Thursday, 12 June 2014

Thank you for Reading. There will be a Short Intermission

Thank you all for reading and sharing and commenting on this blog. It really is appreciated and gives the sense that there is a definite community of people both online and in the real world.

But now it's time to say good bye for the summer and hit the beach. And God Bless, everyone, everywhere!

Yann Mingard: Not the Hot Book

picture by Yann Mingard

Well, the blog's shutting down for the summer but I'll have some reading to do. Last week I got Yann Mingard's Deposit, a book that accompanies this exhibition at Fotomuseum Winterthur. It's not a hot book, but it's a great book, a slow book, a fascinating book.

It's a book that shows the scientific obsession with collecting, with classifying both digital and biological data (human data such as DNA, plant data in the form of seed banks), a book that comes with a glossary, appendices and essays. And because there is a very dark and critical edge to the book, there's a sense that Mingard is using these strategies in a critical manner; so it's Fontcuberta (sorry, everything is Fontcuberta at the moment - he's that good) but with a more committed edge.

Mingard photographs seed banks and depositories, swathing them in a sea of darkness. The future is not so bright. He photographs the meristem (me neither!)  of a banana seedlings at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, its tip moist and alien, with a piercing needle pushing out through the glutinous flesh; never has a banana looked so sinister.

Everything is sinister. It's not a happy book. And it's not really a picture book or a hot book. But it's a fascinating book that uses photography and text together in a way that seems to be very different. The bulk of it is taken up with a glossary that begins with Anthropocentrism and continues with Apocalypse. Meristem (the tip of the banana) is in the glossary and so is Military Industrial Complex, the Culture of Narcissism, Patent and Stem Cell.

But somehow the pictures lead us into the text and the text leads us into the pictures. It's Mandel and Sultan's Evidence with a context. And it's a huge context, a weighty context that uses photography as a piercing, critical tool - a tool backed up with ideas. In essays at the back, Mingard's images are linked to the idea the limit idea of biology has changed, that biology is not so much to do with what life is, but what life could be. And that's what Mingard photographs; places that, as well as storing life, '...actually generate forms of life and create bodies of their own.'

Which is not necessarily a good thing. Biology and the body is no longer regarded as an entity in its own right, it's become like technical data, something that can be manipulated and changed, something that can belong in a vault in a bunker and made homogeneous and controlled.

Happy days are here again.

'Nothing is ever good enough but nobody wants to leave'

Overnight Generation by Italo Morales is a book about the youth of Sarajevo, people living in a city with an identity that dictated to by the past. How do you overcome the trauma that still remains in the city, how do you build an identity that can escape the pressures to be of a certain ethnic identity or religious persuasion.

In the introduction, Federico Sicurella writes about how Western visitors contribute to this forced identification; '...from the intrepid film-maker to the deferential student absorbed in a case study, the inquiring visitor issues the same injunction to the young people of the city: "Please explain yourself."

The explanation always seems to be the same, according to Sicurella, a story from the collective memory of how Sarajevo used to be this paradise of diversity and tolerance. Morales tries to go beyond that in his images, making an empathetic and rather questioning series that take us into the lives of the people he photographs.

And it's not always easy. These are difficult lives. It says in the introduction that in Sarajevo '...nothing is ever good enough but nobody wants to leave.' But looking through the pictures, you get the feeling there might be a bit of pragmatic black humour about that. There might be a spirit in the place and an energy, but the economic torpor and the dismalness are also apparent. And that kind of sums up the dilemma of modern life. What do you want from it; a tsunami of theoretical opportunities and a veneer of wealth and opportunity, or the dynamism/sloth of the here and now.

Buy the book here.

Not Going Shopping

Not Going Shopping is the title of Anthony Luvera's latest collaborative project; a work about being queer in Brighton.

There's a publication too. A newspaper which has a series of photobooth portraitsm on the back and front cover. Inside their are texts (blog extracts and Facebook updates) where people express their doubts about their experiences, about the expectations of being some kind of queer ambassador, and the worries of not having suffered enough to have an interesting past.

There are also rephotographed photobooth portraits mixed with text which are very straightforward; 'I don't have to explain myself', 'Average Baldy Queer' and 'Just another person.'

One writer expresses his doubts about these portraits;

'I had enjoyed the photobooth but in this re-creation I felt strangely menaced.... My first reaction was horror at seeing my age writ large... The thought of seeing my face blown up and pasted on walls also filled me with dread.... But then, ....the fear subsided as she emerged before me. I could see my mother's features woven into my own, the line of her chin; the grey warmth of her eyes. Tears welled in my eyes as I channelled the ever present sense of loss with a joy at seeing her alive in me. She died proud of me, another five letter word. 

Shopping list

And if you like this collaborative statement, check out We Are the Youth who have a book coming out this summer.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

This is what it's like to be British

rip Rik Mayall

There's a furore in the UK at the moment about British-ness and the 'Trojan Horse' of Islam destroying Britain through religious schools. Michael Gove came up with this idea of the 'Trojan Horse.'

