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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

How to Secure a Country When the Past is ahead of us

It was very enjoyable talking to Salvatore Vitale, a man who knows how to talk, about his project How to Secure a Country for the current edition of the BJP.

It's a project about the overlap between the history of Switzerland, geography of Switzerland, the way tmanifests itself in the Swiss national identity, and the way that in turn has spawned systems of surveillance, security and control that in turn feed back into the geography, the economics and the politics of the country to become almost a self-sustaining ideology that has is both a system of control of the outside world (because in this way of thinking Switzerland is a haven of safety and security) but also of itself. If you are in this system, you are subject to its control.

For his project, Vitale photographed the country's systems of control, and as he did so he found himself internalising its mentality. What is also interesting is that he was photographing systems of control while very much subject to those systems; in terms of permissions, access, time, and content.

Vitale was aware of this and that's what makes the project so interesting. It's images of control that are part of that control.

All photography is part of a system of a control though. Everything that follows the broad brushstrokes of the large format, plain background, deadpan, grid, horizontal plane/vertical view, mapping structures of photography is part of that system of control. Foreground any of those elements and we are essentially adopting the language of fascism, colonialism, scientific fascism, eugenics, land control, and the mentality of consumption without responsibility.

Which ultimately is what Liz Orton's ideas on the medical gaze and Lourdes Delgado article on the politics of the mugshot are talking about. Images of the past inundate the present. They affect how we see the world, how we understand people and they work, for all their scientific control, at an emotional level which it is almost impossible to resist.

There's the idea of the past (if it exists at all) being something that is behind us as we stride into the future. But the archive teaches us that it might be that it's the past that is ahead of us and the future that is behind. Which then messes up our whole linguistic idea of memory, images and the linear nature of time with the future ahead of us. And then where would we be? 

These and many other issues will be talked about on Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol in this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within the

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Crime, Nazis and the Fabulous Mugshot

images from My German Family Album

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.


A solitary image cannot testify to what is revealed through it, but must be attached to another image, another piece of information, another assertion or description, another grievance or piece of evidence, another broadcast, another transmitter. An image is only ever another statement in a regime of statements.

So said Ariella Azoulay (and many others in varying ways) in The Civil Contract of Photography. It's the idea that an image does not stand alone as a discrete piece of information but is subject to a flux of images, ideas and associations that have little to do with the image in and of itself; mostly because you cannot have an image in and of itself. That's not the way things work. 

Laurence Binet had this as the central dilemma in his brilliant novel/diary of a novel, HHhH. This started out as a novel that attempted to tell the story of the assassination of Heinrich Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. The only problem was the story had been told so many times, the conventions of dialogue and narrative voices so worn out and infected by tropes from war movies, histories and comic books, that it was impossible to tell the story as a novel. So instead it became a meta-novel, the story of how it was impossible to write the novel. 

The same thing happens with images. My mother is German and I have a series of German family albums that run from the 1920s through to the 1940s, in film terms from White Ribbon through to The Tin Drum, why not.

In these albums, there are personal family stories; there is unrequited love, there is heartbreak, there is poverty, there is neglect, there is suicide. Mixed in with that there are the symbols of Nazism; swastikas, Sieg Heils, and the Hitler Youth. There is Nazism. It's Germany in the 1930s! Throw a few of those symbols in and nothing is what it seems anymore, concealed meanings are brought to the surface so that an oak tree is not an oak tree anymore, a goods train not a goods train. Group gymnastics becomes something sinister (which isn't too difficult) and reading a book becomes a symbol of resistance. 

I simply cannot avoid this. An image does not stand alone, it's not an isolated item in a visual lexicon, it's far more fluid than that. Different images have different social, psychological and political significances and these combine together in multiple ways. The dilemma is how to combine them in a manner that recognises interferences that are more physical than lingual, that are more like patterns of interference, ripples on the water's surface with undercurrents that run below, than patterns of language. Images are first and foremost emotional and unconscious, that is their power base. The question is how to recognise this, and how understand it, and then how to use it.

