Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is Photography Over?

It was interesting to read about SFMoMA's symposium Is Photography Over?  It seems like a relevant discussion for those involved in the field of photography to have, and SFMoMA seems like a good venue for it.  I was surprised to find out that it was sponsored by the Fraenkel Gallery.  In the opening remarks, Neal Benezra, the director of SFMoMA, mentions that the sponsorship is one of the more extraordinary things he has seen a commercial player do in terms of advocacy and education.

Jeffrey Fraenkel by Lee Friedlander

I do not think photography is over by any means, but I do think the field has changed, and will continue to change.  It's not like this anymore:

As Jennifer Blessing pointed out, change is integral to photography as a medium, especially given its dependence on the production of certain equipment, films, chemicals, etc.

This whole discussion made me think of John Cyr's project Developer Trays, in which he makes straightforward photographs of developer trays used by well-known photographers "so that the photography community will remember specific, tangible printing tools that have been a seminal part of the photographic experience for the past hundred years.  By titling each tray with its owner's name, I reference the historical significance of these objects in a minimal manner that evokes thought and introspection about what images have passed through each individual tray."

Is Photography Over?

Vince Aletti

Vince Aletti's point of view is optimistic, and I tend to agree with him.  Photography as a medium is certainly expanding, but perhaps instead of viewing it as the end of one era it is more productive to view it as the beginning of another.  As he points out, many kinds of outdated or antiquated photography are still being practiced, perhaps arguably more so now as a backlash against the overwhelming proliferation of digital images:

Vintage work is fetishized, but does the black-and-white print have a place in contemporary practice? Ask Lee Friedlander, Judith Joy Ross, Robert Adams, and Sally Mann. The regular disappearance of favorite photographic papers, the recent dismantling of darkrooms, and the relentless rise of digital capture and output would seem to signal the end of a long, vital chapter in the medium's history. But when virtually every antique process — daguerreotype, tintype, and cyanotype; albumen, salt, platinum-palladium, and wet-plate collodion printing — has been revived over the past few decades, there's no reason to think gelatin silver will disappear totally anytime soon. There's never been just one kind of photography, and now there are many.

In the age of digital manipulation, it is arguable that much of photography's power as true documentation has been lost.  Nevertheless, Aletti claims there is still inherent power in imagery.  What has changed, in his opinion, is a narrow view on photography.  

What's over is the narrow view of photography — the idea that the camera is a recording device, not a creative tool, and that its product is strictly representational — not manipulated, not fabricated, not abstract. But surely that notion died long ago, along with the idea that there was an important distinction to be made between pictures made by "artists" and everyone else with a camera. Thanks to pioneering curators and collectors like John Szarkowski and Sam Wagstaff, more serious attention has been focused on the broad range of anonymous, vernacular, and commercial work, opening up the field and enlivening the discussion. Photography over? More often these days, it feels like it's only just begun.

Walead Beshty

Walead Beshty points out that the "crisis" being discussed in this roundtable discussion doesn't actually have much to do with photography itself, but rather with how photography functions within the academy and the institutions of Art.

In short, a medium is always relational, and the attempts to isolate and treat it as discrete is to institutionalize it, and to further attempt to place it within a larger schema is to institutionalize it a second time, rendering it further abstract...  So it seems safe to say that when we speak of a "crisis" in the way asserted above, we speak of the trouble in institutionalizing photography within a broader field as a discrete entity, here specifically the field of art, and whether or not this category, in and of itself, is still useful for these purposes.

Continuing, he writes, "Photography" becomes, in this instance, a way to name this institutional anxiety, and any perceived crisis is really that of the disciplinary structures applied to it.

It seems that this has always been the case with photography.  From its inception, both makers and critics have struggled with finding a place for photography to co-exist within a pre-existing structure of art.  Perhaps now it seems like more of a pressing crisis, as the field is undergoing massive changes, but Photography and Art have never had a truly functional relationship.

He criticizes the institutions, including graduate schools, for trying to so neatly divide photography away from any other type of art or history, arguing that these types of divisions are irrelevant to art-making and only serve the institutions that teach/engage with/profit from art-making. 

The questions posed for this conference neither relate to practices which we might call photographic, nor do they point to the theorization of those practices, as these practices are all specific sets of relations and do not operate at the level of abstraction. Instead the condition of "crisis" is realized on the level of abstract institutional categories invented to delineate one set of practices from another, a crisis pertaining to whether or not the current structure of disciplines is able to identify and dutifully manage the traditions they are called upon to preserve and maintain; it is about creating a criteria for what is excluded and what is included in the hypothetical warehouse called "photography". It is less a crisis for the medium, but more so a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself.

Jennifer Blessing
Jennifer Blessing had an interesting point in terms of what defines photography.  

