Archive for April, 2007

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The story behind the Abu Ghraib series

April 25, 2007

by Giuseppe Di Bella, artist/photographer based in London

Art and myself vs. the British anti-terrorist branch and the FBI

The first time I saw the Abu Ghraib photographs I was unsure what I was looking at. Of course I very soon realised the seriousness of these images and their global impact upon political, social and cultural life. In the same way that many of us were, I was deeply disturbed and shocked by these images as they contrasted with the US military and political objectives under George W Bush presidency. These objectives were to bring democracy to the people of Iraq and to free them from the tyranny of its former president, Saddam Hussein.

Although the Abu Ghraib images provoked profound anger and disgust, I must admit they didn’t really come as a surprise. Sadly, these atrocities happen in every single war and are nothing new. I believe the Abu Ghraib photographs expose and remind us of the power relation in a war zone. An imbalanced power: the powerful against the powerless.

As an artist working with photography, I felt I had a moral obligation to respond to the Iraqi conflict and particularly to these tragic events. At the time (May 2004) I had concerns on the way public images were being circulated, treated and consumed by society; particularly gruesome and violent images. So it is from this perspective that I produced the Abu Ghraib series that consist into a collection of postage stamps that I put into public and global circulation. (Make it a better place – Group exhibition conceived and curated by Dinu Lee – The Holden Gallery – MMU)

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The reasons I chose the postage stamp format as a vehicle for my ideas was because of its consumable, desirable and collectable characteristics. It is also a very democratic way to diffuse images and information. Traditionally, the postage stamp function is to pay tribute or commemorate the traditions and culture of a country. It is also a powerful form of communication as it travels around the globe advertising the proudest aspects of a nation, in contrast to the Abu Ghraib photographs. I was interested in how the mechanical act of licking and stamping a postage stamp could be linked to a notion of humiliation and abuse/torture as revealed in the photographs. I was conscious that this process could turn the viewer into an active consumer and make the user aware of the consumption and treatment of public images in circulation. This could also lead the user to become an active accomplice – in some sense – to the abuse and violence. The repetitions of images on the stamp sheets are also a reflection of the depersonalisation that happens to victims of such abuse. The intimate and personal details of each account, and the consequences for the abused/tortured is hidden and forgotten as the images are multiplied, repeated and ‘consumed’ by society.

The way I chose to present the work was also a very important factor, as I wanted the viewer to look at the stamps as objects of consumption. In addition, four series of franked stamps – therefore used/consumed – are presented framed and as such, as trophies. Ultimately, that is what some photograph seems to be about. Through this presentation, I wanted to highlight the contemporary society’s appetite to consume such gruesome and violent imagery.

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As there is two version of the Abu Ghraib stamp (US/UK) I had to delegate the distribution of the US version of the stamp to a friend who lives in New York: Art. (Stands for Arthur) My friend Art, whom I have not met (not yet!), agreed to actively participate in this project. I sent Art, via an international courier company (I won’t name it here for legal reasons) more than 100 envelopes and postcards – all pre-addressed and with the Abu Ghraib faux stamp affixed on it. The instructions given to Art were clear: to buy US stamps and affix them onto the envelopes and postcards beside the faux stamp and to post them from New York.

When I contacted the courier company to inquire the lateness of the parcel I was told that the police, then subsequently the British anti-terrorist branch were investigating the content of the parcel for alleged ‘anti-American documentation’. I was also informed that the content of the parcel had been scanned and passed onto the American authorities for further investigation. I requested the courier company many times during that week to be contacted by the British authorities in order to explain my work, but my requests were systematically refused.

A week later, I required the courier company either inform the British authorities to release the parcel or to charge me with an offence I evidently had not committed, (The fact that I use a real postage stamp onto the envelopes and postcards, invalidated the potential problem any faux stamp could present to the postal authorities) The courier company agent put me on hold and eventually informed me that the British authorities found the work ‘offensive’ to which I replied that the images are indeed unpleasant; but they are a verification of the sexual abuse and of the torture to the victims, their families and their communities. They are an insult to humanity and human dignity. So, I cannot but agree with the British and other authorities that the images are indeed offensive. Later, I was also told that the British authorities could keep the work indefinitely, to which I answered that it was illegal even for the British authorities to hold something indefinitely, particularly when no offence had been committed. I demanded the immediate release of the parcel otherwise I would be seeking legal action to retrieve it. Eventually, the following day the parcel left for its final destination in New York. My friend Art started to post the mail and I was beginning to receive back the envelopes and postcards so important for my installation.

