All posts filed under “stuff that matters

invective

I was angry with someone recently, not annoyed, but angry at the way they have behaved.  This isn’t a person I have ever particularly liked, but I didn’t dislike them either.  But now they have capped off already questionable behaviour with some low level hostility that has stuck in my craw and I had been internalising all of this into a stupid bat of paranoia paranoid with which I had been beating myself up and as a result, work came to a bit of a halt.

Well not entirely as I started mulling over a project and slowly working on the constituent parts, kind of like taking up a run before I launch myself at the pieces but I have been looking for a suitable subject to start with and the only human that I really want to use it the person who has pissed me off.   The work i am thinking about includes some text, references to biblical thieves and the hard word that describes a section of female genitalia.  The question is should I do it?

This work is complicated and intricate, the final pieces will be intended to be perceived as beautiful, but it is made from anger and added spite.  I wonder if it will work.  I wonder why I can’t put the idea down, maybe it’s a cure.  I have certainly felt a lot better about making work since I started to make my personal ideas explicit, even if only to me.

The Thin Black Line and the Broad White One.

I went to a talk between Lubaina Himid and Paul Goodwin at the Whitechapel Gallery last week.  They discussed three exhibitions she had worked with in the 1980s: Five Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983), Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre (1983-4) and The Thin Black Line at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1985).  It was illuminating and more than a little  depressing.   One thing that got wedged in my head was how the exhibition at the ICA, deeply symbolic in a conduit between the big art stuff (ironically very small artworks by Richard Tuttle) and the bookshop, had been reviewed by Waldemar Januszczak who dismissed the exhibit as ‘angry’.   That is the same Waldemar Januszczak who I recently had a short Twitter exchange with on the subject of the Oriel College Rhodes Must Fall campaign.  He saw the idea of taking down the statue as censoring the past and likened the people who wanted to remove the object to the Taliban.  He called me idiotic for saying the comparison is idiotic but, regrettably, he didn’t answer my question as to whether it was also censorship for some post communist countries to have taken down their images of communist leaders and other socialist inspirational types.  I guess he was busy.

Anyway, at the moment, the admittedly entertaining Januszczak, is striding about various locations for his programme  The Renaissance Unchained  with what frequently looks like an empty suitcase (ha!) banging on about the marvels of  northern european painting sculpture and architecture that has been buried under the italian big beasts when it comes to discussing the art of the Renaissance.  He has a point.   I too love the intricacies of Durer’s Roller’s Wing and Cranach’s Adam and Eve, I’m glad he gets to push the viewer in their direction.  The thing is he is a determined revisionist and that rankles because of his obdurate approach to Rhodes’ statue which as far as I’m concerned has no aesthetic value whatsoever as it’s main purpose seems to be to make people  walk beneath the feet of the person who funded an important scholarship, placing no emphasis at all on the fact that this is a statue of someone who could be described as a founding father of apartheid.

 

Black Portraits II Revisited NYC Feb 2016

Last year I wrote about seeing the Lynette Yadiom Boakye exhibition, Voices After Dark at the Serpentine Gallery and the huge effect it had on me.  My responses to the exhibition had been the cause of a small spat between me and another associate at Open School East because I found it really difficult to explain what it is like to be in my skin, with my experiences to stand in a gallery surrounded by unglossed images of black people.  The spat was interesting because the conversation rapidly shifted from being about me and my experience to being about him not being a racist.  I know he isn’t a racist, it never crossed my mind to think he could possibly be a racist.  But he is white and I know a lot about the emotional lives and experiences of white people and when it comes to art, well, until last year my entire art education has been about the preoccupations, proclivities and perversions of, for the most part, white men.

