Last fall, I was fortunate to be able to attend “The Flood of Rights,” a conference in Arles, France, organized by Thomas Keenan, Suhail Malik and Tirdad Zolghadr that aimed to address “how technologies of image-capture and the channels of communication have in recent years transformed the very terms of human rights.” Featuring papers and talks by Amanda Beech, Rony Brauman, David Campbell, Olivia Custer, Rosalyn Deutsche, Jackson Pollock Bar, Eric Kluitenberg, David Levine, Sohrab Mohebbi, Sharon Sliwinski, Hito Steyerl, and Bernard Stiegler, the symposium was the second such event to address the intersections between photography (and other lens-based practices) and human rights. (I highly recommend everyone watch David Levine’s fascinating reading of several filmic representations of spectatorial nausea).
As I wrote in my event review of the symposium for this month’s issue of the Journal of Visual Culture, one of the most thought-provoking outcomes of the three days’ worth of performances, talks and discussions was the ongoing difficulty in getting a hold on how streaming and crowd-sourced forms of image-making challenge our understanding of the relationship between images and human rights claims:
Although the ‘flood’ of the conference’s title called to mind the massive volume of photographic images being produced daily – underscored by Erik Kessels’s artwork, 24HRS of Photos (2011–), a mountainous installation of printed copies of all the photographs uploaded to Flickr in one day on view concurrently at the Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographies festival – it also suggested the unruliness of their directions. Without the newspaper front page or a photo editor to direct the viewer’s attention, how does the spectator make sense of these competing claims for rights from distant digital citizens? And how is the role of the viewer understood and evaluated in these networked forms of dissemination?
… [T]hese questions… point to an ongoing challenge facing visual culture theorists in the age of digital networked communication: how to picture a seemingly immaterial medium, or series of media, streaming between portable screens around the globe with no fixed point of production or reception. In many ways, ‘The Flood of Rights’ was an event in search of a common and consistent object of study, in itself an interesting and demanding project and one that I want to think about not as a shortcoming of the conference, but rather as a productive ambiguity that unsettles assumptions about ‘the event’ and ‘the image’, two foundational terms in recent photography theory.
Unfortunately, the review is only accessible if you have paid access to the journal (or one of the databases that archives it), but luckily video documentation of all of the talks have been archived on “The Flood of Rights” website and a book edition of the papers will be out this fall.
Last month, I was invited to participate in a press tour of the Yokohama Triennale and the Sapporo International Art Fair, two triennial art festivals in Japan that each meditated on local histories of development and the legacies of modernism on contemporary art. While the Sapporo festival—the first of its kind in the city—was a massive, multi-venue project that activated the local history of the island and presented some ambitious public installations, it was the Yokohama Triennale exhibition that held my attention and fascination the longest, particularly for the ways it both borrowed from and liberally improvised upon the themes of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (a nostalgic favourite text of mine, perhaps because I got to read it on my own and not in a high school-mandated English class. The François Truffaut film adaption is its own head-spinning interpretation of the book). I also couldn’t shake the vision of the Yokohama Home Collection, a strange “housing park” located right across the street from one of the triennial’s main locations, which seemed like an explicit manifestation of some of the problems of late capitalist real estate development and speculation. The Wikimapia description of the place says it all: “Nobody resides here.”
The triennial was a massive exhibition of more than 400 works, but for the most part, the exhibition worked, offering small moments of contemplation, historical conjunction and even laughter (everyone should listen to Marcel Broodthaers’s Interview with a Cat) amid the blockbuster exhibition spaces and chaos of some of the works. I tried to draw some links between these various moments of connection in a review for Canadian Art that went online today.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to write about Elias Hansen‘s incredible sculptures, which, along with Yuko Mohri‘s works, were one of my favourite discoveries of the trip. The man’s titles alone are worth writing home about.
