How was it for you? Diane Smyth says Aaron Schuman's take on the Krakow Photomonth Festival 2014 is well worth a look
Last year Charlotte Cotton took over C Photo and devoted it to “Photographicness”, showcasing 14 image-makers who’ve each developed a portfolio that “reveals their work processes, emphasising the way in which they carry out their current investigations and specific projects”. This summer she’s taken over Foam Magazine and titled it Under Construction – New Positions in American Photography, focusing on “nine young visual artists for whom the creative process can be as much subject of an image as its final result”. Back in 2011 Cotton told Aaron Schuman in Foam’s What’s Next? 2 that: “I feel really lucky to be working within a science museum, which is streets ahead (or streets behind, whichever way you want to think about it) arts institutions, because they understand experimentation. They understand the idea of the laboratory, and they’re comfortable with the notion that the jury may not be entirely out on something.”
Cotton is a perceptive thinker, and it seems she’s hit the zeitgeist. From Gregory Halpern and Jason Fulford’s The Photographer’s Playbook – 307 Assignments and Ideas (recently published by Aperture) to emerging photographers using work-in-progress blogs (such as Nico Krijno, whose Tumblr is entitled “pure research”), contemporary photographers are emphasising experimentation, process and play. Now Schuman has offered his own twist on this theme at Krakow’s Photomonth Festival, curating a series of exhibitions around the idea of Re: Search.
Schuman was inspired by a statue of photographic pioneer Etienne-Jules Marey, he writes in the festival catalogue, which reminded him that the first photographers “were not so much aesthetes in search of a new and expressive artistic medium, but were instead ambitious scientists, researchers, scholars and polymaths in search of a visual tool that might serve support and substantiate their research – and their search for knowledge – within a broad spectrum of disciplines”. As such the exhibitions he’s put together – some of which were curated by others, with his input – “aim to explore how a number of contemporary artists, photographers, curators, academics, writers and historians – all polymaths in their own right – engage in research and use photography itself as a primary starting point for such searches within a broad spectrum of artistic and scientific disciplines, as well as how they employ, incorporate and manipulate the intricate visual language of this distinct medium in order to embody, express and critique such knowledge”.
The festival’s strapline – “Your whole life is research” – comes from Jason Fulford, and Schuman invited Fulford to Krakow to show his project Hotel Oracle. Published as a book last year, Hotel Oracle quickly acquired cult status; Fulford has said he considers the book the artwork rather than the individual images, and has resisted invitations to show them in traditional white cube galleries. Instead he has set up quirky, playful happenings including the shots around the world, and Krakow was no exception – listed on the festival map at the Alchemia bar, visitors actually had to “tell the bartender you are looking for Trophonius” to be given directions to another venue, 20 minutes away, in a residential district. There a part-installation, part-slide show featured a Rolodex of gnomic Oracle-like pronouncements, a display of Polish books, Tic Tacs, and so much more.
Trophonius is a character from Greek mythology who built a temple – or maybe a treasure chamber – then disappeared into a cave, until a young boy followed a trail of bees into the ground and found him again; Fulford’s exhibition had a similar sense of hidden riches. His talk with Schuman at the opening weekend helped illuminate his thinking, though, in particular the interaction between the fragments of life in his images and the symbolic framework he’s tapping into via the Greek myths. Our understanding is always based on a mix of empirical evidence and theoretical interpretation, he seemed to be suggesting; it’s up to each individual to negotiate between the two to construct his or her own meaning. It’s an appealing philosophy, and what was most appealing about this show was that Fulford seemed to want his audience to take it into their lives as well as his exhibition.
Clare Strand’s exhibition Further Reading, on show at the National Museum in Krakow, does something similar – bringing together major series of work such as Gone Astray, Signs of a Struggle and Unseen Agents it shows how her investigations of seemingly disparate, peripheral practices, such as aura or crime scene photography, actually work together to test the boundaries of image-making. By questioning what photography can show or “prove”, Strand’s work has a sense of the experimental or theoretical; this exhibition pushed that sense further by including some of her photographic research, via scrapbooks and picture cuttings, and a piece called The Ragpicker’s Tower comprised of a large tower of Post-It marked magazines. It’s a large retrospective and the first time I’ve seen so much of Strand’s work in one place; for me it was one of the highlights of the festival and shows how consistent her thinking has been.
Trevor Paglen’s exhibition, The Last Pictures, also fits the theme well and is also large, housed in Krakow’s handsome Starmach Gallery. The Last Pictures of the title are 100 images Paglen selected to be recorded on a silicon disc and sent into space on the EchoStar XVI satellite; these images have the potential to become some of human civilisation’s longest-lasting artefacts, and a source of communication with future generations (or as yet unknown life). The images are exhibited as a huge grid and Paglen’s choices were sobering – from the original illustration of Hobbes’ Leviathan to migrants picked out by a Predator Drone on the US-Mexico border, and from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to the earliest known cave paintings, they paint a dark view of human culture.
The rest of the show is devoted to photographs and videos showing how the images were recorded onto disc and shot up into space; I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the exhibition was a hoax, a giant shaggy dog story actually illustrating our credibility and propensity to believe what photographs and videos “prove”. Perhaps asking whether The Last Pictures have actually been sent into orbit or not is to ask the wrong question. Either way, the fact that the photographs and videos with which Paglen supports his claim don’t entirely convince shows how little “evidence” images can provide, just as the idea of the last images speaks up for their importance. The show also prompts the viewer to play with the idea by thinking about which images they would include in their 100.