And then, Qiana Mestrich tweeted about the Black Portraits II Revisited conference in NYC and I booked my place, bought my ticket and spent the most fantastic two days listening to presentations and reflections from the Florence conference last year which I dearly wish I could have attended.  The presentations began with the executive director of NYU Florence describing her own arrival in La Villa Pietra and her responses to the two Blackamoor statues flanking the door to her office that had lit the touch paper.   From there on I was taken through a historical overview of the black body in the arts via a myriad of contexts and a multiplicity of practitioners from a contemplation about Giovanni Moro a 16th Century Florentine actor/writer/musician; the possibilities of humanising through photography and the work of Gordon Parkes; reflections on migration and refugees, the experiences of black people travelling abroad from the USA freed from segregation by the willingness of the Europeans to put commerce before prejudiced when it comes to restaurant seating; a terribly moving account of abstraction in art illuminating the chaos of suicide for someone who had little time for awkward art; a corrective account of Ota Benga who was housed in a monkey cage in the Bronx zoo eventually released only to end his own life in despair; the exploitative nature of the American penal system that charges inmates $200+ for a staged family photograph; a fictionalised description of the taking of a photograph of captured Ethiopian women; notions of passing and the price of passing on the individual (boom) ;  objectification; fictionalised accounts that illuminated real and terrible incidents; reasons for travel and exploration of other cultures; ornamental blackness;  Betty Davis – no not that one, this one;  and while we are talking female musicians, obviously Missy Eliot; Berry Gordy insisting that the lyrics in Motown songs could be heard and properly understood; the use and abuse of melisma in current popular music; Aftofuturism;  a female Cuban documentaryist who managed, somehow, to work with a group who abjured women; a fascinating panel of artists who all seemed to use, in some way or another the camera.

That isn’t everything, I met some wonderful people especially Jacqueline Johnson who introduced me to Marilyn Nance and between the two of them, they seemed to know everybody.  What I need to do now is to start to synthesise this into more coherent thoughts around the panels I saw and heard.  Ultimately the best thing I took away was the knowledge that I was given privileged access to a whole world of art practice that I knew precious little of and this access has given me more confidence to explore my own preoccupations through my medium of choice without needing to explain that I am not calling someone else a racist just because I want to talk about living in my brown skin.

 

An attempt at writing undermined by the inability to things into words

Writing is hard sometimes.  I have been wedged in a corner, a tight corner, since the end of my study at OSE unable to garner words into sensible order although my head is popping and fizzing with ideas that melt away as soon as I go anywhere near any kind of word receptacle.  At work, I’m trying to write a report/proposal that will make everybody’s life easier especially mine, but a week, a bloody week, has gone past and it is still a stuttering mess of nothing much.   So I am giving up on ideas and writing about something I saw because at least I can reflect on that.

Yesterday evening, I got off the bus and did a bit of shopping and was coming back to where I live and I could see a man with a toddler on his shoulders looking down at what I initially thought was another toddler on the floor.  As I came up to them it became clear that it was a crouching woman.  Getting even closer I could see she was in distress.  The man put the child down but he didn’t really do much to comfort her.  Then I heard her.  She wasn’t crying, she was wailing, but a weird kind of wail, really despairing, not terribly loud, but keening, jarring and upsetting and it pulled a thread to my own personal dressing up box of misery.  I had walked past by then, but I couldn’t just do that so I turned and said are you ok, do you need any help?  The man looked at me and said something to the effect of no, we are fine.  So I turned and walked away.  A couple coming after me also asked the same and were rebuffed, so they didn’t linger either.  I could still hear her, or I thought I heard her as I unlocked the door to my building and I felt guilty for doing so little.

Do you need any help? Of course she needed help, she was wailing.  So why did I take the word of the man who looked more embarrassed than concerned?  Both him and the boy just looked like pitiless gate keepers and I acquiesced to their, their what?  Ownership? She remained hunched up on the floor.  She wasn’t being stoical, nor was she letting rip, but she also wasn’t indulging in any stiff upper lip either.  She was in distress and it was being forced out of her mouth and written on her face.  The sound she was making only has one meaning and the shape of her features accentuated it.  Why did I say do you need any help?  Why didn’t I say, can I help? Can I get you anything?  Why didn’t I insist that this is the sound I recognise, you don’t make that sound for the hell of it, it’s not like an infant on a bus shattering and restoring the ambient noise.  She was a well dressed adult completely capable of stringing a sentence together, explaining what was happening and even making suggestions as to how to alleviate this pain but so consumed by some feeling so unpleasant she was reduced to making a noise.  And yet the boy and the man spectated.