In the end, what makes a photograph a photograph is its ephemerality, its special connection to a moment in time that is always already lost. Indexicality as the defining characteristic of photography is a faith to which I subscribe. The photograph has a privileged connection to the past, which it seems to preserve like no other medium. Therefore, I would argue that all recording technologies (including lens-based, sound, and sensitized surfaces) ultimately have more in common ontologically with performance than with traditional painting and sculpture.

As she points out, photography has often been written about as having a connection to the past in terms of subject matter, but it also has a limited life span in terms of technology.  That is never more apparent than right now, as analog shooters struggle with dwindling film options and photographers working in the darkroom are slowly losing access to their materials.  Yet, in some ways, this is liberating and exciting.  Clearly photography will go on, one way or another, surviving a change in equipment and technique as it has done so many times before in its relatively short history.  

I was also interested in her take on photography from a museum/collecting point of view:

As a museum professional, what is at stake in the broad definition of photography that I propose is how to collect and preserve art that is inherently ephemeral, focused as it is on the momentary, and subject to the inherent vice of its relentlessly newfangled and rapidly obsolete technologies. Just as performances are reiterated via scripts, notations, and scores, it may be that contemporary recording technologies will require instructions for their re-fabrication by future generations. Already, rapid changes in platforms have required us, as an institution, to grapple with reformatting media-based works. We face related challenges with color photographs.

PL Dicorcia writes about photography's inherent qualities and limitations in a way that is interesting. 

Photography's role as a verification of the world is lost. Reality has become a parallel universe with photographers returning with different versions of what it truly looks like. 

Hasn't this always been the case?  Again, due to the relatively limited amount of photographs in existence in the pre-digital age, was this fact lesser known or less widely embraced?

I suggest Photography is just tired. The fatigue seems partly a result of its sudden over-inflation and equally sudden deflation: stress fractures in its credibility...  William James said, "Wisdom is learning what to overlook". We now look at everything, including the invisible. Photography, a mechanical form of looking, is intrinsically limited in what it can show. There lies the wisdom. The current crisis is partially caused by attempts to extend Photography's capability. Maybe it will succeed and show us something new we don't really need to see, or maybe it will fail and be the wiser for it.

Perhaps it has simply become more difficult to distinguish between "art" photography and other kinds of photography.  As we discussed in terms of the internet, we now have more access to photography than ever before, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Peter Galassi

Is photography over? I don't think so. It's a human creation that has turned out to be quite useful, like plumbing or language. Like all useful things, it keeps changing. And like all things touched by digital technology, it is changing a lot right now. But no matter how many new gizmos and apps come along, I doubt that photographs are more likely than pipes and words to become obsolete.

But we're really talking about photography in the art world, aren't we? One of the progressive myths of today's art world is that what really matters is some core quality, idea, or experience of art — independent of the materials and techniques that brought a particular work into being. I call this outlook progressive because it has challenged hierarchies and eroded assumptions that tended to stifle rather than inspire curiosity and creativity. It certainly was good news for photography. Now that a work of art can be anything under the sun, the palette envy that gnawed so mercilessly at Alfred Stieglitz ought to be a thing of the past.

Hence the question at hand. If a photograph can be a work of art — no fuss, no muss — and lots of artists use lots of different stuff to make their art, isn't it rather old-fashioned and parochial to be concerned with photography as such? Yes, of course.

And no. It may be that Stieglitz's grumpy resentments are indeed a thing of the past (and if so, thank God, or whomever one thanks now that God is over). But Stieglitz's work is still here. I get paid to believe that the past is relevant to the present, but even if museums were to evaporate, tradition won't. Artists will make sure of that, and it is hard to believe that they will lose interest, forever, in all of the photographs from the time before photography was over.

And, whether or not anyone actually believes that all mediums have now become equal, is that any reason to suppress the distinctness of any one of them? There is a difference between anything being possible and everything being the same. It would be marvelous if each of us could be alert to all the different colors of the rainbow — that's something to strive for. But it doesn't mean we should dump every single can of paint into a one big vat. You end up with a rather unappealing brown, and it never changes.

Peter Galassi's writing was quite possibly my favorite.  Refreshingly, he doesn't seem to be worrying so much about where photography fits into our institutional structure, but rather acknowledges that it will go on, regardless.  His paint analogy is also quite perfect. 

Charlotte Cotton

Charlotte Cotton's points are, again, about the institutional approach to photography.  It is refreshing to read curators to write about the institution in this way.

It's about time for photography as a culturally institutionalised, ghettoised, and, frankly, dull and acquiescent, photo-art-market-serving "discipline" to be over.

