Friday, January 12, 2018

Ruin Porn and Americana

Let me begin by saying that I still like Dragan Novakavic's photographs of Northern England just as much as ever. Still, there is no denying that he went there looking for some specific things, and found them. There is no way that "northern england" taken in toto looks, or ever looked, like that. For one thing, I am informed that there are rather a lot of sheep there, and I don't see a single one in Dragan's pictures. Which, of course, isn't the point of his pictures at all. He's after a specific facet of the area, not a complete summation of the place.

Mike C pointed out in a comment, astutely (he better be astute, I pay him enough!), that actual residents of Northern England might legitimately object to the photos.

Reading Darren Campion's take on Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi I had the exact point brought home abruptly to me.

Darren is a fine fellow who is, I think, reading rather too much in Alec's book. But then, I have not seen the book itself, just a lot of the pictures from it (maybe half or a bit more). I will note in passing that Darren's discovery that the Alec seems interested in Beds and in Boats becomes a lot less interesting when you review the title of the book. Sleeping. Mississippi. Yep.

While I am sure that Alec would nod sagely at all the analysis, because he is not an idiot and would like to remain successful, I don't see much depth in the book. What I see is a book that was well set up, probably by accident, so that excessively clever people who already despise middle america could read a lot of depth into it if they chose.

Anyways, the thrust of Alec's pictures is a pretty gloomy one. It presents the middle of the USA as full of prostitutes, broken men, weirdos, christian zealots, and desolate landscapes. As a midwesterner, I have to say this whole fucking genre pisses me off no end. Everyone seems to trundle around middle america these days giving us these gloomy color photos of bullshit. It is apparently a rule that you have to cite Eggleston and Twentysix Gasoline Stations and you must never, ever, suggest that anyone living in a state without a coastline has a shred of hope.

This, of course, plays well with the coastal elites who very much like to think of the middle part of the USA as a bunch of god-forsaken cannibals (even, perhaps especially, if they're from one of those states).

The midwest isn't like that. Soth's pictures are not even a facet, they're a complete fiction. Or rather, they are snippets of reality so narrow, so specific, that they imply a larger world that is utterly false. Midwesterners are fully formed people who read books, write books, have kinky sex, laugh, drink, and make beautiful things. Just like the people on the coast. Yes, there are strip malls and broken people in the midwest. Just like on the coasts.

Now, it's perfectly possible that Soth intended to re-imagine the Mississippi's watershed as a fictional world of his own invention, and if so, great. I've done that myself, and it's a fine thing to do. It has been taken by critics to be a true vision, though. We get stupid phrases like "late stage capitalism" and "the dream's final unravelling" (a fond hope, but things can get a hell of a lot worse before the wheels actually fall off) applied to this whole genre. These things are taken as harbingers of a coming revolution (or something) in which, presumably, the art critics for New York based publications are finally made the God Kings they so obviously should be.

Anyways, I can see how people living in Northern England (or, really, anywhere) might get annoyed with the work of photo tourists walking briskly through their world, taking the same blighted photos again, promoting the same false vision. Perhaps Dragan's pictures do get at an essential reality of Northern England, or perhaps they too take such a narrow view as to be in the end false.

I cannot speak to whether Dragan intended his work as a fictional idea based on Northern England, or if he hoped to get at some true soul of the place. Perhaps he has no firm idea on that point.

As always, there is a great deal I do not know. I do know that the "Americana" genre is a kind of ruin porn, and that it angers me.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Because it's GOOD for you!

When you sit down to eat a meal at my table, you will be presented with a variety of food. Included will be vegetables, never as much as my wife would like, as well as a more or less balanced assortment of carbohydrates and proteins and so on. My goal will be to make food which pleases you, as well as being healthy for you. Some parts of the meal you will, inevitably, like more than other parts. Some parts you may dislike quite a lot, but you will eat them anyways, otherwise I will shoot you.