The emotional unconscious power of images is apparent in the most formal forms of photography. It's central in the work of people like Liz Orton or Jo Spence who work with themes connecting to the medical gaze. It's also there in forensic and crime scene photography. 

In the current issue of Photographies, Lourdes Delgado writes about this in her piece on the bias of mugshots, and the way in which the functionality of the mugshot imposes a pre-supposed guilt onto the person photographed; the very act of photographing somebody in a mugshot makes them guilty in other words. As a result photography is responsible for a huge number of innocent people imprisoned in the USA each year (a very conservative 2.3% - 5% according to the Innocence Project organisation). 

 Image of Thomas Byrnes, the man with the third-degree

This is something that really matters in other words, this is where photography (just as with medical photography) is a matter of life, death, and freedom. 

Delgado writes about how mugshots and 'Rogues Galleries' developed in New York as a flipside to the celebrity portraiture of photographers like Matthew Brady.

She also traces the mugshot back to the standardised portraiture of Bertillon (which in turn you can trace back to medical illustration, emphasising the links between the medical and the criminal), concluding that while in the Rogues Gallery, it is the context of the gallery that provides the criminal element (remove the image from the gallery and the stigma is no longer there), with the mugshot it is the standardisation that creates the stigma. 

The question is how to remove this stigma, and the Innocence Project has come up with various models which involve removing information and mixing up the standardised format of the Bertillon and sub-Bertillon models. 

But for mugshots that subvert the mugshot form, I wonder if the Sydney Police Archive model isn't the way to go. They are still mugshots of course, but they are Fabulous Mugshots. Here they are again.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Silvermines, X-Rays and The Medical Gaze

image by Liz Orton

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.

The image above is by Liz Orton and it shows the 30g of silver that you get when you process 1,500 x-rays. (And more on Liz Orton and her fascinating work on the medical gaze later).

That silver is the silver that is referred to in Thomas Sauvin's Beijing Silvermine, the project where Sauvin saved old negatives from recycling for silver - instead using them for recycling for art.

As well as the wonderful social and economic history contained in the images that he salvaged (after scouring through hundreds of thousand of negatives, there are also the books he produced and the collaborations he engaged on, including this one with Kensuke Koike.

I love this book shown below, made out of old studio images (printed super narrow  - using a quarter plate for economy) that amount to a fashion history of the most difficult years of the People's Republic. They come with a wonderful fan design (front of image on one side, back of image on the other), all tucked up into a yellow pvc box which the book doesn't quite fit into. But still, it looks great.

Back to Liz Orton, who works with archives related to the medical professions. Her latest project is  Digital Insides, a project which links to Orton's interest (and it really is an interest, maybe too much of an interest. Sometimes people say they're interested in something and, er, they're not...) in the medical gaze and how the medical profession, imaging and technology affect how the body and the person are seen and not seen in a medical context.

The image and the idea of the image are absolutely central to this because so often the person is mediated through the image (the photograph, the x-ray, the scan). This is a culture of photography where our understanding of the image, our reading of the image occurs within a very different frame of reference to less functional forms of photographing, leading to a belief in the image that is almost absolute.

But not quite absolute. Digital Insides looks to reclaim these medicalised images and recontextualise them in a variety of ways. Orton is looking at x-rays and using medical imaging software both to detach and then reattach these images from their original settings.

The images above were created using  radiology software, called Osirix, while the ones below come from a brilliant radiology manual on the positioning of x-ray equipment.

As Orton says, 'De-contextualised from their origin, these images speak of medicine’s relationship to both sex and violence, and the highly mediated between body and machine.  Further photographs re-enact other remembered radiographic encounters and experiences.'

'In returning the body’s volume, these images resist the desire of the medical gaze, to go inside. The digital surface -  a sampling of tissue, hair, water, air and blood – strains the indexical relationship between image and body.  It erases the usual identifying marks of the human being in the world. It also leaves traces of the image-making process: the machine itself, and the scan edges which produce gaps in data, like digital grazes.'

So it's another form of mapping, but one that has its foundation in the idea of how the body is controlled through imaging and resultant procedures - and highlights this control to disarm it of its power. Again, it's the old Wizard of Oz thing of pulling back the curtain to reveal the smoke and mirrors of how medicine can depersonalise and demean us.

