Why listening to Andres Serrano tonight was a bad idea

I’m going to write this post as naturally as I can in the spur of the moment and hope it is coherent enough to make sense to somebody, maybe, but strap in cos it’s probably gonna be a long one and I’ve been up since 6AM. I’m just back from listening to Andres Serrano speak about his work at the Royal Society for Physicians on Queen Street, Edinburgh. I have a Tupperware of re-heated sweet potato stew inbetween my hands as I type, so if there’s gaps in the flow it’s because I’m taking a minute to eat. I am, as I have stated before in this blog, fortunate enough to volunteer at Stills: Centre for Photography, a fantastic resource and hub for Scotland’s photographic community at all levels of interest and success. This means that I was able to attend today’s Andres Serrano talk for free (it would usually be £8). I do not for one second criticise Stills for organising this event or for hosting the show (which I actually find quite interesting) and cannot reiterate enough my gratitude to Stills for operating as a platform for Artist Talks and general photographic discourse. As a Centre for Photography, this  kind of event is a goal - or perhaps not even goal - but something exciting and vital and an opportunity which would hurt to be missed. But, personally,  listening to Andres Serrano talk about his work tonight was a bad idea. Sitting in that red room with its marble pillars and intricate ceiling and concealed central heating (which I have to come learn, is the sign of true decadence, the kind of decadence you worry you’re not fit for) I had the sinking feeling of disappointment that settles around a group of people when they hope to be in some way enlightened, or in some way impressed, or in some way have their expectations of themselves brought higher by another’s commitment to excellence and sensitivity, and instead are met with the void of self-satisfied nonchalance. 

My favourite of the works Serrano showed tonight? The milk, the blood stuff, the bits where it felt like he was experimenting and trying to create something and playing with ideas that didn’t belong to him yet. Trepidation perhaps. Whatever it was it wasn’t very good, and that made it good. I dunno. From then on I felt like I’d heard it all before. It’s that creeping feeling of vague dread that descends when somebody re-affirms everything you recognise as flawed in an industry, the bits you were trying to tell yourself aren’t true or at least don’t have to be true going forward. I’ll try and list the things that made me uncomfortable, because lists are supposed to make things less difficult and less scary: 

          - he defined paying someone to do what he wanted as ‘collaboration’, in an attempt to answer someone’s question about the power imbalance inherent in photographing the homeless

          - he detailed an act of compassion (pity) at being unable to photograph Siamese twins in way that ‘was beautiful enough’ because their house ‘smelled funny’ and they owned a dog with no back legs(the crazy thing here is that he presented this anecdote as if he had truly done something heroic, if he had mentioned this in a moment of self-scrutiny, as part of a dialogue about power and money and images and representation, it would have been gold dust hot shit let’s talk about this vulnerability in admitting you are imperfect yes yes yes let’s listen to eachother and all leave with a bit of a broader understanding of how we can think about our actions, but no, look at this great thing I did, cost me $1000 and a great deal of fucking emotional hardship having to try to make them look decent but hey I’m a good guy, like HOW would your conscious even think to spin that anecdote like that?)

          - the way in which he battled this hardship was to buy costumes from a costume store and put them in fancy dress

          - when he stated he didn’t research places or people or events before deciding to make work about them/ whilst representing them

          - when he said he was never interested in photography as a craft, that he saw the equipment as needless mechanics, that he chose to only shoot film but paid someone else to set up his shot and process his pictures

          - when he ignored his printer’s quip about his work by reminding him ‘I pay you to print so print me something’

          - when he acknowledging changing the title of a work from ‘Citizens of Brussels’ to ‘Denizens of Brussels’ because this particular form of homelessness was more ‘theatrical’ and ‘out there’ than the ‘normal homeless guy’ hardship he was used to in NYC (arguably using language to shape his ‘collaborators’ as animals, aliens, as opposed to people) 

          - when he discussed his work about torture, re-iterated that he makes very direct work and once it’s produced he lets go of any responsibility toward it, talked briefly only about how important it was for him to act as the torturer, and did not use this opportunity as a platform to draw attention to any single current event, past event, or instance of torture which would bring the issue into public discussion

