BT Robinson

Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

Hannah Modigh: Reading #8

In Photographic Interaction on March 23, 2011 at 3:16 am

(Original Article)

The contextual conversation continues! Hannah Modigh’s work hits a more personal space for me, if only because of my mother and the direction she took her life. No, she’s not shooting up the “hillbilly heroin” but she’s lived a lifestyle similar in appearance to this one, and has associated herself with what some *cough* the artist *cough* might call “white trash.”

The pictures are brilliant portraits, the color and context giving the characters a more complex scene in which to invite the viewer. That the artist avoids the drug to which the title refers is a nice break from what could’ve been “in-your-face” and grotesque. I think of the previous article, and the photographer’s inability to see how their picture might function as exploitation. And maybe Modigh is just as keen on exploiting this people group. She is not shy about her interest in “poor white people.”

But is she not just following in the footsteps of photo history, which has been interested in “poor white people?” for quite some time? Even Stieglitz loved the juxtaposition of the rich and poor in his photograph, “The Steerage.” Of course he wanted to associate with the lesser, to belong to a group different from his own! Just look at them! And then Great Depression photographers like Dorthea Lange found success by putting the camera right in their faces, showing them off to the world… I mean, to help them, of course… right?

Modigh seems interested in neither of these choices though. Nothing in her photos suggest, “this is where I belong!” Nor do they suggest, “these people need help… will you do your part?” No, the narrative is stitched together, familiar and uncomfortable, the way good contemporary photography should be. And how do we comment? That is where the true quality lies: in our inability to comment without revealing some prejudice we carry, whether that be in regards to the people photographed, or the photographer herself.

I say, “I’m impressed,” and risk looking like a classist, and an accomplice to exploitation. Because the exploited photos always tend to be the most conversation-worthy. But maybe that’s not saying anything at all.


David Campbell: Reading #7

In Photographic Interaction on March 23, 2011 at 2:44 am

(Original Article)

With every artistic medium, the conversation of intent vs. reception is bound to come up. I believe it started with literature, when the new schools of criticism rose up and argued (controversially) that the intention of the artist is not important in the reception of the work. Because once we receive it, how can we know the artist’s intention without the artist, in some way, ruining the piece?

We take for granted the ambiguity and multiple interpretations that result from any observation of work. To bring it closer, we can think of all the critiques in which we’ve participated. How often does a student, or the professor even, go off on what the piece says to them? What they think all of it means? It’s especially entertaining when we’ve “faked” our way through a piece just to get it done, because their bullshit smells just as fresh as ours.

Does that mean we defer responsibility? That we allow art object to be taken out of it’s context and used however the recipient chooses? Or do we tie the reins on a bit, attach pieces of text, video, other photos, refusing the single object to sit in isolation? Does a clear narrative aid the piece, or obfuscate it from a vague and relatable beginning?

The single is more difficult than the single book, or the single poem, or the single film. Even the single painting has something in the gesture that can more effectively direct the conversation. It all comes down to whether the artist believes in the truth of her or her work. It may seem naïve today to believe in the truth of a piece of art, especially the photo in the days of Photoshop. Do you see my bias coming through now? Or have you seen it from the beginning?

Even the words I write on this screen have a certain intention. It’s probably really obvious what it is… do I say it, and make it blunt? Or do I consider this “art” and wait for the viewer to decide? We wish that people were straightforward with their words. But especially when it comes to responses to certain ideas, we don’t want to land anywhere too suddenly…

Or maybe that’s just my bias again.

Meg Floryan: Reading #6

In Photographic Interaction on March 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm

“Our advanced art approaches a fragile but marvelous life, one that maintains itself by a mere thread, melting into an elusive, changeable configuration, the surroundings, the artist, his work and everyone who comes to it.” – Allan Kaprow

“…[I]t is the genius of the concept behind the art that is the true product, not whatever aspect of the visitor’s body or mind is being used to tell the story.” – Meg Floryan

The value of this article (in my opinion) is not necessarily what the author is saying, except that she aptly summarizes her perspective on social practice and contemporary art, but rather that she gives us a convenient  list of artists with whom one may want to be familiar. To understand contemporary art, one doesn’t need to know these people (believe me: given the plethora of philosophers and english majors who are partaking and participating, art history [especially more contemporary work]  is only the tiniest facet to their practice). But the history of art is rich, and for the artist an understanding can benefit their practice.

