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Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill: visual cultures in Argentina and Scotland

On Thursday I attended an event organised by my colleagues, Sarah Wilson and Scott Hames. Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill addressed the topic of visual cultures in Scotland and Argentina.

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Syd is a sociologist and artist based in Argentina; he mostly works on video installations addressing social issues. In Argentina it is very unusual to work in both art and sociology. Simon Yuill is an artist and writer based in Scotland, who has been heavily involved in The Strickland Distribution and Variant magazine. I thought it might be of interest to publish my notes on their two presentations – I make no guarantees regarding absolute accuracy, but I hope to have recorded some key elements of their talks.

Argentina

Syd gave a presentation entitled The Crisis of Success: Visual Arts in Argentina 2001-2011, describing a move from an art utopia to a market utopia. There are three distinct periods in a chronological account of this period: 1) a social crisis related to the financial crisis of 1997-2003, that came to a head in 2001; 2) an expansion of the art world from 2003-2007, in part as economic recovery happened; 3) from 2005, however, there was a severe fragmentation of the art world. Although the current situation is often seen as beginning with the 2001 economic crisis, the root of this crisis in turn lies in the implementation of neoliberal policies from 1975 onwards that led to the total collapse of the economy in 2001.

Social relationships during the 2001 crisis became critically important. Different forms of art appeared; so, for example, street art that critiqued the social order played a key role in helping a better understanding of what was happening in the country. This was an artist-led movement, and the artists – through mutual recognition and cooperation – were the ones who legitimated their work, indeed, the creativity of their work in itself legitimated what they were doing. This meant there was no need, no call for, no desire for, external and/or institutional legitimation. This is not to say that there were no problems in this period (for example, there were many long debates about the distinction between art and politics, between creativity and social action), but it was a tremendously creative time for a wide range of artists who produced all kinds of interesting visual work that helped to change the way people understood their situation.

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

As the economy improved (2003-2007), a more formal art market and parallel institutions began to develop. These appeared to increase artists’ opportunities to create. Galleries rapidly made international connections to the global art world and consequently began to direct work to make it ‘fit’ into what was perceived to be an international artistic community, culminating in a 2011 pavilion being bought by the Argentinian government at the Viennese Biennale. However, as artists began to participate in the global art market, it was noticeable that they began to fall into line with the market-led art institutions. Disagreements emerged over how to react to the marketisation: is this art or political action? is it ‘inside’ or ‘outside’? is the creator an artist or a social agent? what has primacy: a love of art or professionalisation? are people (still) working for themselves? Many artists felt themselves to be caught up in a series of contradictions, and struggled to reconcile these divergent positions.

These changes in the Argentinian art world, brought about directly by the commodification of an artistic practice – street art – that had emerged in a context of social action, did not just impact upon the artists of the time, but also impacted upon the new generation of artists. This new generation, however, do not feel the same contradictions about their work as their elders. In part this comes because their work integrates social and political issues from the beginning: in their understanding, activism itself can be a commodity, with artists working with disadvantaged groups in favelas (urban shanty towns), for example. Furthermore, many of the younger artists come from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds whose parents already have some kind of established connection to the art world, perhaps as gallery owners, art editors etc. This essentially makes this younger group of artists an ‘aristocracy’ utilising privileged family connections to further their work. A lack of social movement is the result, heralding a less equal society. Syd termed this ‘social closure’, pointing to the success of the art world in the post-economic crisis period: “The simultaneous qualitative and quantitive growth of institutions, of the market and in the number of artists has produced a ‘social closure'” – of course, this also mirrors wider stratification of society.

Therefore, although there might appear to be a vibrant new art scene that has emerged in recent years, Argentinian art, Syd argued, is actually facing a ‘crisis of success’ as a result of the commodification of what had previously been a means of critiquing neoliberalism. The problem now, he argued, is that neoliberalism appears in many instances to have taken over the critical nature of art, and thereby neutered the critical edge.

