The Desired Effect?

Artist Ellie Harrison

Artist Ellie Harrison

Now is the winter of our discontent, and didn’t we welcome it with open arms and furiously typing fingers. Facebook’s Glaswegian contingent was gleefully disgruntled yesterday. Nothing of course warms the cockles, or knuckles at the least, like hammering your frustrations into your keyboard amidst the latest social media outrage. The response to artist Ellie Harrison’s year long “action research/durational performance” piece has been simmering since the Facebook event advertising it first appeared, but boiled into a full blown chip-pan fire on Monday. So, what’s the problem?

 

The problem is that that the project is most succinctly described as, “the artist will spend an entire year living in Glasgow, unable to leave, and will be publicly funded for the privilege/burden,” delete as appropriate. The root of the problem however is the Facebook event being used to promote it, which is either naively or deliberately fostering this understanding of its premise. The reaction to this pertains to two incendiary elements. Firstly, people are offended at the suggestion that confining herself to Glasgow amounts to some great of feat of survival, like Will Smith in I Am Legend but with a better donkey impression.

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The event page does nothing to help this, painting the endeavour almost as a battle against inevitable declining health. The chosen feature image of loads of greasy chips is crass, but it’s the name of the project, The Glasgow Effect that is particularly troublesome. The term of course is already used to refer to the peculiarly poor health and high mortality rates of the city’s population compared to elsewhere in Europe. To use it as the name for the project seems devoid of any logical consideration. Picking a phrase out of the history books and re-appropriating it because the individual words are relevant is dangerous if you haven’t properly considered their combined meaning. It’s like doing “action research” into the optimum concentration of diluting juice and calling the project The Final Solution.

 

The other prompter of public ire is that the project is being funded by Creative Scotland, meaning people, not incorrectly, feel the money is coming straight out of their own pockets to pay someone to do what many of them already have, not leave their home city for a year. It comes across like some clever conceit by the artist to acquire a sort of “creative” dole money, receiving a better-than-minimum wage salary to do what ostensibly looks like nothing. Whether you view the project as a privileged outsider being parachuted into the city on a “poverty safari,” or just an elaborate benefit scam, it’s offensive.

 

But people are quick to take offence, because deep down we find a perverse satisfaction in the camaraderie of a mass social media outrage and are always tacitly seeking an opportunity to turn our keyboards, like Bluetooth pitchforks towards the next deserving culprit. Harrison has given people little choice in this instance though; the magnitude of the backlash towards her project is testament to how badly she has explained it. The Facebook event that attempts to do so contains three paragraphs, and the first and the third are toxic. Sandwiched between the sections about simply not leaving Glasgow for a year and who is paying for it is a second paragraph that attempts, half-heartedly, to flesh out the concept. The trouble is, you can take the finest, tastiest ingredients in the world, but place them between two mouldy bits of bread and nobody is going to swallow it.

 

But then it’s hardy haute cuisine in the middle either. Harrison’s description of the event is vague and uninspiring. The crux of it appears to be to ascertain if living in Glasgow will have any visible effect on her output, but living here puts little to no strain on her as an artist. It’s a post-industrial creative hub, and materials and inspiration are impossible not to come by. We’re not short of examples of the city’s effect on artists work anyway, be it in it’s Art Nouveau architecture, the Glasgow Boys and Girls or the current Gallery of Modern Art exhibition showcasing works from prominent Glasgow School of Art alumni.

 

The only glimmer of hope exists in the phrase “encouraging her to seek out and create local opportunities.” There is a suggestion here that her work may involve engaging local communities in the arts in some way but it is far from explicit enough to make any assumptions. Arts funding is subject to two public pressures: the economic right, who demand value for the money spent, and the cultural left, who demand some form of societal benefit from the output. When you filter through the cheap jokes and pontification in the responses to her chip-emblazoned Facebook event page, Harrison’s project is being squeezed like a clogged artery from both sides.

 

To compound matters, if some sort of community engagement was to be her saving grace here, she has already failed at her first attempt. Social media is an incredibly important tool for interacting with audiences these days and not to show it due diligence can be damaging. Just look at the mess she’s made. It is better to forfeit the exposure social media can give you than to make an uncommitted attempt merely for appearances sake.

 

I am inclined however to give her the benefit of the doubt. It is entirely her fault that a lack of details about the project has met her with such contempt but someone at Creative Scotland, wrongly or otherwise, has seen value in the idea and I’d like to give her the chance to properly share it with us. To be fair, if one of her strategic aims was to gain a better understanding of the city then she’s learned a valuable lesson already. To make allusions to poverty and hardship whilst “challenging” herself not to leave the city was stupid. To claim receipt of public funding without explaining what it’s actually for, in a city troubled by poverty and hardship was stupid. The chips thing was stupid. But this is all just bad social media, and hopefully the project itself, when less lazily communicated is of some value. Unless of course the event page was deliberately antagonistic, and the real “durational performance” art here is to survive for a year in a city that hates her guts? But that’s really stupid.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.1.2016

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Sticks in the Mud

bluesteel

There seems to be a lot discussion in museum circles of late regarding the infamous “selfie stick,” likely due to the wake of “Museum Selfie Day” and the news trickling in that sensible institutions such as the Louvre have started to ban them. Now, the Museums Association is running a poll asking its membership their opinion on the issue of whether UK venues should follow suit, or stick with the insufferable contraptions, deliciously referred to by Gawker recently as the “wand of idiocy.” I’m sure you have worked out by now which side of the fence I’m on.

