The internet version of “Format” magazine (Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław) – Format.net has published my report on this year Photomonth festival in Krakow and later the paper version was published in the “Format” magazine. The latter version was slightly changed by the editor and there was no English language. Please find the original article below.
Month on photography in Kraków
The Photomonth festival in Kraków has been celebrating its 16th birthday this year. The leitmotiv of the main programme was The space of flows. Imaging the invisible. Its curator, Iris Sikking, was inspired by the famous book of Manuel Castells: The Rise of the Network Society. Castells emphasizes the role of information as a key component of modern social organization. He also attempts to outline the model of a new multimedia communication system. During information flows the time is suspended and the place is peripheral. According to Castells, the space of flows is also a sphere in which high culture mixes with popular culture and globality displaces locality.
Artists’ projects have been grouped around three general thematic categories: migration, new technologies and environmental issues.
The mine and the forest
The theme of coal mining in Silesia, Poland, was undertaken by Michał Łuczak. The exhibition at MOCAK art centre was focused on geological, ecological and social context. The portraits of miners were eye-catching, but their scale was overwhelming. There were also compositions with abstract art qualities. However, the gallery space could have been better used with smaller work sizes (portraits). Nevertheless, after seeing the show I felt I had seen the introduction to something complex. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about the show of Salvatore Vitale, which I left with a sense of misunderstanding.
The video installation by Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil (Manggah Museum) showed the sequence of the rebirth of nature after natural and man-made (Fukushima) disasters. Although Japan is one of the most industrialised and populated areas in the world, nature still plays a very important role in its culture (tradition of Shintoist origin). Unfortunately, the displayed images were tedious, and did not touch the essence of the phenomenon that intrigues mankind ever since antiquity. In addition, the prints put along with the graphics on the display table, were of low quality. But the space arrangement needs to be mentioned on the plus side. I noticed that visiting children loved the stone-shaped pillows on which they readily sat.
Białowieża Forest was “cut out” visually by Axel Braun. His exhibition in the Gray House gallery (Szara Kamienica) was dominated by the excess of information. Pinned descriptions pinched my eyes and distracted me from the photography. Perhaps it corresponded literally to the title – Noxious Interference… The images, although represented powerful trees, did not manage to handle the theme. It was all bit too typological and tourism orientated. I also noticed (however not sure if it was because of the bark beetle or the printer contribution) that some of the tree barks on prints were “eaten” by blown lights…
Migration and re-emigration
The Shores of an Island I Only Skirted is a multimedia project by Sander Breure and Witte van Hulzen (Nuremberg House). The artists filmed the island of Utoya, where Andreas Breivik murdered 69 people. Their impressions were focused on the extraction of the poetic aura of places. The beauty of nature, however, did not bring an answer to the question of the stigma of evil. The video show included simultaneously displayed films of anonymous authors presenting African immigrants drifting at sea and getting to shore. Both installations referred to the topos of the happy islands (variation of locus amoenus – idealized place of safety or comfort) and were aimed to deconstruct it. The authors’ licentia poetica, however, led in the direction of the mythologisation of the events that were taken up.There was an impression of a deficit of realism.
The sequence of exhibitions at the Ethnographic Museum was opened by Eva Leitolf’s Post cards from Europe on the migration crisis. The photographs referred in their aesthetics to the tradition of the New Topographics trend and landscape painting, which is nowadays undeservedly associated with the so-called postcards. The artist included texts printed on post cards edited on the basis of newspaper articles. This worked well and shed more light on the complex background of the issue. It needs to be noted that the Leitolf’s show, as one of the few at the festival, was aesthetically and formally uniform.
Auspicia is an old ritual of observing birds behaviour in order to know (or confirm) the will of the gods. In the Daniela Friebel project, however, these are not eagles or falcons, but starlings that appeared in Rome in the second half of the twentieth century. Currently their large population is controversial. The formations of flocks of birds look like a living organism that cannot be controlled, except for the laws of nature. Nature in its own environment can communicate without words. With culture, not necessarily so. The photographed graveyard tombstones, covered by protective plastic, created quite a surprising situation with photogenic qualities. The use of various formats and materials for the shown images, however, unfavourably influenced the exhibition as a whole. This can be mentioned in the context of many exhibitions shown at the festival as well (A. Braun, V. Cherchi, E. Hovers, R. Raigon).
The cousins of starlings in Singapore were also shown in Anais López multimedia presentation (The Migrant: A Bird on the Run, Centre Titano). It was well prepared and formally interesting, although the narrative style (story for children) was debatable. The show displayed on tablet lost a lot of its charm. It was better off to watch it at home, on the artist’s website.
