The conference (ridiculously interesting and accompanied by an exhibition i wish i could see all over again but more about all that next week) looked at how practitioners redefine the documentary genre in the digital age. In his talk, artist James George presented artistic projects that demonstrate how fast computational photography is evolving. Most of the project he commented on were new to me but more importantly, once they were stitched together, they formed a picture of how innovations are changing our relation to the essence, authorship and even definition of the image. Here are the notes i took during his fast and efficient slideshow of artistic works:
Erik Kessels printed out every photo uploaded on Flickr over a 24-hour period. Visitors of the show could literally drown into a sea of images.
The work, commented George, functions more as data visualization than as a photo installation.
In 2006, Penelope Umbrico searched for 'sunset' on Flickr back. She then printed the 541,795 matches and assembled them into one wall-size collage of photographs. She said. "I take the sheer quantity of images online as a collective archive that represents us - a constantly changing auto-portrait."
With 9 Eyes ongoing work, Jon Rafman shows that you don't need to be a photographer to create photos. The artist spent hours pouring over google street view to spot the inadvertently eerie or poetic sights captured by the nine lenses of the Google Street View camera cars.
Clement Valle fortuitously discovered broken images on Google Earth. The glitches are the result of the constant and automated data collection handled by computer algorithms. In these "competing visual inputs", the 3D modellings of Earth's surfaces fail to align with the corresponding aerial photography.
Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation. These uncanny images focus our attention on that process itself, and the network of algorithms, computers, storage systems, automated cameras, maps, pilots, engineers, photographers, surveyors and map-makers that generate them.
Teehan+Lax Labs, Google Street View Hyperlapse
Teehan and Lax created a tool that taps into Street View imagery and pulls it together to create an animated tour. Pick the start and end points on Google Maps and Hyperlapse stitches together a rolling scene of Street View imagery as if you were driving the GSV car.
Living Death Camp, by Forensic Architecture and ScanLAB, combines terrestrial laser scanning with ground penetrating radar to dissect the layers of life and evidence at two concentration camp sites in former Yugoslavia.
But how about the camera? When is the camera of the future going to emerge? What is it going to be like? It will probably be more similar to a database than to an image. In his keynote speech concluding the Vimeo Festival + Awards in 2010, Bruce Sterling described his prediction of the future of imaging technology. For him a camera of the future may function as follows: "It simply absorbs every photon that touches it from any angle. And then in order to take a picture I simply tell the system to calculate what that picture would have looked like from that angle at that moment. I just send it as a computational problem out in to the cloud wirelessly."
In mid-2005, New York City MTA commissioned a weapon manufacturer to make a futuristic anti-terror surveillance system. The images were to be fed directly into computers, watched by algorithm and alerts would be sent automatically when danger was detected. However, the system was plagued by "an array of technical setbacks", the system failed all the tests and the whole project ended in lawsuits. Thousands of security cameras in the New York subway stations now sit unused.
One month later after Sterling's talk, Microsoft released Kinect. The video game controller uses a depth sensing camera and computer vision software to sense the movements and position of the player. Visualizations of space as seen through Kinect's sensors can be computed from any angle using 3D software. James George and Collaboration with Alexander Porter decided to explore the artistic use of the surveillance and kinect technologies. "We soldered together an inverter and motorcycle batteries to run the laptop and Kinect sensor on the go. We attached a Canon 5D DSLR to the sensor and plugged it in to a laptop. The entire kit went into a backpack.
We spent an evening in the New York Union Square subway capturing high resolution stills and and archiving depth data of pedestrians. We wrote an openFrameworks application to combine the data, allowing us to place fragments of the two dimensional images into three dimensional space, navigate through the resulting environment and render the output."
The OS image capture system, which uses the Microsoft Kinect camera paired with a DSLR video camera, creates 3D models of the subjects in video that can be re-photographed from any angle virtually.
George and Porter later worked with Jonathan Minard and used the technology again for CLOUDS, an interview series with artists and programmers discussing the way digital culture is changing creative practices.