So how do we respond meaningfully to the mass energy of citizen photography or print-on-demand publishing if the canon that distinguished a very few from the ever so many is our overriding mandate? How can we shape exhibitions to reflect the contradictions and t.b.d.s of our time if our preferred model is the institution educating its public with reassuringly complete and hermetically sealed gallery experiences? How do we facilitate the life-changing, photographic epiphanies that our touchy-feely education programmes should aspire to if our potential participants have a better grasp than us on photography as a creative and social tool? Will national and regional collections of photography truly reflect the histories of the medium as they now unfold if they continue to co-opt in a token fashion anything outside its core canon, whether it be the commercial industries of photography, amateur, or non-Western practices, as a way of seasonally updating a super-tired litany of:
  • Road trips
  • Street poetry
  • Illustrations of political and social issues
  • Light-weight Conceptual Art
  • The inoffensively and classically stylish
  • The outputs of the persistent and charming
  • The cheap stuff that contemporary art curators and collectors aren't interested in
  • The downright over-produced?
To borrow from the enduringly astute Noel Coward [1], people are wrong when they say that photography in art museums isn't what it used to be. It's what it used to be – that's what's wrong with it.

Though this discussion doesn't seem directly aimed at photographers themselves, I can't help but think about my own work in the context of these discussions.  Laurel Nakadate's critique this week, in which she immediately placed everyone's work in the context of the broader art world, also left me thinking in this vein.  Of course art-making is personal and unique, but to what extent do the institutions (colleges, galleries, and museums) shape the making of art?  Of course they have a financial impact, but they also have such a huge impact on the content and form of the art being produced.  It almost seems daunting to try to position oneself within this world, which is large now and getting larger by the day.  Are the old methods of the art world starting to vanish?  Are we moving away from exclusivity?  If so, is this a good thing, or simply a watering-down process?  Can the systems currently in place even support this kind of movement?  Arguably not, as Cotton writes.  Are the makers and producers of work moving at such a pace, and in such a way, so that the institutions can't keep up?  Are people fed up with the institutions and making work completely outside of them?  That is possible (financially) with digital photography in a new way. 

Corey Keller

The challenge of the question, "Is photography over?" is that it immediately demands a definition of "photography," and perhaps even a consideration of what constitutes "over." Neither is as straightforward as it might immediately seem. For the millions of people armed with camera-equipped cell phones posting on Flickr and Facebook, to question photography's vitality must appear at best perplexing and at worst self-indulgent. Surely photography has never been more ubiquitous or more accessible than it is today; in his wildest dreams George Eastman could never have imagined the photographic possibilities currently available to the everyday user. A brief visit to nearly any museum of modern and contemporary art reveals that the camera is more than ever a crucial instrument in the contemporary artist's toolbox. So what then is the problem?

Any discussion of photography's "over-ness" necessarily evokes the ever-widening divide between digitally produced and/or manipulated photography and what is now (horrifyingly) referred to as "analog" photography. And, to be sure, the advent of digital photography has caused problems, not the least of which is the precipitous disappearance of traditional photographic materials and the birth of a whole generation of photographers unfamiliar with the darkroom or the qualities of an exceptional print, but it has also opened up so many possibilities that it cannot be dismissed out of hand as the death knell of the medium. (Although it is a subject for a longer discussion than can be undertaken here, I do take issue with the conventional wisdom that digital's impact has been to undermine the inherent truth-value of the photograph; to argue thus is to ignore the medium's fraught history.) I would argue that the critical challenge facing photography today is not so different from the crises it has faced before, and the failure to recognize this crisis as one of continuity, rather than of rupture, is in fact the greatest problem of all.

Corey Keller makes interesting points about photography and it's "over-ness."  I like that she pointed out, although briefly, the problem with all of the recent discussions around truth in photography.  There has never really been such a thing.

I also thought it was interesting how she compared Steiglitz's backlash against photography criticism (making pictorialist photographs that denied the technology and played up the artistry) to our current climate of the production of large photographs, often staged or manipulated to imply artistry and distance themselves from amateur photography.  I couldn't help but to think of Fried and his obsession with Jeff Wall's manipulations, as if knowing that it took someone two years to make a photo of a boring apartment makes it any more meaningful. 

I wonder what Nan Goldin would have been like had she been coming of age now.

And because, for some reason, I've got a thing for cartoons today, I'm going to end with this one.  It's a little bit of a stretch but it seemed relevant given that many of these writings are about the inherent tension between photography and the institutions that show, support, and collect it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Relational Aesthetics

Relational Aesthetics

"The possibility of relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interractions and its social context, rather than the assertion of independence and private symbolic space, points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural, and political goals introduced by modern art." - Nicolas Bourriaud

The idea of relational aesthetics as a practice of art-making is interesting, though its parameters begin to get fuzzy for me upon close inspection.  I am particularly interested in the point being made in the article and the video that relational aesthetics in art making is a response to an overwhelming amount of imagery and a mode of (increasingly solitary) human connection dependent upon technology.  In a way, it reminds me of the slow food movement, but with art.  Have we, culturally, reached our saturation point with technological or mediated interaction?