Of course I’m judging him, perhaps she is given to bouts of howling.  Maybe she’d just received terrible news that had completely floored her and she’d rebuffed his attempts to console her;  perhaps she is a spoiled petulant idiot who had this time her bluff had been called and she’d been left to cry it out.  Why not?  Even in the dark it was clear that she was well looked after, a small slender, well dressed woman with beautiful dark, shiny wavy hair.  She wasn’t one of the shattered messed up humans who patrol Church Street stoically requesting cash for a bed for the night, they are far less likely to show such raw emotion.  Whatever the reason, there is no way I can know because I took him at his word and left.  And being honest, I know I was applying my own template to her situation because I do know what it feels like to make that sound.  I’ve been distressed enough to howl in the street and so overwhelmed by awfulness of my situation as to render passers by invisible.  I have long-standing and intimate knowledge of what it is like to feel helpless, abandoned and incapable of fixing things myself.  The sound she made was the vocalisation of those feelings, a song of misery and loneliness.  And yet, I  took the word of the person not in distress and went home and now I’m sitting here more than twelve hours later writing about it because I cannot write about anything else.

 

 

 

 

words fail me

Quick opinion poll: which one of these statements is true?

a) Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States of America or b) Barack Obama is the forty fourth white president of  the United States of America.

If you answered a,  he’s mixed race so he’s not exactly black per se, so perhaps you should go to the back of the class and try to work out if answering a makes you a racist.  If you answered b, you should probably get your eyes tested as that is a very weird kind of colour blindness but for now, go to the back of the class and sit next to the possible racist.

Representation matters because people identify with each other.  If you come from a caste or group that is persistently represented in a negative, patronising, belligerent or subjective manner seeing that group you identify with presented in the manner most missing is going to do something to you and last Sunday Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ‘s exhibition Verses After Dark did exactly that to me.  I had gone on the recommendation of Anjalika Sagar who  I had a tutorial with the Friday before.  This tutorial was without a doubt the most thought provoking and interesting tutorial I have had in my time at Open School East.  Having a discussion with another woman who shares some of my experience around the subject of race and art was – I really lack the vocabulary here – great.  But it was seeing the exhibition that did a chaotic series of physical and emotional things to me and I am still working my way through them. 

Later, I tried to explain it to a fellow associate and I just couldn’t do it without resorting to lumpen phrases like, it isn’t possible for you to understand this…  This got the kind of standard liberal response to things that tickle at issues around racism which is to get really defensive at the merest suggestion that a person without, ahem, pigment, cannot understand or empathise with something that a non white person knows inside out.  This might make you think here we go again and I’d say you are kinda right if this is a post about racism but it isn’t.  It’s about being represented and not needing to qualify this representation and if issues around genes are mired in the middle of it, there is absolutely no reason to shoot the messenger.

Clearly, blackness, or more specifically, darkness, matters.  Lack of representation in places of power is all the more acute if you one day find yourself standing in a gallery where the only representation on the wall is of non-white people who you find it easier to identify with than the entire collection in the National Portrait Gallery; if you find your self in an exhibition that represents people who are absolutely not white and the theme is not about war, AIDS, fundamentalism, Ebola, female circumcision, gun crime, drugs, gangs, poverty whatever, it’s going to do something to you.

So there I was in an establishment that seems easily distracted by the shiny stuff that (pale) oligarchs and arty hangers on shimmer around in.  In the midst of portraits of black people, big portraits, some of them truly beautiful portraits in muted palettes, except for the sudden reds and greens and yellows was disorientating.  I have never been in a gallery of any kind anywhere in my entire well travelled life and seen anything like it.  Certainly I have seen exhibitions that are beautiful, impressive, thought provoking and enlightening,  lots of exhibitions about the black experience, for the most part  captured by people who cannot properly share it (and I am not criticising this work); I genuinely believe that  Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse deserved to win the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015.  Still the Serpentine exhibition made me feel a little shaky, a little strange and incredibly elated in a manner Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work could never do.

I’m not talking about racism in the terms that I encountered it growing up, the casual under estimation of what I was and what I could ever be,  the vile taunts, the absurd and insulting ‘we think of you as being like us’ statement that was proffered as if it were a benediction.  That was just ignorance but what I  realise now is that ignorance was underpinned by an undeserved feeling of superiority that should have been interrogated and if it had been perhaps I would have a more subtle vocabulary to discuss it.  As despite the inescapable fact that Barack Obama is 50% white, his blackness somehow carries more weight and this is because of representation and it took some un-glossed representation to really hammer that point home.

