San Francisco (belated comments)

I saw several shows when I was in San Francisco several weeks ago. It was weird to go to a city during a conference (CCCC) and not attend, but there has been very little of interest to me at that conference for several years. I’ve presented there many times, and while it’s nice to see friends I just couldn’t justify paying the fees just for that. My days as a composition teacher, I’m afraid, are drawing to a close. I might dig into that a little at a later date, but for now I wanted to talk about some of the shows that really bothered me. First up, at San Francisco Camerawork there was a video installation that sent me wandering out of the room quickly during the first piece I saw. The description of “Test Patterns: Recent Video From South Africa” seems interesting enough:

Video is a distinctly post apartheid medium. Artists in the United States began working with video in the 1960s, but South Africans hadn’t even seen television until 1976. The government had banned it previously, fearing it would expose the country to the dangerous ideas of the non-apartheid world. And it was not until the 1980s that television was available in any language other than English or Afrikaans. South African national identity under apartheid, as it was portrayed on TV, belonged strictly to the whites.

The breakaway of video from its exclusive use as a television broadcast tool and into the hands of activists and artists is significant in South Africa. If television had been the preserve of white national identity, video became a way to develop diverse narratives about South Africa’s past and to recalibrate contemporary ideas of citizenship and belonging in the post apartheid era.

The exhibition will be presented in two parts. Part One explores ideas of memory and identity under colonialism and apartheid. Part Two surveys post apartheid South Africa as it struggles to define a new national identity amidst the significant challenges of skyrocketing unemployment, HIV/AIDS, corruption, instability, migration and xenophobia


The piece I saw was likely a part of the second part addressing “new identities.” It consisted of a pale man in pancake make-up, dressed in bondage gear with rather severe heels wearing a tutu made from a crystal chandelier wandering through an impoverished urban ruin. I watched the Africans staring incredulously at this specatacle, partly amused and partly angry. After about five minutes of viewing, it just really got under my skin. You have the opportunity to communicate the reality of South Africa to a foreign audience and this is what you come up with? I didn’t note the artist’s name, and I can’t find any information about the piece online. It soured me so that I just couldn’t face any of the other pieces.

Just prior to this, I had completed a class where I had freshman students read Martha Rosler’s complex piece “In Around Afterthoughts (on documentary photography.” It’s a challenge for them (it’s really challenging even for most graduate students) and the payoff is kind of weird. I’ve used it several times before in other classes, but this last time it really came together for me. It’s primarily and indictment of the deployment of liberal documentary, scathing in tone and simplistic in its reading of several important instances of documentary (particularly Lange’s Migrant Mother. We read this after doing sections from An American Exodus to provide a dissenting voice to their generally positive reaction to the importance of documentary.

Rosler, an artist and educator, proposes that to pursue the trajectory of liberal documentary is to participate in the apparatus of subjection that creates social problems in the first place. It is better, in her view, to produce a new sort of documentary that amounts to an elaborate and sophisticated mind game for liberal art consumers that forces them to face the fact that human suffering cannot be adequately communicated through conventional descriptive systems. This time, the students got it—to photograph poverty as a spectacle perpetuates it. It was a powerful moment in the class, and yet faced with a variant of this mode of thought in a San Francisco art gallery I was repulsed by its elitist childishness.

The exhibition in the adjoining room, “United in Nima: Bay Area and Ghanaian Youth Share Lives Through the Lens” was even worse. The images were gorgeous. I was particularly taken by a delicately printed night scene in one of the poorest villages in Ghana. I read the placard to find that it was taken by a 9-year-old. To place matters into perspective, what the project consists of is handing out a bunch of disposable cameras to poor children (the familiar “shooting back” strategy) to provide an ostensibly “accurate” portrayal of the world that these children inhabit.

The concept has always seemed to be a valuable one to me before, but somehow faced with the evidence here it seemed to be dangerous and exploitive. I feel reasonably sure that the child had not picked these vague silhouettes out as the image of his life; it was the curators of the show. In fact, in the name of giving these children “voice” the entire project ultimately transforms these children into ventriloquist’s dummies for western art sensibilities. This was not a show, this was a fund-raiser for visual tourism where the participants can then travel to another exotic place and place cameras in the hands of the natives to see what sort of accidental masterpieces they might create.

My main interest in my themed composition class has been to expose students to just how difficult it is to communicate another reality to people in an effective way. Photographs mirror the role of citations, and I use an essay by John Berger to cement that connection. The children’s photographs on display here seem like the most patronizing form of citation, a citation that distorts the world and provides little new information about it. It’s simply a tourist trap, clothed as social advocacy.

That said, I believe in this sort of project. I think that more children should have the opportunity to photograph their world. The crime is in the curation, the packaging of the products as being somehow a reflection of anything but a curator’s favorite travel porn, brought to you by Adobe. I felt dirty after viewing it.

Adobe’s program seems to have it’s heart in the right place, but with such a ham-fisted and sanitized execution that strips any real sense of individuality, I may be forced to reevaluate my position. They should be allowed to be children, not aesthetic Raggedy Anne and Andy dolls dressed up for the white people.

I remember when I first read that Martha Rosler article, (text-pdf sans images). back in 1992 or so. I hated it. I thought that she made a mockery of documentary and I was offended. Now, I’m oddly grateful that I have a better understanding of documentary’s complexity because of it. It’s been the process of teaching the article that’s done that, not just reading it. This is one reason why I am not looking forward to giving up teaching.