Why are photography exhibitions so boring?

Photographic exhibitions often use a language of political agency in their vocabulary. The photographic artists are posed as experts in the field of recent technological advances and media theory – Because after all, photography is fully entangled in some of the recent fundamental developments in human condition such as social media. Yet it seems that photography as artistic practice is blissfully behind on these questions. Post-Internet gets firstly and fore mostly addressed as an aesthetic, instead of a tectonic, foundational shift in the ontological standpoints through which photographs get produced and consumed. The artist as an anthropologist, carefully mining and categorizing the sea of dangerous images and forgotten memes. Exhibitions claim to be future-bound, positivist, yet rely largely on practices and ways of doing that were solidified decades ago. Photography as artistic practice is seen as intrinsically different than photography in any other sphere.

Network

Image cultures emerge from a time before the Internet, but any active change to those cultures right now is most likely to be somehow in connection to the network. The most important political aspect of recent technology is the sharing – Internet is not a vault, the nature of the network is the exchange. One can co-operate with it or oppose it, but one can never not be in relation to it. The artistic photography community is confused: Enemies of the past, agile nature photographers and tech-dads seem less threatening, in fact they are almost allies now. Analog forums once considered geeky are safe havens of old european culture and literature.

The rudder of innovation is desire. It is fascinating how fast the conversation about the network being a mirror image of the meat space, or a neutral platform for conversation has vaned and been replaced by think pieces about algorithms, congressional hearings from Facebooks executives, countless mindfulness apps and public or not so public paranoia. There was a great hope of social media as a democratizing, egalitarian force, a breeding ground for a leaderless revolution, the voice of the people and the like. In the past couple of years that rhetoric seems to have had another tone. The public is starting to realize, which has for long been the case, that there are liquid concrete ways in which these platforms are built that enhance the exchange being had. This stuff is designed by companies, and these companies’ values are reflected in the code, their technology, and their business models. The general public has increasingly started to understand that the users are not the customers of Facebook when they are using it on a day-to-day basis. Facebooks actions and strategies aim towards tending to their customers, which are the advertising companies, and this leads to a certain type of technology inside the program.

The basic idea is that attention of a single user is a scarce commodity, so the advertising companies pay Facebook on the basis of the tracking data showing how long a single user spends on the site. Facebook does not sell the mined data per se, but rather it sells the time slot that a user has spent potentially viewing a certain ad. This is Facebooks strategy for 98% percent of its revenue. The variant to maximize is how long a user spends on a website, because that is the basis on which the company gets paid by its customers, the advertising companies. Facebook might be the purest ever example of a company whos business is the capture and sale of attention. Facebook never cared about your friends birthdays.

The key consequence of this business model and its technology is the fact that Facebook does not care what kind of content a single user sees, as long as the user stays on the site. This is because they sell the time that is potentially spent looking at a specific advertisement. Photographs that circulate within social networks are subject to this model of business. They get valued with the same parameters as any other content, that is, based on their clickability and ability to grab and keep attention. Facebook circulates content that has the ability to become viral, and naturally suppresses the opposite.

Onymous sharing and evil algorithms

Facebook collects behavioral data from its users in various ways. It of course mines and categorizes the information that a user gives it straightforwardly; preference of music, movies, education, gender, family relations, work experience. But it also tracks how long the user hovers on a picture, where the users mouse is at any given moment, what kind of posts the user tends to “like” (or any other click of the diversifying “reactions”), where the users phone is geotagged, every website the user has ever visited while Facebook is open, how often the user congratulates his/her parents on their birthdays, etc. This data is automatically categorized and calculated by algorithms to place users in different interest groups; groups which are also automatically created. These algorithms and groups are key to the Facebook product of targeted advertising – The point is that Facebooks customers can choose an identified group to which it wants its ads to be shown to.

The amount of data that these companies are able to gather is something unforeseen in history. Facebook programmers are able to make minuscule changes in their code and almost immediately have a sampling of two billion people (three fourths of humans with access to the Internet) to respond on these changes without a survey but with their behavior. Compare this to the technology of scientific surveys just a decade ago where samplings were calculated as hundreds of thousands at most. For this reason, Facebook products, the target groups, are highly sophisticated, such as Jew Haters of Minnesota.

