BY Jeremy Millar in News | 05 NOV 93
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Issue 13

Navigations: Fourth National Photography Conference

Watershed and Arnolfini, Bristol

BY Jeremy Millar in News | 05 NOV 93

I guess I should have known when I read in the programme that one of the themes was ‘New Technolpgoes’. Or that we would be ‘unravelling the netowork’ during a ‘discussion of technology’. Oh dear. What would ‘Marshall McCluhan’ have made of these messages?

Small matters these, although they are indicative of frailties which ran like fault lines through he weekend as a whole. When Victor Burgin apologised for the quality of his (projected0 video, a lack of definition in the shadow areas was not the primary criticism of those seated around me. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of this presentation, (and others), was the re-investment of the work of art with an aura, a sense of authenticity, which previously Burgin, with a little help form Walter Benjamin, had set out to destroy. ‘It’s better in the original’, we were told, as talk of generations, a technical genealogy, led us back to some lost origin. If art in the age of electronic reproduction was creating a revolution, it seemed that it was only occurring while Benjamin turned in his grave.

Ironies abound in the electronic age. The promise that new technologies would allow a greater diversity of communication developed into a monologue, the issues which such networks are said to empower becoming lost in the self-congratulation (when someone spoke of ‘silicon’ technology I could have sworn they said ‘cynical’). It was easy to share the frustrations of Sunil Gupta, as his thesis of cultural marginalisation was made real in the auditorium. Indeed, what critical stereotyping fails to defuse, the indifference of intellectual fashion renders impotent. One delegate even countered that the issues had been dealt with, that the situation had been improved, thus confusing art school seminars with a wider social discussion. Yet if Gupta, Brenda Croft and Helen Grace, with whom he shared the platform, were in a sense acknowledging that the work which they had made or supported had failed to achieve its objectives, then an adaptive strategy of their own was conspicuous by its absence. Given the inattentiveness of the audience, if it didn’t’ work the first time around, it was unlikely to do so on the second.

The political was also a concern for Paul Wombell, particularly in its interaction with the burgeoning information industries. As he argued, it is possible to make out the lines of power and control which lie behind the rhetoric of choice, dense points in the supposed transparency of exchange. In declaring a new world order, of information rich and information poor nations, it becomes clear that we are not all equal before a computer screen. How can we choose which choices we have? Perhaps this is further emphasised when we realise that it is not raw information buy signals which are being transmitted through this electronic web. The potential for such system to be used radically, therefore, depends upon the freedom to be a revolutionary because information is created, but only by making a choice from the options available.

While we may relate Wombell’s points on the information net with those made elsewhere by Jean-Pierre Dupy, namely that the majority of people slip through the meshes or get caught the knots, most other delegates appeared unconcerned in their collapsing of the human and the technological. But in ascribing the characteristics of our inventions to ourselves, by seeing ourselves reflected in their gleaming components, we eliminate the distance which is a prerequisite for critical thought. Indeed, if the artwork is an entanglement of different forces, both physical and intellectual, then the lack of images during most presentations mad any form of engagement difficult. Instead, what it is to look at an image, was surrendered to an unthinking celebration to what will be. Meaning was no longer something to be worked at, but became instead a technological inevitability.

Too many photographic artists are being seduced by the curves of the screen, hoping that the staleness of their ideas will be masked by the exoticism of electronics. Instead of delighting in the ecstasy of communication, we ere left to witness the exhaustion of its staging, frustrated by the prematurity of critical ejaculation (and who is going to admit suffering from that?)

Such is the intellectual (and economic) investment in electronic imaging, that its fetishisation is dependent upon a manufactured ‘lack’ within traditional photographic practice. Unable to promote the achievements of digitisation, its practitioners must instead diminish those of its seminal predecessor. 20 years of critical practice is being marginalised, often by those involved in the original projects, to preserve the vanity of the chip. "Photography is dead!’, they cry, but this is wishful thinking, masking a desire to steal the medals from its chest and not let in answer back. Of course, we no longer believe that the photographic image is true, anymore than we believe that meaning is stable or that interpretation is predetermined, yet honours are being awarded which digital imaging does not deserve to wear. Instead, photography’s triumphs are being lost in the amnesia of novelty and the myopia of opportunism, and it deserves better.

Jeremy Millar is an artist and head of the MA writing programme at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.