Christina Webber

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

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