In his (somewhat clunky) essay, Nicolas Bourriaud writes that "the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist."

At the crux of relational aesthetics is the way the work demands or encourages human interaction.  Art in this vein is made not just to be looked at, but in fact requires active engagement from (sometimes many) people to function.  While this is a concept that is interesting, there were points throughout the article where I questioned the haziness of the line between this kind of art work and activism or social justice work.  Is bringing people together and encouraging them to have a real, face to face interaction inherently art?  Surely this is not the case.  It made me wonder what the difference is between having a potluck or gathering in one's home versus staging the same event in a gallery (an idea in dialogue with the artist in the video who cooked dinner in gallery spaces).  Both events create relation, if you will, though perhaps only the latter calls attention to itself as intentionally doing so, going as far as to comment on the very structures in which we relate to one another.

I immediately thought of a work I had seen in 2007 at the List Visual Art Center (LVAC) at MIT in a show called Sensorium.  The LVAC describes the overall exhibition as follows:

This two-part exhibition organized by the MIT LVAC, explores various ways in which contemporary artists address the influence of technology on the sense. The impact of new technology has reshuffled the established hierarchy of the senses and radically changed people's lives. Remote sensing via telephones and screens are fundamental parts of the daily sensorium (a Latin term that connotes ancient and often theological debates about mind and body, word and flesh, human and artificial). The art in Sensorium captures the aesthetic attitude of this hybrid moment when modernist segmentation of the senses is giving way to dramatic multi-sensory mixes or transpositions. The artists in this exhibition respond and question the implications of this significant epochal shift.

Artist Mathieu Brand created an interactive work called Ubiq, a Mental Odyssey (2006), which consisted of a room with several helmets that the viewers could wear.  On the front of the helmets, there was a screen, and each helmet had a button you could press to change the point of view being depicted on the screen.  By simply wearing the helmet, you saw your own point of view, but when you pressed the button, the screen switched to the point of view of someone else in the room.  Clearly, this project only worked if multiple people participated simultaneously.  By choosing to engage someone else's point of view, you altered your perception of space and could simultaneously walk around the room and watch yourself walking around the room.

Installation shot of Ubiq, a Mental Odyssey

David Hilliard engaging with the work

Bourriaud claims that "it is no longer possible to regard the contemporary work as a space to be walked through.  It is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion."  Relational aesthetics certainly makes art more active, which is exciting.  The idea of using art-making to create a venue in which to encourage an encounter between people resonates with me.  Though I do not work in this way, persay, my own art-making practice falls along these lines, in that I use photography as a means to connect with other people and to engage with the world around me.  I am interested in the effect this has on a larger scale.

The political element of this kind of art practice is integral to the meaning of the work, but again, the line between the art of relational aesthetics and other non-art-world acts of community building seems fuzzy.

Bourriaud writes, "depending on the degree of participation required of the onlooker by the artist, along with the nature of the works and the models of sociability proposed and represented, an exhibition will give rise to a specific "arena of exchange."  In this vein, I particularly liked the following sentiment: "art is a state of encounter."

Artist Sheila Pepe's ongoing installation project Common Sense engages with this dialogue in an exciting way.  Pepe describes it as follows:

Common Sense is an ongoing installation performance that Pepe calls “practicing for the end of ephemera.” The installations are large-scale crocheted drawings -- informed by Modernist abstract compositions as well as late 20th century notions of de/construction. Audience-turned-participants "unravel" the art, transforming the drawing into raw materials for making their own scarves, hats, socks, etc.

Her work requires and depends upon audience participation, changing over the course of an exhibition as visitors engage with it through the act of knitting.  When she showed it in Boston, the gallery director asked me if I knew anyone in the knitting circles of Jamaica Plain who would potentially be interested in contributing to the work, as it would really only be successful and exciting through a large amount of visitor interaction.  This again raises the question: what are the fundamental differences between choosing to come together to knit in an art gallery versus in someone's apartment or a coffee shop?  One is high brow and one is low, but why exactly?  Does it even matter?  Can we make a distinction between art and life any longer?  Perhaps that is exactly the point of relational aesthetics, yet all of these art makers are still attempting to make work that functions within the art world, which is inherently not the same as the real world.  Are they undermining their own arguments by continuing to present the work within a fine art context?  Or are they making it more powerful?

