In 2012, when the Photographers’ Gallery moved to London’s Soho from its previous home in Covent Garden, it appointed Katrina Sluis as its curator of all digital programmes. “When the gallery reopened in this building, it was just as the social media revolution was taking hold,” Katrina tells us over the phone, “the institution had a sense that photography was really changing.” As a result, Katrina – a New Zealander who also lectures at London South Bank University – was brought on board to extend the gallery’s relationship to digital culture and its latest exhibition is a reflection of her work to date.
Titled All I Know Is What’s On The Internet, it brings together the work of 15 artists seeking to “map, visualise and question the cultural dynamics of 21st Century image culture”. The exhibition grapples with the changing nature of the medium in an age of social media and a world where systems for the multiplication of images are rife. “When I was appointed in 2012, a lot of the discussion in photography was about democratisation; a utopian view of access and communication,” Katrina remarks. “Those utopian visions have been intensified through the promises of Silicon Valley but, at the same time, so have questions about the cultural value of the image and the role of the photographer,” she continues on how The Photographers’ Gallery is attempting to enter into a discussion not only about photographers, but photography as a whole.
It’s this shift in the role of a photographer which feels particularly pertinent when walking around the exhibition, as very little of the photographic imagery was in fact created by the “photographers” themselves. The first piece to greet you upon entering the gallery’s second-floor space is that of Winnie Soon. Titled Unerasable Images it presents 300 screenshots from Google image search results for the term “64” (in Mandarin), a reference to the date of the Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989 in Beijing. In 2013, a reconstruction of one of the most famous – and censored images – of the protest in Lego went viral across China. Winnie’s piece then traces this image as it resurfaces and “haunts” her searches in the resulting four years. It’s pieces like this that deal with Katrina’s question of: “Who is the photographer? Photographers are becoming more like robots, and robots are becoming more like photographers.”
In the same room is a nearly six-metre long shelf holding the work of Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg. Stretching across the shelf are concertinas, each page printed with a different captcha. The piece, Five Years of Captured Captchas chronicles every single captcha (the security devices that require visitors to websites to prove they are human) the artists encountered over this time period. “Captchas moved from this utopian idea of everyone solving the problem of digitising books and translating images to telling computers where the road is and where the road sign is – we’re teaching Google’s autonomous vehicles to see,” Katrina explains, “We’re trying to make the viewer stop and think about that – even speaking about this work with colleagues, that hadn’t really clicked – and I think that shift for an audience is a really interesting one.”
Ultimately it’s this shift in understanding which the exhibition promotes. Algorithms, the internet and the systems that surround them, are complex but run by humans. And, as the curator points out, “it’s not just people working as content moderators, being paid poorly, who are suffering trauma, we’re all being enrolled in this system of value, whether we’re posting things on Instagram or we’re decoding photographs for machines."
But “This isn’t a show about photographs,” Katrina concludes, “it’s not about glossy photos of the Kardashians on your feed, it’s about stepping behind the screen and thinking about all the systems around it and pausing to reflect on that image and like economy.” Through examining these systems, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet draws attention to the neglected corners of image production, while making visible the vast infrastructure that exists to support your morning scroll through endless selfies, pictures of flat whites and cats.
All I Know Is What’s On The Internet opened on Friday (26 October) and runs until 24 February 2019. It includes the work of Mari Bastashevski, Constant Dullaart, IOCOSE, Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner, Eva & Franco Mattes, Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg, Winnie Soon, Emilio Vavarella, Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, Andrew Norman Wilson and Miao Ying and also includes a programme of events including panel discussion on Lil Miquela and a performative “troll farm”.
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