 

This is no fresh grievance for me however. I am fortunate enough to be working in Venice at the moment where there are now more “selfie sticks” than there is water. Every day I run the gauntlet over Accademia Bridge between two rows of grinning tourists brandishing their baton-mounted phones into its centre at a 65° angle. It’s reminiscent of an enormous guard of honour until you consider the fact nobody in it has eyes for anyone but themselves.

 

The “selfie stick” has been on my mind for a while, and in my face, and I’ve been smacked in the shin with one, and had a drink knocked out of my hand. This is precisely the reason given by Deborah Ziska of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the “narcissi-stick” (thanks, Alyson) has recently been banned; they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous to people, and dangerous to the displays. When you take a step back to consider it, the “selfie stick” is essentially a retractable golf club, and nobody complains about not being allowed to bring them to a museum. Obviously I appreciate that nobody is coming into a museum and swinging them around, intentionally. But when your entire attention is focussed on the end of a 5-foot pole, and what’s at the end of said pole is a reverse image of yourself, you cannot possibly have any awareness or comprehension for the people or objects in your surroundings. You are literally brandishing it into the unknown. This is the point where you become a danger, and not just to other people, but yourself as well. As Ziska rightly points out, her gallery is filled with low balconies and stairs to topple over as you unwittingly shuffle around in search of the perfect angle.

 

To further the argument, there is no justification that necessitates their use in a museum environment anyway. People have tried though. One reason I’ve heard is, “you can fit more into the background.” Yes you can, but if that is your chief concern then you’re taking the wrong kind of photograph. If somebody wants, for example, a photo memory of the time they saw Picasso’s The Poet, they’ll remember it better if they don’t insist on obscuring half of it with their face. If they are more interested in remembering what they looked like that day than the art, why pay €14 to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when there’s a boutique home furnishings shop around the corner selling mirrors for the same price?

 

I have also heard, “it’s safer, I don’t have to give a stranger my phone.” True again, but who is going to run off with your camera in the middle of a museum? Even in the street you have a better chance of retaining it by singling out one person to entrust it to than precariously strapping it to a shiny pole and waving it around in a sea of people. The fact of the matter is, the pole gives people greater control over their appearance in the picture. It’s not “I don’t trust you not to steal my phone,” it’s “I don’t trust you to make me look good.”

 

The “selfie stick” gives the photographer complete control, and perhaps most importantly of all, it can give the photograph the illusion of not being a “selfie” at all, by de-necessitating that “slightly too close to the lens and my arm is growing out of my chest” camera angle. “Selfies” are vain and people don’t like to admit to that. You can tell this is the case because some people still at least have the humility to look slightly embarrassed after taking one in public, some people. There is nowhere to hide if you’ve been waving a “selfie stick” around however, but this no longer matters as those who use them have demonstrably ceased to care about the opinions of those in their vicinity.

 

The reality is that the oxymoronically named “selfie” is not for the benefit of the subject at all, but for their connections everywhere else, chiefly those on social media sites. This is why museum people have embraced them. We like to “see” people in museums, and we like that people feel like their visit is one of these “show off” moments that they want to add to the rose tinted timeline of life experiences that they have chosen to share online. That’s as good as it gets though. There’s a reason we have “Museum Selfie Day” and not “Share Pictures of Your Favourite Exhibits Day.” People more and more are insistent on being the subject of the photos they take, and everything else, such as the museum, is secondary.

 

Essentially every “selfie” is the same, except the backgrounds change from time to time, like the “Blue Steel” calendar in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (see the above photo). A “selfie” is not a memory, it’s a momentary snapshot that is discarded from the photographers conscience as soon as a fresh one is taken, or in the case of Snapchat, discarded from existence after a mere few hours (more on that here). In a museum we can embrace the “selfie” as, despite being the secondary content, we can still benefit from their exposure. The “selfie stick” however only benefits the “selfie taker,” and in fact adversely affects the museum by endangering its collection and the other visitors.

 

I’m sure one day the “wand of vanity” will have a rightful place in a museum, presumably as a key piece in the British Museum’s “A History of the End of the World in 100 Objects,” presented by a robot Neil MacGregor in the year 2110. For now however it does not. The “selfie stick” hazardously facilitates a form of photography that increasingly has no appreciation for memory, for history, for art or any aesthetic external to ones own appearance. They do not therefore belong in museums and those that have banned them already have done so quite rightly. Sometimes it’s good to be a stick in the mud.

Recapturing Collection

snaps

Photographs are important historical objects, both as antiquity in themselves and in terms of the insights they contain. I learned a lot during my History MA from scouring old photographs of 20th century America and have always appreciated their value as source material. Photographs in their physical form have long since been in decline since the advent of digital cameras, however this has in no way diminished their value as historical evidence. More recently though, there has been a shift in the nature of photography that suggests that this may soon be the case.

