Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2013 - Study Day

On Saturday I travelled up to London for an OCA study day at The Photographers Gallery. The gallery is exhibiting the finalists and chosen winner of the Deutsche Borse photography prize 2013. The four exhibitions were:

No Man's Land by Mishka Henner

What Happened - Great Britain 1970-1990 by Chris Killip

The Afronauts by Christina De Middel

War Primer 2 by Adam Bloomberg & Oliver Chanarin

I have split the exhibition into four posts - one for each artist:

Mishka Henner - No Man's Land

Mishka Henner's work consisted of roadside images sourced and downloaded from Google Street View. The images showed women prostitutes waiting for clients in semi-rural locations in Southern Europe. The images were captured by Google Street View cars with cameras mounted on the roof as they passed intersections, underpasses, and lonely stretches of road. Henner's process involved data gathering in Internet chat rooms where men discussed these known locations. Once the sites were logged the co-ordinates were entered into Google Street View and the results scanned for signs of the women as the Google cars had passed by.

Firstly I found the images fascinating. I had no idea that prostitution was this out in the open and blatantly on show. One image even showed a woman in a portable chair as she sat under a parasol on the chevrons at a junction. She could just have easily been mistaken by the occupants of a passing car for someone selling roadside goods of an entirely different sort. There were images in the scrubland beneath a busy motorway flyover; Another of a woman by the road, in the trees and shrubs behind her a strange cave like opening in the brush - where presumably business is conducted.

The images themselves were well composed and not too bad quality for their fairly large size on the gallery wall. The artist must have trawled through a lot of images to find ones with good composition and subject matter. I would also be interested to know how much post processing of the images has been done by Henner to get them to exhibition or if they are relatively untouched.

Whilst in the gallery I heard a few of the other students questioning the appropriation of Google images and could it be considered as photography. I don't have an issue with this at all. Appropriation of material for artistic use is fine by me - the use of Google images is just a tool for an artist and it is the end result that counts. As has been stated in discussions around this topic many times artists have always done this. Yes, the quality is not as good as traditional methods but that is not really the point. Contemporary art photography has long moved on from the notion that the "craft" of photography is paramount. Not to say that there is still a place for a technically masterful image but it is the message conveyed and how well it is communicated that is important.

The nature of surveillance in today's society is also brought into question when looking at these images. We can no longer it seems go anywhere or do anything without being captured on camera - and by the cameras of a private global corporation at that. Henner has taken these images and used them for artistic purposes. Presumably men have also found the images and used them to initiate illicit sex. I wonder if the images could ever be used as evidence by the judicial system to prosecute prostitutes? The use of the image as map reference, "sex advertisement," evidence and art object changes with the context.

The question of the representation of women in art should also be considered. Women have often appeared in a paternalistic society as stereotypes and as objects for the gratification of men. Once again we have images of women as sex objects. It is often mentioned in the discussion of this topic that while the male viewer is allowed to freely gaze at the female form, the woman as an object of desire is rarely depicted as reciprocating. It is ironic that in Henner's images, once again, this time by use of Googles automated anti-identification software, even when caught looking back the women's faces are blurred.

Finally, I wanted to mention the exhibitions short film made up of the Google stills. The film very effectively showed through stop motion how the women appeared to the camera as the street car approached. The camera then appeared to pan towards the women and the viewer watched them recede into the distance a frame at a time. This sequence has been effectively put together by Henner by manipulating the Google street view software to turn and pan at the correct moments. I was left with an eerie feeling watching the women in these isolated and potentially dangerous situations as they disappeared into the distance.  

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