The large user base has resulted, for example, in the demise of traditional hegemonic news media outlets. Today, Facebook is the single most important news source for its users. As Lancaster puts it: “Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.”1

This has lead to the conversation about social media as an echo chamber. When a user responds to certain type of content online, the technology will automatically feed the user similar type of content, to keep the user engaged and therefore spend more time. There is no such thing as singular media; the feed is simply trying to calculate what we want to see to maximize the time used, and this is a fact that media companies have to respond to with their content, including second handedly their use of photography and other imagery. Instead of a big brother, it could be more useful to consider the media environment as an ecology rather than some kind of single-channel, top down operation. If I eat a bag of Cheetos and go to the bathroom and look at the color of my shit – do I see an effect?

Political consequences

In 2016 elections Russia supposedly utilized the technology that was already there. These customized operations could for example escalate dissensus within democrats, ushering Clinton supporters against Bernie fans. Or encourage racially charged civil unrest like the “Blacktivist” -group in Facebook. Or ensure democrats that the win was already so obvious that it’s no use for them to vote. Or tell small town Alabamans about Hillary’s trans gender toilet policy. Propaganda and “fake news” has always been part of political discourse, but it is due to the adtech that this election was radically different than the previous ones. One can reflect on the sophistication of aforementioned scenarios and compare it to the Obama “Hope” campaign that was hailed as very radical and effective only 8 years ago. Back then the discussion was about a poster campaign; This election we do not credit Trumps genius cap design to his victory.

This aspect of “the Internet” has identity in its core in many ways – Identity is the focal point of the whole exchange. Firstly, the content shared is attached to avatars or real life names such as in Facebook and their mobile device IDs. Users create profiles for picture-editorial platforms like Pinterest or Tumblr to act as representations of their individual taste. The political views and news and cat videos are shared via singular identified users. These user’s are then mapped, boxed and grouped; and finally marketed to as strictly identified ones or as part of identity groupings. This current revenue model has also brought about a certain type of image culture, one that is native to the onymous sharing networks. This image culture is due to the technological base, economical models and the legislation related to these two.

The technologies of identification has also resulted in new kind of political movements inside onymous sharing networks. It has become important to share ones political beliefs on social network, sympathize with victims to atrocities and also lash at political enemies, real or imagined. The user is provided with interesting political content to his/her own liking and the screen provides a handy separation to other bodies, thus making it easier to pinpoint wrongdoings of other parties and people. Outrage is a powerful selling factor to social media and for the companies it is beneficial to promote that. At the same time the technology has enabled movements such as #metoo and #timesup, and sympathizing maneuvers, cynically “clicktivism” or “virtue-signaling”. Most recently this has been discussed in the case of Sri Lanka, where Buddhist activists spread rumours against muslims in Facebook – and know how to make the rumours viral, resulting in quick lynchings.2

One could take quite a leap and argue that it is partly due to this new technology that there is a new and powerful emergence of identity politics and culture wars in recent years. Users get fed with their own interests and can wage elaborate Twitter wars from the comfort of their desktop. The interesting part is that one can begin to problematize which aspects of the public discourse and the measures done in the name of for example identity politics, sexual diversity and emancipation are in fact made to and because of the reasons mentioned above, the need of advertising industry to identify its targets. For Facebooks business model it makes perfect sense to identify its users to 72 different gender categories, and thus also, but I claim second handedly, promote the efforts the company makes for sexual diversity. Political outrage and identity politics count for a lot of clicking power at the moment; and where there is strong emotions and struggle, there is also commercial potentiality to be harnessed.

Angela Nagle describes the online culture war context of recent years in her book “Kill All Normies”: “The once obscure call-out culture of the left emanating from Tumblr-style campus-based identity politics reached its peak during this period, in which everything from eating noodles to reading Shakespeare was declared ‘problematic’, and even the most mundane acts ‘misogynist’ and ‘white supremacist’. While taboo and anti-moral ideologies festered in the dark corners of the anonymous Internet, the de-anonymized social media platforms, where most young people now develop their political ideas for the first time, became a panopticon, in which the many lived in fear of observation from the eagle eye of an offended organizer of public shaming. At the height of its power, the dreaded call-out, no matter how minor the transgression or how well intentioned the transgressor, could ruin your reputation, your job or your life. The particular incarnations of the online left and right that exist today are undoubtedly a product of this strange period of ultra puritanism. These obscure online political beginnings became formative for a whole generation, and impacted mainstream sensibilities and even language.”3

Social media invites its users to hyper-identification, and the language of politics and outrage are used for this. This language is alive, and it has potentiality; it is the era of consciousness. One of Sweden’s most recently successful companies, Oatly, markets itself for the “post-milk generation”. Veganism is already an old story; the type of sneakers a person wears tells more about them than who they vote for in the elections. The internal logic of programs such as Facebook encourage to shine a light on every aspect of private life, and by doing so accomplishes to monetize the claimings of an identity. What is meant by this is that values, ideals and opinions are worthwhile only as long as they result in a genre, or a group, or a list. The platforms are asking us to refer to our very identity in every question it poses – our devotions have to make sense in a forming of a seeming identity so that we can meaningfully be marketed to within this economic system.