Rather than bullshit forever about these various artists, I’ll pretend that enough of the class is reading this who may or may not be familiar with the artists mentioned, and will provide a link list here so that you can at least have some sort of reference for the thinking of this article. If this is unnecessary for you, do not be offended by my offering; it is as much for my benefit as for anyone else’s:

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: Reading #5

In Photographic Interaction on March 17, 2011 at 11:21 pm

(Original Article)

“Now is a time of real re-birth [in documentary photography], in that you need to be more intelligent and more informed.”

The post-modern photograph exists in an ironic, self-referential world, in which the very thing it is trying to expose is also the object itself. Photographers like Broomberg and Chanarin place little clues in their photographs and in the way they series them, in order to let the informed viewer into the conversation. As inundated as we all are in photographs, there is still the tier above the common “exposure” to photography that must be achieved in order to view the image “properly.” And, for those who are not initiated, they are left with another image similar to those they’ve seen before, and the small hint in the back of their mind that there is nothing special about the image. Do they speak? Or do they remain silent, hoping not to reveal their status as “odd man out?”

Would you consider this work, since it is a critique of colonialism, post-colonialism? The term has been used for a few years now with very little definition around it’s edges, mostly in the contemporary Westerner’s attempt to tease out globalization and justify it’s continuing path. But one can look at it in regards to the Fig. series in that it hopes to directly comment on the ideas of European colonialism, and to act out it’s facade of collecting the “exotic” in hopes to capture it and possess it. The article is fairly clear about this idea, and I I think it may be the most relevant point made.

Yet, here exists two photographers who, because of the history of photography and colonialism, can without guilt guiltless capture, possess, and take credit for photographs that operate in an almost uncanny similarity. I wonder who is the more “mature” photographer: the one who can take the picture of the exploited tribesmen without shame, or the one who cowers away in finding a uncomfortable barrier to cross? The exploited tribesmen may say, “Yes, show the world what is happening!” but more often than not, it is the photographer inserting this speech bubble into his or her photograph. Nor are Broomberg and Chanarin interested in helping these people; they too want to collect the “exotic.”

And so I look at the quote I posted at the beginning and wonder: do we have to know the history of photography to feel welcomed in? Or do we have to know the history of photography in order to see supposed subtle image and sequence juxtaposition that both photographers hope to convey? I appreciate audacity to take difficult photographs, and perhaps I too am naive when it comes to what documentary photography should accomplish.

It may be that Broomberg and Chanarin’s re-birth is meant to be discouraging: that the photograph cannot change the world. Instead, it must play with the rules, tease them apart, and make subtle modifications in order to comment on it’s past. And if that is the future of documentary photography, I don’t know if it can be called such anymore. It may just fall into the realm of Art. Because only that world will get or care about the structures that these photographers are building.

Bob Leonard: Reading #4

In Photographic Interaction on February 24, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The outsider coming in with ideas, means of change, ways of thinking and performances that intend to not only shape the community, but be shaped by the community. The best way I can think about this is from my own experience: a series of mission trips I took to El Salvador. Be warned: the story is personal, so I may ramble.

I can’t say the specific year that I first went to El Salvador with my home church, Greenway Baptist in Boone. But the trip itself came shaped from previous trips that smaller groups of congregation members took. The initial trip was simple: help build a home for a woman who had lost her’s to a flood. With funding by Samaritan’s Purse the team, aided by construction workers, built this home in a matter of days. Not only was the home more efficient, it was also closer to her loved ones, and to the remainder of her village. For a small, one-time trip, it was a success.

But the church decided it was not done with El Salvador. You see, another part of that first trip was a visit to a different village, called Ilopango. Near the far side of the village was a school, only two indoor classrooms, and one exterior with a roof. In each classroom, the children sat two to a chair and desk. Pair this with the lack of air circulation, and it became obvious why many of the children simply chose not to go to class.

