The anxiety of the new
This past week, apart from the lurching earthquakes which bring a fresh anxiety moment every time they happen, the zeitgeist seems to have been around how photography is faring in the age of new media. At the beginning of the week Alec Soth of Little Brown Mushroom in his marvelous Monday Popsicle blogged about the storytelling in the interactive website Welcome to Pine Point.
Soth comments that “The Americans of our time will not be a book, but something else: a website, an app, perhaps even a video game.” (I wonder whether the authors of the websites, apps or video games, will have The Americans in their heads, and so whether the work will even be recognisable as having a relationship with Robert Frank’s revered project).
Welcome to Pine Point, which is hosted on the National Film Board of Canada site, tells the stories of a small Canadian mining town which was deliberately obliterated after the mine closed down. A generation of residents who’d grown up there now have no physical town on which to base their memories – but there are websites including this highly inventive one by The Googles. Unusually for an interactive site rather than allowing multiple points for exit it takes viewers through a defined ‘story’ about the residents, the town and their memories. Viewers can decide when to turn the page, but before then there’s a rich array of films, photos and commentary to explore. The pictures of the empty spaces that were once a town are certainly eerie and thought provoking, but the heart of the piece seemed to be a yearbook where we’re introduced to The Beauty and The Bully and follow their lives and relationship to their former town.
But for all its inventiveness and enhanced storytelling, I don’t think it moved me as much as the poems of Griffin Prize winning Canadian poet Karen Solie. In her book Flight Solie writes of polluted landscapes, towns, agribusiness and industry in Canada, in a way that makes you excited that poetry deals with the contemporary world and with such an intelligent personal voice.
In Four Factories she begins a stanza ‘The global appeal of concrete is not accidental./Through it, our modern vision is realised. That “cement”/ and “concrete’ are used interchangeably/ is one of the most interesting things about it.”
Then following a swarm of large and small shudders, it was off to Massey University where the Photographies in Transition symposium looked at how the still visual image was facing up to the digital earthquake and the tsunami of images on Facebook, Flicker and other social media sites. Here, Geoff Batchen reminded us that even in the age of daguerreotypes people were multiplying the original image through etchings and an online Doug Rickard (who I’ve written about previously) gave us insight into his philosophy that editing is all and if you are going to do a work in this age of image overload, it better be profound. I greatly like Rickard’s A New American Picture book – like a latter day Elvis Presley his work seems the perfect gathering point for influences, a fierce moral sense (perhaps inherited from an evangelical upbringing), deep knowledge of the history of photography and a smart use of Google’s street view. And unlike many art digital commentators he actually looks for strong visual imagery (with all the anxiety about what ‘strong’ means in these careful days).
Kate Albers, assistant professor of Art History at the University of Arizona, another online presence, introduced photographers who use geo-spatial coordinates to guide their choice of photographic location. A range of landscapes were shown with the highlight, for me, being the work of Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman based on the geo-locations shown in tweets. Here the artists had selected a tweet, taken a photograph of the location from which the tweet was made and captioned the image with the tweet. Words again! A judicious selection of tweets meant the work had an evocative resonance that took it past dryer survey photographs.
In essence all these projects seemed to dip into the aesthetic of automatic selection, highlighted so many years ago now in the famous Sunset Strip work of Ed Ruscha. I could also comment about how this new work exists in the old art economy, but what this, and the elaborately limited Gregory Crewdson show at the City Gallery, really reminds me of is – do you have an idea? Do you have a moral sense of what you’re doing? Can you engage our brains and hearts? Same old, same old.