As Nagle hints, there was also a backlash and the other side of the coin to the onymous hyper identity politics of social networks: The counterforce is the anonymous picture sharing boards such as 4chan. In these channels users can post anonymously and they have cultivated a much different communication culture – and a very different look on identity politics compared to the one that is normative in Facebook. 4chan and boards like it could be described as something that is native to the Internet: A rampant stream of the most vile, nihilistic, 16-year old teenage male gamer sensibility. Transgression, vulgarity and irony are the only virtues in the anti-authoritarian inside jokes. In a way, they represent the per-algorithm Internet that was going to result in civil discussion, wisdom of the crowd – Internet pre-monetized. The boards definitely are anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment – but far from a leftist dream.

These boards were among the first channels to ridicule the most absurd and over the top features of the online performative politics, and as the boards were populated by young frustrated men, the ridicule was often on women and the “politically correct” identity politics. The extreme cases of “incels” that the world has lately witnessed. Nagle writes: “it hit at a time when a particular style of humorless, self-righteous, right-on social media sentimentality had already reached such an absurd peak that the once obscure style of ironic cynical mockery also emerged into more mainstream Internet-culture as a counterforce.”4

Leading up to the elections, the right wing speakers found their audience in the anti-pc style within the anonymous internet, and became mainstream celebrities as anti-establishment political figures. One of the candidates resonated with this new language more than the other, the other also happening to be a female who tried to play by the rules of previous political rules. The “left” was busy tearing itself apart on who to boycott and who to purge – but at the same time sure of their victory along the lines of mainstream press and the polls.

One could ask what is the actual political agency of teenage boys posting misogynistic filth anonymously, the Facebook debate, etc. However when looking at the style of Trump, one can see in what way the nature of discourse has changed in a short year. All of a sudden its completely legitimate politics to act like a bully, or to ridicule Trumps hair. On more serious issues for example torture is back on the table again.

Pictures

Now what does photography exhibitions have to do with this shit - not much it seems.

What are the common traits to images that are used in personal, public and political communication online through onymous as well as anonymous sharing? Firstly, we communicate mostly through singular images, or images merged with texts. Secondly, the value and agency of an image is measured by its ability to circulate within a technology that has a certain logic and interests as its inherent features and reasons for being, as described in the first part of the essay. As stated before, silence is not a “position” to take online, what is silent simply “is not” in the world of social media.

What must be understood is that successful memes (actually unsuccessful meme is a paradox of sorts) are results or points in a very rapid exchange. Collective creativity of anonymous and onymous boards are summoned to form meme evolutions. A meme is a comment to a comment to a comment. The resulting phase at any given point (because the evolution never really ends) has often no relation to the starting point or the first instance of the cell dividing. The image macro morphs on its way and can become wholly taken up by other conversations and contexts. The reference to the original or an author is not relevant whatsoever.

On the other hand, we can no longer distinguish image from text, or a gif, or drawing on top of image for example. “In this setting of secondary visuality, images merge with text, become texts. Text is more than a caption and image is irreducible to illustration. Because images circulate as conversations, we find ourselves engaging in a new communicative form where the originality or uniqueness of an image is less important than its common, generic qualities, the qualities that empower it to circulate quickly and easily, that make it contagious. Images function as visual colloquialisms, figures of speech, catch-phrases, and slang. Whereas the critical or philosophical discourse on photography may draw insight from analyses of specific images, secondary visuality subsumes the specific into the generic. What really matters is whether an image is repeated, whether it incites imitation, whether it can jump from one context to another. An image’s circulatory capacity, its power to repeat, multiply, and acquire a kind of force, has triumphed over its meaning (whether that meaning is withheld, inviting interpretation, or a seemingly straightforward and obvious representation of an object).”5 The selfie is a means to be in common, and its nature and measurement of value is its circulation value. A selfie is not made for an affirmation, or an archive, or the future, it is made for the feed, right now. “We make them anyway as part of a larger social practice that says a selfie isn’t really of me; it’s not about me as the subject of a photograph. It’s my imitation of others and our imitation of each other. To consider the selfie as a singular image removed from the larger practice of sharing selfies is like approaching a magazine through one word in one issue. A selfie is a photo of the selfie form, the repetition of a repeated practice.”6 And later: “With the selfie, the face returns to the photo, now emancipated from exhibition value. A selfie is not a portrait; it’s not an image of the unique and irreplaceable. It’s an instance of how one is like many, equal to any other. I would even say that the selfie demonstrates further the emancipation of the commonality of the object from the commodity form. To be common and reproducible is no longer a primary characteristic of the commodity – especially in a context where commodities are inscribed with individuality (personalized sneakers, designer this and that). To be common and reproducible is a characteristic of each of us, a realization we enact with every selfie and hashtag, even when we may not be fully aware that we are doing it.”7