This goes to the heart of photography, and the way photographic conventions (the grid, the plain backdrop, the linear image) have been used as a tool of power and control from Diamond, Duchenne, Charcot and Bertillon to the present day.

For more perspectives on the medical gaze, this review of  Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Natural Causes  presents a more humanistic  approach to the ways in which medicine controls;

'...medicine tends to be “eminence-based”, with patients in thrall to the doctor’s superior prestige. It’s no coincidence, Ehrenreich thinks, that most American medical schools still insist on the dissection of cadavers. That’s how living patients are expected to be – as passive and silent as corpses.'

Other statements in the piece reflect a more Jo Spence like concern with the power rituals of the (American) medical establishment and makes the link between medicine and crime.

'Gynaecological examinations “enact a ritual of domination and submission”, with the patient made to undress and be open to penetration, much as in the criminal justice system, “with its compulsive strip searches”.'

Look through Orton's past projects and you'll see similar connections forming between the medical gaze, crime and the scientific images - and the worlds they create. Because they do create worlds, and we believe in them. And that's the real power of images, their ability to influence how we see ourselves and others, and how a relatively short tradition of representation has the power to snap us right into a way of seeing that is both self-evident but also unconscious.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Harit Srikhao and reinventing the Group Photo

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.

I'm still not exactly sure what an archive is, its more formal use to refer to some kind of catalogued, formalised library of images serving a particular individual, institution or power structure (and create a narrative that both fits within that power structure and reinforces it) has got shifted in some ways to become old pictures. An album, a shoe box, a pile of pictures, it's all an archive now. A collection, it's an archive. Found photos which aren't really found most of the time but bought at a shop or a stall. They're an archive. And why not - they all come with the meanings, power structures and neuroses of the time they were both made and collected and catalogued embedded within them.

The job then of the artist is to mess with these meanings, to reorder them, to recontextualise them, to bring them into something new - but a new that shed lights on the past and in so doing has the past shed light on the present. Or a variation on that.

That's what Harit Srikhao does with his collages and tableau in his brave book Whitewash, published by Akina Books. It's brave not because it challenges the way in which we see photographs or space or challenges ideas of identity or narrative or anything else that is abstract and kind of empty and meaningless.

Rather it's brave because it has real social meaning and it attracted the attention of the Thai military, because it questioned Buddhism, the army and the monarchy in Thailand. Thailand, the land of smiles and nice beaches, is something of a fascist state, a country where extrajudicial killings go hand in hand with a state-run kleptocracy, where questioning the monarchy will land you in jail.

Not that that's what Srikhao is doing with Whitewash. Not even close. But in Whitewash he's really questioning all the symbols of power and statehood that he grew up with, and the ways these run hand in hand with corruption, abuse of power, unaccountability, and the resulting institutionalised stupidity that goes hand in hand with a culture of unquestioning acceptance. It's a challenge to a way of thinking not only in Thailand, but everywhere. It's a challenge to the language of power and the rapidity with which we accept it as given. The Newspeak of neo-liberalism, of austerity, growth, and the markets was something that you did not hear 30 years ago. Now flick on the radio or open a newspaper and it is almost inescapable. Here in the UK the sickening militarisation of the state barely gets questioned in mainstream media and nor does the selective rhetoric of violence that it has created. The language of war and military strikes which all evidence of the last 20 years serve absolutely no purpose beyond destruction and mayhem, is now the dominant political discourse in the UK. Again, this is something relatively new. And yet so few people question it.

So it's a universal message.  Anyway, this is the background to the story of Whitewash.

