2. Post-Photography Should Not Be Curated?
Published: 29.10.2019
in the series Photography Must Be Curated!
Previous Next

For my second post, I’d like to dwell a little longer on the question of how contemporary photographic practices and technologies are curated institutionally. The issue facing photography curators today is that ‘the digital’ – as it is typically invoked – is not simply a new photographic medium but a hybrid and converged set of socio-technical practices generating alternative image economies, sites of expertise and cultural value. For museums and galleries, which have largely seen technology as an accessory to their main concerns, the way in which networked media influences their role mediating between people and cultural objects remains puzzling. Furthermore, in a period increasingly defined by the violence of computational capitalism there is a growing understanding that images no longer represent the world – but instead oversee, track, identify and demarcate. There is then a need for curatorial strategies that can illuminate the ways in which photographs are stockpiled, accelerated and operationalised as a software performance on screen. This remains extraordinarily difficult when historical practices of collection and exhibition continue to valorise photographic representation over reproduction, and curating serves, as Andrew Dewdney suggests, “as a strategy to rescue the photograph as photography from its immanent dissolution as the embedded screen image”. 1Andrew Dewdney, “Zombie Photography: Or, the Long Afterlife of the Analogue Image”, Keynote Presentation Kraesj! Brytninger I fotoarkivet conference, Oslo, May 2014. Available: https://openresearch.lsbu.ac.uk/download/145dc25a686a1dd8a16f121fb867214e2244329417e3831ea3e09795271c08a8/149648/Zombie%20Photography.pdf

There is presently a general tendency for cultural institutions to embrace digital technologies as either a new tool for artists (a talented new ‘millennial avant-garde’) or as a channel for communications and marketing through which new audiences can be targeted and captured. Within this framework, the photographic image persists as the product of an artistic vision captured through machinic means, and technology is consigned the category of tool rather than a knowledge system or culture. 2This is a conclusion of Victoria Walsh, Andrew Dewdney & Emily Pringle, Cultural Value. Modelling Cultural Value within New Media Cultures and Networked Participation (London: Royal College of Art/AHC/Tate, 2014). Available: http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/44287 For embattled cultural professionals, this strategy is comforting: new technologies and practices can be celebrated under the mantra of ‘innovation’ without troubling the cultural value of the photographic image; curatorial expertise can be secured and a canon that reinforces the separation of photography as art and not-art is sustained. And despite the recent proliferation of social media specialists tasked with cultivating museum audiences, there is little space for an extended reflexive, porous or dialogic engagement with an online audience who are themselves significant collectors, creators and curators of networked image culture. The challenge then is not to create a new ‘digital’ canon of artists and photographers (linked to a longer historical continuum) but rather to consider whether digital ecologies should lead us to think about and position the photographic image in new and interdisciplinary ways.

The conundrum however remains that whilst the computational image produces something other than a photograph, its effect is to intensify and saturate everyday life with photography. Writing in 1995, the media scholar Lev Manovich characterised the post-photographic turn as a paradox in which “the digital image annihilates photography while solidifying, glorifying and immortalizing the photographic.” This was because “[t]he digital image tears apart the net of semiotic codes, modes of display, and patterns of spectatorship in modern visual culture – and, at the same time, weaves this net even stronger.” 3Lev Manovich, “The Paradoxes of Digital Photography”, in: Photography After Photography. Memory and Representation in the Digital Age, exh.-cat., ed. Hubertus von Amelunxen, Stefan Igelhaut and Florian Rötzer (Dresden: GB Arts, 1996), 57–65, here 57. Anne-Marie Willis, writing earlier in this period, framed digitisation as a macabre process which cannibalises and regurgitates photographic imagery to the point where, “like a zombie” photography’s corpse is “re-animated, by a mysterious new process, to inhabit the earth”. 4Anne-Marie Willis, “Digitisation and the Living Death of Photography”, in: Culture, Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Philip Hayward (London: John Libbey, 2003), 197–208, here 198. The spectre of zombie photography has more recently been taken up by Andrew Dewdney who emphasises that what is presently being elevated to museums and galleries as contemporary practices “is not photography as reproduction, nor the networked image, but an abstraction of the analogue and its historical archive.” 5Andrew Dewdney, “Curating the Photographic Image in Networked Culture”, in The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, 2nd edition, ed. Martin Lister (London: Routledge, 2013), 95–112, here 109. From the Tate to the Google Art Project, he asserts that cultural institutions remain under the spell of “zombie photography” which he defines as “either the continuation of the analogue in digital terms or conversely the networked image simulating the analogue. The first is achieved through digital technology producing the photographic print image and the second through the Internet’s transparent interface.” 6Andrew Dewdney, “Zombie Photography: Or, the Long Afterlife of the Analogue Image”, Keynote Presentation Kraesj! Brytninger I fotoarkivet conference, Oslo, May 2014. Available: https://openresearch.lsbu.ac.uk/download/145dc25a686a1dd8a16f121fb867214e2244329417e3831ea3e09795271c08a8/149648/Zombie%20Photography.pdf

