Category Archives: power

In praise of selfies

Real photographers (or those who think they’re real photographers…) always seem to mock selfies – self-portraits, usually made with a mobile telephone.  In particular, they mock people using selfie sticks – ugh, how crass! 😉

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Actually, selfie sticks are crass. I can find nothing redeeming to say about selfie sticks.  They should be banned from polite society.  There is only so much crassness the world can take, and selfie sticks go too far.

However, I think selfies are inappropriately mocked.  Having previously had a rather snooty attitude to them, I’ve come to rather like them.  I’ve even started taking a few.

It seems to me that selfies undo certain power dynamics that are problematic in portrait photography, especially photographs of women by men.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, published a now-famous essay called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp6-18 – it’s a closed access journal, so if you don’t have institutional access, you could try here or here or here…).  Not without its problems, and bearing in mind Mulvey is writing in an era of second wave feminism (Wikipedia article here), Mulvey’s essay is nonetheless really helpful in understanding images of people.

Mulvey argues that many films portray storylines from a male perspective: we identify with the main (usually male) protagonist, and want to see how he deals with the situation he is in.  In such heteronormative films, women are simply passive extras subject to the male gaze, manifested in camera framings that emphasise their body rather than their character. They are ‘to-be-looked-at’ (of that time: watch the opening of this awful 1975 interview, in which Michael Parkinson discusses Helen Mirren’s ‘equipment’). Mulvey says (section III.A):

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.

She discusses voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia (which I don’t want to get into here in any detail), but in this regard she says (III.C.1):

… in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.

How does Mulvey propose to challenge this?

The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film… Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire. It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged.

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

I think much of her analysis works for photography too.

Whilst drafting this text I looked at a popular photography website, www.500px.com, and the ‘People’ category in the ‘Popular’ images (these are currently being frequently viewed by users).  I took four screenshots of the first page of images, reproduced here.  There are 38 images, broadly classifiable by subject:

  • 1 man
  • 1 boy
  • 2 girls
  • 35 women (one photo has two women in it).

So the only people really worth photographing are… women?  And judging by this random sample, ideally a number of them will be wearing surprisingly little. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographers here appear to be… men.  There are some technically skilled photographs here, but only rarely is there a sense of narrative in the image, of communicating something more than ‘look at this pretty woman’ – this is about ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.  The male gaze is alive and kicking on 500px (and on Flickr and elsewhere).

Of course, this is not just the case on photo-sharing sites: I bought this month’s Marie Claire magazine (it could have been Vogue or Cosmopolitan etc. – but MC was on offer!) and wading through the endless advertisements to get to feature articles, of the 9 or 10 named photographers in the magazine, only 1 appears to be a woman.

Bemused selfie... and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

Bemused selfie… and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

The 500px and the MC images are remarkably similar: beautiful, but vacuous and narrative-free. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a magazine focusing on beauty (website strapline: ‘THINK SMART. LOOK AMAZING‘ – think about the language and colour for a moment…). This women’s magazine is clearly all about (satisfying the putative) male gaze.

Photography books reveal similar patterns, as a quick scan of books in the categories for Fashion and Portraits and Nudes on Beyond Words demonstrates (incidentally, not only is Beyond Words the best photo bookshop in the UK, they also pays their taxes, unlike global parasites such as Amazon…!).

Clearly, the male gaze as Mulvey and others have defined it, dominates much of our photographic portraiture.

But with selfies, we see something else.

