You know, actual curation

Patrick Keiller's Robinson Institute, an exhibition at Tate Britain in London in 2012
Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ at Tate Britain

Everyone’s going on about curation these days. We’re all curators now. But yesterday I witnessed some of the old-fashioned variety, the kind they do in art galleries, and I was blown away.

I took two of my kids to Tate Britain (four different modes of transport: train, tube, boat and bus – I suspect that’s what they’ll remember about the day). First I dragged them round Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ which, in truth, was my main reason for schlepping across London (like I said, four modes of transport…). I’m the kind of old git that loves Keiller’s films (although I haven’t seen Robinson in Ruins yet) and I was really excited to see what he’d come up with in an art gallery. It’s really stunning – works from the Tate’s collection are brought together with passages from Keiller’s films, books, film stills and artefacts of his own (over 120 works in all).

This is curation as storytelling as art. The connections Keiller makes are cheeky, funny, poignant. Nineteenth century romantic and picturesque imagery (landscapes, landowner portraits, animal pictures) interleaved with documents of resistance to enclosure, maps, signposts and other inscriptions made by humans on the landscape. Also those Keiller signature images of mysterious and desolate scientific and military establishments and quite a lot of post-war conceptual art. And the persistent Robinson cosmic entrainment stuff is here: meteors, geological patterns, lay-lines and other psycho-geo tropes. It’s magically done. A situationist people’s history. A visual poem.

And the designers have done simple things to parenthesise the content – the works are offset from the gallery walls in a kind of linear zig-zag that gives the choice a kind of scrapbook-feel – for you Tumblr kids. It’s a cheeky, delirious intellectual walkabout.

Next (after the compulsory visit to the cafe for cake, obviously) we walked through to the Clore Gallery and caught what I learn was the second-to-last last day of another beautiful specimen of the curator’s art. David Blayney Brown is the man behind the wonderful ‘Romantics’, a show that mashes up the work of the Clore’s anchor tenant, JMW Turner, with that of his contemporaries to tell the story of Romanticism in a way that was hugely and pleasurably engaging for an art history pygmy like myself (I notice that the broadsheet reviews for the show when it opened nearly two years ago were pretty snooty about the accessible format – I think this kind of curation with a personality will put critics’ noses out of joint – it seems to be straying onto their territory).

This is (was, sorry!) a highly-visible kind of curation – opinionated and full of information about the period and the context. Big, assertive statements about the context and the work are printed in huge type alongside pictures grouped together in ‘pods’. It’s a really vigorous narrative, full of energy and ideas. I came away with a sense of the flow of events and the interaction of personalities that I’d never have got from the mute curation of the old school. Gripping storytelling about art.

And the whole experience (not the cake, obviously, or the boat) was a quite bracing reminder that this curation business is really not about pointing, in a sort of dilatory way, at stuff we like the look of (I called it ‘the curatorial twitch’ in an earlier post), but about the hard graft of assembling artefacts, information, context and inspiration to tell really important stories (see the previous post about Radio 3’s awe-inspiring week of Schubert output for an example of how to do this on the radio).

Make My Pano now

Pano is an iPhone app. It stitches together the photos you take to make fantastically compelling panoramas. I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Pano and a lot of the pics I upload to my Flickr stream are now Panos. They’re fascinating and uncanny and I’ve been wondering what actually happens when you make a panorama using Pano. Four things happen when you click ‘Make my Pano Now’:

This accounts for the uncanniness – it’s a different time at one end than it is at the other. And this, of course, introduces the possibility of paradoxes, multiple-appearances, overlaps, vanishings and other freaky occurrences. A Pano is a flattened-out movie where everything goes a bit sci-fi.

Smearing the picture across time and space busts up the classical emphasis on a single event at a single time. There’s no decisive moment, no ‘punctum‘. It’s not a 30th of a second behind the Gare St-Lazare. It’s a messy collision of moments and locations glued together to make a sort of story.

Favoured by 18th Century history painters and egomaniacs, tableaux are paintings – big, immersive, utterly artificial pictorial confections – set in an idealised location – a timeless glade, a battlefield, a classical ruin. The eye wanders in the scene, taking in the action in several distinct sub-scenes (the robed elders over by the ruin, the nymphs in the foreground, the stricken hero in the middle…). And there’s something frozen, ponderous and monolithic about a tableau. I’m not comparing my iPhone snaps to the work of the greats but I’m intrigued by the correspondences between those epic works and the mini-tableau in my phone. There’s something about their artificiality. Unremarkable scenes take on a spooky monumentality – a meeting or a street scene or a party, frozen for eternity.

