> Becoming part of new topologies in network culture
> Curation and image-making culture
> A converged set of practices
> Heralding the annihilation of photography
> Re-thinking visual literacy and the audience
> The computational image
> Antennae, inspiration and brokering new relationships
Katrina Sluis is an academic, artist and writer who holds the post of Curator (Digital Programmes) at the Photographers’ Gallery, London and Senior Lecturer at London South Bank University where she also teaches. Her recent writing has been featured in Photographies, Philosophy of Photography, Source and ArteEast.
Becoming part of new topologies in network culture
NFS: It’s a real pleasure to be speaking with Katrina Sluis in your role as the curator of the digital programme at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. We really appreciate you agreeing to contribute to the conversation with the Newfotoscapes. What is really admirable about your approach is the dialogue that seems to exist between the different strands of your practice, artist, academic with the scholarship and questioning of the field. How does that multiplicity manifest itself in the programming of The Wall at the gallery? It seems like you have adopted a really clear stance?
KS: Thanks. I would agree that my interest in photography has very much been informed by working as a practitioner and then also as an educator – I first set eyes on the first Apple QuickTake digital camera in the mid 1990s when I was studying Fine Arts in Sydney. At that time I was spending hours in the colour darkrooms perfecting prints but also found myself making websites, paintings and learning Photoshop. Once I graduated I began teaching in the Photomedia department and working for CompuServe, an early internet service provider.
During this period I developed a fascination with the photographic medium, which only intensified when my painting lecturers told me ‘photography isn’t art’. Another big influence was ‘Photography is Dead! Long live Photography!’, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney inspired by the ‘post-photographic’ moment, which completely changed the way I thought about the medium. But this is the exciting thing about photography, isn’t it? Its slipperiness… and the way it’s always undergoing some sort of technological revolution or death.
Ten years later, I noticed that many of the questions that had haunted photography in the 1990s – such as indexicality or the ‘truth value’ of the image – were not necessarily the most interesting issues concerning the medium, particularly as photography became wedded to the mobile phone and the Web. The pressing questions no longer concerned the singular image; it’s meaning, and its relationship to the ‘real’. Rather, it became photography’s ability to replicate and become part of new topologies in network culture. On this basis, Daniel Rubinstein and I wrote an article for Photographies that explored popular photography as a networked and screen-based practice. We argued, of course, that this has enormous implications for the valorization of photographic culture, which educators, photographers and museum professionals are all trying to grapple with.
Curation and image-making culture
NFS: So how does this manifest itself within your role at the gallery then?
KS: For The Photographers’ Gallery, one way of addressing this new landscape has been to create the post of Curator of Digital Programming. In one sense, this is a problematic set-up which separates the digital from the rest of the programme, and presumably requiring a curator with a connoisseurial understanding of digital practices. This, perhaps, would appear to work in contradiction to what we see in wider culture – where digital technologies are undoing established forms of knowledge and cultural authority. The development of a separate programme also seemed to suggest that what was happening elsewhere in the building was not digital, when of course, the works that sit on the upper floors of the Gallery are all touched by digital processes, either directly or indirectly. So the question then becomes: what should a digital programme within a media-specific Gallery actually do? My answer to that question, at least for the moment, is to problematise photography as a screen-based, networked and diffused practice – in partnership with different communities of practitioners. And to consider how a photographic museum might relate to cultures of image making online and how can that infiltrate or even ‘pollute’ an institution such as The Photographers’ Gallery?
NFS: So was that the pitch that you made to them in terms of making that space work?
KS: Yes, absolutely. For me the post presents a real challenge in bringing theory and practice together to engage with photography within the context of programming and education. I think that photography, at least in the way it is traditionally taught has very few ways of coming to terms with these dramatic shifts, and there is a parallel problem for the museum where cultural authority is bound up with an understanding of the analogue photographic print. Having been in post for over a year now, the next stage is to really start thinking about how, with limited resources, to make these conversations and issues more present within the programme.