Selfies mean the person in the photograph has agency, has control: they freely determine every aspect of the image. They:

  • frame it – how much of the room/outdoors should be included?
  • determine the time – when do they feel they want to be photographed?
  • decide how much of themselves to show – is this to be a close crop of (part of?) the face, or will (part of?) the rest of the body be included?
  • think about who else is to be included – is this about the photographer alone, or should others be included?
  • and so on…

I see occasional selfies on my Twitter feed, but really only from two “serious” photographers. Here is a selfie from a wonderful fashion and art photographer I follow, Jodie Mann, trying out her new lipstick:

For someone who works with makeup all the time, that is clearly important professionally, but she also makes it personal:

It is very easy for stupid men to dismiss this as frivolous, but Mann is showing us something really important here: our self-image is important to most of us, even if we say we don’t care about what we wear: scruffy jeans and the tshirt that was on top of the pile in the cupboard is a ‘choice’ (yes, that’s often me…). Our image is almost always carefully constructed to convey something about ourselves to those around us – and scruffiness is just as much a constructed image.  Posting selfies online allows us to convey that image far beyond the people we will meet that day.  But they do more than that.

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Looking at selfies on sites for sharing mobile photography such as EyeEm (where I have an account) or Hipstamatic, or Instagram, etc. is something I can do for ages.  Here are four screenshots of selfies from EyeEm from the same evening as the four 500px screenshots (EyeEm doesn’t have a popularity ranking, these are ‘recent’). There are a lot more men, and there is a wide range of ages (including a baby – ok, that’s probably not a selfie, but hey…!).

Regarding the poses and contexts:

  • many emphasise particular body parts – pouting lips, hair, cleavage, muscles etc. – and (coincidentally?) there are no (even nearly) naked women, whereas there are several men wearing very little (one man appears to be completely naked, holding a towel to cover his penis; his other hand is holding his mobile to make the photograph)
  • one woman has included a dog, whilst several photographs include other people
  • various digital ‘filters’ have been applied (monochrome conversions, as well as ‘antique looks’)
  • some photos are highly stylised (e.g. look at the pouting woman in the low cut vest in the top right of the first screenshot, and the two of the man in the white shirt and blue jacket in the second screenshot etc.)
  • backgrounds vary enormously: plain walls, cluttered rooms, a car, outdoor scenes – the contexts mean something to the photographer, to the subject.

This is what really attracts me to selfies – the subject is the photographer, and the photographer is the subject.  Whilst a woman might, for example, strike a ‘sexy pose’ taking a selfie, doing so is about her making herself a subject, not automatically being an object. The photographer has agency, has control, challenging the dominant narrative (Mulvey). Furthermore, in a world dominated by the male gaze of women, this is perhaps also why so many men take selfies.

Of course, selfies can have purposes beyond directly constructing a self-image based (largely) on appearance. Often they are evidence of being at a particular event or in a certain place, or in the presence of someone famous, whether this be a musician, actor, or politician: currently searching on Twitter for ‘selfie Nicola Sturgeon‘ produces hundreds of photos.  Many of these are taken by the person who wants to be in the picture, but Sturgeon is also taking many photos herself.  A photograph with a celebrity figure like this is, of course, also about constructing an image, but it is also about other (in part related) things: whether that be endorsing the stance of a politician, claiming (even just momentary) closeness to someone famous, and so on.

In short: we should value selfies, rather than mock them.  They’re an expression of the egalitarianism of contemporary photography, of the claiming of agency by subjects, and in the case of women in particular, they (can easily) subvert the male gaze.  Many selfies are not necessarily classically ‘good’ photographs, but as Colin Pantall wrote recently in reviewing a book on show dogs,

Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them – while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.

But Showdogs isn’t. I don’t think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.

Similarly, selfies can be enjoyed just for the sake of enjoying them – they are what they are, and if we don’t expect them to be great art (which is not what 99% of them are trying to be), then we can simply quite enjoy them and appreciate their political subversiveness.

——–

It seems only appropriate to end with some of my recent selfies, that I post here without much further comment:

From my student Twitter account, attending a student awards ceremony with my colleague Dr Stewart:

With the lovely Stephen Segasby in the Scottish Malt Whisky Society:

Go on, photograph yourself – you’re always there, and always available! 🙂

Editing this text...