True loss of authorship

Images online such as meme’s work largely without any claim of authorship. It is not a feature of the discussion to take upon the copyright of a meme, for example. The copyrights of selfies on the other hand are happily handed over to the platforms themselves. From a formal point of view, users are more likely to be open to mix different kinds of material, different types of imagery (Google image search), mix it with text or moving image, etc. I also claim, through Dean, that the value of our photographs online is their circulation value. They go through image evolutions yet work as singular images at any given moment, as opposed to a series. The photographs aim towards an instant reaction, and are designed to be instant part of a feed, and after this they might as well disappear – they are not a commemoration. The photograph is made for the now, and nobody treats their four year Instagram feed as a photobook so to say.

Mausoleums and their online presence

How has big gallery and museum institutions reacted to how images and photographs get produced, consumed and circulated in the mainstream channels of the Internet? Have they shifted their focus to the new nature of photographs themselves or should they try to do that? I think various museums’ online profiles are tell tales of their position in society, how they think of themselves and how the public thinks of the museums. In the past few decades, the role of photographs in society seems to have changed quite radically but the museum situation has stayed largely the same. Museums of course now also have websites, Instagram accounts and Facebook profiles. The online avatars of brick and mortar institutions could be use as manifestations of the ideology behind those institutions. I will have to generalize quite a lot to try to frame some kind of a problem, and of course the findings don’t include everything from new initiatives to Guggenheims.

In a general sense, museums make physical shows, put together by curators or boards of photography experts, catalogues get printed to accompany the shows. The shows get a Facebook event to work as promotion, and most often an Instagram account hashtag. The sphere of the show might include pedagogical aspects such as a symposium on the supposed “topic” of the show, or an artist talk, or a panel discussion. The curators (in museums especially) tend to respond in their work to a “discussion” that has been bubbling up in the “society”, or alternatively, and more courageously, introduce something from outside the hegemonic discussions to enlighten the public. Pedagogic standpoints arise with ideologies of the imagined and actual audience, as well as the sources of funding.

There are a few strategies through which museums have “online presence”. They of course have information about their current, past and upcoming shows; they have information on the events that take place at the museum. Then they often have pedagogical resources, an online shop, etc. Many important institutions also have their collection online as still images accompanied by a short bio of the artist as well as technical information of the art objects. Then there can be different strategies to engage the audience with the collection; MoCP for example has a tagging project through which general audience can tag the picture to different groupings.

It seems that in these shows, the shift is left half way. They don’t seem to address the circulation and anonymity of images online. In “Ocean of Images” (MoMA 2016) the works are still made by individual artist/authors that “address” the network in their form, but the network fails to change the fundamental nature of the photographs. The pictures still work as they always did, a visitor is supposed to investigate them and their intentions and internal relations – they take the Internet and circulation as their subject matter, not as their way of being.

Hester Keijser asks an important question in her “Manifesto for future European photo festivals”: “At which festivals are there practical workshops exploring the digital image not as something visual first and foremost, but as something that should be understood in its networked status as a binary object for intelligent algorithms?”8

Urs Stahel describes the event of photographic exhibition: “In exhibitions, the images, their curators and viewers find themselves in an ideal situation, at least theoretically in an almost optimal situation. A visitor has made a decision to go out, to pay the entry fee and concentrate as he moves, sometimes talking with a friend or partner, through the rooms, through the network of photographs in very different materialisations. On the other hand, a museum, a curator, a photographer, a team of photography experts have set out to put together, after careful consideration, a certain number of photographs on a certain theme, alone or in combination with texts (and several other tools). The intersection between these two intentions, these two paths is the moment of the controlled encounter, which leads to intended, but also uncontrolled experiences, insights and feelings. The “communication” system that can occur here is so good, so perfectly installed that the rare case, this “lucky coincidence” of successful communication, as Jürgen Habermas argued in his “Theory of Communicative Action”, should actually happen regularly. In the successful case, everything is so well laid out that the photographs and the intentions of the curator, the photographer whisper straight into the viewer’s ear with a horn that the viewer communicates directly with the photographs’ field of intention.”9 What a beautiful vision.

