the demands of life in general may have made them forget about temporarily. Play forms our young selves, and it is important to keep our older selves nourished with types of play accessed through projects such as GBC.
One of the notable play theorists, Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens, argued that play creates a temporary world and an order of its own. Play creates this temporary world, and within the temporary world within the real life, it has the potential to distract. Garden Book Club creates this temporary world. A world where proportion and rationality don’t come into question, a place where plants can take on the roles of humans. These aspects ultimately result in a new form of expression or interpretation of a subject. Huizinga claims that physical and solid arts are not play. They are meant instead to help facilitate play or serve a representational function. In the pataphysical world of GBC however, physical art does not exist, only created characters and scenarios. He explains, “If therefore the play-element is to all appearances lacking in the execution of a work of plastic art, in the contemplation and enjoyment of it there is no scope for it whatever. For where there is no visible action there can be no play”.
Kane, P. (2004). The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. Macmillan Press
Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Plants exist, people exist. They live like two peas in a pod. Tony climbed into his pod to snuggle his magnolias.
Pataphysical traditions tend to focus on processes of their creation and elements of chance or arbitrary choices creating imaginary solutions to imaginary problems that recreate and mimic themselves through process of doing so. Baudrillard says in his 1992 essay Pataphysics of Year 2000, ‘nothing behind us exists anymore, only the present.’ I relate this quote (and essay in its entirety) to the continuing theme within my practice of moving existing visual culture from a point of nostalgia to a new contemporary role in today’s society. History no longer exists, but it has left a lot of things behind. These things become tools in my work and I piece them together to create new stories, an imaginary world that only exists in the present. People who come across GBC in the future, even a second after it is made, will attach their own fantasies, their own stories to the work just as I have done with the existing imagery in the first place. GBC becomes a pataphor for an original idea, seeking to describe a new and separate world where that original idea has taken a life of its own.
In The Imaginary Solution, Douglas-Dworkin (2007) describes pataphysics as being two degrees of separation from reality. The plants that exist in GBC were once photographed for inclusion in a book. Being photographed is meant to replicate reality, but this does not always transcend in new meaning or new context in which the photograph is placed. The photograph then becomes one degree separated from reality. That photograph/book then moves forward in time 40 years and is picked up and that photograph cut out to be appropriated next to an image taken from a American Apparel advert where the model has also lost his head in place of a green leafy plant. The second degree of separation takes place, and no longer is the plant serving a pictorial reference for a pruning article, but is now taking a role in an entirely imagined world exploring their relationships with people, thus removing it entirely from its original context.
My practice has always been concerned with the idea of digital technologies having the capability to remove the physical photograph and attached processes from today’s culture. Digital technologies can be used to create fantasy worlds through online gaming, websites and photo manipulation software, store digital archives and be used in any facet of life whether it be through computers, smart phones or tablets. It is this distinct acceleration of digital technology and media that Baudrillard blames for the ‘losing tempo of liberation’ and means we are only now loosely attached to the real. We can no longer pin down reality or meaning because of the digital absorption that we are contained within. I wrote about a similar issue when addressing my first year MA work, in the post named ‘RIP Pat Butcher’ examining the worlds people believe in beyond reality, in places such as Eastenders; sending cards to a fictional character when she had died onscreen. When applying this to the idea of GBC, it comes down to the breakdown of foundational knowledge on which I base stereotypes and presumptions of a certain era. I was born in 1988, and remember nothing before roughly 1992-1993. Things I know about history have been taught, researched or presumed. It is this foundational knowledge on which I make presumptions about a book I find in a charity shop from 1976. It is a certain colour, it smells a certain way and the people within the pages are wearing certain clothes. These beliefs I then attach to an object that has travelled through time could be entirely untrue to begin with. Things I think have happened, that actually may not have happened at all mean I immediately breakdown the knowledge into a pataphysical idea and expand that idea further through collage and photography. The narrative that originally existed has gone through so many state changes; we know nothing true about anything except for the now. Thinking that all history no longer exists can force an obsession of the now, spurred on by its exemption from linear time. We seek immediate satisfaction but fear the forgetting, so no longer trust the meaning of events in current time. When we arrive at the event, we then arm ourselves with tools of artificial memory in order to preserve the event without experiencing it in the now, in order to recall it later in time.