Editing this text…

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Land, photography and politics

We’ve just spent a week on Skye, staying in the very north, on the Trotternish peninsula.  Skye is as spectacular as everyone always says it is: this was the view we had looking south-west from near Ord in the southern part of the island towards Rùm:

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, looking to the Isle of Rùm on the left, with the Cuillin mountains on the right

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, looking to the Isle of Rùm on the left, with the Cuillin mountains on the right

However, as ever on the west coast of Scotland, devastating reminders of the not-so-distant past are everywhere.  Looking a little further up Loch Eishort to the opposite shore, away from the Cuillins, are the ruins of Dun Boreraig:

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, to the ruins of Dun Boreraig

The village was reached by coming round the mountain from the gap in the top right of the image, along the curved track towards the shore.  The village was emptied in the mid-19th century as part of the Clearances – the people made way for sheep that were more profitable for the landowners than peasant farmers working the land.  Many of these people ended up in Australia.  Today, the people are still gone, and the sheep are still there.

The individual responsible for this was Lord MacDonald, chief of the Donald clan, who owned much of this part of Skye.  Ironically, on our return journey we stopped off at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel for tea, a place made famous by the chef Claire MacDonald.  Her husband’s wealth will in part have come from this 19th century expulsion of people for profit.

So land is never just spectacular (etc.), but is always also political.  I increasingly struggle to make “simple” pretty images, in part because I know that there is always more to a photograph than a simple pretty scene, and in part because I struggle with the politics of land.  What I today regard as beautiful on Skye – the bleakness, the hills, the apparent wildness, even though I know this is all just a series of constructions that fit a certain kind of idealised aesthetic – has profound social and political contexts to it: the land is always more than just land, it is social and personal history as well.

However, it is not even just history.  Indeed, the Clearances are not just historical, they continue to take place even today, in the ongoing battle of historiography – the question of how we DO history – as this sign at Erisco shows (the full sign is at the end of this blog posting):

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

The key part of the text here I’m referring to here reads:

During the 19th Century when crofters were being cleared from the best areas to make room for the incoming flocks of Cheviot sheep and their Border shepherds, several Skye landlords including Lord MacDonald were forced to resettle their tenants elsewhere.

The idea that the poor hard-pressed Lord MacDonald might have been forced to resettle the community  of tenants for an unstoppable wave of sheep and their shepherds is completely ludicrous, and I cannot help but wonder at the power of the present MacDonalds when it came to the creation of this sign (I notice one of the acknowledgements includes a Mr MacDonald, though I don’t know of his possible connection to the present Lord and his family).  There is a long tradition now in academic circles of postcolonial readings of history – understanding history not just as being postcolonial in the sense of ‘after colonialism’ (what I tend to call the ‘postcolonial moment’), but also as postcolonial in the sense of method and purpose (the ‘postcolonial movement’ that can help us understand our contemporary context more completely by reading it in the light of power and colonial/neocolonial control) – and we need to apply such readings to our present Scottish context just as much as those formerly dominated by European empires have done in other parts of the world.

Land is never just land.

—–

One of the best contemporary authors on land, especially in Scotland, is Andy Wightman.  Andy engages in precisely the kind of postcolonial reading that I think we so urgently need, and I highly recommend his blog, his Who Owns Scotland website and his books, especially The Poor Had No Lawyers.

Here’s the full sign at Erisco:

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

 

Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970

I have neglected this site for some time now, in substantial part because of an impending move out of Edinburgh and to a village in the west of Scotland (in three weeks’ time – yikes!  It’s probably best not to think about it too much and to write a blog posting about an exhibition instead… oh, look at what I’ve managed to do here!).  There is much to say, however: I have two nearly completed (and long overdue) windfarm chapters to publish – which will now come out after the move, I suspect! – and there have been some interesting (to me…) developments and photographs that have emerged in recent times that need some considered attention.  But today I want to briefly discuss something that has caused me great excitement on an artistic and intellectual level.