          - his total lack of thought or introspection in response to any of the questions that tried to engage with his work on any kind of political or socially conscious level, or really any level at all, despite being paid what can only be thousands and thousands of pounds to produce work by an organisation that clearly states their ‘Utopian’ purpose as driving the creation of politically conscious work

         - a total lack of acknowledgement of art as an industry (business) and  money as a motivating factor when making work, despite Serrano’s prints selling for more than the average house, only therefore emphasising money and value as part of his vast power, the mentionless elephant in the room 

And this is just what I can remember. There was just so much in here that I don’t want to celebrate about the art industry and celebrity culture that it didn’t even make me think ‘oh wow Andres Serrano you’re so controversial, you’re such a character, you are just a total fruit loop barmy creative weirdo’ it just made my legs ache with that particular sadness and fury you feel when you’re proved time and time again that things are hopelessly stacked against you and there is so much wrong with the system you want to be part of that perhaps you were never meant to peek your head in and maybe you should just get out now whilst you can still identify the awkwardness you feel applauding a man who reaps vast sums of money from art he seems reluctant to engage with or commit responsibility to. 

I was thinking of asking Andres Serrano a question when there was time for this at the end of the talk, and many came to mind.  I wondered why he had an equal amount of slides showing his own semen to that of the work he was representing displayed at Stills and why in a limited timeframe and with an entire career to cover he still felt the need to prove to the room his ability to catch his own jizz on film. I also considered what it was about his work that he enjoyed exactly if not the craft itself, the political power, the social potential, the use of the camera as a vehicle for research and understanding, self-reflection, whether he realised how exciting it was for the Gallery to be showing such provocative work and why he had so very painfully little to say about their significance or why they should be seen and should exist and why he felt motivated to take them. I half-wondered what advice he could offer to fledgling photographers as a key to success, as a starting step on the ladder to opportunity, that wasn’t simply throwing money at it. Usually in answer to this question you can expect someone in a position of earned authority to say something like ‘learn the ropes and master your craft!’ or ‘do your research and then do some more!’ but Serrano made it quite clear he subscribe to those ideas at all.

I’m writing this to feel like I have some input anyway. I don’t want the celebrated members of the art industry, the ‘winners’, to just be the people with all the money and all the ego and none of the answers for the difficult questions. I don’t want to listen to somebody else tell me all the ways in which they have used images to re-affirm their existing ideas, I like to hear people admit they were wrong. I like to think people are consistently realising how they could have approached things better. And I like to think that perhaps we are moving (globally, technically, politically) toward a community that celebrates sensitivity and imperfection and vulnerability and learning and reflection above displays of power. I like to think that but that doesn’t mean I believe it’s the truth. Some days I do. Tonight I guess I don’t. Again, I re-iterate that I don’t resent the exhibition and I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend tonight even if just to expand my own dialogue about what I respect and what I resent about how the art world works. But I won’t pretend that this kind of Artist Talk gives me much hope, or gives me much insight, or makes the art world and the gallery wall feel any more mine or any more accessible.

I used to feel that all this conversation belonged to someone else, to other people with more time, more money, more connections and more knowledge  but I guess I’ve made progress somewhere because hey, I’m here, I’ve written something down and I’m throwing it out there. The only way we can expect things to change are if we contend them.  I’m going to go now because I have to be up even earlier tomorrow but just wanted to get it all down. 

Thanks for reading, if you did. XO

2017 (originally written in December)

I guess in many ways these kinds of looking-back thinking-out-loud pieces of writing are useful only for ourselves, so perhaps sharing this is all a bit pointless/narcissistic. But we live at present in the age of the narcissist, this is simply how we communicate: through ourselves first and foremost. All of these sometimes silly webpages and monologues and social media sites are not social at all at their heart, it’s a bit of a perverse use of language, they are mirrors for us to look at ourselves in different lights and from different angles. Who are we really thinking about when we read each other’s updates online? Them, temporarily, and then ourselves - how should I react to this, how am I important in this particular event. Digesting the news - another way for us to model ourselves in our reactionary prowess. How could I share my take on this in a funny way, or how can MY INDIVIDUAL BRAIN really dissect this in a way that BLOWS PEOPLESMINDS? You get the gist. Anyway, I’m becoming tangental already and this is meant to be the welcoming line. Welcome. I choose to rejoice in this particular consideration of 2017 being a valuable piece of introspective exploration, at a time of year when suddenly we find ourselves a lot of time to look back and question everything. 