NFS: That’s a good place to start thinking about the programme, which as you say is just over a year old, do you see a development from the first show, Born in 1987: The Animated GIF through to now? What is really interesting is on the text accompanying The Wall, ‘is that this forms part of a research programme of collaborations and commissions, highlighting photography’s role in the digital realm’. Is that your statement, how are you progressing these ideas?
KS: That is my ultimate ambition for The Wall, so far the programme has very much progressed in the first year as a series of experiments in which we wanted to understand the practical limits of the video wall and the ways it can be used. Like many cultural institutions who dip their toes in the digital, the Gallery wanted a permanent digital display on the ground floor but had little understanding of how to resource it and support it! So unlike the traditional photography curator, much of my time has been spent in dealing with the technical and conceptual limits of hardware and software. Whilst opening the programme with Born in 1987: The Animated GIF was strategic decision to engage with a particular practice of screen-based online image-making, it also was a very practical one – as a show which would not technically tax the newly-installed untested video wall!
NFS: So you could say the gallery got three people for the price of one, with your practice, curation and technical expertise?
KS: I think they are beginning to realize that! I have in the past year become a zen master in video codecs and my background in computing and systems administration has been a real boon. You really need to be able to understand a very technical language when working with certain kinds of material, and I think this made a difference to Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied when I worked with them on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age.
A converged set of practices
NFS: Do you feel there are particular lessons that you have learnt through the programme so far, not only technically in terms of how this form, this media can associate with work inside the gallery, but also lessons about audience engagement or the development of your resolve and ideas?
KS: Oh dear…that’s a really big question!
NFS: Sorry, its just when I think and look back at the programme… it is really interesting going from a form that can only be digital, with the animated gif, through to work which has a sense of humour, through to the studies in stillness and time. There is a really interesting critiquing of the subject, the technical photo-skilling and the mass that is generated by data and files. But there is definitely both a playfulness but also an underlying seriousness…
KS: I think a lot of the programme has emerged from the problem that the digital in itself is not a new photographic medium but a converged set of practices, bound up increasingly with the politics of software. I think that by operating in an institution that is concerned with medium specificity, the programme has really tried to play with the paradoxical diffusion and intensification of the photographic image in the digital age. The hybridity of the screen image has been a key kind of theme that you can see within Born in 1987: The Animated GIF and also in Susan Sloan’s show. There are also questions of cultural value in relation to the photographic image, which in part inspired For the LOL of Cats: Felines, Photography and the Web. Bringing the gallery into temporary alignment with different image cultures and addressing the knowledge of different groups who are themselves curators and creators of images (such as cat photographs) is an important aspect of this. Olia and Dragan’s work, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, when re-located to a Gallery of photography also brings attention to the shifting visual landscape of the web and how millions of early users online shared images and stories before the automated platforms of Facebook and Instagram. Whilst there is silliness, there is also a seriousness in bringing the knowledge from different image-making communities and making it present within gallery. How and if this knowledge infiltrates the institution and may or may not change its relationship to the public is a key question here, and there is a need to further explore and understand this area.
Heralding the annihilation of photography
NFS: There is something in the text you wrote for Source magazine, that rings true here, ‘…there is a danger that the museums will shrink away from any attempt to engage with photography’s altered materiality’, I think that is a key question about how those notions begin to relate and stick together, so that we don’t have or rather we try to remove a sense of hierarchy within the provenance of photography. Within the context of the Newfotoscapes, how we’re trying to think and frame things, is about that sense of acceptance of the provenance but equal acceptance of the idea that if we start calling it ‘the image’, and I notice that more often than not you relate to the image as opposed to the photograph. Is that the image can be something more, it can offer something that perhaps moves forward or connects or offers the sense of something beyond?
