BRIGHTON, UK — If a picture is worth a thousand words, Nihilistic Optimistic is worth about a million. The new show from Tim Noble and Sue Webster at Blain Southern is super photogenic, and therein may lie its appeal. Shadows from messy assemblages of broken wood resolve into punky silhouetted figures. The stock response to the work is, “How’d they do that?” Taking out a camera and recording the feat seems the only way to come to grips with the illusion.
But on one level, the widely circulated photos of this show that have spread online are off-putting. The first round might pique your interest. But after three or four shots, surely you have already seen the highlights? Then come seven or eight appearances online and the photos reach critical mass; they turn the show into a must-see event. Soon enough, we all need to go. We need to go and take our own damn photos.
Plenty of exhibitions follow this pattern, so what Blain Southern have on their hands now is something like the Most Photographed Barn in America from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” college lecturer Murray Jay Siskind tells the narrator. He wonders what the barn looked like before the photographs and concludes: “We can’t answer these questions because we’ve . . . seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura.”
If you still need convincing that, even in a gallery, personal photography has now become a main event, just visit the Louvre in Paris. Here there is no getting away from the thicket of raised arms pointing cameras in the direction of the tiny Mona Lisa. The art is mind-blowing, naturellement, but so is the fact that tourists are roaming the painting galleries taking tracking shots on camcorders. Does it interfere with your enjoyment of the Leonardos and the Géricaults? Yes, but it brings an excitement that the text books never mention. We were all part of the aura, and it was near ecstatic.
Sadly, my last visit to the French art mecca was pre-Web 2.0. It seems the museum is clamping down in recent years. But you might say that now the aura that pervades the museum has leaked onto many thousands of status updates, timelines, and blog posts. The gallery is no longer merely working hand-in-hand with television and art history classes. You can come across the Louvre in Timbuktu and, thanks to the Google Art Project, you can get closer to certain works in West Africa than you can when standing in front of them.
With this in mind, it seemed a good idea to conduct a survey of London galleries to see where they stand vis-à-vis photography. Of some 30 polled, 20 replied and around 77% of those were quite happy to let visitors take photos. It was a surprise that so many commercial galleries were delighted for non-customers to whip out their camera-phones. And no less remarkable was that a third of public spaces were in seeming disagreement with personal photography, since their replies were couched in various shades of gray.
Hayward Gallery, South London Gallery, and Camden Arts Centre all claimed their photography policy is set on a show-by-show or even work-by-work basis. (Likewise, Tate exhibitions are out of bounds.) But the response from the South Bank was typical, with a Hayward spokesman adding: “Photography will be restricted where it might infringe copyright, damage or misrepresent a work of art.” This confirms that the public will find few photo ops at the Hayward. A journo friend was even recently asked to delete pictures off his camera.
Although commercial galleries were more likely to allow photography, one at least was more candid about why this might not always be the case. A gallerist told me off the record that they had problems in the past with people taking “crummy” pictures which then found their way to websites. She made the point that having invested in professional installation shots, her gallery was keen to see these used instead. This degree of brand management is understandable, but perhaps a little sterile in our brave new world of liking, sharing, and tweeting.
A more bohemian, if still commercial, space in East London doesn’t just allow public photography, it embraces it. Take out your DSLR in Transition Gallery and you’ll be invited to upload the results to their Flickr page. A spokesperson told me: “Often when people take pictures and post them online they will be accompanied by the visitor’s thoughts about the show, which is great to hear about. And of course it all helps to spread the word about shows at Transition.” So perhaps by crowdsourcing documentation the gallery can ensure that their online shop window will be, if patchy, at least vibrant.
Copyright is another issue which ‘photogravisitors’ ignore at their peril, Taking a tiger by the tail, this blogger approached UK licensing agency DACS. And their spokesperson laid it on the predictable line: “Under UK copyright law, if a member of the public takes a photograph of a copyright protected art work hanging in a gallery and then publishes the photograph online, it is likely that they are infringing the copyright of the artist.”
“Furthermore,” she added “if the member of the public uses a social media platform to publish this photograph, it is possible that they would be in breach of the social media platform’s terms and conditions.” The exception and potential defense against this is one of fair dealing for review purposes. But chances are, whenever you’re reading this, someone out there is violating copyright and social media Ts & Cs right now. As blogger Marina Galperina has said, new media is “copyright pwnership.”
However, while the online realm is hard to police, galleries are less so. No one likes getting told off in public, and this is just what might happen if you don’t check with invigilators before you take that photo. As a guide, in London at least, you can’t shoot artwork from private collections, but you can shoot work on permanent display, as well as work for sale. Tripods or flash units are never likely to be welcome. Share via the web at your own risk. Feel the aura, and happy snapping.
Tim Noble and Sue Webster: Nihilistic Optimistic is on view at Blain Southern (4 Hanover Square, London) through November 24.