New and old media collide in Sophie Kahn's work. The artist uses a precise 3D laser scanner designed for static object to create sculptures of human heads and bodies. Because a body is always in flux, the technology receives conflicting spatial co-ordinates and generates irregular results.
Marshmallow Laser Feast, MEMEX | Duologue
MLF worked with a 94-camera high resolution scanning rig, to create the full body scan of an old lady and explore what filmmaking for the virtual-reality environment could be like.
Source Filmmakers, produced by Valve, is a tool to create movies inside the Source game engine. George finds their work relevant to his own practice because although Valve comes from a video game culture, they investigate the same ideas.
Beyond: Two Souls, by Quantic Dream, is an interactive drama action-adventure video game for PlayStation 3. At some point in the game, character Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) is taking a shower. All in a perfectly politically correct fashion.
After the release of the game, nude images of Jodie Holmes leaked online, and were published by several gaming blogs. The "nude photos" were a result of hacking into the files of a debug version of the game and manipulating the camera. The game's publisher, Sony Entertainment, got these posts taken down. "The images are from an illegally hacked console and are very damaging for Ellen Page," the rep reportedly told one site. "It's not actually her body. I would really appreciate if you can take the story down to end the cycle of discussion around this."
But if the nude images were "not actually her body," how could they be "very damaging" to the actress? Whether or not the answer to this question is a convincing one, the little scandal shows the kind of challenge that filmmaker will have to face when dealing with this kind of hyper realistic technology.
Selfiecity by Lev Manovich and Moritz Stefaner analyzes 3,200 selfies taken in several metropoles around the world and looks at them under theoretic, artistic and quantitative lenses.
Somewhere between military robots, Amazon drones knocking on your door to deliver a parcel, and the rise in machine intelligence, lies what some call The Terminator Scenario. Jean-Baptiste Bayle has spent the past few years looking at the fear and likeliness that our society is getting closer to the one depicted in the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator. The Terminator Studies timeline, map and news collection propose a reinterpretation of a Sci-fi blockbuster. The picture that emerges from this research hovers between cinematographic prophecy and History contaminated by fiction.
The Terminator Studies is going to be exhibited from tomorrow on in Pau, France, as part of the Disnovation show and the accès)s( festival of digital culture. Until i get there (next month! next month!), i wanted to have a quick online chat with the artist:
Hi Jean-Baptiste! People can navigate the Terminator Studies via news feed, a map or a timeline. Could you explain how they complete each other? Why did you chose this kind of 'architecture' for the work?
First of all I stand like an observer and I collect webshots (screenshots of the web) as evidence. So the website is a repository for this collection, an archive which represents a knowledge resource for the project. The feed is curated, all items are handpicked from diverse sources. So the feed and the timeline are basically the same type of visualisation in a different order, but the map is more subjective, and shows relations, factual, subversive or symbolic, in between all the topics, so that it evolves with time and the flux of events.
I actually really like the map. I wish i could see a big print of it. Would that make sense to you?
And when you exhibit the project in festivals, what does the idea set up look like? That huge map i'm dreaming of and then a computer to explore the project?
Yes, the map, printed is really intriguing . It becomes a modern "fresque". It's a software generated mashup of screenshots, logos, and portraits. And of course it's better to have the electronic version to explore fully the links.
The project was first commissioned by the online platform of Le Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2011. It has since been shown during Sight and Sound in Montreal last year and this year it will be shown during Acces-S in Pau, France.
I also present the state of the art of the research in conference/keynote like the one at Gaité Lyrique in May, and completed with a workshop to practice the survival guide of the internet.
When and how did you realize that the "terminator scenario" is becoming increasingly likely to become reality one day?
In fact it is already happening . Exactly what do we call the Terminator scenario? Technological take over? As most of the population is increasingly being used by/or uses computers everyday : we are living it. Technological cataclysm ? What about Chernobyl ? Fukushima ? GMO ? or asbestos ? Ecological doom ? Here we go.. Scientists and experts now talk of existential risk! It's true if not new, but a major cause of thoses threats is unaccountability, and should be avoidable in theory.