To be perfectly honest, I am quite hostile to the idea of religious schools. By their nature, they are religious and so promote certain beliefs and values. I know because my daughter has been to a couple of religious schools. Not too religious, but it creeps in around the edges. I prefer secular education. Halloween should be Halloween, not Hallelujah-een ( I'm not kidding you). Keep Ned Flanders out of Britain.

Michael Gove (who is also a bit Ned Flanders) is hostile to the idea of religious education too, or at least Muslim education. That puzzles me. A few years back he was supporting them, saying how fantastic they are. What did he think would happen when people starting building Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Christian schools? That they wouldn't be religious?

It's the same when the government in Britain says immigrants should 'integrate' and learn English. And then cut funding to the very places that do exactly that, removing the possibilities that so many people are trying to make happen.

It's quite something to see a classroom filled with Somali, Polish, Kurdish and Brazilian immigrants all getting on and sharing their lives, integrating and learning both a language and a whole host of different cultures. And to know that when they go home at night, they will be able to help their kids with their homework, they will be better able to navigate the school system, or the medical system, and get a job and get on and become good, honest hard-working members of society - you know the rhetoric.

And then to see the funding for those same programmes cut, to see the possibilities they provide ripped away from communities who need them most, who value them most, who do want to learn English and 'integrate'. That's heartbreaking.

Or to see smart 11-year-old kids who have just arrived in the country and never been to primary school, who are desperate to learn but don't even know how to hold a pair of scissors or write their name, struggle and flounder and sink because the schools don't have the funding or the skills to teach these kids. Instead they are slowly shuffled to the back of the class and put on a virtual scrapheap because that's what 'integration' means. It means ignoring the problem, pretending it doesn't exist, making it even worse. That's heartbreaking. I used to teach them when they were spat out at the other end. It was our job to turn them round in some way and we did that by addressing the problems and teaching towards it.

I don't think Michael Gove is remotely interested in any of that though. He is interested in the empty rhetoric of Britishness and integration and he is happy to sacrifice others for his ambition. And the idea of having so many more faith schools was still his idea in the first place. Here's an article where he praises faith schools from a few years back.

I originally had something else up here and it connected to the great Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah, but I was asked to take it down so I did.

But Nuruddin Farah is great so here's a link to what he wrote about the complexities of life (and Somalia is very complex)  in this article

In a hotel beside a Norwegian fjord, encircled by snow-streaked mountains, the novelist and playwright Nuruddin Farah has his mind on warmer waters."Are they pirates?" he says of the Somalis who hold ships hostage off the Horn of Africa, where he was born. "What they do has the characteristics of piracy. But that wasn't how it started." He fixes his eye on the Arctic trawlers in the harbour. "The majority were fishermen who lost their livelihoods to Korean and Japanese and European fishing vessels, fishing illegally in Somali waters. I'm not condoning the things they're doing. But there are unanswered questions. Someone is not telling us the truth."


"Somalia is no longer what it was. It's past reconstruction. How can you reconstruct a country that's self-destructing continuously?"


 He was once attacked online for insisting the "Afghan-type body tent is not culturally Somali. I said: 'My mother never wore a veil, nor my sisters.' They said my mother was not a Muslim." In the diaspora, he argues, "the majority could not articulate their Somali culture. The less you know about Islam, the more conservative people become."


In areas al-Shabaab controls, says Farah, they have "forbidden song and dance because they're closer to Wahhabism than most Somalis". Theatre that is verse-based, and sung to music, "challenges everything such groups represent. They say it's evil, Satan's work, and that a woman's place is not on the stage." Yet visiting Mogadishu in the spring, he found people "playing music and singing in tea houses and at parties. Women have created their own space."

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Hot Book!

I quite like the idea of the 'hot' book, I like the idea of limited editions and books selling out and oh, look, I've got one and it's worth lots of money.

It's all a load of nonsense of course, but it adds a certain energy and gives us all something to talk about.

The 'hot' book at Photobook Bristol was Hidden Islam by Nicolo Degiorgis. Well, that was one of the hot books. There were a few others but I'm not going to mention them, they're sleeper hot books.

One of the reasons it was a 'hot' book because Martin Parr said, "This is the hot book". I think he might like the buzz and the nonsense of it all.

The other reason it is a 'hot' book is because it's a really good book ( as is Oasis, the other book by Degiorgis) that I'll be reviewing elsewhere I hope. It invites you in and the quality jumps out at you. It's a book of black and white pictures of all these anonymous places that fold out to reveal colour pictures of people at prayer. So there's the outside, open it up and there's the inside. Most of these places of prayer have no signs attached. That's why it's Hidden Islam. Because it's in Italy and Islam is hidden. You could give it another reading as well.

It's a really good book that took a long time to make, has great design, something to say and multiple layers  in other words. And it will sell out and will be a bit more expensive by the end of the year.

