“Coming to Encounter” at Gallery TPW R&D
It’s been so quiet around here lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few tumbleweeds had rolled through. But it’s not (just) because I’ve retreated from the internet to try and finish my dissertation. It’s also that I’ve been working away at a couple of photography-related projects, both academically and curatorially (I know that’s not a word), trying to think through some of the ways I might elaborate on the questions that are driving my dissertation project in and with a public.
The first project involved helping to organize, with the Toronto Photography Seminar, the Durham Center for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS) and The Developing Room, a workshop on the photographic situation that took place last month at the University of Toronto (I tried to summarize and preview some of the works-in-progress papers for The Photographic Situation blog here). The Photographic Situation Project is an ongoing, three-year grant project that proposes “an emerging conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures” and has as one of its goals the aim of bringing photography theorists together with practitioners (such as artists and curators). It’s a work-in-progress in many ways, but it is so far proving to be a valuable resource for thinking about how to think about photographs differently, outside of some of the traditional fine art vs. documentary boundaries that for so long defined the field.
The second project is also a long-term engagement, this time working as a curator in residence at Gallery TPW R&D. Over the next year, I’ll be working closely with the gallery’s curator, Kim Simon, on a series of discursive programs that examines the aesthetic strategies employed by artists and photographers to prepare viewers for an encounter with difficult knowledge. Titled “Coming to Encounter,” this curatorial residency emerges out of several years’ worth of conversations about photography and difficult knowledge that have taken place in and around Gallery TPW, and proposes an experimental approach to finding contexts and frameworks where this discussion can be elaborated and tested in public.
As part of the 2012/13 TPW R&D project, “Coming to Encounter” proposes that the framing devices used by artists to present traumatic events—especially those that trouble an easy viewing experience—serve an important pedagogical function. Photo-based practices provide forceful viewing experiences because they seem to offer the viewer a direct encounter with others. Yet our readings of photographs are highly contingent and change depending on the context in which we view an image, at times prompting feelings of empathy and identification, at others discomfort and rage. Positing discursive events as another set of framing devices, “Coming to Encounter” questions how we make sense of our affective responses to images, suggesting this knowledge is always latent and necessarily incomplete.
Inspired by pedagogy theorist Deborah Britzman’s writing about difficult knowledge—the concept that learning from representations of social trauma is a psychically difficult task because it forces us to question our sense of self—“Coming to Encounter” looks at works by a variety of contemporary artists, documentarians and photojournalists to initiate dialogue about what it means to be affected by our encounters with images. Comprised of a panel discussion about unshowable images, an online archive of interviews with photographers and artists, discussion groups and publications, “Coming to Encounter” aims to prolong the viewer’s encounter with images, experimenting with different modes of presentation and extended temporalities for interpretation. For this reason, the series takes place in the discursive spaces around the traditional gallery exhibition, emphasizing the diverse contexts in which the photographic encounter occurs.
As the project progresses, I’ll be working and experimenting in the Gallery TPW R&D space, inviting people to stop by, chat, and think out loud with me. It is rare to be given the opportunity to spend such a sustained amount of time on the conceptualizing of a new project, and to be given the opportunity to test ideas with publics over a longer time period. The Gallery TPW R&D model offers me the unique opportunity to shorten the feedback loop between the curatorial proposition and viewers’ responses, and will allow me to concentrate on discursive programming as a distinct mode of curatorial work, rather than as a series of activities meant to supplement the “main event” of the traditional gallery exhibition.
Soon, there will be an online component of the “Coming to Encounter” project through Gallery TPW’s website, but for now, check back here for what’s happening between now and next spring. And, please, stop by and come in and say hello!