On that first trip, the only offering made to that school was time. For the children, it was enough to see a “gringo” come to their village, and to share their time with them. But those who went on the trip wanted to do more for the school. They wanted to return. Samaritan’s Purse was okay with this. The remainder of Greenway Baptist church, however, was not. Nevertheless, a second trip was planned, one which would be geared towards the church’s youth group, allowing them (myself) to come and see, and to interact.

The goal of the second trip, the one I took, was simple. We would repaint the school’s interior and exterior, cleaning up the look of the school significantly, so that the children could take pride in the building. Not a grand endeavor, but something manageable for a youth group. The exterior was to match every school in El Salvador, alternating the blue and white of the flag. In interior was up to us. We decided to paint landscapes and Bible verses on the interior walls, brightening up the space and making it more personal. When we would be done painting for that day, we would spend time with the children, chatting with our meager translation books, playing soccer, and whatever else we could think of.

The trip was, for the most part, a success, in that it accomplished the goals it had set. Of course, the children grew familiar with us, and we became points of inquiry far beyond our time in the village. Also, in dealing with youth, many wanted to leave the school early, and return to the hotel, which was close to the beach. As far as we were concerned, we did what we came to do.

(Part II) Coming Soon…

Richard Mosse: Reading #3

In Photographic Interaction on February 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm

(Infra Series)

The conversation of ethic and aesthetic is taken up Mosse, citing Susan Sontag, a name I’ve grown wonderfully familiar with thanks to my Religious Studies minor and Dimock’s History of Photography. The conversation is cleverly woven, using the Kodak Aerochrome film, meant to take pictures from the sky, the “flying low artistically speaking” that Susan Sontag states, and the overall ineffability of the conflict in the Congo. Military film, militar conflict. This is all well and good, and I admire his ability to defend choices that, to the average person inundated in photo-journalism, seems bizarre.

But it’s that which catches my interest: that is, the role of the photojournalist. Mosse does what the photojournalist is supposed to avoid: give credence to the aesthetic. By using this film which brings out a pinkish–sometimes deep red–tone, the conversation lifts away from the conflict itself, the so-called “ethic” of describing the events as he sees them, and discussing the image itself.

In post-Photoshop culture, our belief–my belief–in the photojournalist has long dwindled. No longer do they hold guilt in adding or manipulating imagery in order to invoke a deeper emotional response. And perhaps they need to, because, as I said before, we’ve seen it all before. Turn on your television, and do not blink as bloodied bodies and crying children fill your screen. Slow-motion, cross-fades, Sarah McLachlan playing in the background. In short, it’s a cliché. Rather than push harder, deeper, hoping to cut into the human psyche the way no one has before, Mosse, instead, admits: “This will not affect you.”

Okay, he doesn’t say that specifically, but when the conflict is impossible for us to understand, what do you do? You create art. I think of Sontag’s essays in “On Photography,” and how they are not rigid, cited works, but instead, flows in a sort of literary fashion, taking on these moments of photographic history with bias and little “academic” supports. I’m not saying that Mosse is pushing forward a particular bias. On the contrary, I’m saying that he is doing as Sontag did, taking a medium and tilting it slightly, so that it becomes something different altogether.

As an artist, weighted down with the pressure to create culturally and socially significant work, looking at Mosse reminds me that the aesthetic can still hold on. Of course, it’s not so simple as “I want to take a pretty picture in the Congo.” His work is in conversation with his peers, with history, and does stand firm on it’s own feet because of the cleverly woven conversation.

This is only one solution to a continuing conversation.

Harrell Fletcher: Reading #2

In Photographic Interaction on February 15, 2011 at 2:37 am

I’m scared. Very scared. A couple months from now, I’ll be released out into the world, my degree like a note pinned to my shirt saying, “Be gentle. I’m an artist.” But also, “Be cruel. I went to school, and this is what I have to show for it.” Of course, this isn’t the case. I also have my work, that which I’ve done, and that which I’m doing and will continue to do when I leave.