Paris

We are just back from a few days in Paris – a long-planned trip that happened to come at a very good time in relation to the move, offering us refreshment and time to reflect.  I took a fair bit of reading with me, and we spent time in cafés and restaurants, in our apartment in the 19th arrondisement (via Airbnb for the first time, which worked well), and wandered through the city a bit.  We also went to two excellent exhibitions, the first of which is temporary and well-worth going to if you’re in or near Paris in the next months: a detailed examination of Erwin Blumenfeld’s work at the Jeu de Paume, the French national gallery devoted to mechanically- and electronically-reproduced imagery, especially photography, video, cinema etc.  I may come back to write about this at some point in the near future, if my head isn’t too full with thoughts about packing boxes and the like.  The second gallery visit we made was to the Centre Pompidou, and specifically to the fifth floor, entitled Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970, and I want to offer some brief reflections on that, related to my own field of history, historicisation and postcolonial theory (don’t be put off…!).  The Centre Pompidou is the world’s largest modern art collection, and even on the basis of this one brief visit, I feel the thinking underpinning the exhibits is way ahead of other large galleries that I have visited.

History and modernity

Seen at the airport, Paris

Seen at the airport, Paris

For some time now, more progressive academic historians have deconstructed the very idea of modernity.  To generalise somewhat, up until even just a decade or two ago, traditional Western historians tended towards a particular view of the world, that saw modernity as something that the ‘West’ (often undefined, but understood to be Europe, North America, Australasia, and so on, and perhaps, post-Cold War, the more ‘European’ of the former Soviet bloc countries) had ‘achieved’ and others were in the process of achieving.  However, this linear form of history bears no relation to the reality as understood by most of the world.  Modernity is not a fixed point, but something that is created continually – this might even be one of the few times I find myself agreeing with an institution of neoliberal finance… (this snapped on my mobile telephone at the airport on a moving walkway!).

The consequence of such an understanding is that it is not appropriate to speak about modernity in the singular – if many people in many contexts are creating modernity, then we need to think about multiple modernities.  This is something that is gradually making inroads into even the more conservative fields of historical study, such as mission history (the focus of much of my research); I hope I have managed to play at least a small part in rethinking that over the years, disrupting and questioning fixed historiographies and paradigms of modernity.  A key issue in such reassessments is the understanding that colonial history, traditionally portrayed as something that involved the bringing of modernity from the imperial centre (Britain, France etc.) to the colonial periphery (everywhere else!) actually involved a two-way traffic – colonial possessions transformed the imperial centres at least as much as they were transformed.  A significant branch of postcolonial theory is about uncovering precisely these transformations, and the idea of ‘global history’ is an integral part of this (see C.A. Bayly’s magisterial The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 or the CLIOH World project and (free downloadable!) books such as World and Global History – Research and Teaching that a friend of mine, Seija Jalagin, has been involved in editing).

However, I have not really encountered this kind of thinking in contemporary art exhibitions.  Artists are often shown as solitary creatives, and we often think of them or idealise them as such, even if we think we know better.  We marvel at the inventiveness of Pablo Picasso, the nuance in Henri Matisse’s work, the delicate interplay of light and colour that Vincent Van Gogh searched for, Wassily Kandinsky’s move to abstraction with painting becoming almost as a form of music – and so on.  Some exhibitions will show some of the influences upon these great men (more about men in a moment!), but these are slim and marginal.  For example, I recall visiting a gallery a few years ago (I think it was London’s Tate Modern) that pointed to some of the African influences on Picasso, highlighting masks and other items that Picasso clearly referenced in some of his work (art historians even talk about his ‘African period’).

Subverting the idea of the solitary artist

A PhD student that I have had the privilege of supervising in recent years, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, has recently completed and successfully defended her thesis, and her work has helped me to rethink copyright in quite radical ways (en passant, I note that this is one of the most rewarding aspects of PhD supervision – having your understanding of an issue radically subverted by a student’s work).