KS: Yes, the term ‘image’ can be a productive way in which to think about photography’s very interesting place in wider visual culture and the way in which the ‘photographic’ is implicated in everything from 3D software to bio-metric systems. Of course, questions of provenance and medium specificity are problematised by the digital – in my job interview I joked that if the Gallery wants to put a screen in the ground floor aren’t they accepting or even heralding the annihilation of photography, in a sense? Once a ‘photograph’ is on a ‘screen’ isn’t it actually a video? An animation? This is of course an old question and in the 1990s it was always commonly argued that in spite of the photograph’s radical transformation into data we still of course understand the JPEG on-screen as a photograph, with all its cultural and social baggage. However I would argue that this comfortable conclusion ignores the very real issue that computers are increasingly viewers and archivists of photographic images which are then made operational in everyday life – and they ‘read’ these images of course very differently.
Returning to the programme, if we consider Jon Rafman’s BRAND NEW BRAND NEW PAINT JOB and Anthony Antonellis’ Photoshop Skillz, these were placed very much in dialogue with the upper floors of the Gallery which had three concurrent shows dealing with ‘photo collage’. Jon and Anthony play with the tools and economies of cut-and-paste culture in the digital realm. So there are times when the programme comes into dialogue with what is happening elsewhere in the building and at other points, for example, heads off to explore different terrain. But a real limit I find is that whilst the screen can of course tap into popular image-making online, it is a content-hungry reproductive machine. How can one (in the space of the screen) open up what is most problematic, for example, about cat photographs, which have their own specific affect and agency as viral images? We will shortly be publishing a long-overdue set of essays which accompany the cat show, in order to expand on these questions. So I do think there is a problem concerning how these debates are made present in the programme.
NFS: Does that mean that you wish to see the screen operate as a vehicle beyond its physical presence inside of the gallery, so that it can exist and live outside connecting beyond the gallery?
KS: Definitely. I have always felt that the web offers a more interesting platform for programming, and it would be great to use The Wall as a portal to feed back into the Gallery what is actually set up to happen elsewhere. Of course, there are limitations to overcome technically, because at present the video wall software is developed with advertising and digital signage markets in mind, as such the screen is a kind of ‘digital billboard’. Another consideration is that of copyright – and I am receiving contradictory legal views concerning whether the display of live web content from a computer in a public gallery (as opposed to on a screen at home) violates this.
NFS: In a connected age, it still amazes me how scale and place can have such implications. So the publication that you are working on to accompany the programme, this will form part of your idea to extend the function of the screen from it’s presentational means to that of something being part of a wider set of debates?
KS: Yes, absolutely.
Re-thinking visual literacy and the audience
NFS: The inclusion or participation of the audience and their relationship to the screen within the physical gallery is also something that you are very much interested in dealing with. Surely, these are quite complex issues and ideas in what is a very immediate space, in that it directly confronts you as you enter the gallery? Equally, I get the sense that you do feel that the digital programme has the ability to not be as intimidating to younger people as well as people who are perhaps interested in wider questioning of visual culture. How do you feel you are able to pull together those two often contradictory or conflicting ways of dealing with things?
KS: This is an issue that is really close to my heart as an educator, and it’s probably worth mentioning that I balance my role at the Gallery alongside teaching at London South Bank University where I work with a lot of young people for whom museums and galleries can be quite alienating. There is presently a lot of debate concerning the role of publically funded museums and galleries, what cultural values they espouse, and their relationship to the public. A lot of my thinking in this area comes out of an AHRC-funded research project that London South Bank University and the University of the Arts did with Tate Britain, called Tate Encounters: Britishness in Visual Culture. As part of the project London South Bank University students from migrant and disaporic backgrounds became co-researchers who considered the way in which ‘Britishness’ is constructed by the museum, exploring their own relationship to the institution and its collections.
