Barker, Huberman, Galleries & Curatorial Behaviour

Week 8 Reflections (Part Three), MA Falmouth University.  ‘Enter the Academy’

Museums Without Walls

Barker introduces the idea of how art is viewed today by citing the political and economic context in which the display institutions exist and notes that this impacts upon what we view, how it is viewed and the curation and election powers that lie behind the gallery protocols.  She notes that there are no ‘neutral containers’ offering an unmediated experience of art.  ‘Cultures of display’ describes the ideas and values that can shape the existence and function of an exhibition.  The relevance to the showing of photographic imagery is addressed particularly as she aims in her review to look at changes that have occurred in recent decades around the culture of institutions but the phenomenon of the temporary exhibition, the culture of spectacle and the concept of a museum without walls. Barker E. Contemporary Cultures of Display. Yale University Press. 1999

Barker records the phrase museum without walls originates from a translation of the French water Andree Malraux’s phrase ‘the imaginary museum’ published in 1947 and, whilst it was addressing the broadening of art in general, has been used to support the use of the facsimile of work and its distribution for wide audience and has a particular relevance to photography as the plate, flip or pixel file translates from the lens based apparatus to the print, the uniqueness lies in the exposure, not its ability to be reproduced at will.  Malraux wrote about a ‘new domain..a common heritage of all mankind’ (Malraux A. The Voices of Silence p.46) related to the expanded audience that expansion of art and its reproduction.

Barker argues that galleries in western cultures often assimilate art from other cultures, the most notable UK example is the Athenian Elgin marbles house in the British Museum, London.  She notes that photography is used to extract views of such works and enlarged prints are hung to exemplify the work, yet this has a tendency to further abstract it and thus remove it from its setting both geographically and also culturally. She sees photography as the servant of the art.

A rather more encouraging counterpoint is offered by reference to Walter Benjamin who, in 1936 wrote in “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ who wrote about the age of distribution and exposure and thus familiarity of art via the medium of repeated image.  He notes that art is shared via copy but in turn this is seen as driving up the popularity of the gallery, its content and its original. – the debate about devaluing and promoting the desire to see the real. Benjamin thought that ‘Earlier, much futile thought has been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art.  The primary question, whether the invention of photography has not transformed the entire nature of art, was not raised’ (Benjamin, 1936).

Berger argues about the loss of authority in art “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free”, for lacking the aura of the original work of art.  Berger, J. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp. 32–34.  Photography remains caught in the net of blame that sweeps the sea of art as common currency. I do consider the abiding point that Benjamin cites upholding the aura, the presence of an original and for the viewer the place and time it was seen and etched on to the emotional memory.

With the prevalence of contemporary art to harness objects and multi-media not only does photography feature within works, it has a role in image making for distribution more powerfully now through self-publishing (social media) and the exhibition catalogue and promotion to a greater degree than ever before.  The willingness of many galleries now to allow non-flash photography by its audience of a great range of work, we can assume in aiding learning but also promotion of the show and the institution.

The purity of Malraux’s proposition that photography is applied to the art and not the art of itself tends to be relaxed when you consider the temporary exhibition which can take place our in the realm of the street or the square.  In this instance the streets become the walls and there are no doors.  This is the most democratic ‘museum’ possible; no exclusions, no hush, no cliques.  Yet the content of such exhibitions is still subject to the curatorial hand.


The very word ‘display’ has connotations of ostentatious actions, about showing off, about performance and also the static exhibition of things. It is the act of making with the concomitant outcome of showing; the curator chooses, appoints, hangs, projects, writes, appraises and awaits the plaudits.  The audience and critics decide on the success by experience and observation.  Major galleries are controlled by funding agreements, benefactors (who often find themselves installed on the boards as non-ejective directors), historic status, their global contexts, audience expectations with their purses ready to disgorge cash for postcards, coffee, gourmet food and cupcakes.  The aura and presence of these people must consciously or subconsciously bear down upon the curators and perhaps even the artist.  One can surmise that the act of thinking about display in a defined space, confined by the weight of history and expectation shapes and impacts upon the content.  Art history (I include photography in that) provides reference and a compass point for work and curation and classification of work.  History is made in the context of now and in the present who knows who will be a driver for selection, chatter and desire.  Building a reputation for capturing who is ‘hot’ is counterbalanced by the risk of associating with the chill of missing the trend.  Celebrity status is realty self made, even in the internet age, it is crafted and promoted by the influential writers, media and the public relations firms who know the email addresses of each other.  There are the cabal of magicians who wave their wands at the chosen collaborators – the “real magicians of contemporary society were the museum curators” Deliss C. 1989 Conjuring Tricks Artscribe International, September-October, p.53.