Installation at Carroll and Sons, Boston, MA

Gallerist Joseph Carroll participating in the knitting

Artist Cobi Moules participating in the knitting

I also thought of artist Barbara Gallucci and her soft, pliable chair-like creations that encourage participation and interaction.  Though this is not engaging as directly with the idea of relational aesthetics as something like the Brand piece at MIT, it still fits the bill.  Below are installation shots from the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA.

I suppose it worked, because I certainly engaged with the work, and with other museum visitors by extension.

Of course an artist like Marina Abromovic comes to mind instantly, though I won't go into that too much since her performance The Artist is Present has already been talked about so extensively.

The relationship between relational aesthetics and performance kept coming up for me throughout the readings.  A lot of the work discussed seemed to have a performative element, whether direct or implied.

I thought of a performance from The Wedlock Project by TT Baum and Michael Grohall that I participated in at the ICA Boston in early 2010.  The idea was for people of the same sex, one of whom was gay and one of whom was straight, to hold hands and walk around the museum for an hour.  While this was very much a public art piece, it also created a huge amount of interaction between the participants, as well as a lot of interesting emotional reactions before the performance even took place.  Some gay folks were afraid to ask their straight friends to hold hands with them in public for an hour (myself included, which was an unexpected reaction on my part).  My friend and gallerist Arlette wanted to go and claimed me as her hand-holding partner, so it all worked out fine.  Some of the gay participants had their straight friends say no, which in and of itself caused problems and revealed prejudices that were previously not known or expressed publicly.

Anyway, the performance not only had the effect of inspiring these interactions and conversations beforehand, but it also raised questions about the nature of art viewing, the public nature of expressing intimacy, etc.  It was pretty amazing, in ways I didn't expect.  It was also unbelievably awkward to try to hold hands with someone constantly and look at art at the same time.  I enjoyed the process of having to negotiate someone else's pace and interests and thinking about how that idea functions more broadly. 

Me and Arlette

TT Baum and me

This is what it looked like, all around the museum

I also thought of Andy Goldsworthy's 2005 piece Drawn Stone at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  A site-specific installation, the work is a crack that runs along the ground outside of the museum and inside to the lobby.  The work is "a continuous crack running north from the edge of the Music Concourse roadway in front of the museum, up the main walkway, into the exterior courtyard, and up to the main entrance door. Along its path, this crack bisects--and cleave in two--large rough-hewn stone slabs that will serve as seating for museum visitors.

Drawn Stone has particular resonance in the cultural landscape of California, an historic locus of environmental sensitivity and activism. It has added relevance in the context of landscape architect Walter Hood’s landscape design for the de Young and in the natural environment of Golden Gate Park."

While this work is much more subtle than some of the others discussed this week, it relies upon the viewer's engagement to activate it.  It seems accidental at first glance, but upon closer inspection, its intention becomes clear.  It certainly creates its own kind of experience and encounter.

To get back to the BBC video, I was interested in the quest to define relational aesthetics as a movement and to question whether or not it is an "ism."  The video was a little comical, though I didn't get the sense that that was intentional.

The rules made me laugh a little bit, and revealed in part the ridiculousness of the art world's efforts to  place everything into clearly defined movements and categories:

1.  A new ism must come from an old ism
2.  A new ism is a new way of thinking about art
3.  Artists of an ism must hang out together
4.  A new ism is invented by an art critic
5.  A new ism always has a slightly different British sub-species
6.  At first, people think that a new ism is not art
7.  A new era leads to a new ism
8.  A new ism must have a landmark exhibition

I know this is a theory class, but it seems like this is really something that should be left to the art critics and theorists and ignored by the artists.  On one level, who cares if it's an ism?  Does it affect the making of the work somehow?  Rule number four seemed especially poignant in this regard.  Is this a conversation for the critics?  Will they look back on this period, as the video ponders, as the emergence of relationalism?

There is a lot to be gleaned from this discussion for sure, but worrying about the semantics seems not nearly as critical as engaging with the ideas being explored and examined.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Digital Transmission

This week's readings were interesting, but they also made me feel like a bit of a ludite.  I think I'm in a certain amount of denial or unawareness of the extent of digital technologies for not only making or distributing art, but for human connection in general, though I simultaneously engage with the internet in ways that are useful for me (having a website and blog, photo networking on Facebook, following online publications, etc).

Several interesting themes came up for me throughout all of the readings.  One was the distinction between the internet (or all digital technologies) as a media for dissimenating art versus a media for making art.  This difference seems critical to discussions of digital technology and the effect it has on art making.  The second theme was a financial component.  Many of the discussions centered around the financial elements of both making and showing work online versus the potentially outdated models of shooting film and distributing photography through the book form or gallery system. 

Lev Manovich: The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?

