I used to go to the Imperial War Museum in London just to watch the hanging planes, the V2, the tanks, etc. The place is under renovation right now and i stopped paying attention to their programme (the war machines are wrapped up somewhere.) Big mistake! A few weeks ago, they've opened Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power, a show that explores the impact of military architecture on the landscape.
Vision as Power brings together five projects from radically different parts of the world but that are interconnected through the surveillance apparatus. Donovan Wylie grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and living under military surveillance has had an undeniable impact on his work.
Built in 1976 to house terrorist prisoners, the Maze prison segregated men according to their political beliefs and membership of paramilitary organizations.
Wylie started working on the series in 2002, just as the prison had closed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the last inmates had been transferred to other prisons.
Wylie then extended his research to the British Watchtowers, the surveillance architecture built at the height of the Troubles, when South Armagh was one of the most heavily militarised areas of Northern Ireland. The British army built a network of watchtowers and observation posts in order to control cross-border smuggling and paramilitary attacks but also to maintain an intimidating presence.
As part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the watchtowers were dismantled between 2005 and 2007. As Whyle documented their presence in the surrounding countryside, British troops were deploying to Afghanistan, taking with them elements of the Northern Ireland watchtowers.
The Maze informed the watchtowers, and the watchtowers informed the Afghanistan work. I wanted to show this evolution, the photographer explained in an interview for the British Journal of Photography. When I was making the pictures of the watchtowers, they were coming down [being dismantled] and many of the soldiers working on them were going to Afghanistan. Elements of the structures were being taken to Afghanistan. Modern warfare is very transient, it is built to move, but basically it's the same idea regardless of nationality or politics or whatever - take the high ground and use vision as a method of strength and protection. Ultimately what I think is fascinating is how we use landscape as a tool of war.
Another series shown at the IWM explores American defensive structures in Baghdad, Iraq. The Green Zone was the international administrative zone of central Baghdad, controlled by the Coalition forces during the Second Iraq War. Wylie saw similarities in the way people were contained in the Green Zone and how they were imprisoned in the Maze.
Wylie's series Arctic closes the exhibition. The white and extreme environment is home to cyber radar stations unmanned and operated electronically to detect any presence seeking out lucrative natural resources along Canada's Arctic frontier made more fragile by global warming and the new routes though the Northwest Passage it enabled. Once again, the only analogy is with dystopian sci-fi. To Wylie, they are a striking example of surveillance attempting to deter future conflict.
Ultimately, the exhibition reminds us that surveillance is not confined to the spaces of military conflict. Surveillance is the default characteristic of our society, as the revelations about the extent of mass online surveillance have recently demosntrated.
Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power is at the Imperial War Museum in London until 21 April 2014.
A quick and hopefully efficient post to show some of the works i've discovered at Artissima, Turin's contemporary art fair which closed last weekend. As i mentioned a few days ago, Artissima is, in my view, far far more exciting than Frieze London. Maybe i'll explain why in a coming story (and get my Frieze 2014 request for a press pass refused in the process?!?) I didn't exactly rack my brain to figure out how to screen the many photos i had taken or received in the press package. This post will be mostly black and white. I won't insult you and say how the next one will look like.
Many of the works below were part of Back to the Future. The section presents solo exhibitions by artists active in the 60's, 70's and 80's and selected by a jury of museums directors and curators
Right, let's start with an image which isn't strictly b&w. The wall drawing below is a diagram showing internal correlations and their external consequences marked out by key figures of thought balancing between reflecting and representing symbols of power affected by the structures of human experience and the various forms of interpretation.
I'm not going to pretend that i fully understand Nikolaus Gansterer's constellations, diagrams and other representations of thought processes but i've been charmed and intrigued by his work ever since i discovered it. Keep your eyes peeled for that one.
I had never heard of Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac before but he is a man who ran bearded and naked through the streets of Belgrade. A performance he reiterated 10 years later in Zagreb. Another one to keep your eyes peeled for, then.