It all started in the 80s during the Reagan era, another Hollywood actor : the software industry, the pc computer, high frequency trading, NSA surveillance, DARPA robots, and the scenario of the Terminator movie (1984) was inspired by those hypes.
In this sense we are already in a worst case scenario a la "Terminator", and that is probably one of the reason why the movie is such a reference.. It's even used by government representatives and experts during debates on autonomous killing machine ban at the UN.
Cameron is lucid about this: he's working hand in hand with the military, cultivates the image of a ecologically concerned filmmaker, but while he's producing a global warming documentary series for cable tv, at the same times he's on board with a company that plans to mine resources missing on Earth on other planets..
From what you have discovered during your research for this project, who will be the losers of this terminator society? the whole humanity? Or just the masses? And who will be the winners, if there will be any, in the long term?
It's important to understand the pragmatic approach of the Terminator Studies. The goal is not to make predictions but to understand bits of contemporary history. It's interesting that you ask about the "Terminator society" because this concept of extermination is very similar to the capitalist process. In fact the capitalist society is a Terminator society. Terminator is also the name of a technology patented by Monsanto, which is a sterile seeds, also called suicide seeds, to force farmers to buy new seeds every year. The capitalist society is fundamentally suicidal. So for now, we can clearly see losers and winners, but it's more in terms of domination structure.
In China, the people building ipads and iphone at Foxconn factory don't have the same perception of modernity as Apple customers do. They don't share the same everyday issues.
San Francisco is now over-gentrified by the Silicon Valley folks and lots of people face eviction or cannot afford the city anymore. We see that some Californians now see the Tech industry as severely predatory. It creates a lot less common goods than it consumes... The etymology of robot is rooted in feudalistic society. And there is this kind of cynicism in the Californian tech elite, mostly white, that trash themselves once a year in luxury caravan in the middle of the desert, during the Burning Man festival. Think that Megan Ellison, the daughter of the 5th richest man in the world, software industry tycoon Larry Ellison, who is 25, has bought the rights of the Terminator franchise for about 30 million dollars. That also is real.
There is also the information class war. Our biggest enemy is ignorance, the whole domination process is based on the culture of ignorance (or as Robert Proctor coined it : agnotology). The tobacco industry, the deadliest industry , has invented the management of scientific doubt and by so improved its non liability and its sustainability. Now this applies to everything from GMO to global warming, to data retention, bank industry or even the state. That's why an initiative like Wikileaks is so vital and imperative in this time.
On internet, most of the users are forced into accepting contracts without even reading them, and thus become willingly serfs of google, facebook, or whatever Californian goulag.
Artists can play a major role, if they choose an ethical model of action, in re-infesting the collective consciousness through alternative storytelling. For example Paolo Cirio or Julian Oliver have explicitly directed theirs works towards systems, and make effective proposals to alter their efficiency, even temporarily. But this process of creative resistance must be appropriated by everyone.. Perhaps that was also the goal or the dream of James Cameron to bring awareness when he created the Terminator, though I doubt it.
Since you've been scanning the press for a few years now, do you think that journalists are doing a good job at weighting in the pros and cons of a world ruled by machines and AI?
Generally the press doesn't do much journalism, with a few exceptions. AI takeover, as a topic, is quite unclear for a non expert especially with all the science fiction references, which tends to simplify it and make it acceptable. This is also called the James Bond effect, when people are already used to situations they saw multiple times in movies, like war, violence or surveillance..
At the same time it is very hard to talk about robots or our technology without mentionning science fiction references because in fact it all comes from it.. Hugo de Garis and others transhumanists consider science fiction as quasi biblical tell. Activists against autonomous killer robots opted for an opposite communication strategy and avoid any references to distopic science fiction tells (so called skynet factor), to make clear that this is a real threat and not a fictive one.
Thus the figure of the terminator is always ambiguous : it represents the domination but it's also part of it, in the sense that it has not been fully reappropriated like, say, the Anonymous mask.
