Museums at Night: Koonsbury

by Beauchamp Art

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Museums At Night: Koonsbury Festival [Selection]

 

A selection of the photos taken for the Museums At Night: Koonsbury Festival event.

I was asked to perform my freelance photography services for the Museums at Night: Koonsbury Festival event at the Norwich Castle. As there were multiple performances, including: a recurring flash mob, fire-breathers and the more, there was a fair amount to cover. I attempted to find where different activities overlapped, although this still resulted in having nearly 500 pictures, which was cut down to around 150. From this I selected 50 key images to included in my portfolio of work, (although I am including the full series in my submission). Nevertheless, this 50 may be cut down to a more manageable number alongside the rest of my photography later on.

Documenting the various events went well, though the vibrant activity of the dancers’ intermittent musical flash-mobbing evidently dominated the series. I believe some of the most successful images were those that best embody the atmosphere of the event and would be most useful for the Castle for promotional purposes. These involved multiple actives were happening simultaneously within the frame. Such as having Nicole Hudson’s giant pink bean bag being clamoured over in the foreground, with hula-hooping children alongside the Gaga dancers in the mid ground, in front of stilt-walkers leaning over and other events happing in the background.

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All the central Koonsbury events were amongst the stone work and Medieval artefacts leaning in, creating a peculiar dialogue between the static historical and the modern movement, with an undercurrent of contemporary Koonsian consumerism evident in the chrome clad dancers and silver polished plates in glass cabinets. All contained, all objects to be subjected to the camera, in the final act of consumption, whether through my photography or the virulent smart-phone-selfies encouraged throughout the show, placing the audience in a directly visual relationship with that which wish to be seen to be conspicuously consuming; culture through the ages, high and low, new and old, old and young.

The feedback I received from Charlie and Vivian, my peers who put me in contact with Anna Green, the event organiser, were grateful for my contribution in a voluntary role, with Anna sending a pleasant email saying, “thank you for the beautiful photos […] They’re lovely […] We really value your time, attitude, and skill” being strongly appreciated. Although not an academic appraisal, when it comes to more commercial work such as this, any feedback is appreciated. Hopefully the portfolio of images I have amassed will lead to further paid work in the future (as I contacted the SU about doing the photography for the Graduation Ball, and managed to secure that commission for a small fee, perhaps I do not have to look too far ahead).


 

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However, alongside the formal response, I also took the opportunity to reflect on my role in the event, and this opened up further room for discussion on the Photographer’s complacency in the imagery being depicted (thus the conceptual practice may feed of the voluntary-commercial).

This complacency posits the photography both alongside the audience, so that they are willing to accept what is being seen without interfering, but also forming a more direct, performative engagement with that which is the object of attention. Needless to say, the presence of the photographer’s gaze has in itself a consequence. As with quantum particles, the act of looking affects what is seen, and so the act of documenting and recalling images of events could be seen to alter the reception and the activation of that event within social space. For example, when photographing the dancers and the surrounding audience, the figures respond: they pose, they look into the middle distance; audiences part, they frame themselves, they are held in mid step.

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Though it could be observed that they are not reacting to the photographer but rather the camera, and the relationship between the operator, the picture-box, and the subject becomes foregrounded in such a way that a person standing and looking would not illicit the same response, the ‘respect of the gaze’ would be reduced. However, this response is a socially learnt behaviour, and is not inert. As was evidenced by many of the younger children amongst the crowd, who would either ignore the camera (given its total irrelevance to them and its lack of context), or would respond with a caricature of the learnt adult response.

The children would not simply pose, sit still and quietly, as in some of the pictures of the figures on the ‘throne’ (a chair given ceremony by the events afoot, fittingly so for the castle-bound context), but rather they would over-perform, mocking the formalities attributed to how an adult is taught to behaviour before the camera. They pull faces and grimace, flailing limbs and throwing shapes in a manner that may be deemed as a satire of the expectation of the act of being photographed.

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This could be due to the child’s explicit awareness of the camera’s presence as a disturbance in the ‘normal’ social practices of shared space, where as for the adult figures, who have learned that the camera’s near-ubiquity is the status-quo in the West (especially at public events featuring activities associated with wealthy figures, like Jeff Koons), so they do not identify the imposition of the camera so obliquely, it is simply there, the camera is meant to be part of the background to which one must frame oneself, to perform an idealising photographic reality over the un-photogenic un-staged passage of events. Mischief is the basis of questioning the arbitrary standards of unquestioned authority, without which the cliché marches on, resistant to change or deformation. If all the world’s a stage, the child pulls at the curtains whilst the adult poses before the audience.

