BY Justin Hoffman in Reviews | 05 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 28

Photography after Photography

BY Justin Hoffman in Reviews | 05 SEP 96

For the organisers of this exhibition, the title denotes a purely technical category. Consequently, the artists have been selected solely on the basis of whether or not they use a particular kind of technology. The starting-point for the exhibition lies in recent developments in computer software, which allows photographic images to be comprehensively reworked with ease. To this end, the analogue medium of photography is digitised and translated into code in a way that is as invisible as possible in the finished product. The difference between analogue and digital, in the case of images, is believed to be less easily discernible than that, for example, between a record and a CD. The software is used both for hidden manipulation (retouching) and overt, spectacular manipulation (in advertising and art). For this reason digital photography is a particularly dangerous form of representation, precisely because it is seductive and effective and can quickly become hackneyed. Working in it requires a special conceptual rigour.

From the point of view of economics, the exhibition 'Photography after Photography' could be seen as a thoroughly successful joint venture. Despite their very different interests, the curators, the institution, the sponsor (Siemens) and the artists are all the best of friends. But the sponsor's dominance is apparent everywhere, sometimes in tiny, revelatory details. Thus, on the first page of the catalogue, alongside the title, one line is printed larger and bolder than the rest: 'a project by the Siemens cultural programme'. The names of the 30 artists fall into the small-print category, and only a sharp-eyed reader would spot the six exhibition venues. Between the title and the sponsor's details come the names of the three editors, Hubertus von Ameluxen, Stefan Iglhaut and Florian Rötzer, who, with the exception of Ameluxen, are certainly close to the Siemens company and its cultural activities. The best-known, Florian Rötzer, is currently one of the most eloquent apologists for the new media. These days there is hardly a Siemens-organised event that does not bear his name. Indeed, for the first leg of the exhibition tour in Munich, the public relations were organised directly by Siemens; outside visitors unfamiliar with the relatively new institution of the Aktionsforum Praterinsel received the impression that Siemens had just hired the space.

In this context we can only hint at the ways in which the network operates, whose interests (even imaginary ones) are satisfied and how. First of all, the artists have an offer to show their work alongside that of other, usually more famous artists, with considerable financial support and in international exhibition locations (Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland). The sponsor, well-versed in cultural matters, promises them a great deal of publicity. In addition, some artists have been given access to the hardware that enabled them to produce works they were planning anyway. With the medium of digital photography, for example, Victor Burgin produced the Triptych Angelus Novus (1994), which, unlike his other works with photographic images, was supposed to look more abstract, even painterly. In this sense, the computer reworking of photographic models has achieved the desired effect. To an increasing degree, the human hybrids constructed by artists (Aziz & Cucher, Burson, Cottingham and van Lamsweerde) risk producing an acceptance of monstrous creatures, accustoming the viewer to the planned possibilities of genetic technology, as well as to its failures. The visual fascination of these images helps to overcome fear.

Other artists realise their sometimes narcissistic fantasies by means of the new technology. Using seamless montaging, they can place themselves in pictorial situations of particular significance to them. In the work of New York artist Warren Neidlich, this is accomplished in the form of photographs of artists' communities into which, Zelig-like, he has smuggled his own portrait. Similarly, the Munich-based artist Matthias Wähner has selected journalistic photographs which, at the time they were taken, shook the world and also made a lasting impression on Wähner's pictorial memory. With the demonstrative fictionality of their work, both artists call into question the 'truthfulness' of photography.

Otherwise, many of the works on show are already well known, and the exhibition looks like a resumé of this thematic area. Unsurprisingly for an exhibition sponsored by a hardware company, an incredibly high percentage of the participating artists reveal a thoroughly affirmative relationship towards technological development in their work. In line with the supposed interactivity of new media, much-vaunted by the computer companies, George Legrady invites the visitor to use his computer. But the words that the visitor types in produce only vague, cloud-like but supposedly 'individual' pictures. This pseudo-participation directly matches the advertising strategies of the high-tech industry.

Obviously a company like Siemens is interested in selling its products. In place of conventional advertising, corporate image enhancement through culture is central to marketing strategy. As a company primarily active in the field of electronics, Siemens is trying to make its high-tech products appear as innovative and indispensable as possible to the public and consumers. In this context, digital art acts like a billboard. Artists rather than advertising agencies are rewarded with financial and material support for their willingness to co-operate. Delighted to be used in this way, to a large extent, the artists ignore the risk of becoming an economic instrument.