Linda Fregni Nagler collected a thousand anonymous images of babies and young children taken between the 1840s and the 1920s. Apparently the conventions of the time wanted that the mothers were hidden or erased from view. Some of the feminine figures are covered with a piece of fabric or a carpet, others have their face blacked out from the photo, others crouch behind a chair.
It is only fair that after those painfully hidden mothers, i'd show how in the late 1960s, Valie Export brought to a crude day light the relationship between the sexes. She walked her partner, Peter Weibel, on a leash, taking to the extreme women's liberation from male oppression.
I wrote about the work of Sicilian photographer and photojournalist Letizia Battaglia in the post Portraying the Mafia. She spent decades covering the cronaca nera, the crime stories for the left-wing newspaper L'Ora in Palermo.
And now for something completely different...
I couldn't resist pairing it with...
One of the things i like about Artissima is that you won't see Frieze's usual suspects there. They might, however, make an appearance in other artists' photos.
Daidō Moriyama gained fame for the way he portrayed the dark sides of post-war Japan.
Probably not strictly speaking b&w either but since we're in Turin and the Mole Antonelliana is by far its most puzzling monument...
On Thursday i went to Artissima. Turin's contemporary art fair lands in the agenda almost straight after Frieze and compared to the London's fair, it feels lighter, fresher, edgier. It also demonstrates a greater attention for the design -in all its forms- of the event. I'm a fan.
That evening I've discovered a dozen of artists whose works i'll mention in the coming days (or weeks given my propensity to write at the speed of a banana.)
Let's start with Tatsuki Masaru whose photos were exhibited by Gallery Side 2 (Tokyo). The artist spent a decade following the Decotora (an abbreviation for "Decoration Truck") subculture, photographing the trucks of course but also their drivers and in the long series of "Japanese do it better", these vehicles have a panache and extravagance that never reach bad taste.
In an interview to Photoeye, the artist explains that the phenomenon is subject to trends and economic woes: There was a peak in say 1980, that was the peak time in terms of the number of decorated trucks existing in Japan. This trend got started somewhere in the '60s when Japan's economy was growing and people were starting to spend money decorating their trucks. In the beginning it was like, "Who has the most number of lights on the truck," that kind of competition. But then in the '90s there started to be a little bit more specialization, and one area which became popular was Gundam, which are like Japanese transformer movies, and anime type of decoration, so there are some stages to its development. Recently, because of the economic difficulties like Japan's recession, and governmental regulations, traffic laws and all that, the [truckers] can no longer do the things they used to do. So in a way, they're sort of going back to the '70s style, which is a little bit less lighting, more heavy on the paintings, a little bit more subdued decorating style so they cannot get busted by the police.
Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives, by Simon Menner.
Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: First publication of pictures from the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police
Almost 300,000 people worked for the East German secret police, per capita far more than were employed by agencies such as the CIA or the KGB. Not quite fifty years after the Berlin Wall was built, Simon Menner (*1978 in Emmendingen) discovered spectacular photographs in the Stasi archives that document the agency's surveillance work. Formerly secret, highly official photographs show officers and employees putting on professional uniforms, gluing on fake beards, or signaling to each other with their hands. Today, the sight of them is almost ridiculous, although the laughter sticks in the viewer's throat. This publication can be regarded as a visual processing of German history and an examination of current surveillance issues, yet it is extremely amusing at the same time. The fact that the doors of the opposite side--the British or German intelligence services, for example--remained closed to the artist lends the theme an explosive force as well as a tinge of absurdity.
Simon Menner has one of the most peculiar portfolios i've ever encountered. Snipers hidden among the trees, soldiers posing with corpses, Boobytraps and "Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques" from the 1960s, weapons used to murder people, views of WWI from both sides of the conflict, etc. Even the photos of Happy People have been selected for some very dark reason.
