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Underexposed Snapshots From the Future

catalogue text for Backlight 05 - 7th International Photographic Triennial in Tampere, Finland

by Martin Breindl, August 2005

1st curatorial meeting in Tampere, May 5th - 9th, 2005; photos and collage: Petri Nuutinen


In the early 1990's many theoreticians predicted the death of photography caused by the uprise of new digital and networking media. Quite the contrary has been the case. The very use of these new media has led to a tremendous increase in photographic production. Today we are facing a spring tide of images taken and published in a continuous endless stream. Photography is more alive than ever.

Nevertheless attentive observers have noted substantial changes in photography, which have come along with the use of new technologies. The fact that photographs are produced is not the main point of interest, but the ways in which they are used. Besides the still ongoing "traditional use of photography" (creating a stand-alone image or a series), photographs have become, more and more, a part of complex artistic manifestations. They are used in installations, performances and time based arts, they are integrated in blogs, web- and net-art projects, they are rendered into VR-environments and digital video, among many others.

Reading "traditional" photography means more or less focusing on what is "in the picture". We have to ask why an artist has chosen to "frame" a special part of reality or why s/he has constructed a reality within this frame. Pictures of this kind may represent or refer to a reality outside their frames, but it remains hidden from the viewer's look. The "content" of these images, which we can analyse, interpret and judge, is in fact displayed before our eyes: it is in the picture, within the frame, never outside.

Photography used within complex artistic manifestations has stepped out of the limitations of real or metaphorical frames. It no longer represents or constructs reality on its own but becomes part of a new reality which is shaped by its environmental and contextual use. Images of this kind refuse to produce "content" within their frames. The only chance to read and interpret them is to trace the web of relationships through which they are connected to their outside world. Thus questions of contexts, media-environments and conceptual backgrounds become more and more important for us to understand. Analysing these photographic images only through the "photographic eye" can leave us blind for their substantial artistic meaning and importance.

Leaving judgement to media-theoreticians only does not lead us far, either. By deciding to use photography in any kind of project artists accept the structural and aesthetic premises which are an integral part of this medium. They may bend or break these premises, but they work with them. So we need (at least) two eyes to understand the meaning and to judge the quality of artistic work: the "photographic" eye and the "contextual" eye. The Cyclopean look has to disappear.

The world has become complex, and so has art. In most cases too complex to handle alone. Artists have reacted on this complexity in developing a variety of methods: research, networking, communication, community building, collaboration among others. It is time for us to participate in these practices. Traditional curatorial methods will not be sufficient when selecting important artistic statements in the future. Backlight05 has made an attempt to actively develop new approaches towards curatorial work.

Inviting specialists of different provenance to collaborate on the realisation of the Backlight05 exhibition "Untouchable Things" in the Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere from it's beginning was the first step. The aim was not only to gather together photo-curators from different countries all over Europe, but also to take care of their specific backgrounds. The first curatorial meeting in Tampere turned out to be a meeting of people with different skills and viewpoints. We were looking for a consensual confrontation of the "curated parts" (which were prepared beforehand by each of the curators) and the "selected parts" (selected works from the open call) in mutual trust for each other's opinion. Four days of intense debates still left unsolved questions. So we decided to go on with the discussion about form and content of the final exhibition/project via mailing-list. Creative communication via e-mail is not easy. Every participant in such a network has to be willing to change the communicative behaviour s/he is used to. Only then a mailing-list can turn from a pure organizatorial tool into an active platform which allows real creative work not replacing face-to-face meetings but adding further possibilities to them.

It was a good start though we experienced backlashes, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. All the confrontations, argumentation and discussions just seem to prove that we have still to learn a new, yet uncommon language to communicate about future aims and forms of artistic presentation. But this is a chance, too: accepting that we do not yet have the knowledge may leave us open-minded for the experience of art. Avoiding fixed opinions and viewpoints is the basic virtue to achieving real understanding.

Artistic practice (including photographic arts) has seeped into every area of our lives. Art slowly but constantly turns from a "product" to a "project", which can potentually comprise every single aspect of human existence. Serious curatorial work will be: learning to avoid judging "artistic products", and participating in the "project art" instead. As no individual can have absolute knowledge, this can not be done alone. We will have to share knowledge. We will have to share experience. We will have to share.

The snapshots from the future are still underexposed. Let us put them back into the developer bath and together gather around to watch what will happen. Let us watch and let us talk to each other about what we see.

This text was published in: Backlight 05 - 7th International Photographic Triennial in Tampere, Finland, Tampere: Photographic Centre Nykyaika, 2005;
Martin Breindl was member of the international curatorial board for the exhibiton "Untouchable Things" in the Museum Centre Vapriikki