Terminator Studies is shown at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, as part of the 14th edition of the accès)s( festival which will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière + associated venues in Pau & around. The programme was curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.
It's that time of the year again! The merry days of the Design Interactions graduation show. The final projects are as different from each other as possible and the first work in my short series of RCA posts deals with what The Guardian calls the serious business of creating a happier world. Happiness, it turns out, is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies. In 2011, the UN Resolution 65/309 encouraged member states to measure happiness and countries are now ranked according to the happiness of their citizens. Which 3 years later, sounds as weird as ever.
In her scenario, not only is the happiness of a UK town closely monitored and assessed but active measures are also taken to almost enforce happiness upon its inhabitants.
That town is Blackburn which the Office for National Statistics declared in 2013 to be one of the least happy cities in the UK.
As you can see in the video below, men in suit convene in a London office and draw up a series of measures to turn a miserable and distant town into a cheerful one. People get tax discount if they wear yellow and skip gaily down the streets, etc. Even the name of the place is changed from Blackburn to Yellowburn.
Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun (video)
Although as individuals we may each wish to be happy, when our emotions become an indicator of government 'success', where might this attempted control over our emotions end, and at what price? This project aims to question the motivations behind this global legislative trend of focusing on happiness, which in its essence is immeasurable.
Does the government want me to feel happy, or are there other, greater, unspoken reasons for their focus on my emotions? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions by speculating about a future city, Yellowburn, in the north of England.
A few questions to the designer:
Hi Zoë! The focus of your project is the city of Blackburn which was declared one of the unhappiest places in the UK. Do you know how this level of unhappiness was measured?
Happiness is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies; countries are ranked according to the happiness of their citizens and happiness is starting to be positioned as a better measure of 'success' than GDP.
As to how Blackburn was classed as one of the least happy places: the ONS (Office of National statistics) conduct an annual survey, including four questions which create what is commonly referred to as The Happiness Index. The questions are:
- How happy did you feel yesterday?
When I was working on this project the data showed that Blackburn, Newport, Stoke-on-Trent and Inner London were among the least happy places in the UK, but the lists of the happiest and unhappiest places often change when new data is announced.
Why did you select Blackburn rather than any other unhappy places?
In this speculative project, Blackburn felt like the kind of place that the Government would select for the trial run of these new happiness proposals. It's up north, it's not too large nor too small, and it's in need of regeneration. Also, although economically Blackburn is now struggling, it was one of the first industrialised towns in the world, and so it seemed apt that it should be the first place to have these happiness proposals implemented and lead the UK into a new, happier, era.
The Investor Document explores the profit potential of happiness. Could you elaborate on that and also tell us if there is any existing political or scientific research on that topic? Is the level of people's happiness already valued as an economical asset?
The research shows that happier people are more agreeable, more healthy and more productive. Therefore, happier people are more beneficial to the economy, as they cost less in policing and healthcare, and create more profit for companies.
Having interviewed Dawn Snape, head of the department at the ONS which carries out the Happiness Index, she admits that they do not know, when asking people about happiness, what it is that they are really measuring, and that the results vary according to who asks the questions, whether the questions are asked in person or over the phone, and so on. Yet, countries are being ranked on this data, UN resolutions have been passed which encourage the measuring of happiness, and happiness is being positioned as a measure of 'national success'. However, with happiness being in its essence immeasurable, for legislative trends to be based on such an immeasurable factor seems to me to be absurd. I would question therefore the motivations for this global focus on happiness - is it just that our politicians want us all to feel happy and good, or is it that they want us to be more agreeable, more easily controlled and more profitable? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions.
In my research for the project I met with lawyers to try to determine whether a legal definition of happiness could be created, and therefore whether we could be more precise as to what was being measured - it was in this meeting that I was introduced to the term 'mere puff', which is basically that you can say something which is not believable and therefore you can say it without being held to it. Mere puff is what allows advertisers to make claims like 'open happiness' (coke) which is obviously nonsense. In my project politicians are also able to make certain claims about happiness which are absurd (which i see happening in current politics too!)