The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Department of State Security) of the former German Democratic Republic was one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in history and its record of citizens' intimate life was thorough and sinister. The story and practices of the Stasi have been fairly well documented. Until this book however, we still lacked a clear visual account of the methods, tactics and props used by the spying agents.
The publication presents a selection of images documenting many of the Stasi operations: the spying accoutrement of Stasi personnel, the techniques employed to shadow or arrest a suspect, the signs used to convey secret messages, the packages sent via mail and confiscated by the secret police, etc.
The most baffling photos were taken during seminars in which Stasi employees learnt the art of disguise.
The props are amateurish, the poses are awkward and the result is grotesque beyond words. Yet, the intentions were serious: repression, control, surveillance.
The award for most disturbing photos go to Polaroids of unmade beds, (Western-made) coffee machines and rows of shoes. The photos were taken by Stasi agents when they secretly searched peoples' houses on the hunt for evidence they might be betraying the communist state. Photos of the rooms and furniture were taken upon arrival and used by the agents to be able afterwards to put everything back as if nothing had been touched.
The photos below were taken at the birthday party of a high-ranking Stasi official. The party guests were asked to come dressed as members of demographic groups under Stasi surveillance such as athletes, dancers, academics, peace activists, and religious figures.
Spies of the western Allied Forces photographed Stasi spies and Stasi spies photographed their Western counterparts. "Sometimes they met, both sides were absolutely aware that the other side was there, but nevertheless both sides took photos, showing that both East and West lived in pretty much the same state of mind," the artist explained. So far, however, Menner hasn't been granted access to the correspondent photos from the British or Federal German secret services.
I love the necklace, very Tatty Devine!
Post-Industrial Stories is an attempt by photographers Ioana Cîrlig and Marin Raica to document the remains of communist industrialisation in central and eastern Romania. Decades ago, these areas were attracting workers from all around Europe but the collapse of Ceauşescu regime left local communities to their own devices and the mining towns are now fighting unemployment and poverty.
Cîrlig and Raica spend several months in each town, visiting the area, talking to ex-workers and their families, looking through archives, experiencing as much as they can what the local communitites are living.
I discovered the photo series through Anti-Utopias. Its author and curator, Sabin Bors kindly put me in contact with the photographers. I've emailed them a couple of questions about the work and the result is below...
Hi Ioana! Why have you started the project? Has no one documented those post-industrial areas before?
We started the project because of a growing fascination with Romania's industrial areas. Travelling the country we realised many communities face the same problems. In communism it was all about building, expanding huge industrial sites, urbanising. After '89 it was all about closing the mines and factories, tearing them down, removing everything valuable. The two opposing trends left the landscape with surreal-looking ghost towns.
I find your photos very moving. Most photo series documenting post-industrial areas focus on decaying buildings. You also give your attention to the people who have remained there. How much preparation does the project require? Do you contact people in advance or do you just turn up unannounced and start photographing?
We contact people before going to a new place but most of the people we photograph we meet "on the field". A few days ago we met a man on the street. He checked out our project's website, liked what we did and ended up helping us a lot around his city, introducing us to people, showing us around and explaining a lot of what's going on. This is one of the fun, exciting parts of what we do, you never know where you're day is going to take you.
Could you comment on some of these images? Explain us what or who they are? what is the story behind these images?
I took this one in Copsa Mica, a place known in the 80's for the carbon black pollution. Since 1993 that factory was closed and everything of real value has been sold by the "investors". In this kind of almost-torn-down industrial site metal scavengers try to make a living, looking for iron in what's left after the luquidators/buyers remove everything of real value. They risk serious accidents and, in most places, being arrested for trespassing and theft.
This is a factory worker from a small factory in Southern Romania. It's the kind of place that struggles to survive with less employees that in the "good days".
Rovinari still has lots of industrial activity. It's a mining town with a big coal quarry. It also has one of the largest power plants in Europe.
