Articles

The Tail Wags the Dog

Photo-aggregators revitalized art, and then enslaved it. But that’s not for certain.

Text: Sergey Guskov
Translation: Tobin Auber
Posted on: June 5, 2020

Aggregators of photographic documentation of exhibitions appeared almost incidentally. At the end of the 2000s, editors of art-related sites realized that they needn’t worry about reviews. It was far easier to upload photographs from the exhibition, along with a brief explanation from the press release, and allow readers to make up their own minds. At first, some publications even hired photographers. Galleries and curators, in turn, decided that they had to meet this process half way, and they began to organize the photo shoots themselves, ideally in advance of the opening, and send out views of the exhibition to the relevant mass media outlets. As large cultural publications began to die out, niche mass media outlets devoted exclusively to the collection of photographs from exhibitions began to appear. One of the pioneers in this movement was the site Contemporary Art Daily, which was launched in 2008.

In parallel, or even slightly earlier, platforms arose that offered video broadcasts from the openings and reports from the artists’ studios and exhibitions, all shot in high quality. Some of those publications (for example, Art21 or VernissageTV) are operating to this day, but they have lost out in the competitive struggle against photography, having turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. In essence, those editorial teams are no longer working in documentation – all that they are left with are interviews (the only thing worth watching them for) and shots of crowds of viewers with enraptured or dissatisfied expressions on their faces, it being unclear why, exactly, they’re being screened. In the meantime, photo aggregators have gone through a fascinating transformation. Contemporary Art Daily has turned into a major platform working with galleries, museums, exhibition halls and biennials.

Naturally, creating a second platform of this kind, with the same content, would at the very least be strange. Individual projects have cropped up with modest budgets – the Belgian ArtViewer, the Russian Tzvetnik, Portugal’s Aujourd’hui [this website is already out of service] and O Fluxo and others. In some, photographs from exhibitions are merely a section (albeit fairly large), whilst in others they account for site almost in its entirety. Each has its own specifics, but they have created an international arena from experimental platforms and artist-run spaces with their own agendas that are far from the museum-gallery mainstream. That situation has made these projects, if not trend-setters in the arts world, then at least guiding lights for young movers and shakers. Some of those radicals have even come to terms with the following maxim: if an artist’s works aren’t on those photo aggregators, or aren’t even on Instagram, then he or she simply doesn’t exist as an artist. Whether an artist should have a site isn’t even discussed or disputed anymore – he simply must have one.

As well as traditional photographs, the internet platforms host videos, gifs and interactive panoramas, although the normal shots from exhibitions continue to account for the bulk of the content. Why the photograph? The underlying reason is probably to be found in the fact that the founders of these independent platforms ran blogs on Tumblr as artists and then later witnessed the triumphant procession of Instagram. As artists, they wanted to show their exhibitions in full, rather than being limited to a couple of photographs alongside a review. What does it look like? An individual object, a second object, a third; three objects placed along a wall, a second wall, a corner where two walls meet, and so on. But that’s the not the main reason. Photo aggregators have returned out attention to the exhibition, taking a standardized form of documentation (compare, for example, with a shoot from MoMA archive, where it was already being done like this back in the 1930s). By the 2010s, the artistic community had become so absorbed with the criticism of the exhibition medium that it stopped viewing the actual exhibitions themselves, and to a certain extent stopped putting them on. Artists began to think exclusively in terms of works and to lose themselves in space. And then – bang! – they again returned to the objects, their exhibitions and work with space. This was a major achievement and an important milestone in the second half of the 2010s in Russia. Though it wasn’t immediately recognized.

It transpired, however, that the photo aggregators had side effects. The documentation process began to dictate its terms to art with regard to what it should actually look like. The tail began to wag the dog. And at the present point in time, the process has already long been underway.

The first problem. Imagine this: You are an artist, you don’t have the right contacts, so you can’t get into a gallery, museum or biennial (on good terms, at least). You take a look at an exhibition photo aggregator site, you see the subjects that are getting play, the materials that are being used most frequently, the forms and textures that are currently popular, and so on. With a sufficient level of gumption, through a combining and rearrangement, you can fairly quickly put together a fashionable exhibition. You just have to add a few original elements, an “auteurist style”, and voilà, your project is ready, even if it is only shown in a space that no one has ever heard of. In fact, that in itself is an advantage. Then you document the result and send it out to sites featuring exhibition photographs. This is likely to work (I repeat, as this is important: On the condition that there is sufficient cunning). Unfortunately, the basic principle for the construction of such sites spawns the object-exhibition combination described above, a combination that is capable of transforming into new forms of artistic opportunism and careerism.

The second problem. The “pernicious” effect of Instagram has already been a subject for discussion for several years. The word “instagramable”, with regard to art is slowly but surely becoming a pejorative term. People go to exhibitions, including the professional public at openings, not to look at art, but to photograph it. The winners, according to the new rules, are the artists whose work adheres to the Instagram format: the works fit into a shot in such a way that all of the elements are clearly visible, they’re visually showy, comical or cute (yes, we’ve returned to the world of “a cabinet of curiosities”). Many artists have tried to disrupt this logic by creating unbearably strange objects and “un-capturable” performances, but it was here that new instruments appeared in the history of Instagram that bashed even these round pegs into Instagram’s square holes. The exhibition photo aggregators operate in a similar way: they also institute very strict formats. The most widespread type of spatial approach at fashionable exhibitions, for example, has become discrete expositions, if we can put it that way. They comprise medium-sized and small objects. That makes them easier to photograph. All-encompassing installations or objects that are too large (if it isn’t public art, of course), have lost out in this struggle, as they suffer when they undergo detailed documentation. Paradoxically, it was the same forces that originally returned us to the exhibition (following a decade of activism, the non-spectacular and “collapsing” exhibitions), and then established the uniformity that – in the long run, or if it is consistently supported – is worse than disregard for the role of the exhibition itself.

With increasing frequency one hears statements along the lines of “that exhibition was put on so that Tzvetnik would publish it” and one sees well-thought-out, sustained photo aggregator criticism. This has led to a reaction. Those ready to take up the challenge have been found, and that is a good thing. Some are again trying to create works that can’t be documented. Some are searching for the weak spots in the established formats and dominant mediums. It is entirely clear that in the near future we can expect new discussions and new forms. That in no way diminishes the importance of the photo aggregators that are now being criticized – they have played their role and made their mark in the history of art. Interestingly, the sites themselves are continuing to transform. They are featuring more texts and dialogues. It’s possible that today’s criticism of them will no longer be relevant tomorrow. Only Contemporary Art Daily isn’t changing in any way. This is the mammoth that we will be able to use as an example in a discussion of the history of the present day in two or three years’ time, when the artistic landscape fundamentally changes.

Guskov, Sergey. “The Tail Wags the Dog.” Dialogue of Arts, 29 Jan. 2019, pp. 43–45, di.mmoma.ru/upl/pdf/dis01s2019sweb.pdf.

Dialogue of Arts, #1, 2019
Dialogue of Arts online magazine

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