 

 

A to B Invisible

After my last post about privacy I feel I should fess up that I also have a dog in the fight that goes a bit further than photography: I made a short film, ostensibly to learn Premiere Pro, but also because I liked a song and didn’t like the way it was on shown on YouTube.  I made the film using short sequences shot on a Nexus 4 mobile phone, mainly on the London Overground on my way to and from work.  The shots are of people who are for the most part looking at their phones.  I liked the symmetry.

I’ve been drawing, photographing and filming to various degrees on London Transport since I got here in 1987.  I’ve never been challenged about it but I am aware some people don’t like it.  This is not going deter me.  I don’t like ketchup, seriously, the smell really does make me gag and I’ll return any food that I discern it in.  I wouldn’t threaten someone with arrest or violence because of it.  If someone says no, then I stop.  Like ketchup, photography isn’t illegal and long may it be so.

I had a friend in Poland who spent some time in London in 1990.  She found the tube a weird and silent place where people avoided eye-contact at all costs, except for one occasion when the driver announced that Prime Minister Margret Thatcher had resigned.  Newspapers dropped below eye level and people made eye contact and then, the unthinkable, they started to talk to each other.  She said it was the weirdest thing and it never.happened.again.

That’s the charm of the tube.  I’ve taken buses and undergrounds all over the place and have ear-wigged on conversations about all manner of things.  Frequently people do not say much, but they do acknowledge each other.  But London seems to be the daddy of pretending nobody else exists at all, people seem to travel in a little private bubble and all manner of things can happen without anybody batting an eye.  The mobile phone has made things even more insular as you can be reading the Spectator and listening to death metal while someone else stands sobbing in the carriage right next to you.  I was interested in what it takes to make us intervene or attempt a conversation but my limited research came up with no answers.  So I edited the clips from my phone together with a song by Paul Mosley and put it up on Vimeo.

 

how does anyone meet anyone from Tina Rowe on Vimeo.

Making images in public, making images of the public

I’ve been following the case against Arne Svenson with a lot of interest and I am glad that it has been resolved in his favour.  Some of these photographs are quite beautiful when taken as images of calm domesticity but his method opens up a can of worms that says more about affluence and the assumed rights it appears to bring than it does about the ethics of the photographer. The issue with Svenson’s photographs is they are of the insides of people’s homes and he took them using a long lens from outside their homes and did not ask permission.  Initially I found the images exploitative and creepy, but on reflection I do not.

Neighbors #17, 2012 pigment print Arne Svensen

Neighbors #17, 2012 pigment print Julie Saul Gallery Arne Svensen

My reasons for being pleased he won are about the complaint itself which I feel was wrong. Although I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, most people think I am and as a person who photographs I am of the view that if I can see it, then I can photograph it.  Svenson appears to be of the same opinion.  Clearly Svenson was not using a magical sci-fi camera that can see through walls.  If he had invented such a machine, I would guess he’d have a far more lucrative time in the defence industry.  But he calls himself an artist and exhibits as such.  I get that.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that there is no real difference between me and him as I also exhibit my photographs and some of them are of people who have no idea that they are on display.  I make no apology for this.  The fork in the road is how far I am prepared to go to get an image.   I have photographed many people in public spaces.  I’m relatively benign, I don’t troll or shame with my images, but I am sure there are some of my subjects who would not be best pleased with the results of me pointing and shooting at them.  My justification is that if someone objects to being the subject, then I will not take the shot.

catnfiddle

Some people having a nice time outside a pub.

The catch is, I take a lot of care not to be observed observing and with over 30 years of experience hiding in plain sight, you’d need to be on your toes to catch me watching you.  The fact that I am watching you in the first place most likely means you are so absorbed in something else that I’m just not an issue.  That is, in fact, the very thing that makes you interesting.  You observing me breaks the spell.  Well not always:

Krakow 1994

Krakow 1994

The thing that really gets my goat is the complaint about privacy as those people were doing the stuff they were doing in front of windows that made no attempt to conceal what was going on inside the room.  Svenson could see them from his own home.  Granted he took a closer look with a long lens which is questionable but not illegal and people are prepared to leave an awful lot on show anyway.