When you come to my house for a meal, one of the things you are doing is placing yourself in my hands regarding the food. You are, roughly, trusting me to find some balance between pleasing you and nourishing you. Left to your own devices, and granted permission to purely please your palette, you might well choose to subsist entirely on chocolate ice cream or something similar. Perhaps you'd favor fish.

Similarly, when we go to a museum or a gallery, we place ourselves in the hands of a curator or an artist. We trust them to show us some things, some of which we will like more than the other things. We might hate some of it. Some of it, alas, might leave us with no response at all. When we pick up a newspaper, we expect a similar experience with respect to news and other content.

We do this, because we imagine it will be good for us. By giving up a degree of control, we open ourselves to greater enlargement, greater education, a broader range of emotional response than if we were fully in control. We know, in fact, exactly what happens when we do the opposite.

Flickr, facebook, instagram, 500px, and so on. These things allow people to rate things, and use that information together (sometimes) with information about us (usually what we have liked in the past) to very rapidly develop an accurate model of what we're likely to like. Gone is the idea that we have to eat vegetables before we can have ice cream, it's straight to the ice cream. No more do we have to deal with the infuriating picture that makes no sense, or which makes altogether too much sense. No more do we have to try to figure out what THAT mess of shit glued together might mean (nothing?). Never again, it's inoffensive saturated landscapes from here on out!

But it gets more interesting even than that!

If, in my category, there are a few people that liked A best, and a few that liked B, but the best performing thing was C with 20% of people liking it, what we will all be shown next is C, every time.

It is as if I simply served you chocolate ice cream for dinner, because my polling indicates that, while there's only a 15% chance that it is your favorite food, all the other foods scored even lower. My best single shot at delighting is chocolate ice cream. If you like strawberry, or turmeric, you're not going to get it. Chocolate is it.

Web sites are constantly selecting "the next thing" to show you, and there's only one slot. So, they pick the one most likely to please. Probably it's going to be OK, most people like chocolate ice cream at least a bit. But the thing they show you probably isn't testing all that well, it's just testing better than anything else.

This, I think, is why algorithms serve us such utter shit.

The algorithm wants to engage us, to make us stay on the web site and click on things. That is its goal. Not to educate, to enlarge, to improve us. This is not a newspaper, this is not a museum, this is not even my dinner table. It's a click farm designed to make you not leave. It constantly tests its products, and it constantly discovers chocolate ice cream, over and over.

I like to think that I do a better job. You might not like everything I make, or everything I choose to talk about, but by god it's GOOD for you!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Algorithmic News

Lewis Bush wrote a thing about how algorithms might change journalism, and then Jörg Colberg wrote a response to it, and now I'm writing a response to both of them.

Both of these guys need to read more science fiction, for starters. They're both at least part-time in the prognostication business, and the writers of science fiction are a substantial body of people who do the same, except full-time.

Both of them also need to pay a little more attention. Their use of the future tense is a delight to behold.

Jörg makes at least one weird statement in his, to wit, that algorithms cannot manage "the unthinkable" offering up the example of 9/11 as an example. In the first place it was totally "thinkable" and in the second place, what kind of news algorithm would not be able to handle #planecrash as well as #buildingfire as news items? There's a large body of the "unthinkable" that is simply simple combinations of the "thinkable" and if there's one thing algorithms can do, it's combine stuff.

All this, though, missed the point.

I wrote about Eliza, a computer program, several years ago. I will summarize here, though:

Eliza was a computer program that could carry on a credible conversation without remembering a single thing about the conversation. It simply responded to the most recent thing you typed in with something assembled out of your words to form a leading question. Eliza was a crude but elegant algorithm that relied on the human in the loop (you) to produce its results.

My earlier remarks on Eliza, now that I review them, still strike me as a wonderfully clever analysis of how meaning appears in visual art.