School vacation, summer, 2010. The atmosphere of political violence in Thailand continuously heated up, and my friends and I were unable to go home. We all stayed together at a friend’s house. We only received information from the military, which made us curse the protestors feverishly and watch them getting beaten up with great satisfaction.
Then, in 2014, the thirteenth coup d’etat took place in Thailand. The country has been ruled by the military regime ever since. I began researching deeper about the country’s political history. I found that in 2010, the crackdown resulted in over 90 deaths, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (the military junta), was among the commanders. Although the death toll of this incident remains the highest in Thai history, none of the victims has received any justice from the law.
This work was driven by the cold-blooded responses that I and other people around me had towards the protestors back then. Five years have passed and I’ve only started to perceiver what actually happened and understand the protestors as fellow human beings.
The fact that people in the country remained ignorant, indifferent, and even satisfied towards the protestors’ deaths reflects the chilling darkness of nationalism. All the places that appear in my work are those where students are brought to to receive “moral attunement.”
The process of history laundering is conducted through sacred rituals and celebrations, while the concept of karma is used as the key political tool for dehumanization.
Such a process of mental and emotional surgery has been conducted continuously for a long time to control the lives, minds, and dreams of people in the country.
It comes in different sections with the first featuring a series of images of models in black body suits posing in tableau that are taken from Hindu mythology amongst other thing. They're odd with socks on and you get the deepest of feelings that there are things going on here which we know nothing about. But they are there under the surface and they create an unease; rituals of power, of worship, of sex, replete with breast plates and body parts and references to religion, photography (Kohei Yoshiyuki is referenced) and legend.

There are strange models, alien landscapes and these ever-rapacious black-clad ghost-figures that gnaw at breasts and the shrivelled up skins of deflated sex-dolls. What the hell is going on? Something?

Skipping over the paper collages, things get more concrete in Srikhao's group shots of people of power. Air stewards, army cadets, flagraisers, nuns, muslim schoolgirls and much more are thrown into the Srikhao mixer. Images are cut up (by hand so the traces would remain) and messed with in a glory of black masks and bright lights. A giant puppy looms over an army cadet colleg, , a mad-eyed Buddhist figure over a school entrance yard. Nuns' faces are blacked out and dotted with stars. Everything is dotted with stars except the occasional reminder of the earthly life that is still there to be lived. And that's how the book ends, a sea of blacked-out faces floating in a celestial world where substance is always apparent but always denied.

Here the meaning has been added to by Srikhao's interventions, cuts and sparks that eliminate and illuminate what it means to have a particular way of thinking, and some of the places those ways of thinking might originate from. Or rather it's about where an absence of a way of thinking might come from, how we can be seduced by the high glitz and thunderflashes of pomp, ceremony, ritual and roleplay. With a healthy dose of intimidation thrown in if we're not up to getting the message.

Whitewash is a book about absence, about our willing embrace of absence because that is always the easy thing to do. We might think that we embrace and we engage the reality of the world but that engagement for most of us is arbitrary and selective. It's the easy route. That's the world that Whitewash is about. And that's the world that we live in today, wherever we live.

Maybe? Because ultimately I'm still not sure what's going on. But something is...

Buy Whitewash here. 

Read an interview with Harit Srikhao on the BJP here. 
Read an indepth review of Whitewash on The Collector Daily here.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Kensuke Koike and Activating the Archive

all images by Kensuke Koike except the ones by me. You just try and guess which are which!

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

Not there in person, but there as a guest artist through videos of his artwork is Kensuke Koike. If you haven't seen Koike's cut-ups (are they collages, or photomontages when it's just the one work snipped and reordered) then do yourself a favour and head over to his website or instagram account now. They are just marvellous.

I can think of nobody who has given me more visual pleasure in the last few months than Koike. The clarity, simplicity and transparency of his work leaves me quivering with delight, eager to make my own versions - which have their own rough hewn charm I feel, and throw up new complexities such as what happens when you put together your collages in the wrong order.

I like to think of my versions as fitting into that childlike space that Picasso sought out so readily. But then I would wouldn't I. I think 'fumbling with a sledgehammer' is a better description, one that fits most collage that you see. Koike operates on an altogether higher plane with examples such as the man with the hairy eye coming out of collaboration with Thomas Sauvin who provided Koike with found images from a Shanghai photographer's album. And these Chinese images are of a very particular kind of image, with a directness and simplicity in their own right that serves Koike's practice so very well.

