Day 1 of Mois de la Photo à Montréal

Marc Prüst blogs about Mois de la Photo - Blog 3

So, that was one intense day. After a smooth flight into Montréal, a lovely welcome dinner last night with the organizers and curator of the Mois de la Photo and all the guests, we started today our program. We saw a total of six shows, all acrosss the city, driven around in a minivan.

The first two exhibitions were relatively small, and were both a combination of a contemporary artist with an older work from the archive of the exhibiting institution. The first at the McCord Museum was Mishka Henner’s work ‘Dutch Landscapes’. He selected from google earth screengrabs of sites in Holland that showed sensitive areas according to the government. These areas where then highly pixelated through some kind of software. It was shown in combination with aerial photography from Montréal taken in the late 60s and early 70s with the purpose of making maps of the city. These amazingly sharp and detailed black and white transparancies and the highly colourized, unsharp and strange Dutch landscapes created an interesting visual dialogue.

The second show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture showed a combination of Donovan Wylie’s work on the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, and a series of photographs by German photographer Ilse Bing from 1930 on a Home for the Elderly in Germany. Just like the previous show, there were many aspects that made these two projects go together very well: The H form of both the Maze Prison as photographed by Wylie, as well as the Home photographed by Bing. The segregation aspect of prisoners as well as the elderly from society, although in different ways. The fact that Wylie started seeing himself while photographing the Prison in the precize way as he did as a machine, and Bing being called the Queen of the Leica: both photographers were identified directly with the apparatus that they were using to create their photographs.

So, the start was strong: great visuals, a theory that started to be fleshed out: Drone, the automated image. Somehow I could see where this was going. Man was getting pushed away by a machine, the camera. A development that might have started with the invention of the 35mm film and the Leica, and that may have found its endpoint in google earth.

After lunch, we went on to to see a short movie at the Maison de la Culture du Plateau Mont-Royal by David K. Ross. An interesting film shot on 16mm film of the light beacon located on the roof of a high building in Montréal. The beacon rotates and shows 4 light beams going round from sundown to around 1am, every day. I did not really see how this film fit in the program of the automated image. One could say that the film shows what the light ‘sees’, but the movie was styled in such a way that it did seem very much a human creation, created very consiously. This did not seem to be an automated image to me.

On to venue number 4, then: the amazing space at VOX, centre for contemporary imagery. Here we could see 4 installations, and indeed they were more installations than photographic exhibitions. The selected works seemed a perfect fit with the contemporary art space: here were 4 perfomance pieces that spoke mostly about the process of photography, and only fleetingly about the result. In each piece it was a machine that took the decision of creating (and in one case, destroying) an image.

A Sony AIBO robot dog in a fully closed box photographed randomly 1 picture a day, which was transferred to a printer elsewhere and then shown on the gallery wall. A piece by Craig Kalpakjian was the one piece in which the human element of the creation was indeed reduced to a minimum. In the other pieces, the human element seemed still pretty decisive.

At venue number 5, the Darling Foundry, Paul Wombell, the curator shared his philosophy about why he choose this theme for the Mois de la Photo. According to Paul, there has been a lot of stress in the philosophy of the photograph on the image since the 1960s, Baudrillard, Sontag, Barthes and others focussed their attention on the image as the main element of the medium. Because of this and the enourmous technological advances of the last decade we have forgotten the importance of our relationship with technology. With this biennale he hopes to stress the importance of understanding that relationship.

I have a lot of respect for Paul, and his strength of combining visual narratives into his own is amazing, but I don’t agree with him, here. The process is important, of course: our relationship with technology is perhaps underrepresented in photographic research, but for me personally: the image should still be convincing. Whereas I was impressed by the visual combinations and dialogues in the first two exhibitions, the shows at VOX and at the Foundry were visually not very convincing. The thoughts were there, the theory hung in the air, but indeed it was more about the process, about the technology that lay behind, the How the image was taken, or found, and not the actual object that we could see on the wall.

I was confused, because that actually is in line with how Paul sees this show: a way to reconsider, to investigate our relationship with the technique, and not with the image. I guess I have to change my own approach to a certain extent to ‘grasp’ this other way of seeing. The last show by Jon Rafman did not clarify things for me. Rafman shows google streetview images of funny, aggressice, beautiful, or strange situations he comes accros while surfing streetview. Because of the large variety of scenes, there is not much conherency in the ehxibition, perhaps, but all in all, the show at the Maison de la Culture Marie-Uguay was well done. Also shown was a short movie by Rafman, based on google street view. WIth all the new processes and techniques that were used, here we saw a fairly classical narrative (of a lost love) and a powerful reference by the artist of the strength and power of the image, with links of how an image can claim memory. At the last show of the day, we were suddenly back at the ‘image’, and its importance.

Tomorrow is Day 2 of the visits. We’ll be seeing 7 exhibitions, with works by 10 artists, followed by a conference themed ‘Looking at the Camera’. I look forward to seeing more works, and to understand more about this balance between process and result.