2017 started on a high because I was so thankful to leave 2016 behind.  And if I’m honest almost all of it has been good. I shaved my head! I made some work! I exhibited some work! I talked about some work! I helped start up a photography critique group! I encouraged multiple artists to exhibit their work and helped a few of them achieve this and secure sales! I left the country on my own, I bought myself a new laptop, I learnt to print in the darkroom, I learnt to process colour film, I learnt how to use very basic functions of photoshop, I worked hard, I had fun, I worried less (but still quite a bit), I opened up, I made friends and I drank a lot of beer! This sounds like some kind of lame brag-list a primary school child might write on their first day of school (although if they were drinking beer and practising photoshop I would be impressed) but I think it’s essential to think back about these things in order to recognise what we have done for ourselves. Already it doesn’t feel praise-worthy that I ‘made work’ as somehow this has once again become part of my routine - but at the time, after two years of complete creative and motivational drought, this was massive. 

Of course, globally, the world has continued to stun me in its potential to be a really messed up place, but I have excused myself of being able to change all that. We have incredible access to information and to news now and all the small social updates and massive global-scale problems exist in the same space. It can be very overwhelming to try and process so much data, of varying spectrums, through one digital channel, and within one  and-held device. This is especially true if you are stuck in a routine that doesn’t allow you much space to explore other attitudes as our environments are key for communication. A sort of dependency develops on this feed of news and it can become incredibly difficult to be able to separate your culpability from all of the shit you see online that is so obviously wrong with everything. Don’t underestimate how much of a lifeline a phone and social media can be for somebody stuck in an unhappy mind-set or even a constricting routine. Free time and free cash to go and socialise physically is a luxury - and I think many become really incredibly dependent on their social media spheres to fill this gap. It’s a little worrying, if I’m honest, the importance that many of us put on our ‘digital spheres’ and online declarations. But YADA YADA ONLINE REALNESS IS SCARY it’s nothing Charlie Brooker hasn’t told us all before right? And I’m saying it through an online platform. Go figure.

But I feel like at long last I am finding some kind of rhythm to making work and sharing work and discussing work that felt completely unattainable this time last year. Things are becoming more balanced. When you are used to having this supportive environment provided for you by the educational infrastructure it is a difficult thing to accept coming out of a course program that actually to make this space for yourself will take time and work and allowing yourself to appear vulnerable. You gotta admit to people you don’t know very well that you need help and hope that somebody else in the same position and acknowledging this could be mutually beneficial. Luckily for us, Nic at Stills allowed us the space and legitimacy to make this community happen. Nic was and is the driving force behing Fresh Focus, from the initial recognition of  a challenge facing graduates, to going ahead to address the problem. Not everybody will have a Nic and a resource like Stills to make this easy for you but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting some kind of group in place, if you can. Things get easier and things start to happen when you get together and talk about your work.

I have discovered this today, unpublished, written on my train journey home for Christmas in December last year. Thought I would share because reading it back, especially the last paragraph (and after Fresh Focus has gone from strength to strength so far in 2018) I couldn’t agree more. Work hard and make things happen!

I will post something more up-to-date very soon, but thus far 2018 has been very exciting indeed…

Finding focus (a love letter to the darkroom)

Good evening internet,

First of all a huge and heartfelt thank you to everybody who got in touch with me in regards to my last post. I’m happy that some of what I was talking about fell on familiar ears (eyes?) and thankful to live in a time and a privileged position where I can post something from my head on the vast blank ether of the web and have people actually reach out to me with words and experiences. I was really quite touched and it was good to get it out there.

It’s been a while since I posted, again, and much longer than I would have liked. I did try and write a post 19 days ago but wasn’t feeling it when I read it back in my head and so abandoned it to the pile of unposted draftlets. Sometimes that happens and I think that’s ok. Generally speaking I have been less inclined to do anything with words recently and I am wondering if perhaps these things come in tides.  For the last month or two language has escaped me (kinda like I used up all my allocated writing in the middle of the year) - but in this instance I think it’s important to direct your energies somewhere they feel more easily applied, like eating, or walking, or sleeping, or thinking. These things are good too.