For some clarity on why his work is so clear and direct (and mine so obviously is not), here is a snippet from Brad Feuerhelm's piece on ASX. The images here are from Koike's collaboration with the equally brilliant and entertaining Thomas Sauvin who will be speaking in Bristol.

Precision cutting is an ability best left to mathematical minds. It requires a steady hand; a steady eye and demeanour unfit for those who believe in serendipity as a way of life. The hands that guide the minute impressions of the blade to paper work their way through the geometry of the printed image, slowly and with great mental architecture and meditation excise pieces of paper like teeth from the gums- ever so careful not to leave root traces on the edge of the paper it removes, nor the paper it leaves behind. What strikes the mind that is unable to fathom the precise cut is that the overall effort is but just one piece of the puzzle to be fabricated. These are cuts that become new weaves of a psychological cartographic delineation-each removal is a piece of territory to overlap with acuity of another terrain.
The gentle hands of Kensuke Koike are ones that I would like to examine. I would like to know if he shakes, if he drinks coffee or imbibes any such stimulant while making these incredible collages. He has one rule for making his work. Nothing can be removed and nothing can be added to the piece he works on. This means that in this optical effrontery it is mathematically observed well in advance of any cuts- as to cut wrong would mean that the next piece will not fit the portion removed and vice versa. This cool and calculating position presents any number of potential problems or errors once the blade begins to etch the surface of an image. So, when you look at these images, you have to understand the basic principal of the work, but also a mythical sacred geometric ability to render the form within an existing image of that which has been removed with an exactitude of skill much above that which most people are able.

The interesting thing is that behind this pleasure there lies a real depth of what makes a picture work, and the ways in which we analyse images. What exactly does happen when we flip a pair of eyes, what is it that renders a face suddenly outlandish, unattractive or downright weird, where does the recognition come from and when does it end.

This piece on Kensuke Koike and his pasta making treatment of the dog is a case in point. One notable thing about it is it's the only time I've ever thought of buying a pasta maker (you need some sponsorship, Kensuke, head to the pasta makers). More notable however are the comments that lead from Koike's quadruple dogs to the algorithms for image compression, and how image loss happens in the digital resizing of images.

These are from the comments on the post - I found this really interesting while being none the wiser by the end of it.

Andrew Liszewski
3/19/18 12:36pm
I’d say it’s a crash course on how image compression works, but close enough. 


3/19/18 1:51pm
But this isn’t really how image compression works. Most image compression is done by binary compression algorithms, which work on any file type, so they don’t deal with pixel manipulation.

Conversely, this is how a “resize” feature of an image manipulator would work. It does a little more, with adjacent sampling and averaging, but the base idea is there.
This shows how resizing an image to have smaller dimensions works, but it doesn’t really show how compressing an image to have a smaller file size works.

To be fair, though, some image-targeted compression can be done this way, so it can be said to be similar to how image compression works, but I wouldn’t call it a “crash course”, given the circumstances.


3/19/18 5:20pm
This is not correct. Most image compression (JPEG, all versions of MPEG) use the DCT to greatly reduce the entropy in an image. This comes at a relatively low loss of quality. (This is the “lossy” step.) Incidentally, this actually makes the image larger.

Then a lossless compression algorithm (e.g. Huffman coding) is used, as you describe, to compress the converted image. Because of the decrease in entropy after DCT, this ends up being much smaller than the result of applying Huffman coding directly to the original image.

What you are saying is arguably more applicable to lossless systems (e.g. PNG which uses DEFLATE), but still ignores several graphics-specific pre-processing steps. PNG specifically uses a “prediction” algorithm to cause the values to cluster around zero, which is similar to what JPEG does, except that you always end up with precisely the same values you started with after decompression.



Well I enjoyed it anyway. It's a crash course in something to do with Photoshop algorithms, but more interestingly it's  an example of how old images and archives (and let's not even get into what an archive is - hopefully somebody will talk about that at the symposium) can be added to, adapted, and transformed by editing, cataloguing, contextualisation, revelation and concealment in multiple ways. And how these recontextualisations create a contemporary discourse from a historic one, and vice versa (and more of that later).

Read more about Kensuke's work at American Suburb X.

Visit his Instagram Account here.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.