In the museum the prints act like art objects with an aura in the space, even though in the photographic art exhibition the work is often seen as images with no relation to the space around – as windows to the world. The audience or a spectator positions his/her body to the proximity of the physical manifestation of the image to interpret or to critique “the original” by investigating its form, content and their interplay and relations – and relation to exhibition texts as well as captions and other photographs.

There is a split of sorts, one might call it a deep crevasse, or the Mariana Trench, between the online picture culture, and the one that the spectator faces in the physical exhibition that remains to be seen as the “main” task of the institution. The physical exhibition has stayed largely the same for the past decades. Rows of prints, no matter their subject matter or framing. Or a more playful cluster formation. Occasional wallpaper. Occasional 3d printed object. Asking questions such as “what is a picture anymore without material” or questioning the truth claim of documentary practice. The conversation is stuck in where the first photoshop art by big German names in the 90’s left it. The fear is there: “What if materiality would actually disappear, what the fuck would we talk about?”

I suggest that the mechanisms through which current society sees photographs, is crucially different to the mechanisms and functions of photography in a museum situation. The museum, nor the public fully understands their part.

From the point of the viewer, the photographs on the wall resemble the world of today so much: They are of contemporary subject matter, people look the same as they do in selfies, they can even utilize a “selfie aesthetic” or “Post-Internet visuals”, etc. Yet, the exhibition and the situation is for some reason inviting the viewer to treat the photographs as paintings, meaning original, precious art objects, the same as the imagined market treats them. Objects which, in Stahels words, have a “field of intention” that can be conveyed through meticulously examining their motifs, their content. Objects which also still have a connection to a singular author. Or their analogueness. Or analoguelessness.

What to think of it

How other to describe the photographic exhibition than as an old language that does not have the vocabulary to describe current situation? In the Internet “A contribution need not to be understood; it needs only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Circulation is the context, the condition for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution.”10 The value systems around photographs have changed, they do not get looked at in the same way as they did 20 years ago, not online and not in the museum. Artistic photography has arisen in an age all through which the individual authorship of an artist genius has been praised throughout, and now that basis is dissolving everywhere else except for “the institution”. The photographs are not valued through their authorship or their intellectual content either, they are valued based upon their ability to circulate.

Keijser asks: “What is left of form and content as relational concepts when the image has become digital and changed the productive relations between viewer and the work (in so far as the image now builds / commands its audience). What is the aboutness of the networked digital file when it exists to produce an audience that performs unpaid labor in the form of likes so it can go viral and increase its value? And what if all the selfies we are uploading in the end validate their existence by helping computer scientists develop better programs for face detection used by riot police, or can be stolen and adapted by companies that exist to create viral content on social media using different avatars? What if it isn’t so much important what we produce, upload and share, but that we produce, upload and share?”11

I believe that photography as it is presented in institutions has failed to make the ontological leap that images as part of a networked culture have made; a leap after which images are not examined with the same parameters and criteria as before. It remains to be explained why does the photograph demand to be printed to the wall under the current circumstances and discussions; what is its function there? Ink on paper? This is Gutenberg 2.0 and a single quote from McLuhan fails to give us a plan of action.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product, 2017-12-11
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/facebook-sri-lanka-riots.html
  3. Nagle, Angela, Kill All Normies, p. 21
  4. Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies, p. 18
  5. https://www.fotomuseum.ch/en/explore/still-searching/articles/26421_images_without_viewers_imitation_repetition_circulation, 2017-12-11
  6. https://www.fotomuseum.ch/en/explore/still-searching/articles/26420_images_without_viewers_selfie_communism, 2017-12-11
  7. https://www.fotomuseum.ch/en/explore/still-searching/articles/26420_images_without_viewers_selfie_communism, 2017-11-12
  8. http://www.beikey.net/mrs-deane/?p=9233, 2017-11-12
  9. http://correspondencias.fotocolectania.org/en/2016-en/, 2017-11-12
  10. Dean, Jodi; Passavant, Paul, Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri, p. 274
  11. http://www.beikey.net/mrs-deane/?p=9233, 2017-12-11