Łukasz Skąpski in The Clinch: new architecture of European borders project faced the problem of the naive idea of a world without borders. Skąpski scanned, scaled and created 9 models of borders built after 2008. At the festival meeting when asked why not the photographs, he said ironically that photography is not objective and hence objects. In spite of the interesting idea, the exhibition carried mainly cognitive values. It was difficult to notice anything else.
In The brutality of the fact of Tudor Bratu the family history served as a background for reflections on historical changes in Romania, migration and perception of a foreigner. There were interesting analogies between the Romanian version of the so-called “Autumn of Nations”, and the contemporary immigration crisis, resulting from the so-called “Arab Spring”. The thread, however, was not well developed and was reduced to generalities. There was also a lot of quotes in the show, which significantly slowed it down and made it tedious.
9 gates of Agata Grzybowska’s is focused on the myth of escaping into the bosom of nature. Many of us, according to the popular slogan, would probably like to “leave everything and go to the Bieszczady Mountains” (popular Polish phrase). The author also visited this mountain range but on her way found stories of people who lived there by choice. These are related by the motif of nature fascination as well as existential struggles, especially with loneliness, which in the elderly age can be particularly severe. The portraits made on a dark background looked the best. The idea of making these is almost as old as the photographic world, but the images reflect the individuality of the people and are also marked by personal contact and empathy. Landscape images, despite the large size and allegorical features, came out a bit less interesting. A sequence of colour Polaroids was a bad idea. Their level significantly differed from other works and they also disrupted the coherence of the exhibition. As well as the sound recordings that were simply annoying (loud meowing and barking).
The multimedia installation of Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber You and me (Bunkier Sztuki) focused on migration theme. Is it possible to create a home in new or temporary homelands? This question remains open. An interesting idea, however, did not have an adequate visual form. Carelessly pinned prints were accompanied by quasi-pictorial pictures and texts, which looked awkward. There were also missing footnotes on sources (Wikipedia, movies etc.). The slide show part was better. It is a pity that images from this part were not shown on the walls as prints. Nevertheless, the whole show did not make a good impression on me.
Algorithms and dystopias
The Operators and The Targets series of Rune Peitersen refers to the modern battlefield. The use of drones allows for technological advantage over the so-called “enemy” and reducing losses among military personnel. A question arises about the mechanism of converting a person into a target and what the operator does really see and feel? The exhibition consisted of a video essay and prints of images from thermal imaging cameras (US Army promo movies from the Internet). The people – targets look like from world of old computer games. Does such perception help the “operators” work? How does this affect their “performance”, personal life, etc? We do not know this when we look at the processed images (although we can hear this from the narrator of the film, BTW definitely more interesting than the prints). We know, however, that an operator is sufficient to copy images (including from the monitor) as Vilem Flusser wrote…
Armand Quetsch presented his impressions from a trip around Europe. It is not known about which dystopian circles he wanted to tell the viewer – the photographs were not accompanied by the signatures. It was possible to guess it by identifying the places he visited (Athens, Belgrade, Nordhausen, Obersalzberg Sarajevo, Zagreb). I did not see dystopian pessimism, although some acute anxiety was noticeable. Nevertheless, Quetsch’s images were able to stand quite well (except the photograph of a pole and a rock) without support of a curator’s statement or other “poems”.
The last conversation with Andrei Sakharov of Agnieszka Rayss took viewers back in time to the arms race period. Sakharov was a Soviet physicist whose achievements allowed to construction of a hydrogen (Tsar) bomb. After many years, he became an activist for human rights and received the Nobel Peace Prize. The exhibition presented landscapes from military compounds and their surroundings, images of museum objects and prints of scans of archival photographs. The show was unfortunately disappointing. Both in the context of author’s personal photography and the proposed narrative based on archives. We may only wait for another edition.
The Negative Publicity of Crofton Black and Edmund Clark raised the theme of secret CIA prisons. Documents (reports, building plans, invoices and others) were shown to reveal the context of activities of organizations involved in the procedure. Black exposes their grotesqueness, which manifests itself, among others, in camouflage under the guise of ordinariness and a bureaucratized language. Clark’s photographs visualised the places, showing various ways of integrating them into the landscape. The project looks better in the book edition. The exhibition quickly escapes from the “prison of memory”…
Esther Hovers in the False positives series took up the issue of supervision and algorithms used in public security systems. Machines are not able to interpret the context. What, for example, is an aesthetic situation for a photographer, devices can consider as anomaly and a threat. Photographs were partially arranged and made at specific intervals, then assembled to create hypothetical initial situations. The artist made their syllabus with sketches and explanations. Overall it was interesting, but the way how some of the photographs were shown – controversial.
