Thursday, 14 July 2011

Another year, Another Arles; Part 1

I have just got back from Les Rencontres d'Arles. Many of you will remember how blown away I was when I first went last year; I fear it will have to be a regular stint on my holiday schedule, as this year certainly didn't disappoint. Knowing what to expect meant that I could concentrate a little more on the photography; last year I was so bowled over by the locations of the exhibitions and how they were hung, I think it didn't bother me that perhaps not many of the exhibitions were my cup of tea. This year the hanging was equally as inspiring, but also there were many very interesting exhibitions, which introduced new ideas and ways of thinking, and provoked certain questions in my mind about the future of photography as a medium.

This was a theme that ran throughout the festival, particularly as one of the major shows was entitled From Here On, and was based on a manifesto created by Martin Parr, Erik Kessels, Clement Cheroux, Joan Fontcuberta and Joachim Schmid. Their manifesto suggests that, as there is so much visual material in the world now, we have become a series of editors, taking "work that has a past but feels absolutely present". An interesting precept, and actually, an enjoyable exhibition to visit, but completely vacuous. I realised a few hours after I had seen it that I could barely remember any of the exhibits; proof, surely, that the show didn't provide me with any food for thought, let alone educate me in anything of substance.

The exhibition essentially comprised of artists who used the Internet as a source of visual information. Many of them were fun and made me giggle... a video piece comprising of a collection of youtube videos of young girls shaking their arses to the camera, and a series of photographs of Kim Jong Il looking at things, which has been a very popular tumblr site, updated everyday. But then there was also a collection of sunsets from flickr, a selection of photos of penises on keyboards (yes, really), a cat-cam, web cam pics with insects obscuring the view, old photographs re-photographed with lego people (never got to the bottom of that one!) amoungst other vernacular. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about here... artists such as Joachim Schmid and Gerhard Richter have been working with vernacular photography for decades, and I struggle to see how this is different, apart from the source of imagery.

Mischka Henner: From the series Dutch Landscapes
It was the artists which directly comment on the effect of this abundance of images caused by the Internet which I found the most successful. Mishka Henner uses Google streetview as his inspiration, and his Dutch Landscapes are carefully selected streetview images of certain sites which the Dutch were concerned would be identifiable with the sudden visibility of political, economic and military locations. Instead of just blanking them out as other countries have done, however, the Dutch have used a type of blocky pixelation which provides a contrasting aesthetic to the surrounding views. Henner has also trawled streetview looking for images of girls who are prostituting themselves on the street; this work, entitled No Man's Land, can be seen at the Hotshoe Gallery in London until 26 July. Corinne Vionnet takes photographs of famous landmarks and layers them over one another, creating ethereal, painterly images which reflect mass tourism, and the quest to record our every move.

Corinne Vionnet: from the series Photo Opportunities
Perhaps it's telling that one of the most successful uses of this digital media was not by an artist, but an indie band based in Manchester, called The Get Out Clause. In order to keep costs down, they made a music video for one of their songs using CCTV. Taking full advantage of the Freedom of Information act, they recorded themselves on various cameras around the city, and then asked for the footage, creating a free and very clever music video, which you can see here. This, to me, is more a comment on how society has changed over the last ten years or so then many of the artworks in the show.

The curators of this exhibition seem to think that things will be different "from here on...". Well, this didn't seem to me to be all that different, and I certainly hope this is not the future of photography. A friend remarked that it was like watching a B movie... and it's true. It showcased the lowest of the low as far as photography is concerned. Perhaps it was because it was in an exhibition setting that it seemed so out of place. Perhaps it is an interesting collection of works, but should be shown in a way which reflects them; on screens, or as an online exhibition... maybe.

Coincidentally perhaps, FOAM magazine had created an exhibition entitled What's Next?, which accompanies a website of the same name. The most interesting thing in this exhibition was the quotes from people industry people, and their ideas of how photography can progress from here. Many can be seen on the website, which is well worth looking at, if you can fathom the navigation...

More from Arles coming soon! Next post will focus on my highlights.

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