This is Cristina, a girl that performed at the end of the Junior Prom in Criscior. Until 2007 the small town of Criscior was surrounded by gold mines. The young people in the area have very few job options. Most of them leave for bigger towns and countries in western Europe. The Crisan highschool teaches mechanics and tourism.
This is one of the buidings in the Petrila mining site. Petrila is one of 3 coal mines that are going to be closed until 2018. Valea Jiului has 7 coal mines working at the moment.
A tv is on a "manele" station in the living room of a family from Copsa Mica. The young girl in the backround watched the station a lot and tried to learn how to dance like the performers in the video. Her brother wanted to be a manele singer. The girls in the videos mostly wear sexy outfits and dance arround the male lead-singer. The lyrics are about love, money, enemies who want the money, girls who want the money etc.
This is an office from an old factory in the Criscior area. About 1200 people used to build mining equipment here. Now the factory has 120 workers that build, refurbish and repair rolling stock.
How are people coping now that the industrial sites (and thus source of work and livelihood) has closed? Are they moving to bigger cities in search of any kind of job? Are they learning new skills in order to work in other contexts?
Many young people leave, mostly for Western Europe. Right now we are in a small town in Western Romania, Anina. The coal mine here was closed in 2006. Since then no new jobs were created in the area and the situation is quite scarry. The town is surrounded by forest so some of the young people work with wood. People say the town is being held together with the money made by women who work in Austria, Germany and Italy taking care of elderly or sick people. They joke about the men being "happy widowers".
Why have you chosen to work in wide format film?
We have 2 reasons to love medium format. Unlike with digital, we take more time to think before taking a picture. We are both compulsive shooters, when we find a situation we like, we go wild. Film helps us tame the instinct to take 100 pictures of the same pretty tree. The second and more important reason is image quality: the coulours, depth of field, the volume objects have etc.
How/where do you get the archive photos? The ones in the Journal section of your website?
The old photos we post in the Journal section are mostly from personal collections. People invite us in their homes and we ask to take a look in their photo drawer.
How much is the rest of the country aware of the situation in these post-industrial town? Is the State doing anything to help these areas?
The situation of industrialised areas is very common in our country. They receive the status of "underpriviledged" areas. This could attract potential investors because of the lower taxes. The sistem is to corrupted to change anything. Romania doesn't have a long-term plan to relaunch and support the reconversion of industrial areas. Maybe it has one on paper but most of these areas are completely abandoned.
What are the next stops on the journey of Post-Industrial Stories?
We are in the middle of a round-the-country road-trip. For five weeks we are travelling to mostly monoindustrial areas, about 3000 km. Next year we will move to Petrila, a small mining town in the heart of Romania's coal exploitation area, Valea Jiului. We plan to live there for about 8 months. Then, we move to Anina, a small town that used to have a coal mine and a power plant.
Thank you Ioana!
The Science Museum in London has recently inaugurated a new Media Space. I was expecting it to be filled with photos of super computers and distant planets. Instead, i found Only in England, a retrospective of Tony Ray-Jones' photos curated by Martin Parr. Which is completely fine by me as i'd rather spend an afternoon looking at eccentric English ladies than at moons around Jupiter (no disrespect to satellites.)
In the late 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones traveled across his country in a VW camper to document the leisure and pleasures of the English. He was a man who lived by his own rules. One of them was to never take a boring photo. There are dozens of images in the exhibition and none of them is remotely insipid. It's easy to see why the photographer had such an impact on Parr's work: he had a taste for the quietly humorous, the compassionate detail, the ironic narrative.
Ray-Jones died of leukaemia in 1972. He was only 30 but in his short career, he invented a new way of looking at society.
A black and white photo series by Martin Parr, The Non-Conformists, is also part of Only in England. The work follows the religious life of the Methodist and Baptist communities in and around Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Shot in the mid-1970s, just after Parr graduated from art school, the photos have a gentleness i wasn't expecting from Parr.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is a the Science Museum until 16 March 2014.