It is perhaps no surprise then that one of the most technically ambitious and critically acclaimed artistic projects in the photography field uses virtual reality to re-stage one of the first ever exhibitions of photography as a dramatic ‘hyperanalogue’ spectacle. Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds premiered at Photo London in 2017 with much fanfare (and long queues), promising to transport the public back to 1839 to view the early photogenic drawings of William Henry Fox Talbot. A corner of Somerset House was transformed into a dazzlingly modernist white cube into which viewers were led in their cumbersome VR garb. Once immersed, visitors were able to roam around a meticulously researched simulation of King Edward’s School in nineteenth century Birmingham, complete with crackling fire and endearing rogue mice. In a significant feat of VR engineering, visitors were able to commune directly with Fox Talbot’s iconic images of lace, which they could pick up and caress slowly through the fabric of their VR glove. In an instant, even the hearts of the most techno-cynical figures in the photography world melted.

Mat Collishaw, Thresholds, 2017, installation view, Somerset House, London. Courtesy: Somerset House, London; photograph: Graham Carlow

Mat Collishaw, Thresholds, 2017, view from headset

But surely, I hear you ask, people just want to escape their screens? Shouldn’t the Gallery be a refuge where one has every right to swoon over a daguerreotype or its digital ghost? And why should museums be bothered about collecting or curating the immaterial? As someone who has been employed as a digital curator in a photography institution, I am not unfamiliar with these laments. However, I would argue that the pressing task for institutions, educators and image makers is to firstly dismantle these narratives of immateriality which only serve to reinforce the transparency of the screen and obscure the humans and nonhumans who labour to animate post-photographic images. Secondly, the task is to comprehend, intervene or exploit these new systems of value which are reframing both the status of the analogue image, the value of its content and the performance of photography itself. The danger is that by fetishising images over imaging systems, one cannot move beyond the analogue mirage of the image produced by machines for our screenghts.

These issues informed the recent staging of a very different simulation, Operation Earnest Voice at The Photographers’ Gallery. Over four days in January 2019, Jonas Lund transformed a floor of the building into a living ‘propaganda office’ tasked with reversing Brexit, staffed by members of the public who were recruited through an open call and paid to work on the campaign. Whilst over one hundred people applied to work in the influencing agency, the final group of twelve specialists included a photographer who had worked on Hillary Clinton and Obama’s re-election campaign, a PR specialist, a student who was too young to vote in the 2016 referendum, an art historian and a computer programmer. Audiences were invited to roam freely around the performative installation, and participate in daily standing meetings, enjoy Soylent from the office fridge, or get to know the office’s robot therapy cat. After a press conference and some awkward icebreaker exercises devised by CEO Jonas Lund, the workers began collectively analysing the leave and remain campaigns in order to change the course of Brexit.

In hindsight, from the position of The Photographers’ Gallery, Operation Earnest Voice operated both as an artists’ commission and an experimental visual literacy project. By day two, tensions unexpectedly started bubbling up amongst the employees who conflicted over the best strategies to convert Brexiteers to Remainers. One group was united by the conviction that what was required was simply a campaign of more compelling images, coherent narratives and playful slogans. A second group worked towards the creation of a fake news generator which could algorithmically spew out computational propaganda to hundreds of sites and spam URLs with a single click. 7It’s worth noting that by the end of the project, Jonas Lund had made the employees shareholders. In a dramatic first board meeting, they debated whether to open source the fake news generator, and eventually voted against it, terrified of what it could unleash. In a strange case of life imitating art, a month later the Guardian reported that OpenAI, a company backed by Elon Musk, had just decided to withhold their own successful research into AI-powered fake text generation. This group accused the first of wasting time, arguing that their energies could be better spent aggregating hundreds of low-quality image assets, politician’s names, and headlines for their fake news machine. They counseled that there was no need to agonise about the coherence of the campaign: each image or meme created could be easily A/B tested on Facebook and optimised in real-time during the campaign. Through this conflict, and in their own confusion, this ‘fight’ became symbolic of the contemporary conflict between images and imaging systems.

What is at stake then is not the preservation of an older historical formation of photographic representation, but the recognition that the ‘softwareisation’ of photography represents the latest moment in a longer crisis of representation informed by the algorithmic politics of search and retrieval and the ‘datafication’ of the image. Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie go as far as asserting that the “representational image (on our screens)” is now operationalised as a “lure for the actual processes of surveillance and control (behind the screen).” 8 Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie “No Image No Cry”, in: General Humanity, 30 June 2018. Available: https://generalhumanity.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/no-image-no-cry-by-ingrid-hoelzl In this curious state of affairs, the curator risks being a handmaiden to this process, reifying the photographic representation over its (re)production. The present staging of the contemporary photograph in the white cube, grounded in aesthetic modernism, suggests that we are a long way off understanding this software performance, or what ‘seeing’ might mean or is being reshaped as in this context.

Cancel reply