The two other big names in the festival, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work, curated by David Campany, and Taryn Simon’s The Picture Collection, were both housed in the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow – a large and impressive development along the river, which opened just three years ago. Both exhibitions are interesting but they’re also much smaller than the other shows – it’s good that they are being shown in the same venue (to make it worth the trip) and that MOCAK is also currently showing a really excellent group exhibition called Crime in Art. Collecting together deviancy in images, from Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair to Larry Clark’s Tulsa, it’s well worth a look and neatly fits the Photofestival’s theme.
Walker Evans: The Magazine Work takes some of the work Campany recently unearthed and published in the book of the same name – methodically working through the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in among the entire back catalogues of publications such as Life, Fortune et al at the New York Public Library, he discovered a welter of Evans’ stories and images, published during the photographer’s lifetime. Stories such as Beauties of the Common Tool, published in Fortune in July 1955, show off fantastic still life images; Labour Anonymous, published in Fortune in November 1946, meanwhile, shows great street portraits, proving, if proof were needed, what a consummate photographer Evans was. Campany’s project also provides a fascinating insight into his working life, though, beavering away on commissions; by reproducing the pages of the magazine – and showing off some original copies in vitrines – Campany also shows the care Evans took over the text accompanying his shots. “Along a path of railroads, the country is in semi-undress” starts a story called Along the Right of Way, which was published in Fortune in September 1950 – what a great and a poetic way to talk about your project.
Across the courtyard, Taryn Simon’s The Picture Collection also takes images sourced from the New York Public Library, but it considers the ways in which these images have been catalogued and grouped by the generations of librarians and picture editors rather than the images per se. A large collage of shots of roads, shown overlapping each other, shows how the American Dream panned out in photographs, for example; other collages show more oblique themes, such as people facing away from the camera or getting their hair brushed. It’s an interesting idea and plays on Simon’s previous projects such as An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar or, in particular, the more recent Image Atlas. Image Atlas looks at online search terms country by country to build up a picture of each nation’s preoccupations; The Picture Collection shows that such image search terms were not born with digital media, though, and delves into some of the US’s concerns.
Schuman is a photographer as well as a curator and a writer – a surprisingly unusual position – and at Krakow he’s included a show of his own work, which includes both his own images, and photographs and artefacts from the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow. It would be easy to pick at Schuman’s decision to include himself in the festival but FOLK: A Personal Ethnography more than holds its own – Schuman’s great-grandfather, Franciszek Feret, was Polish and that personal connection provides him with a way in, and the project also a reflects on the Museum’s collecting agenda over the years. Mostly though, it’s just a pleasure to see his take on the Museum’s collection – it evidently has a lot of interesting stuff, and Schuman has an interesting eye. My personal favourite was a box of richly decorated eggs.
The last three exhibitions in the main programme are Forensic Aesthetics by Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, but curated for Krakow by Schuman; Radiation, curated by Wojciech Nowicki; and Echoes, curated by Jakub Woynarowski (the latter of which is in the Experimental section). They’re all group exhibitions but otherwise very different – Forensic Aesthetics is a rigorous, heavyweight investigation of the use of images in investigations of genocide and war crimes, for example, while Radiation is an oblique muse on the nature of photographic genres, via an exhibition of diverse images. Echoes, meanwhile, takes up the idea of synaesthesia, gathering together images made with non-photographic methods (registering sound, for example, or the movement of water) or by non-traditional image-makers (such as blind photographers).
I thought Echoes was a great idea but a little unwieldy in practice – it’s on show in the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art, and I felt that this very large space had perhaps allowed for one too many ideas to get in. Radiation, on the other hand I loved, without being really sure I got the idea. I thoroughly enjoyed the images on a purely visual level (perhaps that was the point), in particular Wilhelm Beermann’s 19th-century botanical images and Lukasz Trzcinski’s portraits. Forensic Aesthetics, meanwhile, was another festival highlight for me – taking a critical look at photography and its role in our society, from drone footage to satellite images, I thought it made a really strong statement. And that statement was welcome too because, if I have any criticism of this year’s Photomonth Festival, it is that, after a while, so many exhibitions about play and the boundaries of photography felt a little academic. Experimentation and the limits of image-making are fascinating topics, but I realised that seeing a show that also tried to say something about the world, and our current geo-political position, felt very refreshing at the end of the opening weekend.
However, that’s to pick a tiny hole in a tightly curated festival of very strong shows – and I didn’t even get to the fringe shows or the ShowOFF section of selected exhibitions (which include the wonderfully titled I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman by Irena Kalicka). Krakow Photomonth is rightly earning a reputation as a small but beautifully formed photography festival, and taking its place alongside the big boys in the calendar; add to that the fact that Krakow is beautiful, affordable and very child-friendly, and there’s a convincing case to go.
Krakow Photomonth Festival is on show until 15 June. www.photomonth.com
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
++Edited 28 May to correct a mistake – the first version stated Schuman did not curate the Forensic Aesthetics show; actually Keenan and Weizman wrote the book Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics and provided the material, but Schuman curated the show for Krakow. Apologies for any confusion…++