Lev Manovich begins his article The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? by describing the phenomenon of social media and user-generated content.  He makes the important point that "this new universe is not simply a scaled-up version of twentieth-century media culture.  Instead, we have moved from media to social media."  (Manovich, 319)

In traditional media, a relatively small number of people are responsible for generating content for a much broader audience, but this is changing with the prevalence of social media.  There is a new democracy to media creation, but with this new democracy comes a lack of specificity or criteria for evaluation (as Amir Zaki beautifully points out in his response to Jason Evans' essay). 

It is interesting to think about who is generating content, and why.  Manovich points out, "in celebrating user-generated content and implicitly equating user-generated with alternative and progressive, academic discussions often stay away from asking certain basic critical questions."  (Manovich, 321)  I was interested that he pointed out this often implicit assumption.  In some ways,the democratization of media means that not only those in power can create media representation, which in and of itself leads to more progressive or alternative media.  But of course, through democratization, anyone and everyone has access to create media from their vantage point, which of course includes less progressive or alternative points of view.

He also pointed out that software manufacturers are now making their products with the specific intention of users altering them, customizing them, and "remixing" from various sources to make things their own, much like one would decorate their home or prepare a meal.  Manovich writes, "to oppose the mainstream, you now have plenty of lifestyles- accompanied by every subcultural aspect, from music and visual styles to clothes and slang- available for purchase."  (Manovich, 324)  This is a fascinating idea to me- is this just another form of capitalist-sponsored individualism?  Is it all a facade?  How unique can you be when you are being sold or marketed the original materials from which to create your identity or existence? 

The idea of constantly streaming ones' life online is also presented in this article as something that will soon be commonplace.  I imagine there has to be a tipping point to this move towards living so publicly, a point where people will find it exhausting or intrusive and refuse to participate.  But is that an option?  And will it be an option moving into the future?  I am always surprised to see the behavior of people even half a generation younger than me in regards to their privacy or social lives.  When I work at summer camps and watch people who are say, 12 to 16, engage with social media, I am fascinated by how different their high school social experience is from mine, which was not even all that long ago.  I think the way people interract with each other has changed so dramatically and so quickly that it will be interesting to see the longer term effects of all of this.  I have read many articles examining the effect of this public living on adolescent development, but it seems like it's too soon to really understand the effects of web 2.0 on people who have grown up with it so intensely.  Of course there is already a culture of people refusing to engage, which makes me wonder if that will become a larger group or if it will remain a smaller subculture- a sense of being radical by moving away from technology, which is something I often encountered in the intentional farming/living communities of Western Massachusetts.  And how does this relate to communities of artists?  What does it mean that you can take and exhibit a photograph in the same day?  That people around the world have access to your work, immediately and constantly?  That we are all engaging with the work of others in a rapid, immersive way?

Manovich also describes the ability of social media and the internet to collapse conversations across time and space.  Some conversations, he claims, are similar to what might take place in a graduate classroom, but with the internet, these conversations can take place by people in different times and locations, and they can theoretically go on forever.  But this again raises the question of quality versus quantity: is this really a better way to converse?

Online Photographic Thinking

Jason Evans' article is interesting, as is the format of the book it comes from.  Words Without Pictures is a fairly interesting case study on its own, as the production of the book is attempting to grapple with the new ways that artists, practitioners, curators, critics, etc engage with and talk about art.  It is essentially an archived hard copy of a series of online and in-person conversations about art that took place over the course of a year.  Similar to the internet, this book has collapsed important discussions across time and space, and then made the choice to archive them in a real-world, tangible book.  It is also part of what I see as a growing movement of practitioners engaging in criticism.  Perhaps this has always been the case, but it seems that with the move towards social media and user-generated content such as blogs, more and more practitioners are contributing to conversations about the fastly changing medium of photography. 

Another interesting book in this vein is Will Steacy's The Photographs Not Taken, which started as an online project and was recently released as a book.  And also Michael Werner's Two Way Lens, though this has remained online as far as I know.  On Friday night I was having a conversation with (and being interviewed by) Caleb Cole, a Boston-based artist who is starting a website where he creates hour-long interviews with artists that will be available for streaming or download called Art is Neat.  Who, we wondered, is creating resources and content for artists?  Who is archiving this history?  In Boston, at least, there used to be an amazing online journal called Big, Red, & Shiny, which ran for many years and archived the city's artistic practice in a fantastic way.  But, as these things tend to do, it eventually ended due to lack of funding and a desire on the part of the artists behind it to do something different, and nobody picked up the slack.  The newspapers certainly aren't covering these things, and the theorists are too slow to respond (and sometimes too far removed from the practice to be relevant).  So it's up to practitioners, it seems, to create their own archives, critical discussions, and communities of engagement (which is encouraged in Lester Pleasant's response to Evans' article).