The beauty of old photographs is that they all, for the most part anyway, genuinely meant something to those who took them. Film cost money and developing cost money, and as a result, people only took photographs that were worth taking. These photographs were, first and foremost, the preservation of a moment worth remembering, and secondly, worth sharing with others. Digital cameras however removed the financial risk from photography. No longer were people burdened with spool limits, development costs or the chance that the pictures “just didn’t come out properly.”

Camera-enabled smartphones and social media have taken this a step further however, and the emphasis of photography has shifted to focus primarily on sharing, and secondarily on memory. Facebook is the least explicit of these as photos are uploaded to albums that can be ordered and organised for ease of access at a later date. Photos uploaded to Twitter and Instagram however, although they remain accessible to the user, tumble endlessly down a timeline with no easy means of retrieval, making them almost as momentary as their subject material. The stratospheric rise of Snapchat however is the real cause for concern. This is an app that allows people to send a photograph to another user, to whom it will only be visible for a set period of time before ceasing to exist for all parties concerned. As a result, Snapchat has created a new type of photograph, one that is deemed worthy of sharing, but not worthy of preservation.

This is a worrying trend. Having had the pleasure of both entertaining and educating myself through photographs at university and in museums and galleries, it is a sad thought to consider that 21st century photographs may not provide similar experiences for future generations. The concern is not that photographs will become exclusively time-limited objects, as with Snapchat, but merely that people will cease to view them as personal treasures. Rather than a snapshot of their own history, they will become more often than not, brief amusements solely for the entertainment of others, and quickly forgotten about thereafter.

Obviously this will not be exclusively the case. There will always be photographs taken for the sake of art, professionally, and even personally to memorialise people, events and situations. However thinking about the photographs I have learned from in books and exhibitions, the most useful and engaging often tend to be those casual snaps of everyday life that people now seem to disregard. Being un-staged and genuine, these were the most revealing sources of social history one could hope for. These moments are now captured within apps that erase them within minutes or are casually deleted from hard drives to make room for more important things. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the photos within the care of the University of Glasgow archives, and they are wonderful historical documents. These photos were physical treasures to those who entrusted them, that is why they did so, as are those in the collections of museums and galleries across the world. But how will these institutions continue to acquire photographs if people won’t keep them for themselves, let alone pass them on at a later date?

The answer for me is simple; the photographs now have to be collected at an earlier stage. If people are going to share photographs and forget about them, museums must ensure that they are members of the initial “shared to” party. The trouble here however is separating and collecting those photos that are worthy of actually being collected. I read in the Museums Journal back in June that more information is uploaded to the Internet every ten minutes now, than there was during the entire period between 2003 and the beginning of human history. Within that, there are 17 million “selfies” uploaded to social media every week. Self-portraits are as useful as any other historical source, but you can only learn so much from each one, let alone seemingly endless duplicates. The trick will be for museums to somehow filter the gold out of this torrential stream of user-submitted data.

A photo sharing network created by Aaron Straup Cope could potentially provide the solution. Provisionally titled “Oh Yeah, That,” the name is almost dismissive of what could be a wonderfully valuable tool. From the details on his website, the platform when launched will function as follows:

  • Users upload a photo to the site, which then remains private and unseen for 12 months.
  • Once the year has elapsed, the user’s photo is viewable to them, with the option to make it public to other users, or to delete it.
  • There is no “friends,” “followers” or “likes” features, so the photos alone are the focus.

By removing the instantaneous nature of photo sharing, “Oh Yeah, That,” in theory would encourage people to take more consideration over what they upload. In the same vein that many of the photos taken by people on phones these days, would not have been should they have incurred film and developing costs, neither would a user wish to be disappointed by some trivial, pointless snapshot after waiting 12 months to be able to share it with the world.

Also, by enforcing the 12-month waiting time, the platform shifts the emphasis from “sharing,” back onto the “memory” aspect of photography. Once the year has elapsed, the user is allowed to experience a memory from 12 months previously, and only then do they have the option to show it, or not to show it, to others. By applying such a condition to the sharing of a photo, the platform reinstates the idea of taking a picture worth taking. The only difference now is that the condition is time, rather than cost. Finally, by removing the gimmicks of acquiring “followers” and “likes” by sharing photos, the emphasis is placed back on the pictures themselves, rather than them existing merely as a vehicle for social ascent and self-gratification. Again, this helps create a network of shared photographic memories that are worthy of such a practice.

These are the photographs that have been so valuable to museums and galleries in the past, and are the photographs that they must continue to seek out within an ever-saturating pool. In a world where photographs can be taken and discarded with equally inconsequential ease, this will become more and more difficult. A platform such as “Oh Yeah, That,” provides a viable solution to this. These are the networks that heritage institutions should seek out, where photos are submitted only if they are deemed worthy of at first being taken, and then still considered worthy of being shared after a full year has passed in which to consider the issue. Platforms such as this help recapture the magic of the photograph, and will help institutions continue to capture the minds of their visitors via this medium in the future.