Scotland

Simon noted that Scotland has not, of course, had to cope with the same kinds of crises as Argentina. But other crises in the art world have emerged, also centred around neoliberal marketisation. For example, the very idea of there being ‘creative industries‘ is inherently problematic as a means of valorising artists’ work. There is a contradiction in this statement: it appears to be something outside the ‘art world’, but is valorised within it. This leads to ‘organisation isomorphism’, a term that originated with analyses of the co-operative movement. It describes the ways in which the egalitarian and horizontal nature of co-ops began to change to meet the needs of external actors, resulting in hierarchies and more vertical structures (chief executives, spokespeople etc.). Regardless of how an organisation conceives of itself, it is forced to change in order to interact with external agencies. In the art world, this is especially manifested in artist-led groups’ relationships to funders, and there is clear evidence that artist-led groups begin to mirror the structures desired by funders. These market-driven imperatives also then impact upon the priorities of the groups concerned and even the areas deemed appropriate to work in. Jennifer Wolch’s work on ‘the shadow state’ discusses precisely this issue: she shows how governments co-opt critical and liberatory movements, thereby maintaining control over them.

Simon Yuill

Simon Yuill

Simon pointed to two key ways, amongst others, in which this manifested itself:

  • there is a general issue about the access to resources: artist-led groups need funding, and they often need space in which to work.
  • there are also constraints imposed upon artistic expression through the market or the state. Such constraints are often structural (how to organise in order to suit funders, for example, becoming charitable bodies etc.) or situational (relating to opportunities and threats) or operational (when regulatory norms determine a group’s behaviour).

Elaborating on these a little more, Simon pointed to some examples:

  • artist-led groups might, for instance, want to make use of collective spaces, but the allocation or continued use of these can be problematic. Long-standing arrangements that might exist (use of unwanted buildings for nominal rents etc.) are subject to sudden and unpredictable change. In Glasgow the city council has a long history of offering artist-led groups cheap rent for buildings they did not use but wanted to keep. However, in 2010 the council created a private property management company and many of these buildings were transferred to it. Two key things have now changed: high rents are being threatened (from a ‘peppercorn’ £1 to a ‘market-rate’ of £700 in one example that Simon gave), and new leases have been issued that include liability for maintaining the buildings, meaning much of the risk in using the buildings is being transferred to the artists. Evictions have become a real possibility.
  • the (former) Scottish Arts Council created a funding scheme to enable artists to be given opportunities to sell art commercially (using galleries and so on). This does not account for artists who may want or need to create art that is not for selling but that might have a different rationale behind it. The marketisation and commodification of art is a long way from the original raison d’être of some of these artist-led groups.
  • a key threat to artist-led groups is the constant worry about the possibility of funding that has been granted then being withdrawn (Simon’s Variant magazine is an example of this). Creative Scotland (the successor to the Arts Council), has been heavily criticised for cancelling a flexible funding scheme that enabled longer-term planning, as it could be used to cover a groups’ core costs. Now Creative Scotland focus only on project funding – and yet core costs still exist, of course. Furthermore, as this is all project-led, the funding is more easily withdrawn. Perhaps most seriously, project-led funding means that every single project needs to be vetted by Creative Scotland, resulting in hierarchical, top-down directing of what artists are doing.

In the wider context there is a suggestion that all of these funding and creative elements are part of an ‘art world ecology’. This kind of language suggests complex, self-sustaining, self-regulating structures – but it fails to recognise that ecology tends towards collapse as much as towards sustenance. This becomes visible in the hierarchy of art schools, through to artist-collectives, small galleries, and then larger (even national) galleries. The ‘industry’ of art managers, curators, funders and so on all play a part in the isomorphism of artistic creation.

In Scotland we have seen the emergence of a reactionary discourse that claims to protect, but actually reins in, artistic practice. The result is that artist-run practice can be seen as a kind of medieval guild system that includes a revival of a bourgeois structure, including hierarchisation and the construction of privileged networks. An increasing emphasis on philanthropy is a marker of this phenomenon. Subversion is claimed as if art is inherently subversive, without actually showing or declaring how this might be the case. The result is the establishment of an order, a bourgeoisie.

Of course, an artist-run space is not inherently subversive. It is more complex than that: subversion needs to be regained, not by invoking creativity per se, but by placing the artist as a worker, albeit a precarious worker (see the recent discussion around the widespread emergence of a ‘precariat’). In so far as possible, removing the effects of organisational isomorphism has the potential to enable the re-emergence of a more subversive art.

Concluding comments

In a week when the Tory Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, displayed breathtaking levels of ignorance and philistinism in discussing the place of the arts in society (see Tiffany Jenkins’ comment from a Scottish perspective on Miller’s speech), the presentations by Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill offered clear analyses of the malign influence of neoliberalism on artistic cultures. The discussion that ensued picked up a number of these themes, but I think it perhaps best to end with a memorable line from Syd that seemed to me to encompass a key point of what both he and Simon were describing:

“Art is the possibility to create, all the time, the definition of art.”