I think it was in a copy of Photograph magazine that I read Catherine Edelman bemoaning the lack of a permanent arts writer position on the staff of the Chicago Tribune.  Perhaps we can't look to traditional media anymore for the coverage they used to provide. 

Anyway, back to Evans' essay.  Evans starts by saying he is "underwhelmed by photography's presence online and the lack of innovative explorations of the new medium."  (Evans, 40)  This is interesting to me because I actually would choose the word overwhelmed in regards to the internet, and not necessarily in a positive way, though perhaps this has to do with the overwhelming quantity of work available online, not with a new and innovative use of the medium.  The discussion about what kind of engagement that photographers are looking for is interesting.  Can you measure success in number of hits to a website?  Is size of the audience really the goal, or is it a more critical and meaningful engagement?  Will it soon become a radical act to hang pictures on a wall and force people to engage with them for more than 5 seconds?

The benefits of the internet to distribute photographic work are profound- think Flak Photo, Fraction Magazine, Daylight Magazine podcasts, online versions of publications such as Aperture, Blindspot, etc- plus the seemingly endless number of blogs and websites that one can navigate through.  On the one hand, it is a wonderfully democratic (though not always free, I might add) way to distribute one's work- but is it really the best way?  Does the work lose something in the process?  Is the goal to peak interest and then have viewers see the work in a different form or is the online presentation the ultimately intended format?  For me personally, the internet functions as a method of distribution and definitely not as the intended viewing format, but this is not the case for others.

One interesting thing in this essay, and in this discussion in general, is the issue of work being not just distributed online, but actually made in a response to or dialogue with the internet or social media.  Penelope Umbrico's work immediately comes to mind, of course, as work that engages directly with the issues of image creation and consumption, whether it's her images of books culled from advertising magazines or sunsets taken from Flickr.  We have looked at many examples of artists working in this vein that I won't repeat here, but the room full of photos taken from Flickr comes to mind as another poignant example.

Penelope Umbrico, 5,377,183 Suns from Flickr (partial), 2009

Penelope Umbrico, Embarrassing Books

Rachel Perry Welty's Twitter performance comes to mind as an example of an artist creating work in direct response to internet technology.  When I saw this piece exhibited in person at the DeCordova Museum outside of Boston, it was displayed on a series of iPhones fastened to the gallery wall that changed their content every minute, engaging with the constant stream of information provided by Twitter and Facebook.

There was also the professional versus amateur debate, and a discussion of the blending of the categories.  What do these terms even mean?  Yesterday morning at O'Hare, the TSA agent hand-checking my film (which she did not recognize) asked me if I was a professional photographer.  This is always a strange question for me, as I do not know anymore what constitutes a "professional."  Does devoting your life to photography count even if it's not how you make your livelihood?  I said yes, as that usually expedites my process and makes the whole engagement easier.  But as I was reading these essays on the plane it made me think of that question again.  What was she asking me, exactly? 

Evans' project The Daily Nice is interesting, and does in fact make me anxious, as he describes in his writing.  What is this fascination with killing your darlings?  Perhaps it is liberating.  I have no idea as I would never do it.  I have seen many other projects where work is created or shown only for one night and then destroyed (or never screened) again (such as the Humble Arts Foundation's Manual Transmission, which they describe as "a one-night exhibition and event that blurs the lines between art viewership, visual spectacle, and minimalist performance")  The idea of creating an experience is interesting, but is it possible to do both?  To have the initial experience of viewing and then also have an archive or history?  Evans quotes his visitor stats: 34,000 visits per month in the winter and 32,500 in the summer,  However, several of the response essays point out the problems with simple stats such as these.  What is the duration of the viewing?  Who is the audience?  What is their level if engagement?  I personally agree with Amir Zaki when he says "it means more to me to have 10 people intentionally spend 20 minutes each seriously engaging with my photographic installations in actual space than it does to know that 100 people happened upon my website, half of whom got there by accident when Googling their favorite guitar virtuoso who happens to share my name, and spent five seconds or less before they were on to yet another adventure."  (Words Without Pictures, 50)

Going back to the financial discussion, Evans' points out the liberation he finds in being able to take an unlimited amount of photographs using digital technology, not worrying about the cost or preciousness of each exposure, and the freedom in sharing these images very cheaply online in a way he could not do in a gallery.  He writes, "an interesting thing about the digital is that it does us good (mentally, anyway) to sometimes put aside the seductive 'thing-ness' of photography (the crumpled papers, the hassles of framing and hanging) and engage directly with the image."  (Evans, 44)  If trends in photographic education are any evidence, apparently other people agree with this notion.  But what is lost in this process?  Is it completely fantastic and liberating, or does it just create a new set of problems?  I personally find a lot of value in a work of art as an object.  For me, the "thing-ness" actually contributes (or doesn't contribute, as it were with digital imagery) to the meaning of the work.  Evans claims that an image made with a 35mm camera doesn't deliver in the same way as an image made with an 8 x 10, but it delivers nonetheless.  Is it a similar moment in photography to the use of the medium by conceptual artists in the 60s and 70s who were not concerned with Photography with a capital P, but instead used the medium for their own purposes, capitalizing on the varied potential of the technology? 