In your scenario, people are taxed for wearing black, sent to therapy when they look too gloomy, etc. Why are the measures taken to ensure that the population of Yellowburn is happy so authoritarian?
In this speculative project, in order to climb up the Happiness rankings, the UK Government targets one of its least happy cities, Blackburn, and bans NonHappiness in public places by implementing a number of proposals (one of which is changing its name from Blackburn to Yellowburn as black is the colour of insecurity and fear, whereas yellow is the colour of happy, sun and fun).
The proposals for Yellowburn were all based on research but I wanted to balance fact and fiction and so chose proposals which best worked to highlight the absurdity of measuring something as vague and changing as happiness. In order to measure something one needs to know what one is measuring. It is for this reason that in this speculative future, happiness is defined quite neatly and peoples behaviour can therefore be analysed as to whether it fits the new definition of Happiness. In this way the data gathered can show the UK to be happier, and thus push the UK up the global happiness rankings.
Other proposals include FRCCTV (Facial recognition CCTV) which tracks the happiness of residents by their smile and body language and rewards 'happy' residents with tax credits, and punishes nonhappy residents with tax penalties and escorting them off to the Y-Districts for various therapies. Another proposal was the tail-wagging cat, which becomes a symbol of Yellowburn. Most people feel happy when they see a dog wagging its tail; the thinking of politicians was therefore that cats should also be trained to wag their tails, so that we would feel happy when we see them wag their tails too.
Let's talk about that therapy. Any citizen who doesn't adopt a happy behaviour is escorted to the Y-District. What happens there?
These Y-Districts would have a range of therapies including CBT, NLP and Psychotherapy. People would also be coached on how to smile better and have body language training to appear happier. There is a cost to the resident for attending the Y-Districts, but attendance is not optional. This cost serves as another deterrent for a resident to exhibit any NonHappiness in public places.
When i talked to you during the press view, you seemed to doubt the sagacity of positioning happiness 'as a better measure of a nations success than GDP.' Why so?
The pursuit of happiness is accepted as a good thing almost without question. This project aims to be the question, one which I think is very much needed to be more audible in our minds. The pursuit for happiness has been raging for centuries despite the fact that we each experience the reality of emotions as rising and passing away. Yet today, scientific research into methods to rid us of unwanted emotions is attracting financial resources from around the globe and the possibility of removing unwanted feelings is fast becoming a reality; this project aims to help people pause, think and feel what the costs of such advancements might be.
I feel that positioning happiness as a measure of success of a country, although it sounds great and lovely at first glance, is ultimately rather dangerous. Once our emotions are important to the government in terms of their world standing and respect from other nations, these emotions are then rife for manipulation and control. We already live in a society where happiness is the 'correct' way to be, where happiness is encouraged, where brands sell to us promising us happiness, where anxiety is treated with drugs, where transhumanists dream of a future where we won't have to feel any negative emotions. For me, happiness is just one emotion, and other emotions should be equally as respected. I wish we would place more value on emotions such as melancholy, as for me they have always been present in my life and I think they need to be listened to more, rather than swept under the carpet or otherwise disregarded.
I should point out that this speculative project is aimed to create debate around the consequences of ranking nations according to happiness, rather than be seen as a reality of a future.
Has anyone from Blackburn reacted to your project, either while you were there filming or later on?
I am very grateful to the residents of Blackburn who I met: they were all extremely friendly and very kind and patient while the filming was going on. Each film is a 3.5 minute continuous steadicam shot - doing rehearsals and then take after take through the back alleys and wasteland of Blackburn with the steadicam rig certainly attracted attention from local residents and a reporter from the local paper came down to find out what we were doing.
Although the data shows the residents of Blackburn as being amongst the least happy in the country, this was not my experience, which perhaps further highlights the difficulty of measuring happiness and adds to the debate as to what it is that we are really measuring.
Could you also remind me of the golf tournament in Newport story? and its impact on the happiness of the town?