In exactly the same way as Eliza, Flickr and Instagram are algorithmically selecting photographs people like, by using people to do the work. A relatively crude algorithm is built that allows humans (which are free and numerous resources) to click Like or +1 or whatever. This provides, in some sense, a measure of goodness. The more a photograph is liked, the more it is shown around. I assume they have some damping mechanisms to prevent things from going completely off the rails, preventing odd cases like a Flickr that appears to have only one extremely well liked photo.

The point is that neural networks and AI and stuff are super sexy, but what actually works is looping in people. Artificial Intelligence, while trendy, isn't as good as the real stuff. It's not even as good as the worst of the real stuff. In this way, it resembles sugar substitutes.

Imagine, if you will, a future in which there's live video feeds from all over the place. Every street corner. While online, we are shown random snippets of footage constantly. When "news" happens, people who happen to be watching that clip will abruptly engage, they will hit the "replay" button. The plane smashes into the skyscraper over and over, and in moments the system begins to show that clip to other people. It trends. In 60 seconds, the world knows about it, and the comments begin to flow in.

While there is no editorial oversight, and no coherent analysis, there sure as hell are internet comments which serve, in some sense, the same role.

This trivial to implement, and it will (manifestly) work better than neural networks.

More to the point, though, this isn't the future at all. It's right now. This is how news works right now. 2/3 of Americans get some of their news from social media, and this is precisely how social media works, with one small caveat.

The caveat is that it's not actually randomly selected snippets of street cameras. It's "user generated content" which is slightly more curated. Someone already though it was interesting. Or someone has a point of view they wish to flog. We'd be better off if the underlying material were random security camera footage.

Which leads us around neatly to one more thing. On flickr and instagram it's well understood that you can game the system. There are visual tropes you can simply roll out to get Likes. Get good at it, and you can be, if not a star, at any rate 10x more popular than you are now. In the same way, we find people on social creating "user generated content" that looks kind of like news.

There are tropes you can hit that produce pretty much guaranteed engagement (immigrants, blah blah blah).

These bits work exactly the same way that the photo of the pretty girl in the swimsuit on this site, and the oversaturated landscape on the other site, work. They hit certain cognitive buttons so that the humans the network is using to compute with will Like the content. The content then "trends" and becomes part of the news landscape.

Same algorithms, using the same free and infinite human labor, same ways to hack it, same results. A sort of kitschy, fake, treacly substitute for Photography in one case, News in the other. The same easily manipulated results.

Lewis remarks on the possibility of bias in algorithmic reporting. Not only does he miss the fact that these algorithms tend to exhibit biases that, while very real, in no way resemble human biases, he misses out of the entire social media element. Algorithms that loop people in tend to amplify and confirm biases already present. I am convinced that this effect absolutely swamps any sort of "digital" bias. He almost touches the truth when he talks about Microsoft's chatbot being trained as a Nazi, but fails to recall that this is how everything online works.

It is precisely this amplification of bias that produces the god-awful kitsch that dominates flickr, 500px, instagram. It's populism, kind of distilled, fed back to the populi, and redistilled.

Lewis seems touchingly unaware of it, but it's already over. Yes, there's still a thing called journalism, kind of. But there ain't no percentage in it, and it's not how people are actually learning about the world.

It's just a sort of buggy whip for intellectual snobs like Lewis, Jörg, and me. And probably for you too.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Crit: Dragan Novakovic

This fellow sent me a link to his pictures a while back, which link I will share with you anon but not quite yet.

I'm not a player, so it's not like I get this sort of thing every day. But, now and then, yes. I have enough time to give it a look, so generally I file the link and get around to it some day, and poke through the work. I try to make sense of it, see what's good in there (and, here's an interesting thing, there is almost always something to love, apparently people don't send me links to things I will hate).

Dragan's web site has, roughly, two bodies of work, and I looked at the wrong one first. I am going to point you to the one you need to start with: Northern England.

From there you can navigate back up and find his London photos.