It has been a good year for seeing photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario: first, there was Associate Curator Sophie Hackett’s two-part meditation on the gallery’s permanent photo collection, “Light My Fire,” an elegant, thoughtful and often surprising overview of portraiture within the institution’s massive (and growing) collection of fine art and vernacular images. Now, in tandem with World Pride, Hackett has once again curated a pair of exhibitions that take as their focus photography and identity: “Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography” at the AGO, and “What It Means to Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility” at the Ryerson Image Centre.
While the Ryerson exhibition focuses on documentary images of collective identity—often seen through forms of public demonstration, protest and print media—the AGO half of the exhibition foregrounds artists’ collections and creations of identities through photographs. Self-portraiture, or portraits commissioned by the sitter, are more common here, and use costuming, props, poses and performances for the camera to construct an identity for the lens. Photography has long been tied up in ideas (some of them inflated to the point that they are unsustainable myths) of instantaneity, objectivity, and universal legibility, and the two exhibitions demonstrate how these ideals have been both harnessed by subjects and troubled by artists, photographers, and photo editors.
Over the next three weeks, I’m hoping to think through some of these questions through a workshop at the AGO on “Photography and Self-Fashioning.” Is there something unique about photography as a medium—aside from its mechanical nature and its increased accessibility with the mass manufacture of cheap camera equipment—that allows subjects to control how they are publicly represented? How does photography’s ubiquity and circulation, its ability to be reproduced in places quite different from where it was produced, trouble the distinction between private and public space? What happens when performances of gender and desire that are “supposed to be” private enter the public sphere? And what does a “queer visibility” look like in an age where we are surrounded by a flood of self-made images?
I’ve been thinking a lot about live or performative criticism lately: ways to try to move critical discourse away from its seemingly inevitable destination as printed or posted words, into another space that might be more fleeting, more experimental and more social. In some ways, it’s been a hard conceptual move for me to make, as a dedicated book fetishist who still brings a pen and notebook to every exhibition, lecture and artist talk I go to. It’s difficult to imagine discussing or reviewing art without lots and lots of written words: my own and those of others. Which is why I’ve been excited to attend a few of the “Open Sesame Critics Forum” sessions, organized by artist and critic Xenia Benivolski for the past several years as a way to activate and enliven art criticism. In each session, three art critics review three exhibitions, discussing their interpretations and reactions with one another and in front of a crowd.
It’s not exactly living research, or research in public, which has been motivating a lot of my curatorial work lately (especially under the generative guidance of folks like Kim Simon at Gallery TPW and Pip Day at SBC Gallery) since in most of the sessions I’ve attended, the participating critics have shown up with some pretty well-formed ideas about the art they are reviewing, rather than positing some tentative and changeable ideas. But it also offers an opportunity to talk about the function of art criticism, in print and in dialogue, and to think about what it might mean to change one’s mind in public, in relation to other artists, writers and curators in the room.
I’ll be participating in the next session of “Open Sesame,” happening this Saturday, April 26 at LUFF art + dialogue, and I’ve been trying to think about how to challenge my reliance on printed words in art criticism and to force myself to experiment with the modes of critical discourse. This might be as simple as showing up with no notes, or could involve its opposite: trying to force myself to write, at length, but in a completely different voice and style than I’d normally use.
OPEN SESAME: Critics Forum, vol. V
Saturday, April 26, 3–6 pm
LUFF art + dialogue
688 Richmond Street West, #202, Toronto, Ontario M6J 1C5
Based on David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum in New York City, three critics will review three current Toronto exhibitions, after which questions and dialogue between critics and audience will be facilitated.
Darryl Napinak: “Darryl Napinak’s Throwbacks”
Paul Petro Contemporary (upstairs)
April 11 – April 26, 2014
Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens: “Is There Anything To Be Done At All?”
Trinity Square Video in Collaboration with Images Festival. TSV.
April 12th – May 12th, 2014
Eva Kotátková – S/T” Eva Kotatkova”
Scrap Metal Gallery
April 3 – June 28, 2014
Critics are Amish Morrell, Gabrielle Moser and Alex Wolfson. Moderated by Amy Lam.