Perhaps ironically, the ONS is based in Newport, which is one of the least happy places in the UK alongside Blackburn. So when I visited Newport I interviewed residents about their (lack of) Happiness. Time and time again I was told the story of how, when the owner of Celtic Manor (a golf course just outside Newport) wanted to bring the Ryder cup there, he lobbied to turn the town into a city. This new city status brought with it increased council rates and business taxes, which people could not afford. Coupled with a large retail park opening up outside the town, the town centre saw a decline in business and many of the residents attributed the unhappiness of the people of Newport to this event - one man wanting the Ryder Cup to come to his golf course.
Is the UK government taking measures at the moment to make the nation happier?
David Cameron introduced the measuring of Happiness, and government departments now consider happiness when making decisions. Recent data showed the UK to be in 22nd place in terms of happiness, but just this morning (19-june-14) new data shows that the UK is now ranked in 11th place - a jump of 11 places. I find these statistics fascinating and absurd in equal measure.
Are you planning to push the project any further?
This was the final project of my MA at RCA, and I will continue to work on design projects in this subject area.
You can check out the works at RCA Show 2014 until 29 June.
I spent the weekend in Eindhoven for Age of Wonder, a festival which turned up to be even more exciting and engaging than its name promised. I'll get back with images and posts later but right now i felt like blogging my notes from Nick Bostrom's keynote about Superintelligence. Bostrom is a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. He talked about the ultra fast pace of innovation, hazardous future technologies, artificial intelligence that will one day surpass the one of human beings and might even take over our future.
Bostrom is worried about the way humanity is rushing forward. The time between having an idea and developing it is getting increasingly shorter. This gives less space to reflect on the safety of innovation. Bostrom believes that humans cannot see the existential danger this entails. If the future is a place where we really want to live, then we will have to think in different and better-targeted ways about ourselves and about technological developments.
Bostrom's talk started on a high and slightly worrying note with a few words on existential risk. An existential risk is one that endangers the survival of intelligent life on Earth or that threatens to severely destroy our potential for development. So far, humanity has survived the worst natural or man-caused catastrophes (genocide, tsunami, nuclear explosion, etc.) but an existential catastrophe would be so lethal that it would ruin all future for all mankind. An analogy on an individual scale would be if you find yourself facing a life sentence in prison or in a coma you don't wake up from.
So far we've survived all natural catastrophes but we need to beware of anthropogenic risks. New technologies haven't yet managed to spread doom. Nuclear weapons, for example, are very destructive but they are also very difficult to make. Now imagine if a destructive technology was easy to make in your garage, It could end in the hands of a lunatic who plots the end of human civilization.
Potentially hazardous future technologies such as machine intelligence, synthetic biology, molecular technology, totalitarism-enabling technologies, geoengineering, human modification, etc. had not been invented 100 years ago. Imagine what might emerge within the next 100 years.
So if you care about the future of human civilization and if your goal is to do some good, you need to look at how to reduce existential risk. You would need to influence when and by whom technologies can be developed. You would need to speed up the development of 'good' technologies and retard the development of others such as designer pathogens for example.
How does this play out with a rise of machine intelligence which could result in Super Intelligence?
Machine intelligence will radically surpass biological intelligence (even if it is enhanced through genetic selection for example) one day. Experts find it difficult to agree on when exactly machines will reach the level of human intelligence. They estimate that there is 90% probability that human level artificial intelligence might arise around 2075. Once machine intelligence roughly matches human's in general intelligence, a machine intelligence takeoff could take place extremely fast.
But how can you control a Super Intelligent machine? What will happen when we develop something that radically surpass our intelligence and might have the capability to shape our future? Any plan we might have to control the super intelligence will probably be easily thwarted by it. Is it possible to have any gatekeeper that/who will make sure that the artificial intelligence will not do anything detrimental to us? The Super Intelligence would probably be capable of figuring out how to escape any confinement we might impose upon it. It might even kill us to prevent us from interfering with its own plans. We should also think about any ultimate goal that a Super Intelligence might have. What if its own goal is to dedicate all the resources of the universe to producing as many paper clips as possible?