The colour of the walls, lighting, plinths, features, temperature and humidity all contribute to the ‘feel’ of the spatial experience.  The method of hanging the work, the textual introduction imprints on the walls, its spacing and juxtaposition all contribute to the visual experience for the audience.  Baker refers to this as an “intensified aestheticification” p.14.   Carol Duncan describes the art gallery as a ‘ritual site’ where participation is a rarefied ritual which can reflect or deflect from the norms of society.  Duncan argues that NY MoMA is dominated by a gendered masculinity which one could simply propose is a signifier that the viewer, if conscious of it, will make judgements about what is seen and what is not seen.  Barker goes on to argue that there is a risk in the isolation of images and objects from their context, that the views can project on them meanings, values and assumptions.  The very inclusion of an image can bestow on it a preciousness. An art gallery can withdraw art from the market and away from the exclusivity of private ownership and into the democratic space on offer.  Yet it is argued that knowing the value commanded in the private market of an artist or a particular piece can tighten the attentiveness and fascination with the perceived or actual value of the work seen.  This happened to me at PhotoParis, 2016 when I enquired as to the value of an Edward Weston print which had sold.  Finding that it had exceeded 700,000 euros caused a gasp of wonder.

Barker cites Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, which spotlit the French cultural revolutionaries known as the Situationalists and their claim that life is largely mediated through images.  He lamented the increasing commodification of every day life founded on the Marxist view that consumption of mass culture upholds the interests of capital.  The spectacle deceives, seduces and dominates the spectator.

Galleries, happenings, performance and cultural festivals are gathering momentum as surveys demonstrate a shift away from the material to the experience, examples such as  “Millennials are prioritizing their cars and homes less and less, and assigning greater importance to personal experiences — and showing off pictures of them”

81% of the U.S. tourists are considered as ‘cultural tourists’ cited here

In my own city I have witnessed weekend tourism (differentiated from weekday business tourism (conference))

Bankside, the home of the newly expanded Tate Modern and its Switch Room is not just the epicentre of London’s international art experience but a very significant player in the reveal of land prices and thus development which has densified the commercial and residential buildings that have sprung to life in the last 17 years;  Art attracts, it sells goods and it anchors gentrification.

Toast or Roast?

Anthony Huberman in his paper ‘Taking Care’ (link to download writes about the New York City institutions that play a competitive, muscular game around programmes, curatorial competition and the media proposition of racially champions shows.

He writes about the tradition of the large beasts and the role of the smaller cultural organisations and their opportunity and not just what they show but how they behave which in turn may influence what they show.  He cites behaviours as the outward manifestation of values, thoughts, norms, actions and collaborations. He applies a questioning approach particularly to curatorial practice.  The philosopher Bruno Labour thinking on objects, images and ideas all have their own ‘agency’ and won’t simply ‘sit still’ under someone’s microscope and terms.  Huberman proposes some fluidity over certainty, to enable ideas and visual contracts to evolve, perhaps to cite Benjamin, for the magical aura to metamorphose via debate, contextual variance and the passage of time. Huberman posits that ‘an institution could stop behaving like an explanation machine’ and quotes Jacques Rancière calling for an equality of intelligence where this who know something engage with those who know something else. He looks for caring through sharing as opposed to telling through an arrogance of haughty authority.  A homage as a considered mix of tribute, analysis and open questioning is offered, via slowing down and taking time, the corollary of the ‘adman’s’ desire to drive change, the new, the next thing. Huberman seeks for more face time than ad time and encourages smaller insertions to create, debate and allow themes to flow over time and work to be shown to respond, to add, to provoke and to extend the life of a community that cares rather than an audience that passes. He concludes by suggesting a ‘contemporary ethic of curatorial behaviour’; more tasting than roasting is the plea.


A Liquidity of Imagery

Informing Contexts

Week 4 Reflections, MA Falmouth University

There is a regular disjoint between subject, photographer and viewer.  Subjects can manipulate and be manipulated, photographers are regularly making choices which are significant to the way a viewer perceives an image. Devoid of an understanding and a passage of data between all parties can invite this disjoint.

There are three tiers to consider when dealing with the making of an image, firstly the subject who, if it is human, responds and reacts to the camera and the instructions delivered from the photographer.  In the ‘pose’ there is a response to ‘image conditioning’, the self conscious but also expectation conscious case for the camera is struck, steeped in expectation, in cliche, in power, culture, ethnicity, climate, fashion.  The pose so often will conform to behavioural norms. Barthes provides us with a description of the effort to strike the pose: “I don’t know how to work on my skin from within. I decided to let it drift over my lips and in my art is a faint smile which I mean to be indefinable in which I might suggest along with the qualities of my nature my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual”. R Barthes, 1993 Camera Lucida.