This weekend, No Looking After the Internet meets in Montreal as part of cheyanne turions’s “A Problem So Big It Needs Other People,” an exhibition about sovereignty as a form of negotiation at Montreal’s SBC Gallery. Co-facilitated with turions and with artist Annie MacDonell, we’ll be looking at an unusual archive of found photographs that are collected by and housed in the Toronto Reference Library. Come help us think through the appropriation of images as a process of negotiation, the sovereignty of images, and the political implications of labeling something as “difficult.”
No Looking After the Internet is a “looking group” that invites participants to look at an image (or a series of images) they are unfamiliar with, and “read” the image out-loud together. Chosen in relation to an exhibition, an artist’s body of work, or an ongoing research project, No Looking examines images without the traditional frameworks of the caption, gallery exhibition or artist’s talk. Instead, it offers the space and time for immersive looking, asking what we might see when we look at images slowly and collectively, unpacking our responses with others.
Premised on the idea that we don’t always trust our interpretive abilities as viewers, the aim of No Looking is to examine what makes practices of looking difficult. How does a slower form of looking allow us to be self-reflexive about our role as spectators? How do we look at images differently when we interpret them with a community of others?
No Looking is an ongoing, collaborative project based out of Toronto’s Gallery TPW and takes its name and inspiration from No Reading After the Internet, an out-loud reading and discussion group that meets regularly in Toronto and Vancouver (http://noreadingaftertheinternet.wordpress.com/).
This salon will feature images from the Toronto Reference Library’s Picture Collection, as selected by Annie MacDonell, who has been working with the collection over the last few years.
Despite my best efforts to say “no” to any writing jobs that are not my dissertation in 2013–14, there are sometimes exhibitions that still catch me off-guard and are so memorable, or perplexing, that it seems I can’t not write about them. That’s how it felt when I trekked to Mayfair to see Stephen Shore’s latest solo show at Sprüth Magers last fall while I was living in London. I’ve long admired the American photographer’s talent for making banal urban spaces into playful studies of formal juxtaposition, but what surprised me about “Something + Nothing” was the artist’s display strategies, which saw him break up previously discrete bodies of work and arrange individual photographs into clusters based on taxonomical similarities. Images of car dashboards, pedestrians walking or sprinting across streets, plates of food and architectural studies each had their own section in the gallery, giving an eccentric, encyclopedic overview of Shore’s work over the past four decades.
Montreal’s esse magazine kindly let me review the show in their latest issue, which is on newsstands now.
And now, back to the dissertation writing. See you in a few months.
“Breaking out of this circular relationship [where victims are always the ones pictured as victims and must demand rights in the face of their violation, and where perpetrators and the laws responsible for these violations are never directly pictured] requires that we treat photographs taken in a disaster zone as the basis for reconstructing the photographic situation, whose boundaries never correspond to the frame of the photograph. Using photographs differently allows us to imagine a new—or renewed—human rights discourse, which besides the traditional assistance to a population designation as violated, stands also to benefit the citizens ruled alongside the violated population. This new form of intervention would help the privileged citizens to identify and acknowledge the inherent flaw in their citizenship, a flaw that makes them accomplices to the crimes of a regime that does everything in its power to keep from appearing to be criminal.”
– Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography (New York: Verso, 2012) 245.
This, to me, is the constant challenge: how to recognize the flawed structures that allow me to operate as a privileged citizen as they continuously place others in a position of precarious and weak citizenship. And how to do that in a way that acknowledges my complicity with this flawed system.
See also Mark Reinhardt’s excellent review of Azoulay’s book (alongside titles by W.J.T. Mitchell and Susie Linfield) in Theory and Event (paid access only, sadly, or through a university library account).
When I first began thinking about how to run a looking group, I had always hoped to do a session on images that were not really photographs: scenes produced by a camera, but rarely reproduced or circulated and instead largely known through textual and verbal descriptions or anecdotes. That interest arose, in part, from Ariella Azoulay’s generative suggestion that the event of photography can take place even when no photograph is made. Just the presence or possibility of a camera can change the relationship between the viewer, subject and photographer, even if no image is produced (a possibility that some of the folks in the Toronto Photography Seminar have also been thinking through in our Photographic Situation project).
