Christopher Healey

Some thoughts on the art and idea of photography

One of the reasons I choose to pursue a graduate degree right now is to catch up to what the current thinking is about many of the things I have been interested and involved with in the last 20 years. Communications, new media and art are the three big ones. Some of you hear “animated ad banners on a blog” when I say that, but really I am interested in what we think we are doing in these areas and where this thinking comes from.

For example, I read some very compelling arguments about how everything from the 1939 British Monarchy visiting Canada shaped the CBC’s style, to an eccentric French nobleman from 1583 invented the way we use social media today. I have now seen an overview of communications theory that I recognize in the art world. I have researched new media art work and community projects that I never knew existed and push me to deeper into the rabbit hole of my own studio ambitions. I’ve learned new words and have had some great conversations. Sure beats making animated gif ad banners for blogs.
Research at this level is very rigorous and any sloppy or unfounded  aspects of your argument can be met with, at best, derision and mocking to, at worst, expulsion and scowls for life. Good. I mean, we must be paying all this money for exactly this sort of thing, right?
However, it is a good thing to have a blog in these cases so one can just spit out some ideas that 1) have no references or basis in demonstrated fact that appear in a lazy top 10 results on Google 2) are more speculative and initiative than even “East Sweat Sock U” would allow and 3) probably has already been written about by someone, and that someone is probably smarter, a better writer and better looking than me. Certainly slimmer. Not may giant academics out there but I imagine there are a few in Viking countries, but I don’t know why. This is an example of a statement that belongs on a blog rather than in an assignment or conference paper. Maybe.
Anyways. I have had some thoughts about photography since I am in a photography class and am hearing a lot of what photographers are telling about what photography is. Those who know me know I don’t think the experts in any field are the best judges of what they are doing or why. Forest versus the tree thing. Those who come fresh to a scene can see things others can’t, often quickly.
So with that faint justification, I’ll jot down a few thoughts I’ve had about photography recently.

1. There is no such thing as photography

We are not talking about the same thing when we discuss photography. What your grandparents had in the family album is not the same thing you see uploaded to Facebook. What Edward Burtynsky hangs in a gallery is not the same thing as the selfie someone uploads to Twitter, in the same way War and Peace is not the same thing as a stop sign. The technology, uses, functions and underlying philosophies differ so greatly, we may as well refer to anything that arrives through the post office as “mail” as opposed to what it is i.e. a cheque or a book or birthday card. Yet at one point these all arrived as the same thing (mail) through a certain frame (postal service), as do photos through a lens.

2. Imagery is primarily physical

I thought this when learning about what the fashion magazine and advertising industry does when treating photographs of models. I realized that this treatment, which is a controversial topic of oppression by unnatural body proportions, to me makes these models look almost identical, at least without closer and sustained scrutiny. Maybe this is because I am exposed to this imagery in places like grocery store check out lines and highway bulletin boards. I don’t have a TV and I don’t go to shopping malls very often. But for those who do, I think they see a great amount of difference in the subtlest of differences or adjustments. I think their physical proximity to these images shapes their relationship to this certain philosophy of lens and computer graphic work. I also think our brain plasticity is affected by what ever media and environment we are in and so people who buy into this world, which I think is most people where I live, are literally hard-wired for sensitivity to this. Or perhaps they are de-sensitized to it and simply don’t notice that there is no difference.

3. No one cares about digital imagery. Not really.

If you cared about it enough you would print it out, and print it on super fancy archival musuemy paper. If others cared about your work enough then they would do the same. Every image you have out there in the cloud will be gone in a hundred years because that is longer than our best digital archiving technologies allow for. This does not even take into account how current media that somehow may survive will be able to be viewed in the future. Have a gramophone player handy? Or how about a telegram clacking machine? Third party websites are not your fans, guardians or sponsors. They are tenuous apparatuses that at the moment are storing your shit on servers they are paying for. Not only that, but a lot can go wrong with our telecommunications platforms for a variety of economical, political and natural reasons.
Don’t believe me that only physical imagery matters? Think about this: would you rather buy 3am commercial time on your local TV station to present a slideshow of your lens based work or would you rather have show at your local gallery?