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I don’t generally like…

… photography blogs that go on at great length about products and gear: often these simply seem to reproduce tedious press releases (someone once told me that ‘a product press release is hype in a pretty font’), and at other times it is just delight in acquiring lots of stuff that lacks any sense of how it might be used, with lots of photos of equipment, rather than photos made with equipment.

So I’m slightly wary about writing this entry, but what I have recently bought is going to make a big difference to me, especially in my beautiful but often rather rainy home country of Scotland.  Just before the new year (when the UK’s awful ConDem government raised VAT – a sales tax, if you’re reading this from outside the UK), I ordered a ThinkTank Hydrophobia 70-200 raincover:

ThinkTank Hydrophobia 70-200

ThinkTank Hydrophobia 70-200

I ordered it (and the special eyepiece) from Harrison Cameras, who delivered very promptly despite the holiday period – I can recommend them!  And I need not have worried about the tax rise quite so much – Harrison’s are keeping their prices at the old rate for the moment (so be quick if you want one too…!).

Although it looks pretty good, I wasn’t completely convinced by it when it arrived, not least because to start with it took quite some time to put it securely round the camera, carefully following the instruction manual (and my wife thinks men don’t read manuals… pah!).  But now that I’m used to it, it really is GREAT – once set up, it allows easy access to all the settings, the viewfinder, and the rear display, and even in heavy rain the camera stayed completely dry.  My D90 plus battery pack easily fits inside, and ThinkTank say it will be big enough for a professional camera such as the D700 or D3. So if you’re looking for a rain cover for an SLR camera, this is one I can definitely recommend! 🙂

There are two caveats I would make:

  1. it is designed to be able to cover a lens as long as the Nikon 70-200mm (drool…), so my 18-200mm will easily fit, as will the slightly longer cheap old 70-300mm.  However, today I had the 10-24mm out with me, and the fabric had to be very scrunched up to stop it covering the front of the lens. This means that this rain cover would not be suitable for something like my 35mm or 50mm primes, so if, like me, you love to use this kind of lens, you might need to think about alternative covers (of course, this also means I won’t be using it with my Nikon FM2, which is very small compared to the D90, even without the extra battery pack).  Having said that, if it is raining a lot, you might be reluctant to be changing lenses much and so a multi-purpose zoom could be just right, making this the perfect rain cover.
  2. because – obviously – the normal camera strap is inside the cover (there’s a very clever wee elasticated strap inside the cover to fold it into – ThinkTank have thought of almost everything!), there needs to be a strap for the rain cover itself.  Unfortunately, the one that is provided is disappointingly narrow, so that even through a heavy raincoat, fleece and thick woolly jumper, I could feel it digging into my shoulders.  I use an air-padded strap from Calumet for the D90 that is fantastically good, and so I will probably find myself buying another one to replace the cheap thin one on the ThinkTank cover.

One of the things that perhaps makes a difference with this product is that ThinkTank was created in part by good photographers who clearly have substantial input in the design of their products – and (apart from the strap) it really shows!

A good service

In June I had problems with my Sekonic L-758D lightmeter having a flat battery.  When I found that the third battery had also gone flat, even though I wasn’t using the meter much, I decided there was something wrong with the meter, and the flat batteries were not my fault (why do we always blame ourselves first?!).  So I contacted the seller, and they advised sending it on to Johnson’s Phototopia for repair under warranty.  I had telephone contact with them whilst they looked at what might be wrong with it, and today I received a new meter – along with two new batteries.  That, in times when I am so used to poor service from large companies, is excellent – so well done them!

And although I really needed the meter for something I want to do next week, I will also appreciate having it tomorrow when I have a modelling session to photograph – these things just become so much easier with a proper meter.  So thank you, Johnson’s Phototopia – I look forward to being able to use my meter again!

Displacement activity

Having ruminated on time in my last post, I’ve been ‘spending’ time on fixing up my website. I felt it had all become a bit disorganised, and since the primary purpose is to show off photos, these had not received the prominence they deserved. So this evening, instead of doing the tedious job I was meant to be doing, I worked on the tedious task of making my website prettier! For the kinds of things I do, my art needs to be accessible to anyone who might want to ‘consume’ the art. So I put all the galleries into one place, and also took the opportunity to add a RedBubble widget to the main page. The rest of the site is better now too.  As am I.