Pano tries to stitch pics together so you can’t see the join but only very boring scenes – landscapes from a uniform distance, for instance – can be stitched thus. In fact, interesting Panos are shot from slightly too close and with elements at varying distances from the lens or at an angle that makes it impossible to knit the elements together properly. And the result is a messy, discontinuous whole. The best Panos are a bit off, slightly wonky – a bit gothic – and because the eye naturally makes a big effort not to see the joins – seeking integrity where it doesn’t exist – they produce a kind of unease, an uncomfortable feeling that something is wrong. And that’s their charm.

Nifty OSX photo stitcher

A hat shop in Soho. Three shots stitched together using DoubleTake
I’m having fun with a nicely put-together OS X photo stitcher called Double Take. The Soho hat shop pic is made from three originals stitched together – can you see the join? I’m really in awe of the quality and completeness of the kind of OS X shareware/freeware I’ve been downloading lately – and this one costs much less than a tenner.

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The three lives of a photograph

My Mother, Bridie, in Ireland, in about 1960
My Mother, Bridie, was born in rural County Kilkenny at the end of the twenties. I think this photograph was taken there by my Dad in about 1960, after they were married and on a visit home. So that’s how this photograph’s first life got started, presumably in a little Kodak camera of some sort, in the middle of Ireland.

Dad gave me the photograph, or at least a smaller, more dog-eared version of it, about twenty years ago when I was studying photography at what was then The Polytechnic of Central London. PCL was the first Polytechnic in Britain and had a long history of independence and innovation. Now, of course, it’s called The University of Westminster and it’s just like all the others. I wonder if it’s occurred to anyone to try reversing one of these anonymous ‘Unis’ back into a retro Polytechnic brand? I wonder if they’d be allowed to?).

I started the photograph’s second life when I re-photographed it on a huge, cast iron copy stand at the Polytechnic (using black & white film – probably Pan-F) then developed the film and printed the neg in the college’s amazing darkrooms. I took those darkrooms for granted but they were something special – three or four thousand square feet of red-stained darkness five or six floors above a narrow West End street. There was something relaxing about hours spent in the quiet darkness – the only noise I remember was the tinny sound of the complete soundtrack from Taxi Driver (including the dialogue) coming from Paul‘s darkroom next door.

I’d love to go back for an hour or two. Except, of course, they’re not there any more. They’ve been moved from their groovy West End location to an end-of-the-Piccadilly-Line suburb not far from where I live now (the idea of all those ungrateful, spotty youths mooning around in the dark in all that priceless West End Real Estate must have got to those pioneering, Thatcher-era educrats).

Anyway, once I’d made some prints, I retouched the pic using some inks and a sable brush I bought from the shop in the photography department. Got rid of all the creases and scratches. I regret that now. I’d have left the blemishes alone if I was copying it now.

The cleaned-up copy has hung on various walls in my life for over twenty years now without ever encountering a computer, until last week when I finally scanned it. And now it’s on, living out its third life in the digital realm. I wonder if there’ll be more lives?

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Lovely prints

Thanks to the excellent Kookymojo for this link to a fascinating site about Iris fine art (‘giclee‘) printers. I have one of Michael Light’s gorgeous black & white moon prints which I thought was made on an Iris but I now learn used another digital method called Direct-Digital Color Coupler (I wonder if they changed the method since I bought mine) and I can confirm that these prints are uncannily good. By the way, isn’t Google labs’ glossary brilliant?

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Distressed geeks

Some scratched and mangled black & white photos I took at Dave & Danny’s ‘Village Fete for the Twenty First Century’ back in the Summer showed up in the post months late. Some frames were lost all together – including all the ones of Dave & Danny themselves. The rest, including this one of Matt “Warchalking” Jones plus Yoz, Paul, Adam, paper folders, my kids, Juliet… and Freeman Dyson are spooky. They should offer this as a service.

Matt Jones at XCOM 2002. A black and white photo from a negative apparently damaged in processing
Matt Jones