I had a chat with Degiorgis before the festival began and pretty much the first thing he came out with was that not all the interiors matched the exteriors, that sometimes the people shown at prayer were not praying in the sites shown on the outside.

And that kind of niggled. Because if has some typological elements then part of that typological language is a certain rigour and consistency. That's the way it works, isn't it.

I've been writing about Spanish photography this last week. I interviewed Ricardo Cases and Joan Fontcuberta for the July edition of the BJP, the one focussing on Spanish photography. Fontcuberta talked about the language of typology and the way that it is used to convey truth.

He said that particular language, and the assumptions that go with it, are all conventions that convey a certain authority on images, an authority that is authoritarian in nature. It's all a load of stuff and nonsense in other words. It's a way of framing our images with authority and connecting them to a broader tradition and ideas of clinical truth, objectivity and reason.

It happens all the time. On the radio this morning I heard a story about a panel of art experts who had been pontificating for 8 months about whether a painting was by Rembrandt or someone else. They proclaimed that it was indeed a Rembrandt and was worth 30 MILLION POUNDS. Which made me think both of Doctor Evil and the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch of the East is certified as absolutely, undeniably dead. 

So I thought about that and I thought about Hidden Islam and I wondered what Nicolos should have done. Should he have just trimmed the book a bit, or not said anything. Or should he have lied, told a little fib in the interests of consistency. I wondered about that and then I wondered at every other super consistent typology or series where consistency is the word. I'm sure most of them are as truthful as can be with nary a deception to be found, but then I wondered how many people had fibbed maybe just a little, how many little problems have been ironed out, how many happy compositional synchronisities have been discovered through a little forking of the tongue.

And I realised that would be a little dishonest and that the truth is better and more refreshing. But that at the same time, that openess and honesty is somehow at odds with the visual style. It's like there is a certain convention of talking that goes with the photography and Degiorgis doesn't do that. He's using the authority of the style and then ripping it out from under his feet by being up front and open.

So there is a mode of discourse that goes with this apparently objective style, and the assumptions of the typology stick with us even though we know they are nonsense. It's like squaring the circle. I guess it's the same with Fontcuberta's work. He has fun with the presentation of science and makes merry with vitrines and the archive. But the vitrine of the art world is where his reputation is made. It's like he rips the ground from under his feet, but still he floats. And that's a miracle!

Monday, 9 June 2014

Photobook Bristol: We've All Been Touched!

Martin Parr by Anouk Kruithof and Anouk Kruithof by Martin Parr

Well, Photobook Bristol was fabulous. It was like a joining of the European clans, with cabals of photo people coming from all over; the Dutch, the Spanish, the Belgian, the Portuguese, the Germans were all there, with students, photographers, academics, publishers, dealers and movers all mingling in the unique surroundings of Bristol's Southbank Club in sunny Bedminster.

Above and beyond the fascinating talks and presentations, and the mass of newly-printed books and the incipient buzz forming around so many of them, it was the casualness of the festival that made it such a delightful and relaxed experience where the greatest pleasure came from chatting to so many lovely people from all around the world.

It was a gathering of 200 obsessives, a gathering that in previous centuries might have been found in some kind of asylum for the harmlessly insane; The nerdometer had to be turned up to 11 as the essential questions of photobook-ology were raised and, as is the nature of these things, never quite answered.

On the Saturday night, entertainment was provided by Mik Artistik from Leeds. He summed up the weekend, and everything to do with photobooks, in a few simple lines that he rattled off in a piercing improvisation.

This is what he said.

You all like photobooks, don't you,
And you've all been touched,

There's a shop upstairs with picture books,
You've all been touched, 
I don't mean touched in a dirty way, 
You've all been touched.

A few drops of water on a window,
A picture of a boy with a wolf mask on,
You've all been touched.

There's a lady with her top off, 
Let's take a picture of that, 
You've all been touched. 

Which sums up photography as a whole really. But through all the talks and presentations and panels, important questions were raised, but never really answered - maybe because there isn't really an answer, maybe because half the questions were statements.

What is a photobook?

Is it a vehicle or a medium?

Why do books have a spine?

Let's make books we can pull apart.

Let's not make any more photographs.

Let's not make any more photobooks.

The Dutch have great design.

Design and form and content?

Forty pounds for a photobook?

Who is going to buy that?

Don't consider your audience?

It's great to have a patron!

Don't give up the day job!

There are far too many photobooks.

There's far too much of everything.

Everything is bad.

Everything is good.

The book as a fetish is bad!

Look, Touch, Feel, Desire!

Never trust a publisher!

Except for the nice ones...

Let's make it more available.

Let's make it less available.

Let's put it in a box.

And sell it with a print.

We don't know how it works.

We haven't got a clue.

Let's put it on the walls!

Let's put it on the ceiling! Now that is fucking mad.

It's good to be free!

It's bad to be broke!

It's bad to be rich.

I'm a real artist me.

Fuck, this box is heavy!

It's sold out now.

We've all been touched.