The second tier is the photographer who is also struck by conscious image conditioning, knowing the subject is posed in the context of that moment of existence and that as the image maker she/he is deliberating over the need to arbitrate between the subject, the technology to hand and the image that will ensue.  John Szarkowski reminds us “Photography is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing. The contest can be held anywhere…” and he goes on to describe the meaning and patterns in composing “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, what shall he reject? The line of decision between in and out is the picture’s edge. The photograph’s edge defines content. It isolates unexpected juxtapositions. By surrounding two facts, it creates a relationship. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of this picture’s geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table”.  John Szarkowski – from The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski, former director of the photography division of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The third tier is the point at which the image conditioning is at large, it may be a poster in an alleyway, glossily reproduced in a magazine or left to the global moment of transmission on the web.  The viewer perceives the image in her/his own context and visual conditioning. The liquidity of imagery flows like a lava across the surface of the globe in milliseconds, yet the viewer will have a sole moment of receipt, they will be making fixated judgements, responses, liking, disliking, evoking, provoking.  The act of viewing will be within the context of their emotion, culture and place. Krauss quotes Bourdieu “It is the thesis of Pierre Bourdieu that photographic discourse can never be properly aesthetic, that is, can have no aesthetic criteria proper to itself and that, in fact, the most common photographic judgement is not about value but about identity, being a judgement that reads things generically” Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

My proposition is that in the image world that pervades Capitalism and its essentially bound driver we know as Materialism which is the flow of desire and need; imagery is the liquid of want (the world of advertising was worth £550 bn in 2016 globally). Imagery, whether stills or video, is the primary source of stimulation penetrating the eyes of the consumer.  The investment is gigantic. Thus the skill of the commissioner of advertising imagery is to strike a powerful alignment between the subject, photographer and viewer. Any potential disjoint is carefully manipulated and engineered out of the equation.  The subject is compliant, the photographer is obedient and the viewer passively primed to receive and obey.  Here, image conditioning is a controlling construct of the Adman/woman.  An idealised image world is created at great magnitude.

In “Ways of Seeing” (1970) art critic John Berger writes insightfully about publicity, the image and the essence of social relationships, “Publicity proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour”. He goes on “Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Advertising is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.

The discriminating viewer offers a tiny moment of seeing time to the advertiser, thus the skill is to combine text with imagery in the ad world, to quote Barthes, “Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. The function of relay is less common (at least as far as the fixed image is concerned); it can be seen particularly in cartoons and comic strips. Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words,..” Barthes Image Music Text,1977 p41.  Barthes citing cartoons and comic strips is a strong analogy to the speedy, identifiable and penetrating image that is bound into the product that is being promoted.  Visual signals are crafted to ‘fit’ the viewer’s decoding of the commodity being conveyed. Hall analyses the coding that is essential in the ad world, he states  “The level of connotation of the visual sign, of its contextual reference and positioning in different discursive fields of meaning and association, is the point where already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional, more active ideological dimensions. We might take an example from advertising discourse. Here, too, there is no ‘purely denotative’, and certainly no ‘natural’, representation. Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality, situation, value or inference, which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational positioning”.  StuartBerger  Encoding, decoding 1999 the cultural studies reader London Routledge p513.  Barthes remarks on the connotative levels of signifiers, “have a close communication with culture, knowledge, history, and it is through them, so to speak, that the environmental world invades the linguistic and semantic system. They are, if you like, the fragments of ideology.”

There is a cultural and aesthetic conditioning that codes the ad world imagery.  Colour palettes define brands; cultural norms underpin the code for happiness, for expression; there is a tight control of these codes.  The idealised, the conforming, the gathering and clustering of imagery are managed for personalised expectation. Does one conform and comply with the materialism in order to belong?

Whilst brands spend time and money on differentiating from each other, there is an acknowledged compression of imagery, a stylised ‘bandwidth’ in which imagery can become cliched or brand-match, depending on the viewer’s level of acceptance or perhaps irritation. There is some concern around the impact of the idealised on the real world experience of individuals, Callen notes “visual images are, then, potent mediators of the lived experience of the body, our own and others, giving us ways of conceptualising and describing the bodily.  In pictorial images we recognise likeness or difference we identify ourselves or find a different other than the other which equally powerfully serves to reinforce at image of our own bodily existence”. Anthea Callen A. Ideal Masculinities, An anatomy of Power, chapter 52 The visual cultural reader edited by Nicholas mirzoeff 2012 p 603

Plato’s cave is a powerful analogy that gives us a tool to remember that the projected ad world isn’t reality, it can be a deceitful construct, defined by the cavemen who want to prevent escape to the fresh, cleaner air of the ‘real’. Kraus continues “with the total collapse of difference, this radical implosion one finds oneself entering the world of the simulacrum a word where as in Plato’s cave, the possibility of distinguishing between reality and phantasm between the actual and the simulated is denied”. Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

By way of three examples of some ‘progress’ in the ad world.

The Image world of the ad’ world is laden with norms and a restricted bandwidth defining normal. There are now major brands which are embracing a wider view of the reality of society. Here are two examples, the US brand, London Fog which features a gay married couple who are married, they share the gaze to the camera, thus a degree of equalises is coded into the image, yet maintain the norm of attractive, well dressed confident men as Berger terms the “envy of others”.  Yes London Fog reverts to its apparent misogynistic norm when it commissions the image of the female modelling a raincoat which in reality would be unlikely to worn in the street on a rainy day as posed. 

Smirnoff applies the index of 3 varieties of coupling in its drink ad, whilst the implication is that alcohol equates to happiness (the consistent ad theme) there is a visual gesture to the modern.