The algorithms also intrigued Clement Lambelet, whose work oscillates around technologies that seem to shape reality and its perception. In his Collateral Visions, the characters on light-boxes, made with a helpful use of an airport scanner, appear to be Adam and Eve of the 21st century. Other images are transformations created with a use of the Eigenfaces algorithm, including faces expressing programmed emotions along with their numerical entries. Apart from the mentioned light-boxes with “Adam and Eve”, the exhibition associated somewhat with the presentation of technological curiosities. Despite the well-prepared “instruction manual”, their use did not arouse my enthusiasm.
The Kraków edition of Mark Curran exhibition The Market was of a journalistic and multimedia nature. In the secluded room in Szara Kamienica (Grey House gallery) you could see the artists’ film essay, visualization of stock charts, a presentation on the tablet and interviews in folders on the desk. The latter were extensive but loose conversations and it was difficult to get something really important out of it. The film essay did not arouse interest. The visualization of stock market charts gave the impression of something put there just to fill in the gap. In addition the loud background music (dark ambient style) disturbed reception of other elements of this exhibition as well as all shows in the whole house.
The topic of capital flow algorithms was undertaken by Eline Benjaminsen. She carefully researched and visited places relating to the so called high-frequency trading, which was described in the attached press articles. My attention was drawn by the image of the chapel-shrine of Our Lady at the back of the church with a pole in the background. However my reception of the exhibition was disturbed by the frequently recurring thought that in the context of images like these it was possible to include texts about everything related to the transmission of electromagnetic waves and wondered what would make the difference…
In the next room there was a documentary film by Susan Schuppli Atmospheric Feedback Loops depicting the genesis and work of the Dutch climate change centre. An efficiently filmed and well edited film contained a significant dose of information but it was primarily of a scientific nature.
A series of exhibitions related to new technologies was closed by Jules Spinatsch’s Cul-de-Sac (Dead End). The images made in the Vienna State Opera can be referred to the idea of Jeremy Bentham’s – panopticon, popularized in the 1970s by Michel Foccault. The exhibition looked interestingly in part of a specially constructed installation with a large size panorama, accumulating fragments of spacetime. The panorama was impressive as an object. However, there was a lack of a more universal philosophical reflection here, what can be repeated in the context of all the projects with algorithms in the description.
In the debut section surrealism was dominating style. Its reduced version, in a historical context, was easily adapted by fashion and advertising – “children” of popular culture. The common denominator for the group of artists was the poetry of strangeness, created on surprising visual effects, blurring the impression between imagination and the real. However the games with the viewer resulted in that the content and its meaning got lost somewhere (Rafa Raigon), and the proposed visual language, too heterogeneous, rather obscured the starting point instead of shedding a new light on it (e. g. the series of Valeria Cherchi). In turn, where “everything was connected with everything” (Mana by Kuba Stępień) it was really difficult to feel something. The self-irony and sense of humour (Ksenia Sidorova) was a stepping stone, but it could also become a trap – a joke considered in artistic terms should be at some certain level (GIF’s of Laura Ociepa were missing it). With regards to documentary series, some images of Anna Tiessen looked interesting despite the uninteresting description. There is a hope that in the future some visual accents in her project will be differently distributed (more work, less binge drinking).
Variability, relativity and pluralism
Photomonth is the best-known Polish photographic festival – an event that fits well not only in Kraków but also in the European cultural landscape. The rich schedule was impressive and probably there would not be enough time to attend all the events in a month or so. In terms of reflection on the main programme, attention was paid to a wide spectrum of themes and issues, which is very positive – especially bearing in mind previous editions. Although their selection and significance remain debatable, including limitations – consequences of referencing to the ideas of Castells and its Neo-Marxist roots. The multitude of exhibitions, however, was not a guarantee of quality. The formula of the great collective exhibition did not work well. There was sometimes an impression of superficiality and temporariness. The space of flows in writing did not have to deal with housing problems. The exhibition space already did and somehow spilled down. Exhibitions that could be autonomous, richer, and therefore more engaging did not take enough place. Maybe there would be more space if the number of shows were limited? This is important topic because in the “we are all photographers” era (but also curators, directors, chairmen etc.) the idea of the exhibition as an artist statement has acquired very special meaning. Interestingly, in spite of the new technological possibilities, the most interesting exhibitions were photographic ones – created and matured to show for at least a few years. So perhaps – despite the post-photographic fairy tales, or the murmur of unbelievers in its autonomy – photography is not dead and there is still a cosmic space for philosophical, existential and social problems? Therefore, the question arises about the future formula of the festival, which the adult age (in Poland 18) is approaching soon. Will it remain a month of photography, a month on photography, or perhaps a visual arts festival? A seemingly small, yet very significant change.