I lived in Krakow for a few years in the early 1990s.  From there I moved to Hamburg and one of the first things I noticed was the fact that people did not cover up their windows anywhere as near as much as they had in Poland.  One journey I frequently took was on the Schnellbhan along Isestrasse in Eppendorf which is one of the most affluent parts of Hamburg.  This line went along a street at height and from any carriage you could see directly into people’s homes.  I was mystified why they didn’t have curtains on their windows as I could clearly see into their beautiful apartments.  I didn’t avert my eyes when I went past.  If anything I was fascinated by the little glimpses of the lives going on oblivious to the thousands of people passing by.  It was in stark contrast to the net curtains on Polish windows.  It said a lot about how people dealt with privacy, about how secure they felt they were and perhaps about the way those inside felt about those on the outside.

From the kitchen window of my flat in Altona, I frequently caught an unintended eyeful of a neighbor who had some interesting proclivities that were eventually concealed, much to my relief, by the marijuana plants growing on his window ledge.  He either didn’t think anybody could see him or he thought it mattered little if they did.  Considering the little I was unable to avoid of what he was prepared to do, I’m guessing that he didn’t care in the slightest and possibly wanted us to look. I never met him so I got the chance to ask him and to be honest, I very much doubt I would have mentioned it had we ever come into close enough contact.

The complaint about Svenson included some business about the fact the photographer was profiting from this snooping.  This is the bit that infuriates me the most.  Svenson did the work, he owns the equipment, is represented by a gallery.  This is how he makes his living.  To expect a cut in any profit generated by his work is ridiculous and was deservedly thrown out.  It is also at odds with the claims to privacy.  Money is was it frequently seems to boil down to.  Privacy it is assumed, is a commodity and its price is dictated by the market.  But market is stupid and knows nothing about the urge to make art only what it can get out of selling the package on.  Privacy is a wildly abstract term that is so hard to reinforce.  I am most often challenged on the matter outside the buildings of corporations rather than near the homes of the wealthy.  And it is simple for me to run rings around those men in tabbards who parrot rubbish about the legality of my actions and are so completely ignorant of what I am doing that they demand to see the pictures I have taken on a roll of film there and then.  I feel sorry for them really as they have no chance of winning the debate and cannot afford to touch me or my camera for fear of being caught on the surveillance systems that bristle all around us.  This demand for privacy is frequently related to an assumption about why the image is being captured and a warped idea of the potential value or use of the final product

This guessing is another problem.  I had a spat with my middle brother a few years ago because he told me about an incident when he had seen a man photographing a merry go round that his 7 year old daughter was on.  My brother approached the man and intimidated him into deleting the photographs he’d taken.  My brother is over 6 foot and substantial.  If someone had done that to me,  they would have got short shrift and no cooperation whatsoever.  My brother did it to ‘protect’ his daughter.  It mattered nothing to him that he was in a public place, that the man statistically  was most likely to have been just indulging an innocent hobby, having a nice day out, like my brother and his family.

A singing child in a buggy, on the bus.

Svenson is tacking far closer to the wind than that particular happy snapper, but again, in the complaint the issue of children was brought up.  The inclusion of children in some images, it was implied, in some way made Svenson’s activities more sinister.  This really is arrant garbage.  It is incumbent on parents to protect their children, but most situations do not call for the destruction of someone else’s property.  By the same token people need to protect their own privacy and not expect other people to do it for them.

The question really has to rest with if the images were worth the effort and I think they most certainly are.  I would probably be taken aback if I was confronted by a photograph of me taken by Svenson in the manner of the ones that got contended.  But I would also appreciate the fact that the images themselves are rather lovely, almost like Vemeer.  In fact they remind me of Vemeer precisely because many of his paintings are so candid and the subjects appear to be unknowing or only very recently aware.  I do not think Svenson criticizes his subjects or even comments upon them, instead he shows serene domestic tableaux.  What he may have done as an unintended consequence is disrupt this feeling of security and destroyed the thing he set out to portray and that is a shame.  What is most evident in these images is a kind of domestic calm and comfort that most of us aspire to.  What actually goes on in those private spaces remains completely unknown because privacy is about a good deal more than what can be seen in a moment and this is why I feel that Svenson should not have lost his case.