How can we build an artificial Super Intelligence with human-friendly values? How can we control it and avoid some existential risks that might arise down the road?
The forms of artificial intelligence we are familiar with can solve one problem: speech recognition, face recognition, route-finding software, spam filters, search engines, etc. A general artificial intelligence will be able to carry out a variety of challenges and goals. How can we male sure that it learns humanly meaningful values?
A couple of weeks ago i spent the day at the Dana Center in London for First Person Plural: The cult of the photographer and the culture of social media, a symposium hosted by The Science Museum in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella.
First Person Plural accompanied the final days of Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the first exhibition of the Science Museum's brand new Media Space. The conference briefly paid homage to the legacy of Tony Ray-Jones, who chronicled the social rituals of the English in the 1960s, which he feared were at risk of disappearing with Americanisation.
In the increasingly globalised world of the early 21st century, are there equivalent expressions of cultural identity, or equally idiosyncratic social rituals and behaviours, that modern life seems to be passing by - and who are the contemporary artists and photographers who are recording them? Or, taking our cue from new technology, should we turn this question the other way round? In the age of the 'selfie' and social media, might it be the figure of the Photographer, as observer and recorder of social change, that is becoming passé, destined to be replaced by a new type of collective 'portrait' formed from the aggregation and analysis of big data?
The symposium looked at the impact that current technologies and social media have on the roles, image and identity of the photographer. Some of the highlights of the day included Natasha Caruana explaining how she met with married men in search of an extra-marital affair and documented fragments of their restaurant encounters using a disposable camera, writer and lecturer Julian Stallabrass reminding me how much i love Martin Parr's work (though i'm pretty sure that wasn't Stallabrass' objective) and a talk by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin whose work i've been following with enthusiasm since i discovered it At Strozzina in Florence a few years ago.
My notes from the events are going to be limited to Broomberg & Chanarin's talk because they highlighted valid points about notions of authorship, about the perception that technology is 'neutral', but they also exposed how representation is complicit in events, not only documenting them but being actually involved in them.
One of the first projects they discussed what the Afterlife series which reconsiders a photograph taken in Iran on 6 August 1979 by a very young Iranian photographer called Jahangir Razmi. Taken just months after the revolution, the image records the execution of 11 blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by a firing squad. This is the kind of photo that wins prestigious awards, like the World Press photo prize. And indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize award. But why is an image like this so beautiful and alluring? Broomberg and Chanarin found and met Razmi and discovered that he had taken many more pictures of the dramatic moment. They looked at Razmi's 27 other frames and dissected them in an attempt to deconstruct the moment. For example, each time the prisoner blinded appeared on an image, they isolated him and included him in a collage which aim was to stop the emotional response triggered by the original image. The collage revealed also the mechanical movement of the photographer around that event.
The deconstruction and reconstruction of the image was inspired by Razmi's answer to the question "What is your favorite film?" He answered that his favourite film was a film that hasn't been made: a film of the assassination of Kennedy but taken from multiple angles.
Next, Broomberg and Chanarin also explained the importance of chance in photo reportage. For example, Robert Capa's iconic photo of The Falling Soldier was an accident. Capa didn't even look through the lens, he held the camera up and clicked on the shutter. It truly was an accidental image.
B&C illustrated chance in photography with the project The Day Nobody Died, a work made while they were embedded within the British army in Afghanistan. Once there, they turned a military vehicle into a dark room. Each time an important event happened, the duo took up photographic paper and exposed it to light and then put it back in the box. The result doesn't reflect in a figurative way the events that Broomberg & Chanarin were supposed to document in Afghanistan.
The works questions the viewer's expectation from the proxy, the photographer who goes off to the war or to the scene of natural disasters to act as a witness, record and show it to to the public. How much do the images he produces have to be figurative to act as a piece of evidence of the events?
The piece of photographic paper they took to Afghanistan was there. It did go on a journey and, abstract or not, it stands in for this notion of the witness.