I found the whole thing to be an interesting body of work, but since I started with London, I ended up having to kind of back into it.

It takes no effort at all to see that Dragan is a fellow with a camera in the 1970s, doing that 1970s thing of looking for the good ones. He's thinking one picture at a time. He's also got some real ability, there are some genuinely good ones in here. The result is a pile of things that are much more structured, much more "composed" than what we might think of as snapshots. These are the opposite of vernacular photography, they're quite mannered, and as noted, good examples of that.

The London pictures read as pretty much documentary. I do not feel that Dragan has an opinion here at all, no particular idea. He's simply recording what he finds interesting, and as such had ended up with a documentary record of sorts. It lacks breadth, precisely because Dragan is focused on the pictures he thinks are interesting (there are a lot of Interesting Looking Old Guys, for instance), so it doesn't really work as a document of the times unfortunately. The pictures, while good and sometimes excellent, are not strong enough to stand by themselves. Neither as a Concept/Art piece, nor as a historical document. It is, "merely", a collection of good and often excellent individual pictures.

I think it might be really interesting to pair these pictures with modern ones of the same places. The Brick Lane Market is still there, and could be shot again. With some editing (I assume Dragan has a relatively deep archive of these pictures) you could get something. The editor would impose, from the outside, that necessary opinion, concept, idea. It could work.

Moving on, though, to the Northern England pictures.

There's a much higher percentage in here of wall-hangers, of "the good one" shots. Damn near everything in this set could be hung on damn near any wall and do the wall justice.

Much more important, though, it's clear that Dragan has a real emotional response to the region. We are at once appalled by the endless factories and smokestacks and taken by the beauty he finds in places that are, objectively, pretty wretched. In the pictures of the people we see a much warmer connection than in the London photos. In London, Dragan is shooting "street" style, looking for candid shots of interesting people and tableaux. In Northern England as often than not people are posing for him. Even the candids feel more engaged, and correspondingly engaging.

While it is fairly clear in this set of pictures that Dragan was still trying to shoot individual wall-worthy pictures, it is also clear that he has an opinion about the region. That idea has led him to, more or less spontaneously, create the sort of thing I like, a coherent body of work that takes a position and says something.

So what we have, to my eye, is the same guy, with the same camera, doing more or less the same thing in two different places. In one of the places he has some fairly profound feeling (I am cheating here, to an extent, because I read this piece before writing this one, but I had arrived at this conclusion first.) In the other place, he's just taking pictures. It doesn't look to me like he even cares about about London to hate the place, he seems more or less neutral about it. Probably he likes it well enough, and thinks it's got some interesting looking bits. But his soul appears to be largely untouched by London, whereas it is deeply moved by the north.

And so I offer this as a lesson. It is that emotional connection, that depth of feeling, that makes all the difference. Same man, same camera, same time, same methods. Totally different bodies of work. I am confident that I have identified precisely what makes the difference.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Eliteness of Art

I've been stewing on some of these things for a few months, perhaps years. Mike C made some remarks recently, and there's been a little tempest in a teapot the last day or two over a new policy at The Met, so now I am inspired to actually write something down.

The history of Art is as much a history of who was sleeping with whom as it is about anything else. Art, in the sense of Famous Artists and Expensive Art, is based entirely on a system of artificial scarcity engineered by a relatively small group of people. This small collection of influential curators, gallerists, critics, and so on, select from the vast array of Good Art being made and anoint a piece here, an artist there, and tell us what's good and important. They often make an excellent living at this.

It should surprise no one that they frequently choose their friends, friends of friends, and so on. The social elements of who gets selected and who does not cannot be denied. Every so often some rando gets picked, but even there some influencer notices the rando someplace and strikes up a conversation or whatever. If the influencer does not like the rando (or want to have sex with the rando, or whatever) the rando ain't goin' noplace. They will remain at the street fair, selling their paintings to tourists.