A few weeks after the British authorities incident, I received a phone call from my friend Art informing me that two FBI agent were about to pay him a visit regarding the Abu Ghraib work and myself. As he was obviously concerned about it, I suggested he simply answers their questions and not to worry too much, as it was clear they were inquiring about my artwork and me. The FBI wanted to know where he knew me from, if I had spoken to him about my political views and finally if I had a bigger agenda. (Making new stamps maybe?) The funniest thing about this laughable story is that the two FBI agents were dressed with back suites and black glasses.

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After that, I did not hear neither from the British authorities or the FBI. Although I freak out about the British anti-terrorist branch, the FBI seemed to be less formidable because of the comical link inferred by their attire. Sometimes I wonder how much trouble I would have got into if I were a Muslim artist, or worse if was living in America?

The saddest thing during and about this story is that I was beginning behaving as if I were doing something wrong, something illegal. I felt my emails and my phone calls were being monitored. Some how I felt watched. Whether this was pure paranoia or not, I don’t know. The idea of being investigated by the anti-terrorist branch was somehow concerning, and although I am an Italian citizen, I could be easily mistaken for a person of Middle Eastern origin, therefore a potential threat to the authorities – or am I wrong? The reality remained that I had to bring the framed work abroad without having it seized by the authorities. I wasn’t prepared to take any more risks, because of the exhibition deadline, and little by little and with the crucial help of my friends, the installation material crossed the British border unnoticed and the work was successfully exhibited in Brussels. (Portraits de l’autre – Group exhibition curated by Virginie Devillers – Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels – Belgium)

The story of the Abu Ghraib series inevitably points to the events of the 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings and their aftermath. Anti-terror laws have been implemented all over the world. We must wonder whether these new laws pose a threat to our freedom of speech and artistic expression and if they infringe our civil liberties. We need to ensure that the current war on terror does not completely annihilate our freedom; it should not justify everything and anything. More power is being taken from us when actually more trust should be given to people. The experience I have encountered with the authorities poses a fundamental question: Are we really living in a democratic society?

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Global Documentaries – Your Comfort Is My Silence

April 23, 2007

by Ali Mincer

 

 

I went to Mark Durdens talk called ‘Global Documentaries’ at the Cornerhouse on Thursday. He spoke about Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Philip Chancel, Santiago Sierra, Andreas Gursky and Boris Mikhailov. He also referenced the work of Chris Killip and Nobuyoshi Araki. The images moved through both positive and mostly negative sexualised images of women and images of the working classes as either automatons or vulgar.

 

More than 50% of the images were actually of sexdolls, ‘tacky lipstick’, working class women sitting in dirty landscapes and Mikhailovs naked older women. We were even shown the place where women buy their shoes. Mark Durden selected the photographers and then selected the images. When he spoke about Philip Chancels images of Korean women he then spoke of ‘how sensuous, erotic, exotic’ they were. The audience was predominantly female. Talk about white noise – the torture method. I was told later I called out ‘I can’t take anymore – of these talks’. It took all my strength to stay in the room. Someone even called out ‘Do you think they have issues?’.

 

He told us that through these images of us, through these endless negative images of women and workers and the downtrodden, these men were revealing the very ‘ugly, shallow, hollow, tacky, fake’ face of global consumerism. No one was prepared to question the very holy grail of documentary though Mark seemed open to our questioning. I wondered why this work had more old boys colonial theory wrapped around it and were we to believe these photographers had in fact conquered us with their cameras? Whilst Mark seemed a very lovely person he was totally unaware of what he had just shown us. We offered alternative suggestions but Mark said he didn’t like their work. I explained that I found each individuals work very interesting but shown together in this particular context with these particular images he was giving out a very clear message. He also spoke of their influences including, Turner, Araki, Barnett Newman, Pollock, all male artists but no mention at any time was made of any female creative practitioner bar the fleeting barely audible reference to Sherrie Levine…

 

Ironically women have long been at the forefront of the deconstruction of those very images dealing with consumerist culture. From Barbara Kruger – ‘your comfort is our silence’ – to Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer to Jo Spence and many more. In lens based media for decades marginalised artists have been questioning these old boys visual clubs. How sad for us then that this mentality still persists in our institutions….

