SMF Blog: The Good, The Bad and The Untitled

image © National Galleries Scotland

image © National Galleries Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

The museum is one of the great educators; this has always been understood to be its primary function. Despite several pedagogical shifts over the 300 years since the first UK institution opened its doors (the Ashmolean in Oxford, 1683), the one typical constant has been the direction of travel in which knowledge and information is imparted, especially when it comes to children. In nearly all circumstances, learning is conferred from a knowledgeable adult upon a recipient young person, and understandably so.

 

There are occasional anomalies though. At the end of 2014 for example, the National Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition Games Masters, where there was often an observable role reversal in which younger visitors who tended to be more familiar with the content, assumed the role of educator to their accompanying adult. This is why Bad Entertainment, which opened this month at the National Portrait Gallery is such a fascinating concept. The exhibition, a series of films and artwork created by artists as young as 12, puts young people not only in the position of communicating the museums content, but creating and curating it as well. The result however is a distinctly harrowing experience.

 

This is not a criticism. “Legitimately creepy” by its own admission, the show is also an incredibly astute and well-considered piece of work. Centred around the theme of “the actuality of everyday experience and the fantasy world of media culture,” the four films depict a nightmarish future in which masked youngsters appear to rage against the savagery and anti-socialised world that they find themselves a part of. The young artists collectively wash their hands of the responsibility attributed to them by the media for the growing culture of narcissism, where language is deteriorating and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, by suggesting that the media itself is to blame instead.

Bad Entertainment is a declaration from young people that today’s media culture is not a by-product of their behaviour, but is forced unwillingly upon them. Amongst the exhibition’s targets are the dual over-saturation and over-simplification of media via a television set that shows four channels of “scratch” videos, a relentless stream of over-stimulating and almost incomprehensible 4 or 5 second clips. By exclusively donning masks and referring to themselves only under the collective guise of The Untitled, the group also challenges conceptions of the current “Instagram-generation” as attention seeking and vain. Whilst there is also a resistance towards the over-selling that occurs in the consumer world, with an exhibited desire for honestly best exemplified by “Stone,” one of the props from the films, which is presented like art but labelled with the brief catechism: “What is this? A Rock. Describe it? Rocky. What does it stand for? Rocks. Is this art? No, it’s a rock.”

 

The Untitled are a group of young people who have seized the opportunity to inform not only their peers, but also their elders and the results are as effective as they are visually impressive. Demonstrably, despite what the exhibition portrays as a dumbed-down media culture and its resultant society, young people today are now better informed and more in-tune than ever, and credit to National Galleries Scotland for providing them with a platform to prove this. These young artists not only show that a reverse museum pedagogy, where education flows from the young to their elders is achievable, but is valuable too.

 

Through the horror, Bad Entertainment is actually a message of hope. A message from a self-aware generation, conscious of its own flaws but resistant too to a media culture they are unfairly blamed with demanding when they have done no such thing. It is a message from a generation who also fear a future where, “society has collapsed, language has collapsed. Everyone is a stranger,” but will not accept that as their fate.

 

The exhibition too gives hope to the museum itself. Bad Entertainment’s message is a vindication of their necessity and of their approach. Amongst the torrent of “scratch” videos and frustrated creations is a longing for the tranquillity, honesty and respect with which the museum communicates information, and for the breathing space and time that it affords reflection. The beauty of the exhibition is therefore twofold. Not only is Bad Entertainment good education, but it has also provided young people with the freedom to challenge and explore their fears in one of the few places they are not manifest.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 29.2.2016

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SMF Blog: A Modern Desensitisation

© National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

Standing engulfed by the spectacular display of faces and landscapes at the National Museum of Scotland’s Photography: A Victorian Sensation, I am struck by a sensation of my own. Not since I deleted my Instagram account, now two new years resolutions ago, have I been party to such an intensive timeline of portraiture. However there are no filters or fancy effects here. For many of these people this was the only photograph of them ever taken, and as such they have been treasured and cared for by their owners to the point where they have made it into the collection of a museum over a hundred years later. This is why the inevitable, “your selfies displayed here” interactive at the end of the exhibition actually sits a little uncomfortably. After marvelling at a century’s worth of lovingly preserved photography, I was then expected to take one of myself and then exit through the door to the left, never to see it again.