4. If you call yourself a photographer, then the imagery you make is already pre-defined.

I’ve previously made this same argument about calling yourself an artist. Just use a camera as a tool to get somewhere else, and stop worrying about an audience. Unless you want to be a commercial success, then by all means call yourself a photographer and tell people who’re looking at it that this is, indeed, photography. But if you want critical success, then you need the confidence to wait for others to label what you do.

A resistant reading to opportunity of the industrial economy

These are a series of screen shots from a 1946 promotional film produced by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce I found on YouTube. It is both hilarious and disturbing as it features a young couple relaxing together in various Hamilton landscapes but always haunted by visions of the impending future of soul-crushing and dead end jobs within various local industries. The companies featured prominently obviously paid to be featured prominently as a place where you could toil as a small cog in their machines (there are no management positions shown, I noticed).

64 years later and how did this turn out? Not well, and most of these companies are probably not paying their promised pensions anymore, and many of them simply don’t exist or abandoned this place for cheaper labour elsewhere. However, this “worker’s paradise” lingers on in our urban landscape and frames much of the sensibilities of the community here but probably unconsciously. For example, these huge 5 lane one way streets running through residential neighbourhoods here better be kept intact just in case the manufacturing and steel industry returns! Sigh…

Anyways, I found this film to a be an interesting presentation of industrial style propaganda and an exercise of pounding hereto-normal stereotypes over and over onto the viewer. So I took screen shots and slightly re-arranged the sequence to portray the film’s essence. Artistically, I enjoyed some of these shots very much and even feel inspired to maybe paint a few of these.

I notice the similar repeated angles of landscape and work environments. The shots, looking upwards at the workers, as the same as the statues show throughout the film – Nietzsche’s monumental history is present throughout this imagery.

I also noticed clocks are a prominent symbol throughout, as is immersion inside machinery, or clinging to machines as a ground. There is also a lot of monuments with a decidedly military and state nationalist framing. I learned this year not to underestimate the influence and effect of this kind of message on our society and subsequent generations. As laughable and clumsy as this film may be to us now, it is still contains a sensibility repeated today by politicians and the community at large. For me, though I sympathize with unions and worker’s rights and am suspicious of the motives of corporate entities, I have never felt comfortable limiting my philosophical musings to resistance and labour. This is only because I think we are missing the ultimate goal of utopia in our public and social discourse. I believe in the inherent goodness of people and that 100% freedom from labour and toil is a desirable and just ambition (Yes, I believe in the Star Trek universe, haha). By entrenching our position within the larger labour / power discourse, we are still maintaining the status quo and not progressing on the real issues of human civilization and the environment. We need to take a step sideways to look at what we really want to accomplish and why. Instead, we quibble over short term goals and the invisible forces of ego. Anyways…

I was initially surprised to see roughly half of the jobs demonstrated occupied by women as this was released in 1946. Then I realized this was at a time where many of the young men were killed in the war and the economic and social importance of Rosie the Riveter.

Also, note the subtext of encouraging high school students to enter the work force right away because industry and manufacturing needed workers right away. Is this utopia?

Enjoy and there are a couple of films I plan to subject to the same treatment.

Here’s the original film… enjoy, if you dare…

Churches of the body

As part of my graduate studies, I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy concerning the mentalistic, the internal, and the imaginative simulation of realities as a way of explaining the way we think about reality (Chomsky, Goldman, Descartes for example).

It bothers me to consider the notion that we live in the very top of the inside of head, and arguments of the divine existence of another mind, and thus of the divinity of ourselves by virtue of recognizing this, is a way to keep us safely separated from the rest of our beastly body.

So as a counter reaction I dug up some fun collage work from messing around with some apps and pictures from my phone. These are kind of Churches to the body, and not the divine. They are not devoid of morality or guidance, but structures we’ve built ourselves, with our own hands, and determined our own ceremonies as research into meaning. I beleive we understand the world around us through our full selves, and we are connected to the world around us in ways we don’t yet understand. You could rightfully consider these as shrines to Carl Sagan 😉

(These look kinda obscene, I know, but there are actually just very ordinary body parts suitable for public display…)

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In defense of the “dumb critic”

I was taught in my studio program at Concordia University, a “dumb artist” avoided all formal knowledge, academic history or current trends in art making. Their work was the supposedly unbiased and untainted from this oppressive preconceptions and something genuine and pure was created from this isolation.