 

I went from there to the East German show at the Cornerhouse – the difference was pronounced and I wondered why that was. There wasn’t the same old boys colonial vibe to this show – it was predominantly women taking the images here and more than half the big hardback monograph books were by women. Very different from the documentary mentality in the West. I compared this to the old boy’s mentality I just witnessed in the talk.

 

I later called into a sweet shop and was confronted by long rows of photographs of naked, white, blonde haired women on the front of all the mainstream male magazines on the mainstream shelves and I knew I was back in ‘that mentality’ again…..

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Abu Ghraib Stamps

April 23, 2007

If you remember my blog entry about Giuseppe Di Bella’s work, here is more of his project via his FlickR, reproduced here with permission:

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White noise

April 22, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging from The Democratic Image symposium

Here’s an example of the “white noise” Mark Sealy spoke about yesterday – the proliferation of information thrown at individuals involuntarily every time they go online.

Ask.com launched a marketing campaign in which they have tried to use the all-pervasive popularity of Google to turn some people against them (and instead use their own search engine).

In a classic case of ‘astroturfing‘ they have mimicked a grass roots revolution, jumping on the issue of the monopoly that Google holds over the dissemination of information over the web.

Unfortunately for ask.com their decision to appropriate some of the new Web 2.0 / ‘democratic’ tools that have become so popular has backfired disastrously. On a website they created for the campaign they allowed the public to comment and the public has reacted with vitriolic spite, with many who found themselves on the site feeling they had been conned into thinking it was something it wasn’t.

But the question is: has ask.com still profitted from the furore and am I contributing to it by writing this post?

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Collaborative practice

April 22, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging from The Democratic Image symposium

While yesterday’s debate focused primarily on the marriage between technology and photography, today’s morning session was more practical, with talks by two practitioners of collaborative photography.

Marysa Dowling (who posted earlier on this blog) has worked with her family and children in east London and Havana schools to explore relationships and concepts of identity. Irene Lumley has collaborated with sufferers of breast cancer and cystic fibrosis to give them “a different way of expressing their issues.”

What is apparent in both their work is the need for conversation and dialogue, and how there are constantly fluctuating levels of control: at the end of the day, who owns the work – the established ‘artist’ or the ‘participant’?

Irene Lumley said she believed in treating her collaborators as artistic equals. She said that she never displays an image taken in collaboration without first consulting the co-creator.

An issue that was raised was how work like this is treated by galleries and artistic establishments. John Perivolaris mentioned how a project for Look 07 was treated with a certain condescension when it was pitched to certain galleries, who questioned whether the quality of the work would stand up.

John pointed out that in some ways collaborative artists act as an interface between art institutions and groups of people who would normally be excluded from that world.

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The nail and the door

April 22, 2007

by Jessica Reed liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Yesterday afternoon our wifi connection went down, but I want to write a great and relevant story Pedro Meyer told us about during the afternoon session.

A couple of years ago in Peru a project was organized around young kids and literacy – maybe photography could, after all, be a very good tool to teach young people various skills, and help them analyse their own world. The teachers decided to give them a camera, and told them to come back with a picture which would be an answer to this a question: “who is exploiting you?“.

One of the kids came back with a picture of a nail sticking out of a door. The teachers were all confused: “a nail on a door? they thought, “how could that possibly represent who is exploiting him?  He probably didn’t  understand the assignement, let’s talk to him”.

But one of the teachers decided to show the pictures to his classmates. To their surprise, all the kids vigorously nodded in agreement, immediately understanding the picture and what it represented. It turned out the kids were walking to Lima, miles away from their hometown, to work as shoeshine boys everyday. They would rent a nail from a man in order to hang out their kits every night, and the man would in turn take their money and mistreat them.

How important is it not to dismiss what the viewer is seeing in the picture?

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Access

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Following on from Jessica’s post about accessibility, during the lunchbreak I was speaking to Janice McLaren, projects organiser at The Photographers Gallery. She told of an intern who had recently completed a photography project in China where the children involved had never before seen a photograph, let alone had access to the myriad of images available on the net.

So when we talk about how the internet is democratising photography, we must bear in mind that until the whole world has online access then this debate is only relevant to one sixth of the world.