Ownership and responsibility

Susan Sontag, in her famous book ‘On Photography’, describes three forms of acquisition of a photograph, of which I want to discuss two here (the third perhaps another time):

…a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject.  It is a part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.

Photography is acquisition in several forms.  In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects.  Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. (Penguin edition, 1971, 1974, 1977, pp155-6)

This makes for quite some responsibility.  Of course, the idea that by taking a photograph of someone a little something of them is taken is one that many people are familiar with (Sontag discusses this on p158ff).  Indeed, my understanding is that in (parts of?) medieval Europe, the eyes were thought to function almost as projectors – they sent out an image for the other person to see.  So by looking, you were literally taking something of the person or object you were looking at.

Stephanie looking a little coy

Stephanie looking a little coy

Sontag points to this in a different way.  Of course, a photograph can communicate emotion.  These two images of Stephanie clearly communicate something about her – and however one evaluates the technical aspects of the photographs themselves, it is clear that she is communicating different emotions in each of these images.  We have here two different elements of the same model, or in Sontag’s terms: two different ‘surrogate possession[s] of a cherished person or thing, … possession[s] which … [give] photographs some of the character of unique objects’.  In looking at her, we take something unique and intimate of or from Stephanie, something that she has willingly shared with me, her photographer.

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

An intimate portrait of Stephanie

Her willingness to share that element of herself obviously demands respect and responsibility from me, but also from you, the viewer – whether you like the images or not, your viewing of them involves you partaking of Stephanie’s willingness to (metaphorically) ‘undress’ herself to some extent, to open part of herself up to be viewed (or consumed, as Sontag might say).  And so your ‘surrogate possession of … [this] cherished person’ demands responsible viewing.  Sometimes we say that someone – even if they are wearing clothes – becomes ‘naked’ for the camera, and being offered nakedness is something to be honoured; we might reflect on this most dramatically in contemplating sex, but of course it applies in other contexts too, ones that don’t necessarily involve the removal of clothing but the dismantling of barriers to a person’s inner life.  Perhaps the best example of this is Richard Avedon’s famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe: she is more vulnerable, more undressed – and more beautiful! – in this photograph than in any nude centrefold she ever did (it goes – almost – without saying that nudity doesn’t necessarily represent vulnerability: earlier this summer Avedon’s ‘Nastassia Kinski and the Serpent’ sold at auction – I think Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked… of course, placing a serpent on a naked woman is far from unproblematic – but I’ll not go into that now!).

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

Fishing crates, Isle of Mull

Whilst the idea of taking ownership is not necessarily widely acknowledged, I think some sense of responsibility towards photographic subjects often is.  But Sontag picks up on more than this: ‘Through photographs we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs.’  Interestingly, I think this applies as much to the making of photographs as to the photographs themselves.  After all, every photographer is also a viewer – a consumer – of other people’s photographs.  I read today that in western societies urban dwellers see approximately 3,000 (yes, three thousand) brand images or advertisements each day – we cannot but be influenced by other photographs!  I took this particular photograph on Mull, on a jetty.  Seeing these crates piled high on the jetty reminded me of other photographs (and even Rothko paintings!) I have seen that play with lines and colours – and that is how I ‘saw’ this image before photographing it.  Essentially, my visualisation of the photograph I was going to take was in part my own experience of being at that spot at that time – but it was also connected to events that were part of others’ experience and which I had consumed.  As Sontag says, there was a link to consumership: the experience of things I had not experienced, if you like.

So if ‘acquisition’ is an integral part of the photographic process, we need to deal with this responsibly.  It seems fairly obvious how to do that with photographs of people, as discussed above.  But what about the second aspect Sontag mentions?  Perhaps I, or even photographers in general, need to be clearer about our debts to the creators of other images.  Yes, our photographs are communicating something unique and different in a person or a landscape – after all, this particular moment in time has never been captured on film before and can never be captured again – but our photographs often also acknowledge the consumerist element of our membership of wider society.  In taking a photograph, therefore, we are also dealing (usually subconsciously) with the thousands of images we see every day and that lend themselves to being re-imag(in)ed in a new setting – as happened with my crates at Fionnphort.  That is also part of the artistic process.

PS On a more frivolous note, I can’t resist sharing this Lego version of the Nastassia Kinski image… quite brilliant!