I don't particularly object to this system. There has to be some sort of winnowing process, and at the end of it all, there is bound to be a strong element of arbitrariness. Such is life. The wealthy demand Expensive Art, and someone's going to provide it to them, for a fee. This in turn demands scarcity, and when the scarcity is not real you have to create it artificially. See also diamonds.

Still, there's always an unsavory scent around the whole business, isn't there?

It also leads to some truly bizarre effects.

In recent days we have seen Art Critics from the NY Times railing against The Met for changing its admissions policy. Formerly, admission was whatever you wanted to pay, with a suggested $25 fee for adults. Very few people paid $25. Soon, out of state visitors will be required to pay the $25 (New Yorkers will still be admitted free, because The Met takes a hell of a lot of money from the State of New York). So the Art Critics are howling that Art Should Be Free and The Met is terrible.

But let us step back a little. These Art Critics are neck deep in a system of elites creating an artificial scarcity of a common resource (Art). These are people who absolutely support a system which enriches a few, which literally exists to pander to obnoxious oligarchs. And now they are complaining that the oligarchs who pay their salaries, the oligarchs with whom the work hand-in-hand every single day, they complain that these oligarchs gotta oligarch.

Say what?

At the same time, and more generally, we see this weird conflict playing out daily if you keep an eye on lower-tier members of that community. It is actually a done thing to simultaneously rail against how money is ruining Art and to kiss the asses of those people higher up on the chain. Those higher up on the chain are of course doing the same thing.

Everyone agrees, at all levels, that Money Is Ruining Art and the Oligarchs Are Terrible, and everyone, at all levels, wants nothing more than to be higher up on the chain which is literally built around the money that the oligarches rain down so obligingly on their critics.

It is extremely weird, amusing, and appalling, all at once.

Art doesn't need to be selected by thin snobs and then entombed in gigantic museums which are then free, even for scum. Art needs to be everywhere, all the time. Art needs to be local, to be small, to be ubiquitous. Screw the museums and the thin snobs, one and all. Make your own choices, buy the paintings from the kid at the street fair. He probably turned down some thin snob's advances last week, and screwed his chances of ever making it big. So, buy a picture off him.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Project 52: First Half

This is a (much) longer structure than I have ever worked with, so this is in a large part an effort to stretch myself out, to do something longer term. I'm also taking the opportunity to build in tasks that I know I ought to do, but tend to skip.

Treat the whole thing loosely. If you think a couple of weeks ought to be done in a different order, go for it! I'm just chucking ideas down, there's no secret recipe. This is just a list of tasks in an approximate order, chopped up so that even a busy person like me should be able to make a quick pass at whatever the week's work is. There are "fallow" weeks, weeks in which you explicitly leave it alone. While I think these are valuable, and I have positioned them with a little thought, you can also treat them as catch-up weeks.

I've laid out the first 26 weeks, and am pushing it out on Jan 1! Hooray for me.

As noted previously, this is structured as 4 quarters of 13 weeks each, with two fallow weeks in each. Thus, 11 weeks of "work" out of every 13. It starts out loose, gathering up stuff, and refines down to three potential projects in the first quarter. At the end of that quarter, you will discard one (or merge one with one of the others, or rearrange it all into 2 projects, or whatever). The second quarter will be spent refining the two projects in terms of concept and idea. The third will deal with design and sequencing, and end with the reduction to a single project.

In the fourth and final quarter, you'll finish the last project, and get it fully print-ready and print it. (or otherwise completed).

Without further ado:

First quarter

Week 1. Jan 1-7: Shoot, shoot, shoot. Anything you've been meaning to shoot, anything that catches your eye, things that bore you. Get out and press the button.

Week 2. Jan 8-14: Look over the output and throw out anything that won't be there in *some* sense for the next year. If you flew to the Grand Canyon, but won't be back, throw those out. Lump the output into rough categories, vague "project" ideas. (don't actually delete things, though, we'll come back to the discards at least briefly.)

