NYPH08 - Curating 2.0?

Firstly, I have absolutely no idea what that is supposed to mean. Curating is simply curating. To add some strange lingo from the world of technology in an attempt to distinguish some sort of new way of curating is just, well, it's just bullshit.

Secondly, the curating of the New York Photo Festival seems to have been under some discussion this past few days. I personally thought that the festival was supposed to be about the photographs, so I treated it as such. Some photographs I liked, some I didn't. I have since thought about the actual curating though. One trigger was an email I received pointing me in the direction of a couple of blog posts and the other was seeing a video clip where Martin Parr was asked why the four main curator's names were so prominent. His answer was something along the lines that it was simpler to list four names than that of the hundreds of photographers in the festival. A fair point, but there is another option - how about no names. How about giving the curator's credit but not top billing.

Maybe it is this that has encouraged the discussion about curating. I decided to read the statements in the festival catalogue - something I had not done before seeing the shows.

Martin Parr does little but list the contributors. Which is about as interesting as seeing the same photograph over and over again, something I have a problem with in regard to the idea of 'typologies'. I agree that photography can be used to classify but that is no reason to make the photographs as cold and clinical as possible. I see a lot of photographic series which are mind numbing after the first three. I thought Jan Banning's photographs were excellent examples of how this can be done well, with each photograph holding it's own yet playing a part in a larger series. Jeffrey Milstein also does this well and looking at his series I was reminded of insect specimens, truly a well presented typology. Martin Parr seems to have chosen a narrow theme and as such the show had a coherency. Curating 2.0 seems pretty easy so far!

Kathy Ryan writes about how the photographers in her show are 'conversing with painters and sculptors'. This I did not see in most of the work. Well, that's not quite true - of course photography has plenty in common with painting and sculpture but I don't think the link needs to be stressed and if it does it needs to be a lot less tenuous than a lot of what I saw in this show, which seemed to just present photographers as artists without any other thematic consideration. Fine, and some great work selected - Kathy Ryan deserves her praise as a great photo editor but where's the curatorial direction? The work is quite disparate. I also think that to compare the photographers to giants of 20th century art does them a dis-service. If the festival byline is the future then why all the looking back? Why all the insistence that Photography is art? It is. I get it. Let's move on.

Lesley A. Martin's Ubiquitous Image and Tim Barber's Various Photographs both seem to address the same issue from different angles. Lesley A. Martin chooses to present work by photographers who use 'found' images. I think this is great. I love found images. As a concept for a show it has fantastic potential and Martin is very astute in her observations. However, when she writes that we live 'awash with images' and about 'the multiplicity of readings' I began to think that some of the selection doesn't quite hold up - the 'Various Photographs' exhibit deals with this idea much better. I find that the appropriation is done best when it is ambiguous and mysterious, not obvious and simple. There are examples of both here. Lesley A. Martin also talks of the 'intervention of the artist as a means of calling into question the real information value of images' and I have to confess this sounds to me like the kind of pretentious talk I used to hear at art school and read in books on art theory and which, ultimately is a clever way of saying not very much really.

It is Tim Barber who comes across as the most honest here. His 'absurdist rant' actually contained a large number of excellent photographs. He has been criticised for the very thing that I thought was the exhibit's strength. Here are the ubiquitous images, the photographs as art and even the typologies. By refraining from telling me what the photography here was about, I was allowed to invent my own theories and narratives. In the spirit of the event I thought this perfectly captured the festival vibe. While the other curators seemed to be looking backward at art, at photography and at history, Tim Barber has simply offered up a set of photographs. His explanation that 'This show is a series of questions...none of which have specific answers' is perhaps why I like this so much. In trying to define, to explain, curators often leave me with the feeling that they know no more than me, yet pretend they do and that worse still that they can tell me what things are about. I prefer to make up my own mind and this is what I was allowed to do here. Yes it was overwhelming, but so is standing in front of a Rothko painting (or a Roger Ballen photograph). I don't need to be told this. If the work is good enough it will speak to me.

So I actually really enjoyed the shows at the festival. I thought all the curators picked some excellent work and there was a lot of good photography on display. Having now paid attention to their intentions, I wish they had just sat on the sidelines and let the work speak for itself. I think personally that is what they tried to do, but in drawing attention to the curating by so prominently advertising the names of those involved, they have invited scrutiny of their efforts. Maybe without this prominence, the photographs would have outshined the curating. Which is - after all - the point of a show.

1 comment:

Stan B. said...

In the NY art scene, the art itself is usually the last consideration, no matter the medium or the venue.