I could never figure out exactly how to get at this question in looking group, but thankfully my too-smart colleagues cheyanne turions and Jacob Korczynski invited me to think about it out loud with them in a new hybrid/super discussion group that is set to take place at Prefix ICA in December. Bringing together three existing discussion group formats—an out-loud reading group, an out-loud looking group and an international, thematic reading group that also examines and generates artists’ projects—Not Reading Nor Looking is an attempt at thinking about what happens when images move from photographs to texts, and back again.
Not Reading Nor Looking After the Internet
Thursday, 12 December 2013
Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art (401 Richmond Street West, Suite 124)
In conjunction with the Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, this salon will feature a selection of texts compiled by Gabrielle Moser and Jacob Korczynski.
For the last year Gabrielle Moser has been hosting a series of events titled No Looking After the Internet that invites participants to look at a photograph (or series of photographs) they are unfamiliar with, and “read” the image out-loud together. For the past few years, Jacob Korcynski has been hosting reading groups around Toronto based on the research thematics of If I Can’t Dance (IICD), including extended research around reading/feeling and appropriation/dedication. What No Reading, No Looking and IICD share is an interest in how we construct understanding based on encounter, be it with text or images. For this iteration of Not Looking Nor Reading, Moser and Korcynski have selected texts that approach images through language, using prose to conjure scenes in the minds of readers that are already mediated, as representations rather than reality.
For this meeting, texts will include selections from Sergio González Rodríguez’s The Femicide Machine and Gauri Gill’s 1984.
Gabrielle Moser is a writer and independent curator. She regularly contributes to Artforum.com, and her writing has appeared in venues including ARTnews, Canadian Art, Fillip, n paradoxa, and Photography & Culture. She has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, Gallery TPW, the Leona Drive Project and Vtape. Moser is a PhD candidate in art history and visual culture at York University and a member of the Toronto Photography Seminar.
Jacob Korczynski is an independent curator currently based in Toronto, where he leads the satellite reading group of If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution. He has curated projects for the Dunlop Art Gallery, SAW Gallery, Vtape, Gallery TPW and the Art Gallery of York University amongst others, and his writing has appeared in Prefix Photo, Ciel Variable, Border Crossings, C Magazine and Fillip. A former member of the Pleasure Dome collective, he was also the co-curator of Print Generation and From Instructions, the 22nd and 23rd editions of the Images Festival.
“The effects of the ‘digital revolution’ have been analysed for the most part in terms of their effects on individual consumers, rather than from the perspective of the pressures exerted on those charged with their production” (Harry Sanderson, “Human Resolution,” Mute, April 2013)
I’m feeling really lucky to have been able to participate in a series of conversations around digital images, labour and surveillance as part of Harry Sanderson’s “Unified Fabric” project at Arcadia_Missa over the past month, including watching Ge Jin’s fascinating documentary about gold farmers in World of Warcraft last night as the closing event for the exhibition.
This way of talking about what is being called “digital labour” in a panel being convened at the Historical Materialism conference happening at UCL later this week—of thinking about the embodied effects of supposedly immaterial, networked digital information economies on real human bodies—seems new to me, and potentially generative. As someone pointed out in a conversation after the film screening last night, it’s a discussion that seems obviously influenced by Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Soul at Work, which I’m somewhat familiar with, but in my experience so far, Bifo’s work is most often used to analyze the experiences of the user/consumer, or the middle-class-creative-class’s precarious affective and intellectual labour, rather than that of the physical working-class labourer (as Sanderson points out so eloquently in his essay). As part of what seems to now be a never-ending interest of mine in thinking about how conditions of labour are made to appear and disappear in contemporary art, it seems vital to think about why this dimension of labour within contemporary image-making has so far been obscured in critical discourse (or at least the critical discourse I’m familiar with—maybe this conversation’s been happening a long time in contemporary art and I’ve been looking in the wrong places?).
Is there a similar conversation about digital labour happening in the art context in Canada, and I’ve just missed it? If not, how can we start one? (cheyanne turions, I’m looking at you).