She wrote about Karnatic music (generally known as classical Indian music) and the problems with copyrighting it in the contemporary context.  Using Marx, postcolonial theory and understandings of authorship deriving from Benjamin and others, she shows why copyright is problematic in this context.  To simplify considerably (I hope she won’t mind this rather brutal summary!), there are two key problems with identifying ownership of this music: (a) it is understood as being divinely inspired and so how can something that originates with the divine, however that is understood, be copyrighted? and (b) the tunes are passed down orally from teacher to pupil, and in turn embellished and elaborated upon according to certain criteria, which makes identifying a single creator difficult.  Copyright as a system of ownership linked to a particular individualised understanding of capitalist modernity is difficult to implement in a context that does not subscribe to such principles of individualised modernity.

I would argue that it does not really matter whether we subscribe to the same ideas about divine inspiration of artistic work as Karnatic musicians (theoretically) do, but many of us would recognise that there is some form of internal and/or external inspiration underpinning creative work.  Furthermore, I think most also understand the idea of a wider tradition and community that impacts upon artistic endeavour and the creation of a unique artistic expression, giving such expression a context and a framing (though the arguments around these claims are not something I want to develop to any great extent here).

Modernités plurielles?

However, Western art exhibitions that I have visited have only ever tangentially recognised this.  There is the example of Picasso mentioned above, but the portrayal of influence tends to see the incorporation of ‘primitive’ colonial art into the ‘modern’ art of the European.  This is in part a question of the situatedness of the artist and a poor historicisation of their context: for instance, whilst Matisse introduced Picasso to African art, his first transformative encounter with such art was apparently in the context of an ethnographic museum, not an art gallery.

Now, however, we should be seeing and understanding these relationships quite differently, and this is something that the Centre Pompidou has managed to do, and as far as I can tell, do spectacularly well.  The gallery – a permanent albeit constantly changing gallery – presents itself under the title ‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’ (Plural Modernities from 1905 to 1970), even in the title recognising that there are multiple forms of modernity being created in similar times across the globe, and the art on display reflects this.  Not only do we find French, American, Russian etc. art intermingled by theme, we are shown similar patterns from around the world.  From the very beginning of the gallery, global art is included, and whilst many of the traditional descriptions of movements remain (Expressionism, Totemism etc.) these are given a global context.  For example, Magic Realism is related to Latin American realist movements, whilst artists from the Middle East and North Africa who developed conceptual art in ways that reflected and expanded upon European conceptual art find their place alongside more well-known (in European circles) artists and their works.  A section on French architecture and the creation of colonial cities in North Africa demonstrated the ways in which Arab art influenced French architects, even though they thought they were simply building cities for Europeans in Algeria and other colonial possessions (this process is something that I have written about at length in other contexts).  Above all, the global context is seen not as a colonial background for the development of European art, but rather, the global exchanges and connections that many artists were a part of are highlighted in constructive and stimulating forms, creating a fascinating discourse between artistic purity and hybridity.  It is worth noting that in many contexts, the global artists’ names are not known and appear simply as ‘anonymous’ – a stark and painful reminder of the European colonial legacy that dehumanised huge parts of the world in the drive to economic and political domination.

“The techniques of European art can be as useful to us in painting as in sculpture or architecture, provided we avoid the danger of stripping ourselves of our own art and personality.” (Leandro M’Bomio, Paris, a quotation on one of the gallery walls)

Another effect of the globalised understanding of art in the Centre Pompidou is the diminution of the traditional emphasis on ‘great men’ of art.  They are not displaced, but the inclusion of women from Europe and from around the globe sets them into a wider context.  Not only do we find, for example, Sonia Delauney (and it has seemed to me that she is portrayed mostly in relation to her husband, rather than recognised as a great artist in her own right) and Frida Kahlo, but also many other global women, including the wonderful Behjat Sadr (a personal favourite).  The global vision on offer here brings not only the whole world to an understanding of art, but that whole world also goes some considerable way to restoring the place of women in art history (nonetheless, only about 50 of the 400 artists on display are women – though a number of the ‘anonymous’ artworks may also be by women, of course).