Then, of course, there is the issue of how to profit from such online image distribution, as Nicholas Grider points out, writing "it seems that the nervousness that underlies both Evans's original essay and Zaki's response is not ultimately one of the quality, seriousness, or ontology of photographs circulating on the Internet, but the equally serious question of how to profit from it."  (Words Without Pictures, 52) 

There have been different approaches to this, ranging from paid subscription dowloads to using digital media as a platform or springboard for other projects or sales.  However, the art world as we know it would fall apart if it were democratized.  The essays point out that the art world proper is inherently flawed, yet artists continue to participate in it because it is nonetheless a system with checks and balances, a game with (some) rules.  It thrives on newness and exclusivity- there is no place for democracy in such a system.  In this regard, how does work meant for the internet, or culled from the internet (an inherently democratic medium, assuming a certain level of socio-economic status) engage with the art world proper?  Is it even possible?  Or does it need to create its own system of checks and balances?  Is it possible to have a system where makers and consumers are held accountable without some sense of financial and cultural heirarchy and supervision?  It seems there is freedom in the kind of democracy that web 2.0 offers in regards to art making and art consumption, but it could also very quickly reveal the smoke and mirror effect of the whole art world thing and create a bunch of unorganized chaos.

Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics

Susan Murray's essay examined the ways we currently take and share photographs and compared this to the way this was done in the past.  Examining Flickr as a photo-sharing platform, she writes "Flickr has become a collaborative experience: a shared display of memory, taste, history, signifiers of identity, collection, daily life and judgement through which amateur and professional photographers collectively articulate a novel, digitized (and decentralized) aesthetics of the everyday."  (Murray, 149)

She engages with the reasons behind picture-making.  In the past, people made photographs to record special events: holidays, weddings, births, etc.  In the slightly further past, they also made photographs to record deaths, though this practice is considered taboo today, probably because of the sheer amount of photographs we are (financially) able to make of people while they are alive.  It is no longer the case that the only photograph you might have of someone would be taken after their death.

However, with today's technology, people are able to make endless photographs relatively cheaply.  I am always hesitant to call digital photography "free," because of course that isn't the case.  Now that most consumers and non-professional photographers (and many professional photographers of course) have moved away from using film, the amount of images they can take is endless.  This technology has enabled a move away from photographing only special occasions and towards photographing the everyday.  With the proliferation of Flickr and Facebook, it has become common practice to make and share images of small quirky moments that, perhaps even ten or twenty years ago, would have seemed unworthy of a film exposure.

I was also interested in her account of how Kodak essentially created what we think of as acceptable or encouraged amateur photography (some Kodak ads here).  Much of how we think of photography comes from their earliest marketing campaigns.

Murray writes that "through its advertising... the company defined amateur photography as a practice that could be easily integrated into everyday leisure activities and could be used to express artistic impulses, yet more than anything else was centered on capturing those special moments of domestic life." (Murray, 152)  Murray continues to point out that in the 1960s and 1970s, the snapshot entered the world of art photography, "pointing out the medium's complicated relationship with reality and the construction of family and private life."  (Murray, 152)

There is a direct link between the manufacturers of photographic equipment and the way it is used as a medium, and this link is often ignored.  As Evans' points out, "those who whine about the demise of Kodachrome rarely bemoan the lack of popularity or common usage of the cyanotype.  Those fuzzy thinkers seldom make the connection between a beloved aesthetic and the motivations of the corporation that created it." (Evans, 43)  This idea seems never more relevant than now.  I know that all of us film shooters held our breath while Kodak sorted out its bankruptcy, emerging on the other side with a commitment to continue film production (and handing out free Portra film at the recent SPE conference in San Francisco, presumably to continue building an active client base).

It is interesting to think about how the new accessibility of photography is moving the medium away from the sense of embalming time, as she writes, and towards a more transient experience.  The overwhelming amount of images that we both create and see leaves us no other option than to engage with them in a faster, more temporary way than we ever would have before.  It will be interesting to see where this new direction in photography leads, and what happens when artists engage directly with this sense of transience as the motivation for their work.  I, of course, am also interested in seeing what happens to work that requires a more sustained look, and seeing what artists choose (and are able) to hold on to from the medium's history as its future moves swiftly and wildly forward.