So, life.  November. It’s been a busy couple of months, as it always seems to be when I look back at time. I most recently helped Paul Fieldsend launch his first exhibition in my place of work Fieldwork Cafe, I turned twenty-five and had three days of non-stop food and booze and loveliness, I was fortunate enough to attend a Masterclass thanks to the Jill Todd Photo Award with Pradip Malde which was fascinating and inspiring and invaluable, we have welcomed new members to Fresh Focus, and throughout all this my bosses have launched a new venture selling carbs and cheese, but perhaps most importantly I was fortunate enough to take part in the Intro to Black and White course at Stills and have absolutely fallen in love with the process of black and white printing. It’s a beautiful thing, and a very welcome break from the ‘virtual’ world - with white light-sources vetoed to avoid fogging paper. The darkroom is a sacred phone-free space. 

And so, because I spent the whole day shut in the dark on my own and loved it, here’s something a bit different:

Finding focus

a love letter to the darkroom in a digital age 

Dear darkroom,

Deep black darkroom. Delicious inky box. I know I haven’t known you for long, and I feel in many ways we haven’t yet reached an understanding I trust we are destined for and capable of and bound to. Many know you better than I, almost all have known you longer than I, and many would scoff at my love; young and naïve. Let them scoff. 

There is little thus far in my life that I could say I revere as holy. I’ve never been much good at prayer. I tried a few times as a child, summoning my most urgent attempt somewhere around the millennium to let god know my budgie was sick, squeezing my eyes and my hands and believing it would reach him directly. Of course, I thought, he would jump to attention. Easy. My budgie died a few days later huddled in the corner of his tiny metal house, a stiff feathery lump that I barely looked up from my Gameboy to acknowledge when mum announced that ‘jimmy was dead’ (and so therefore, was god). 

These days time ticks by in an incessant barrage of information DING oh an Instagram follow VRR VRR you have achieved your daily step target BADABA BADABA two messages at once from a friend I need to speak to, but desire to see in the flesh. I see them all sure, but I swipe them away and forget to respond. There doesn’t seem to be much time for holy ideas, to me anyway, It’s a lot and it’s a little and it’s all the time information from waking to sleep and nowhere in these days and nights of  notification is there really any focus. 

But for you - delicious inky box. Together we are safe in the dark with the whisper of the tap and the hum of light through a lens. Soft humming, a few seconds at a time, like light’s thinking something over, like it’s mulling - and really I am mulling for finally an escape! There are images but they are gentle, they don’t nag or flash but instead need to be coaxed - woven from the magic of light and dust and paper and they are bathed in solution and given life. This must be a holy process, a slow baptism from potential to perceived. Finding focus, solitude, gorgeous winey black. We find a rhythm between light and liquid and I find space in this beautiful, tranquil dark. 

In the darkroom an image takes an hour, or two hours, or more. The impatience of finger-scrolling, media-surfing judgement bends to a process that feels at once perfect and unfamiliar. This is slow, this is soft, this is foolish. In many ways this is magic. I pull an image from the wash and hold it up to look. It is slippery and imperfect and if it were flesh it would cry.

And I know I see you right now in a romantic light quite unfair. I know too this cooing may be uncomfortable to witness and impossible to sustain. But I am unable to cast this roseate light onto my mobile phone and my tablet and my persistent love-hate with connectivity. Perhaps one day years from now somebody will discover this device and write to it too, and marvel at how things used to be birthed from fingers and keys and interactive glass and annoying pinging symbols reminding you are lonely but never alone. I don’t doubt it. 

For now, however, perhaps I should re-consider prayer - I shall squeeze my eyes and my hands tight to believe that in this future fuller still of lights and sounds and vibrations and finger-twitching madness, that there might maybe remain a gorgeous black box. A deep dark room. Delicious timeless red glow and shadow, incubating the future, warming the past. It is you, a looking glass - to find focus, to make magic, to look at what is created, and remember quiet. Easy.

Until next time. 



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