Though this definition and examples of it are surprisingly hard to find via Google, it has always nonetheless been a fascination for myself as an approach and years later when I started to do my video and blog reviews of exhibits and trends, I decided I would invent the approach of the “Dumb Critic”.

Specifically, this is a deliberate method of engaging an exhibition (and /or interview with an artist) without any research or familiarity at all. The review must be conducted as soon as possible upon arrival of the Dumb Critic.

I believe this is extremely valuable as feedback to the artist or gallery, as their work has an unfettered connection through immediate impression and without defined preconceptions, such as statements of work or curatorial essays, suggesting an interpretation for the audience. It is more firmly relevant to our time in art history to operate critically within the same context as most art work is viewed by the general public – a sudden confrontation defined by a short amount of time to articulate an overall impression and then broadcasting it to the world.

This approach is tied in to my philosophy of rejecting high production standards if those standards delay or prevent contributions of art documentation / art practice to the general public, for the greater good. It is a rejection of high production standards and design as substitution for meaningful and substantive content. It is a question of the problem of the public and it’s relationship to the visual arts, and vice-versa – there is almost a fear, a intimidation, a judgment of whether the visitor to a community gallery space understands the work, and by understanding you have read the texts associated with the exhibit and previous aspects of contemporary art history. That there is a right and a wrong answer.

So arriving in a gallery and being confronted by an exhibit that is strange and bewildering in it’s unfamiliarity and presence outside any expectations is a valuable and savoury experience for me, and I believe is a way of approaching art that relates most directly with the majority. The majority does not mean it is the right or only way to engage something, but in a cultural communications approach it is a valuable insight to have.

So this concept, this rationalization of being a Dumb Critic frees me to see more exhibits and meet more artists and other arts professionals, and in turn allows me to offer this experience to my audience. I ask dumb questions fearlessly, and propose interpretations that are completely off-the-wall compared to what was clearly written in the catalog or press release. This is a resistance to bowing to the pre-conceived notions of the artist, the curator and the space and trying to see the work as it is, truly alone and without pomp, even if it is only for a little while. Most artists tend to appreciate this very much – at least the ones who are interested in research and truth and play.

Then there are the rigid, formulaic ones who are career ladder climbers and don’t like a lateral turns of thinking of how to approach things in their industry. An example is when I attended an art and technology conference recently and made sure I read nothing about most of the lectures I attended (and live-tweeted about) – including one called “laser-based collaborative space”. I was dreading this was going to be project management software or something but it was, awesomely, actually, about actual lasers and hacker collectives. When I jokingly mentioned that to another artist, he sniffed “you didn’t read anything about the lectures? that’s novel.”

I enjoy reading, listening and researching (duh), but it is just as valuable sometimes to do this afterwards. Here was an artist who is confined by his preconceptions, perhaps unaware of his insecurity to approach the strange and fantastic for the sake of it being strange and fantastic. His rigidity and his literalness, for me, define much of this industry and it’s barriers for a wider participation.

For me, the rejection of the Dumb Critic is related to the rejection of blogs or tweeting over a paper catalog or commissioned academic essay. One is to satisfy funding requirements, establish credibility among peers and create professional opportunities within a set of expectations – the other is a way to dialogue about seeing and experiencing art without worrying about all that other stuff.

I guess that is novel.

Reject being called an artist – when making art, be a somebody

Being defined as an artist is really an exercise of enduring others’ expectations of what that word means.

If you imagine yourself as an artist, you see flashes on imagery of people, walls, works and words about you – your path is distorted already by these illusions. Your fantasies are wrapped up in this word, but those fantasies are not really about you are they? Maybe you feel pressure to desire what others assume you want.

“An artist created this” brings a suspicious assumption to what “this” is, and even whether this is an artist or not.

“Chris made a painting” is undeniable, powerful and makes one damn curious to see what it is.

If you identify yourself as your name and reject the label of being (or not being) and artist, you have removed a huge roadblock on your path to meaningful work and self-articulation. You are you – create what you want when you want and don’t worry about being an artist. That is for others to decide, and why would you ever want to tackle an irresolvable problem when others are willing to wrestle with it?

Don’t want to stop self-identifying your self as an artist? You should probably take a long, hard look at what you are actually trying to do and why. A real artist would.