A fascinating point the photographers made was to question the assumption that there is an inherent neutrality to the technology of photography. They illustrated it with a couple of projects. The first responds to the photo of a woman called Shirley. When employees of professional photo laboratories calibrate the printing machine every day, a piece of paper comes out and it comes with various shades of grey to black, then the picture of a lama appears and finally, the picture of a woman. The woman is Shirley. In the beginning of colour films, the Kodak corporation photographed one of the workers, Shirley, and sent the picture out with the word 'normal' as the normal print for caucasian skin. Jean-Luc Godard refused to use Kodak, he called it racist.
Right after the end of segregation in the USA, black and white children started to sit side by side in the same class. Kodak's range was so limited that it was at the time impossible to take a photo of a black and white child in the same frame. It was just a basic limitation of way film had evolved and that's what Godard regarded as racist. Kodak didn't respond to the problem until 2 of their biggest clients, the furniture industry and confectionary industry complained and lobbied Kodak because they were unable to photograph the various nuances of wood and chocolate.
When Broomberg and Chanarin were invited to a ludicrous mission to document Gabon for two weeks, they went on bay and collected unprocessed 'racist' films which they used in Gabon. They only produced one picture. It is pink (because the green pigment is more stable.)
From there, the photographers became increasingly interested in the idea that a camera or a piece of films could somehow embody ethical ideas, that a piece of technology wasn't ethically neutral. The collaboration of Polaroid with South Africa's Apartheid State is a clear evidence of this.
Polaroid developed for the apartheid government the ID-2 camera that was used to produce the pass book picture that all Africans had to carry around with them. The camera has two lenses so that you can make the portrait and the profile in same sheet of paper. There is also a special button at the back of the device that has been especially designed for black skin. By pressing it, you increase the flash power by 42 percent.
Two Afro American employees of Kodak ("Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement") campaign to convince Polaroid to retire from South Africa. They were fired but the Head of Polaroid eventually sent a delegation in the country and subsequently withdrew all Polaroid products closely linked to end of Apartheid.
Again, B&C went online, bought one of those cameras and traveled to South Africa to take pictures that turned on its head the toxic use of the camera. They decided to ignore the rules they found in the guide book that comes with the camera and proceeded to photograph the flora and fauna of South Africa.
The last work they mentioned is their ongoing curatorial project Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen, a Yiddish insult that means "A piece of meat with two eyes".
Once again, the work emerged from what the photographers call a 'ludicrous' commission. When the G20 met in Saint Petersbourg, one photographer from each of the G20 countries was invited to come and create a piece of work about Russia. B&C discovered a small Russian company at the avant-garde of surveillance software. Their cameras are invisible and can be placed anywhere. They capture data as you pass through and make marking of your face. The result is not a photograph but a 'data double', an algorithmic map of the face, a structure of your bone. The machine doesn't need the image to portray and identify a person. This technology heralds the breakdown of the photographer and the collapse of camera. At the same time, it announced the advent of software and computer.
The developers of the software said that the biggest challenge was developing a camera that could operate in a non collaborative mode. We are thus entering a new era of non collaborative portraiture, the subject does not even need to be aware that their face is being scanned in 3 dimensions, that can later be rotated and scrutinized. The technology totally substitute the meaning of the face with the mathematics of the face.
Some of the presentations are on soundcloud.
Previously: Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest will be artist and 'videosmith' Sam Meech whose work explores the role of analogue technologies in a digital landscape, and the potential to fuse the two in production, projection and performance.
I discovered Sam's work in Liverpool a few weeks ago, it was part of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT that explores how the working day has evolved from the industrial revolution to the digital age. Sam Meech has hung over the gallery a banner which translates into a knitting design the working hours patterns of people active in the 'creative industry' and they are, as you suspect, radically (depressingly??) different from the traditional 8 hour shift.
Sam is also a co-director of Re-Dock - a not-for-profit arts organisation, developing projects that explore ways in which communities relate to digital media, ideas and public space.