Of course this is a little different, I know for a fact that this is not the only photograph of myself in existence, however it entices you to consider what the eventual fate of those may be too. The last thing you see before leaving the exhibition is a text panel that reads, “More photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century.” By this point you have seen hundreds of non-stock, non-commercial, personal photography from this period, but will such a feat be possible another 150 years from now?

The modern photograph has mutated into a very temporary possession. Photographs these days are lost all the time. These can be unexpectedly through computer hardware malfunctions or intentionally, such as self-destructing Snapchat images or, for example, purposefully deleted for certain emotional reasons. The latter is not a new phenomenon however, a fellow student while I was studying for my masters degree once revealed his unusual hobby of collecting old daguerreotypes where people’s faces had been scratched off. Despite their defacement, the continued physical existence of these photographs actually makes them doubly intriguing as artefacts. I was always taught to analyse historical source material using the “Five W’s” method; “what is it and when was it created?” “who created it and why did they do so?” and “what does it say?” My colleague’s collection however had the benefit of possessing a 6th required “W”: “woah, what on earth happened next?”

The suggestion here of course is not that we retain every single one of the millions of photographs that are taken every minute of the day, nor that instead of deleting pictures of undesirable people that we aggressively scribble over their faces in MS Paint. It is simply that we take better care to preserve the important images. From the 50 or so years worth of portrait photographs at the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition you can learn a lot. For example, for many subjects this was a rare opportunity to be pictured, and the image of themselves they have allowed to be captured provides us with a fascinating insight into the evolving ideals of fashion, manners and etiquette of the time. Nowadays with fashion moving so quickly and the ability to take photos all the time, that “selfie” of someone in last months “get-up” just gets deleted and replaced, meaning future viewers will have no real sense of a community’s changing attitudes to trends on the social level that we can examine in our 19th and 20th century counterparts.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation claims that in 2015 an average of 70 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every single day, and one would assume the proportion of this that includes portraits and “selfies” is quite high, most of which are destined merely to tumble endlessly down a timeline into forgottenness. A little down the road at the Scottish National Gallery, the David Bailey retrospective Stardust, provides no greater proof that quality trumps quantity every time. Not only are his images iconic, some of them, of Jack Nicholson and a young Johnny Depp for example, are some of the most iconic photos of those individuals. These are portraits that are valued, were treasured, and are enriching to the viewer because of it.

In fairness, the fame of the photographer and his subject make these portraits exponentially valuable, however there are more than just famous faces on show at Stardust. The exhibition displays work from his travels in places like Nagaland, Sudan and Papua New Guinea. In these pictures there are no recognisable figures, simply people, who like those on display at the National Museum of Scotland, may well be experiencing being photographed for their first or only time. Now, regardless of the name behind the camera, you have portraits worth treasuring because they are valuable historical sources, with much to teach the world about other countries, their customs and often their plights.

To describe the “your selfies displayed here” section of Photography: A Victorian Sensation as “uncomfortable” was not a criticism, it is important for museums to provide thought-provoking content. This is what it provided for me. You truly feel when exploring the exhibition that photography in the late 19th century was a sensation, and people valued their pictures to the point where they were framed in lockets, crafted into jewellery or displayed in elaborate albums. But most importantly, they were simply preserved. We live in an age now where people are desensitised to the value of photographs. In Photography: A Victorian Sensation, the National Museum of Scotland has curated the memories of an entire generation. Additionally though, they also inspire a concern that our current, increasingly self-conscious generation has such a wealth of means to curate its own memory to reflect its present concerns, that it could deprive future generations of any genuine sense of its past.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 28.9.2015