Week 3. Jan 15-21: With your rough categories in mind, shoot some more. See if anything more shows up, see if the categories already devised bear more fruit.

Week 4. Jan 22-28: Re-evaluate and develop a handful of rough project ideas, refine them a little bit. Throw out anything you're not willing to go back to over and over. Throw out anything you still hate. Try to get at least a half dozen somewhat coherent ideas developed, up to perhaps a dozen.

Week 5. Jan 29-Feb 4: Revisit your list of projects and reduce it further, to no more than 6 and no fewer than 3, go out and shoot more of those. Reshoot flawed shots, shoot more material for the viable list.

Week 6. Feb 5-11: Take a week off to look at other work. A monograph, some fashion magazines, a gallery showing, the photos in all the coffee shops you can get to this week. Keep your own projects in mind as you look, try to find specific ideas you can steal.

Week 7. Feb 12-18 Fallow week.

Week 8. Feb 19-25: Go out again and shoot shoot shoot, just like week one. Set aside your project ideas and press the button. You'll probably be torn between "I must shoot only NEW things" and "I want to shoot more of project X" and that is OK. Do both.

Week 9. Feb 26-Mar 4: Look over all the material now, and see what pops up. You've recently looked at other people's stuff (week 6) and you're tried to open your own mind (week 8), revisit your list of project ideas and revise them, expand/focus them. Whittle the list down to 3 viable ideas. You might wind up with some "throwaway" ideas in there, which is OK, but you're required to pursue those with a will as well! Don't just focus on your one favorite.

Week 10. Mar 5-11: For the next 2 weeks, shoot for each individual concept. Never more than 1 on a single day. Go try to work those same shots again, find additional material, think over what you want to do, but just one project at a time.

Week 11. Mar 12-18: Continuation of week 10. Since you're restricted to one project per day, seven working days probably wasn't enough, so we're tying weeks 10 and 11 together, so you can get serious and put in at least one serious day per concept.

Week 12. Mar 19-25: Fallow week.

Week 13. Mar 26-Apr 1: Look over the work you've got for the three projects, and discard the weakest idea.


Second Quarter

Week 14. Apr 2-8: Go to an exhibition, look at a new monograph, dig through a stack of back issues of Vogue, spend a few hours online looking at a body of work you're not familiar with, Really take time with it. Read the catalog, read the back story.

Week 15. Apr 9-15: Write out a concept for one of your projects, the weaker one if there is an obvious weaker one. A few lines, a few pages, it doesn't matter. If you literally cannot get a sentence out, try some key words, a list of artworks that seem relevant. Try a poem, or a drawing. Paint something. Express the project's concept using any other medium, essentially. Push the pictures around while you do it.

Week 16. Apr 16-22: Shoot some additional pictures for that same project, and plan for what else you need. Do you need to wait for fall? Do you need to acquire some props? Hire a model? Make a plan to complete the concept.

Week 17. Apr 23-29: Revisit your project's pictures and concept, push things around and ask yourself what, if anything, has changed.

Week 18. Apr 30-May 6. Fallow week.

Week 19. May 7-13: Repeat week 14. Go to an exhibition, look at a new monograph, but with a new body of work. Find the back story, the concept, if you can.

Weeks 20-22. May 14-Jun 3: Repeat weeks 15-17 for the Other Project. Express the concept, shoot and plan, revisit and think it over.

Week 23. Jun 4-10: Fallow week.

Week 24. Jun 11-17: Repeat week 14 with yet another body of work.

Week 25. Jun 18-24: Revisit all you have shot, from the very beginning. Include the discarded material. Take at least a quick skim and see if it informs any changes. Is there previously discarded material you can use? Do you spot a hole in one of your projects? Do you see a new avenue to explore?

Week 26. Jun 25-Jul 1: Rewrite your concepts. Whatever medium you used to express the ideas in weeks 15 and 20 of this quarter, rework that.