In the same way, there is the potential for The Photographers’ Gallery to become much more porous, and acknowledge the ways in which the implicit knowledge of photography held by different audiences are relevant and helpful to the institution. For example, a key focus of Gallery education has traditionally been visual literacy, based on pedagogy originating in historical (analogue) models of photography and spectatorship. How does the Gallery and its educators understand (or not) the meaning or agency of an image posted on Reddit, Snapchat or Instagram? How do we re-think visual literacy from a position which is not based on the analogue photographic print? There is a real opportunity to collaborate on these problems with young people and others engaged with network culture. It is important for The Photographers’ Gallery to understand the limits and specific value of its own knowledge on the one hand, and on the other, facilitate other groups to reflexively understand their use and engagement with photography.
NFS: This sounds like a great way to co-develop and engage the audience in collaboratively designing the future of the gallery itself.
KS: Yes, however it requires a huge commitment from the institution and its staff – and a desire for a qualitative, rather than quantitative, engagement with an audience.
NFS: Yes, that’s true but can be a really difficult balancing act. The fluidity of this moment in time is the premise behind Newfotoscapes. This rapidly evolving terrain means we can no longer simply say here is the map and this is the information that you should know. We can’t therefore elucidate the one book of knowledge and answer the questions from our students, as the solutions are no longer fixed!
KS: Absolutely, yes! One could even extend this observation to most forms of knowledge production today.
NFS: What I believe is more appropriate is to explore of the concept of the compass, so we shift our attention to how we navigate ourselves on our personal journey of exploration. So, you charted us through the ideas that became really important for you around the 90’s and the digital but I do fear that there is still a generalised lamenting, within higher education photography in the UK, upon that moment of the digital which in reality occurred well over ten years ago.
KS: Yes, I know what you mean. The compass idea is intriguing.
The computational image
NFS: It seems that for you that perhaps the key debates are already moving away from the idea of the networked image, your latest text is talking more about the undecideable image and the relationship of the algorithms and metadata?
KS: My more recent academic writing has been engaged with the ‘softwareisation’ of photography – which means dealing with a messy assemblage of algorithms, metadata, bodies and code – whether we look towards the camera itself, or the photograph’s social circulation online. For example, what does it mean that with the tweak of some metadata an image can change its velocity, context and visibility? What are the implications of photography as a computational object? Rather than engaging with photography’s ubiquity however, there is still a tendency to obsess with decoding what the singular image might represent, and attending to the details visible within the image. However, clinging to historical models ignores, for example, the politics of search engines and aspects of computational culture and so on which are really mediating the image and which maybe aren’t so visible. I also have a real frustration that so many lazy photography teachers have not updated their reading lists in years, and young photography students are left reading Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes and wondering what they may have thought about Google Street View or drone imagery.
NFS: So for somebody new into this field, a lot of those terms e.g. ‘computational images’, would be quite alien to them, how might we begin to enable them to approach and understand this new way of thinking that your describing? Are there key people that you feel are talking about that?
KS: The usual starting point for someone new to the area is the work of Lev Manovich, who wrote ‘The Language of New Media’ in 1995 and, more recently, ‘Software Takes Command’ (2013). Manovich is a pretty accessible writer, who in attempting to define the specificity of new media gives an overview of key concepts such as automation, transcoding, modularity, interactivity and other key ideas. Another key essay worth mentioning is Langdon Winner’s 1986 Do Artifacts Have Politics? where Winner outlines how technologies are inherently political in necessitating certain kinds of social arrangements.
In approaching the contemporary abundance (and control) of images, Paul Frosch’s The Image Factory is a fascinating account of the stock photography industry, which is extremely helpful in thinking about the database-driven photographic culture of the Internet. Although Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology or Martin Hand’s Ubiquitous Photography can also be a starting point for the image-maker today. The consumption and circulation of images online also relates to what has been termed the ‘attention economy’ and Culture Machine recently did a special issue on this concept. I also highly recommend Laurel Ptak and Marysia Lewandowska’s new book “Undoing Property” which contains essays by key thinkers including Florian Schnieder and Matteo Pasquinelli that centre on issues of authorship, cultural value and the public realm which are relevant to contemporary photographic discourse. Online, the Institute of Network Cultures is also a prolific publisher and facilitator of debates around digital culture more generally, from the politics of social media to search engines.