Some closing thoughts

So is this a postcolonial exhibition?  I think it could certainly be seen in that way.  It is truly liberating to see an exhibition that reflects a global perspective on art, that sees and understands movements and connections in all kinds of interesting ways, and that thereby offers a far more holistic understanding of art than we might already know.  I was not completely convinced by all the connections being made, but I am in no way qualified to judge art history in this kind of global way (in fact, I suspect relatively few people really are, but I’m not even qualified to appreciate Western art history fully!).

The fact that the Pompidou has attempted something so radically different in the context of a permanent exhibition is noteworthy and highly stimulating.  Doing so draws attention to the ways in which global traditions have emerged, and privileges understandings of art that include artists that are usually marginalised – women, and men and women from the global context.  We may not agree with the exact portrayal on offer, but as the curators themselves say, the exhibits are constantly changing, suggesting that they are themselves not completely satisfied with the portrayal on offer, constantly seeking to highlight and emphasise different aspects of the global narrative of modernity in art.  As Nadadur Kannan does in her thesis on Karnatic music, offering this kind of complex narrative of art history subverts the role of the ‘lone artist’ and offers a rich understanding of the significance of relationships and dependencies, whilst allowing for individual creativity – however we understand that – its rightful place in the artistic process.

– – – – – – – –

It is worth reading the Centre Pompidou’s own brief description of the gallery, available here (click the top right language options to see it in English).  Alain Seban and Catherine Grenier offer particularly interesting and helpful comments, I think.  The press kit (Fr/En) for the exhibition (a 35 page PDF) offers a more detailed introduction to the exhibition.

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.”

Wind power

I am realising that the rather depressed tone of my last posting represented the end of a period of feeling somewhat demoralised about what I was doing, and not, as I thought at the time, a statement about being in the middle of such a period.  What helped me realise this were primarily the helpful comments to that posting, and several conversations on Twitter – social media can be a wonderful thing!

A few days after that posting we went to Strathpeffer for a weekend (weekends away are a very rare and precious occurrence, given my wife’s work!).  This is several hours drive from our home in Edinburgh.

Travel is often productive thinking time for me, and on this journey north an idea began to form.  This idea then encountered various stimuli over the weekend, including a conversation on Sunday morning with Iain Sarjeant and Iona Finlayson that touched on some key issues about what ‘home’ was, what and where it could be, and related topics.  As we were driving south after that, these ideas became much clearer to me, and I am now able to articulate them in an early form: I want to pursue a detailed photographic essay examining wind farms in Scotland.

What’s so special about wind farms?

If you follow the news in Scotland, you will be aware that wind farms are a very controversial issue, with proponents and opponents disagreeing about whether to support their construction or not.  It seems that much heat and little light is generated in these debates.  Perhaps, through some photography and writing, I can contribute a little to some light?

My journey north and then south again meant seeing a fair number of wind farms on the hills.  Just down the road from Strathpeffer it was possible to see a number of windmills on the hillsides.  There are wind farms fairly close to Edinburgh.  There are plans for more all over the country: last summer on the Isle of Lewis we heard of plans to build a wind farm in the centre of the island.  And the windmills themselves elicit strong reactions.  I began making some images last weekend, and tweeted about this:

Kath Hudson responded with a visceral comment:

When I said that I had encountered smaller ones in Germany that were still intimidating but nonetheless impressive, Kath wrote back to say: ‘They really did give me that creepy shiver down the spine feeling. They are just unnatural and WRONG. Too big, too alien… ‘

I think many people will relate to Kath’s reactions, but, whilst important, the key issue for me is only partly about aesthetics and emotional reactions of this kind.  On another level: it is undeniable that wind farms alter the appearance of the landscape, but so do nuclear power stations (see Bruce Percy’s study of Torness on the A1), or the dirty coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, just down the coast from me and almost always in view, it seems, when I’m on the beach:

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

The thing is… my leftie, green and social instincts all say “nuclear/coal etc. bad, wind/solar etc. good”… and yet, and yet… I do get the point behind some of the wind farm objections.  So what I plan to do in this essay is explore some of the related issues around wind farms and reflect on different ways of understanding and interpreting them.  If the only perspective, the only quilting point we use, is the idea of despoiling wild land, then opposition to wind farms becomes almost automatic.  If, however, we use alternative quilting points, alternative starting points, then we might find our response to wind farms becomes more nuanced.  For example, a slightly different perspective that comes to mind is a fairly common one: what about the alternatives – nuclear, coal, but also hydro, solar etc.? However, I am also interested in the question of power, understood in different ways: wind farms generate electrical power, but are also statements of power (over the landscape, in their construction, ownership and so on). How, for example, do these two forms of power relate to one another? Using that question as a quilting point leads to a series of other related questions and quilting points, such as:

  • windmills versus wind farms – why does Germany often have individual windmills, whereas here we seem to go for large wind farms?
  • what do wind farms say about my understanding of my home – how do I envisage and help to create the kind of home I want Scotland to be, for me, for those around me?
  • it is often argued that wind farms are put in places that are ‘wild’, but what do ‘wild’, ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’ mean in contemporary Scotland?
  • what is the meaning of ‘green’ in this context – ‘green’ landscape, and ‘green’ environmentally-friendly?  I might also add that I recently joined the Green Party…
  • local democracy – who gets to decide on the construction of wind farms?
  • if, as many campaigns seem to argue, ‘there’s a place for wind farms, but it’s not here’ – what and where is their place?
  • land ownership – how does the ownership of particular areas impact upon the construction of wind farms, especially considering much of Scotland’s land is owned by people with no significant connection to it?
  • social justice – in what ways do wind farms impact upon employment, housing and so on?

These latter issues also play directly into the current social, political, civic and ideological context around the question of independence: the 2014 referendum in Scotland will decide whether Scotland continues as part of the union of England and Scotland or becomes an independent country once more. Independence in this context means, for me at least, that Scotland will be free to govern itself without undue interference from Westminster (and in framing the question like this, it will be clear that I am now firmly on the ‘yes’ side!).  Over the years I have sincerely sought to understand and reflect upon the ‘no’ argument, a position I almost ‘naturally’ come from, but, with Joyce McMillan, I see a paucity of any kind of positive vision for the future in the ‘no’ campaign, something that the ‘yes’ campaign inspires and addresses in a multitude of ways, sometimes naively, mostly realistically.  Decisions about land, home, planning, social justice and all these other issues that make up the kind of society we want to be are issues that play directly into the referendum. How would we think these things through if we could look at them afresh, as a ‘yes’ vote has the potential to allow, whereas a ‘no’ vote is likely to continue with the same rotten system we have now?  Using wind farms as a quilting point perhaps has the potential, as the 2014 referendum approaches, to offer interesting insights along the way – at least for me! 😉

There will be many more issues that can be addressed, and I’m sure I’ll discover new quilting points and new perspectives as I go.  For some of these issues, I can imagine the kinds of photographs and texts I might create, and for others I have no idea how I might address them photographically, or in any other way!  And yet this not-knowing is very exciting.  There is no end point, just exploration: I just want to see where all this takes me.  Of one thing I can be sure: there will be blog postings about this, and also gallery pages.

As an aside: my new large format camera seems ideally suited for certain elements of this effort: there are certainly going to be elements of architectural photography, and so utilising the view camera’s movements to photograph windmills makes sense.  In other contexts, I may find my smaller cameras more suitable.

I’m aware that there are many others who have pursued this kind of project in the past (for example, Rob Hudson recently sent me a link to Francis Hodgson’s piece in the FT on Richard Misrach), but perhaps there is still something new to be explored here, in my context, in my home?