Linking with ideas of the absurd, pataphysics creates meaningless worlds where if context is applied the general laws of pataphysics become weakened. Garden Book Club is an entirely pataphysical world, where proportion is ignored and facts of botanical science turned upside down. It explores a world of plant obsessives (which do in fact exist in metaphysics) but extends the idea further by changing facts and placing fully grown men in glass plant containers, among other things. The imaginary problem that GBC attempts to solve is that the imagined people who are embodied through collage have nowhere to go to talk to people of similar ilk or with the same interests. Providing a ‘club’ to which they can share stories and peculiar images of one another becomes the solution. All the content contained in GBC is made up of elements entirely removed from context, placing them in a pataphysical myth where people will attempt to apply existing foundational knowledge to when viewing. On failing to do so, people tend to become defensive or panic that their knowledge does not stretch to this new visual culture, and thoughts race whilst trying to apply something, anything relevant they can. I find that most people tend to try and understand the plant element before the role of the people, which seems a much easier process for most. I have rarely been questioned past the ‘relationships between plants and people’ answer I give to ‘what is it about?’ and I think this links directly back to seeing a world we do not recognize or have not learned through school or the internet.
This may be because plants are seemingly ‘emotionless’ physical things, although they share a few of the same qualities as humans. This lack of emotion means they are immediately easy to interpret than the more complex human aspect. They are treated as objects, and objects that do not offer opinion or any argument to the way they are treated meaning humans can abuse, or obsess about plants.
Baudrillard, J. (1992). Pataphysics of Year 2000. Galilee: Paris. Available:http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/pataphysics.html
Douglas-Dworkin, C. (2007) The Imaginary Solution. Journal of Contemporary Literature. 48:1, pp. 49-60
Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal book Image Music Text:
As for the other meaning, the third, the one ‘too many’, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive, I propose to call it the obtuse meaning. The word springs readily to mind and, miracle, when its etymology is unfolded, it already provides us with a theory of the supplementary meaning
Working with the everyday and generic found photographs, in itself doesn’t cause much concern for interest. However, with the collage works I have most recently received feedback on, the same comments kept coming up. People commented on the fact that the collages were humorous, playful, sometimes a little dark – but they were not entirely sure why as the imagery used was already familiar to them. Separately, a catalogue photograph of a plant is indeed just that, a photograph of a plant. A photograph taken from a bowling technique handbook is under most circumstances, quite a dull image. When paired together, these original, intended meanings still exist but a new, third meaning comes into play. This is the case for a lot of photographic images that are presented in an art context. William Eggleston took a colour documentary photograph of a tricycle from a low angle. I know what the purpose of the trike is, a child’s play thing, and I can understand why Eggleston chose the subject matter for its colour and shape, a nod to childhood and nostalgia perhaps (the obvious meaning). Portraying such a photograph in a gallery at, say, 3ft by 3ft rather than the 6×4 prints we are familiar with in albums, opens up the audiences’ mind to search for a third meaning where they can look beyond the intended narrative and begin to unravel the photograph for themselves. For me, the trike photograph in question not only makes me recall a memory of falling off a trike quite similar and putting all my bottom teeth through my lip, but makes me think of the trike’s owner. Where was he when this photograph was made? Was Eggleston aware of the owner or was it seen in passing? Had he in fact fallen from the trike and sustained the same injuries that I did? Okay, so attaching memory to a photograph isn’t quite what Barthes had in mind for the third meaning but my interpretation of the photograph has taken place because I am presented with such familiar information removed from its original context, in turn creating a third meaning. If you were to see the same image in a family album in the loft, you would probably glance past it as quite a banal image. Documentary photography that seems mundane and dull actually possesses a strong will to draw the third meaning from its audience, enabling them to look round the subject matter, behind the imagery and into the supplementary meaning, due to its more obvious stature to start with.
John Walker writes about the ‘third-effect’ meaning in his essay Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning in relation to text and image within advertising. Having a strong image and adding a carefully selected pun or witty comment can entirely change how the audience views the advert- creating a third meaning from the juxtaposition of the two elements. Habitualisation of elements of life, reinforced by the media and messages we receive make us feel conditioned that things that happen do so through a natural order of things.
When this natural order or tacit knowledgeis disrupted, the mind creates other solutions, other meanings. The collages I create do just this, people should be familiar with plants, and with imagery of people from the past yet they are not familiar with the juxtapostions that the collages become, making them an object of the absurd, turning sense into nonsense. Creating an artificial world is something that photography and art excel at, and begs authors and audiences over and over to question what they think their reality actually is or whether it actually exists in imitation, reflection or stark contrast to our ‘non-artificial’ world and the relationships between. Filip Hotovy discusses the notion of photography’s reputation for representing the real, which was once it’s key selling point. We look at photographs and see a moment we insist on believing that has happened- a connection to the non-artificial world at some stage in time. However, this means we discard the immobilised objects and faces, discard the fact that the world is not in fact black and white and that the photographer’s intentions were intended to be innocent. Where does the realism lie when all this is removed from the interpretation? Contemporary photography has addressed this through embracing the artificial worlds that it can create, leading to a boom in collage and manipulated imagery from Broomberg+Chanarin, Stezaker, Henner and Gordon taking over centre stage from the likes of Capa, Frank, Arbus and Friedlander.