Antennae, inspiration and brokering new relationships
NFS: That’s superb, I’m not sure I have been able to take all that in! I think you may have just crammed the ‘new’ compulsory reading list for today’s image-maker, into a single breath!
It’s fascinating, the shear breadth and new thinking available to help navigate this fluid landscape. I see these stimuli as key to helping us tune our ‘antennae’, much as would happen physically to our senses when we visit new, unknown and alien places. So who would you say are your antennae, who do you look to, who helps you locate yourself?
KS: Well, one of my guilty pleasures is to immerse myself in the research of computer scientists – who are busily building the interfaces and tools through which we will create, share and archive photography in the future. Reading academic papers from this field is always a provocative experience – and fascinating in terms of how ‘photography’ is imagined and invoked in relation to everything from computer vision to personal information management. I also keep a close eye on the work of MIT’s Camera Culture research group, Google’s Cultural Institute and Microsoft Labs – who all speak different ‘versions’ of photography. One of the things I have loved about working with Sharp on The Wall has been spending time with staff working in their research labs in Oxford, who imagine the use, context and value of screens in an entirely (sometimes alien!) way.
With respect to ‘antennae’ I would say that Twitter has become an indispensible way of discovering, following and interacting with people whose projects you have some affinity with. The serendipity of the web is brilliant – I remember my joy stumbling across James Bridle’s work via Tumblr back in 2011 when I was writing a book chapter on photography and computer spectatorship. His research on ‘the new aesthetic’ went viral last year, and his work may be familiar to the photo community through projects such as dronestagram. Paul Wombell, who curated this year’s Mois de la Photo, takes up parallel themes in the bienniale with a focus on the automation of the photographic apparatus. Paul curated PhotoVideo at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1991, and is a key person in both defining and expanding the debate around photography and technology. When I re-read the catalogue essays for PhotoVideo I am startled at how much resonance they have 22 years later.
NFS: I know what you mean. Photovideo was forward thinking and its underlying message does perhaps still offer ways for us to consider the potentials. It does act as a reminder though, as it is these types of spaces and people that keep us engaged and hopefully keep us progressing photography rather than just re-living and re-teaching what we already know.
KS: Absolutely, other sources of inspiration have been the brilliant discussions with practitioners who operate both inside and outside ‘photography’ proper. In the past year, Allesandro Ludovico, Penelope Umbrico, Mishka Henner, David Raymond Conroy, Dr Lop Lop, Wendy McMurdo, Rainer Usselmann and Sakrowski have all been recent sparring partners. Marco Bohr’s Visual Culture Blog is one of the best concerning the photographic image today. There are also a range of brilliant women whose work I respect who have been working with art and technology since the 1990s, including Olga Goriunova, Annet Dekker and Inke Arns. Olga herself has curated exhibitions on software art, and her recent writing explores art platforms on the Internet and, elsewhere, new media ‘idiocy’. She has contributed an essay on memes for the forthcoming publication For the LOL of Cats: Felines, Photography and the Web.
However, speaking as someone who was seriously into MUDs and BBS culture as a 16 year old, it is still the creativity and subversion of everyday users of the Web which is my main source of provocation and contemplation – from ASCII art (from a time before the Internet had pictures) to the use of “Photoshop justice” to respond to, for example, the UC Davis pepper spray incident. And of course there is a parallel arc of art on the Internet, from Jodi.org to ubermorgen.com who have been busily subverting interfaces and systems in network culture. There are brilliant communities built around these practices – from Rhizome.org to Furtherfield – which, although their main focus is not photography, are still involved with digital visual culture. And whilst London, regrettably has no ZKM or FACT, small galleries such as Arcadia Missa in Peckham are popping up and Carroll/Fletcher up the road from The Photographers’ Gallery represent important practitioners such as Thompson and Craighead.