Why am I talking about my future? Because, damn it, I want to be Harrell Fletcher when I grow up. The academic in me wants to scoff at every idea he has, but the artist in me says, “yes, me too.” I don’t know what the hell to do. I want to make work that gives publics the opportunity to think differently, and I want to survive. Can I make a book of bug drawings, share it with people, and make a living? Can I collaborate with Miranda July to make a website of deceptively simple art ideas, fill said website with user-generated content, and pay my bills?

If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I’m scared because I don’t think I can be who I want to be and survive. And yet, here’s Harrell Fletcher, surviving, teaching, creating Masters programs, brilliantly creating work that engages both the art nut and non-art public. To me, it’s magic. Pure and simple. It doesn’t make sense to the Protestant work ethic/guilt trip of my upbringing.

“Largely I think of what I do as an artist as just pointing to things that I think are interesting so that other people will notice and appreciate them too.” He says that. That son of a bitch. Show me how this works. Please. I’m talking to whoever is reading. Help me figure this out. If there’s a “How To Be Harrell Fletcher” booklet out there, I want to read it.

And didn’t I just read it?

Damn it, I think I need to think about this some more. Oh, ego!

Claire Bishop: Reading #1

In Photographic Interaction on February 9, 2011 at 5:44 pm

(Original Article)

The arena of social art has been, as you know, ignored for the most part at UNCG. So, to enter the conversation that writer Jennifer Roche and and art critic Claire Bishop is, to say the least, difficult. You expected this, yet I still feel the need to preamble my thoughts with this warning:

I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about.

That said, let’s begin.

At base level is this idea that there is dichotomy between aesthetic and praxis, that the two must be considered on different levels, or perhaps even for different projects. Surely, a work that seeks to bring light to, say, a forgotten or unknown tribe, or maybe a visceral response to gender roles in various cultues, does not need to consider how the the performance or show looks. Of course, saying “looks” reduces the notion of aesthetic too simply. Aesthetic is what the critic criticizes. It is the elements of a piece, object- or experience-oriented, that can be addressed, valued, and potentially improved.

In other words, how do we critique something like the Super G? Does it revolve around how much influence it has? How many people show up to the talks, or visit the gallery? Art in the present tense should not play such number games, especially if the idea is to “improve” the aesthetic, or give weights or standards to to aesthetic qualities. Do we discuss the moral implications of the artists’ intentions, or if they seem divergent, place a wedge between the two, in order to evaluate the merits or influence of each?

Perhaps even my understanding of ethics is too generic as I approach this article. Bishop says that this is where the critical examination of socially-engaged art has rested. Perhaps understanding where it has been will help to see where it must go.

They mention the artifice of Dada, which makes sense in showing the relationship between ethics and intentions in the past. For, while much of what Dada had done breeched art boundaries nearer to the cusp of performance art, they did so with the intention to break apart the observer’s relationship to the art piece, to create an unease in the place of passive observation, or simply, boringly, to challenge conventions. But in their meticulous calculations, the relationship is not fostered but only rendered brutally for the sake of shock and the novel. In order for socially-engaged art, art as experience, to carry forward, there must be some deeper level achieved.

The place Bishop looks today for the most hope are the places that bring forward the “contradictory pull of autonomy and social intervention, and reflect on this antinomy both in the structure of the work and in the conditions of it’s reception.” I’m going to attempt to break this down for my own understanding. I invite comments on this, as well as the rest of this entry, if anyone has insight.

Autonomy is the ability of a self to move as a free agent in one’s own desires. Social intervention requires the investment of others outside the self, and creates vision that does not belong to the self alone but to the collective, however great or small. The contradiction is apparent, yet both are equally valued, the former it seems as more of an Art-with-a-capital-A practice, and the latter, a more experiential practice. Yet both exist, as the artist has vision for the direction of a project, yet the most compelling works allow the other to intervene and create a meaning most likely very distant from that of the artist. How do both exist together? What are the ramifications? Though this article was written in 2006, five years later, we’re still working through these murky, unknown territories.

And I have to go to class, so I might look at this more later.