Arne Svenson is represented by the Julie Saul Gallery, The Neighbors images can be seen here, as can more of his work.

 

60 Minutes at work

I would be lying if I said I love my job.  I certainly do not.  I love the idea of my job and it is probably this that has kept me banging my head against the wall for almost 16 years because the institutions I work for certainly haven’t covered themselves in glory when it comes to actually using my skills, experience or education.  I used to be called a Learning Technologist, even for a period of time a Senior Learning Technologist, these days I am an Academic Developer, but in truth I am a check box that universities like to tick against a technology and inclusiveness question. It’s bullshit really.  Luckily it is well paid bullshit.

The first time I really registered the term Learning Technologist was when I applied for a job that seemed to be asking for the suite of experience and qualifications I had accrued.  I thought the job title sounded like dental hygienist, except nobody stares blankly at a person who says I am a dental hygienist. I would imagine that most people find themselves wondering if the dental hygienist is making mental notes about the quality of their smile once that bit of information is unleashed into the conversation.  Anyway, despite all those years of experience, I appear to be mainly a branch of the help desk for all the institutions I have worked for, and by help desk, I mean, people think I am there to help them get their emails.

I don’t mind helping, but I am technically and expert in online teaching and learning .  I have views about how we learn and I don’t expect them all to be agreed with, but I didn’t just trip over them in the street, I got them through an expensive post graduate education and trying things out.  I would like it if people with far less experience than me would maybe engage all this free expertise now and then and not treat me like I am a know nothing doofus just because I don’t lecture or have a Phd. For what it’s worth, the first person I ever knew with a Phd had to have the difference between unisex and bisexual explained to them after a trip to the hairdressers. I think of that every time I come out of a meeting with an academic about using technology in teaching and learning and they dismiss everything I say.

So it can’t be much of a surprise that the most productive day I had at work last year was the last day in 2014 in the office when I took my camera and the polaroid back to work and snapped away at some of the things that I liked the look of.

 

 

 

 

 

Art School

I am starting at Open School East on Thursday 8th January.  I’m kind of daunted and excited by the whole thing.  I’m most worried about being so much older than everybody else, including all the tutors, but also about my lack of basic artschool.  I should be ok though. I have set upon a project about gentrification, though I am pretty sure the system is awash with this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, I am personally interested in the changes that have been happening around where I live and I am even more interested in the lives of the people who were here before the developers realised that rather than gouging out ever smaller bedsits from victorian housing and just building stuff would make more money, so I reckon I may be bringing something to the table that hasn’t paid a visit before.

My project is intended to get locals to map and photograph the area as they experience it.  I see plenty of beardy plaid dressed people wandering about with zeniths and praktikas as well as iPhones and the like, archly photographing Ridley Road and other stuff.  Good for them, but that is fresh and new eyes.  I can’t help wondering where the photos taken by the locals are, what would you click on that you’ve been walking past all your life?  I do this photographing thing as a reflex. I just always have a camera.  What about if you never do, or if you do, you save it only for selfies.  I thought I had forgotten some of what it was like to see my first pictures come out, but I haven’t and it was kind of magical.  I really hope that I have the ability to extend that to at least one other person who isn’t one of my mates.

Anyway, seemed like a good reason to play this:

 

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portraits

I’ve recently been taking portraits for the wax project.  I have never seen myself as  portrait photographer because I feel uncomfortable looking closely at people despite the fact I do it all the time, but in a furtive and private kind of way.  I know and like all of these people, one of them I have known for over 20 years so I have had plenty of time to study him at close quarters.  I really enjoyed doing it and may do more in the future.  It is funny that these have turned out so well as it was inadvertent.  I started with a single portrait that I wanted for a particular purpose and the rest of these shots came out of that.  I can’t help wondering that if I had explicitly started out to take portraits, I would have got bogged down in all kinds of details that would have ended up with me shelving the whole thing because I am prone to procrastination and not hugely confident when it comes to asking for what I want.