Like any uniform or costume, people respond to certain items, pops, movements. People tense when the lens fall on them, as they are being look at to be contained, and like a gun being draw, the flight or flight response engages. Figures attempt to duck and dive or freeze in place. The photographer’s desire to be invisible whilst in the immediate presence of a responsive dynamic crowd simple posits the Sniper in Ghillie Suit on the front line, letting off rapid fire shots in a paparazzi war zone: where every one is a photographer, everyone is a model (an object to be subjected to the gaze), and of course everyone is a critic.

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The social media feedback loop of instantly uploaded Instagram or Facebook photos position the audience in a relationship unlike that of the film photographer subject, as they gain an editorial role. Not just in selecting a range of viewing platforms and devices, but also by ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ images do they displace a fix perspective, a fixed audience, a fixed site from which to be cited. The subject in this scenario could be seen to the audience, but one that is also  able to expropriate their position as one that is seen to be totally passive (though evidently is not, see how even the background figure may choose to pose or ignore the camera, both are equally active engagements, it it just that one makes their presence within the frame more outwardly controlled for the benefit of the camera if a figure choose to adjust their standing or break their stride for the photographer, rather than internalising a self-control to not display an external acknowledgement of the presence of the camera). The photographer could be seen as an extension of the central event, functioning as a satellite performer.

It could be interesting to propose an exhibition with a live photographer as a performer, the photos subsequently displayed. But unlike with the use of polaroid cameras, the is no direct feed back with the audience, only the camera operator and their subsequent decision to display the image, on or offline. Thus the pictures are taken and hidden, those before the lens are subject to a disempowering gaze that mimics a ground level Panopticon, a humanoid CCTV, where the photographer becomes a camera with legs, though not an unbiased vision machine but a highly mediated figure that may present a representational aesthetic designed to convey verisimilitude.

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With these images, it may also be worth considering how the performance and my images posit the female figure, as it could be observed that the dancing female figures are themselves being overtly objectified and dehumanised by their juxtaposition alongside museum and gallery objects, chrome mirroring silver, counterposing the potential of the human becoming a commodity. In this way, this could be seen as an appropriated extension of Koons’ practice who seeks to make commodification his art, make the assignment of value that which is the focal point of value, the transformation from the banal to the desirable, the water into wine; things for corporate consumption.

“She’s a model and she’s looking good. I’d like to take her home that’s understood. […] It only takes a camera to change her mind” [Kraftwerk, 1978]. The photographer is not exempt from this objectification, but a primary perpetrator, much as the painter used their trade to portray figures to be sold as status symbols, tokens of ownership of a valuable artwork but also of that which is being depicted, whether that be a landscape or figure. Such as in Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s 1800 Portrait d’une Négresse, depicting a female figure with bare breast, an especially interesting example as it also confounds the history of slave ownership with the role of women.

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In this image, with Benoist herself being a white, French bourgeoisie, neoclassical painter, and  following the recent abolishing of slavery, she offers a parallel between the dichotomy of female emancipation of slave reform, querying the relationship between subject as object and owner. As the image may have been symbolic in liberation terms, but it is still a commercial object to be traded, and with that ownership of the image through which the person is extended beyond the framework of the body, part of the person is being sold without consent.

Similarly, as social media sites like Facebook and image hosting sites like Flickr maintain the rights over the photos users upload, so users do not pay with money but with themselves; their avatar in cyberspace is prostituted. But it already has been observed that  “the purpose of Facebook is to harvest, organise and store as much personal information as possible to be flogged, ready-sifted and stratified, to advertisers. […] We aren’t Facebook users, we’re its product” [Jeffries, 2014] Once a picture is taken and distributed, the control may slip beyond the grasp of both photographer and subject.

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As the female figures were performing for the mixed audience of young and old male and females then the relationship between the young dancers and each of these demographics may vary greatly. They become a spectacle to be gawped at, to be imitated by the surrounding girls, to be seen by the boys as be their toys. And for their parents to look in a mix of interest, curiosity, concern, revulsion and attraction. With fathers watching late adolescent females gyrating adjacent toddlers spinning in hula-hoops, the same rotary pelvic action driving guilty testosterone driven fathers to quickly avert their gaze upwards should they be seen to be looking at that which is been drawn to their attention.

The provocation evoking a moral quandary for the middle aged male in particular, though this deliberate use of the taboo is fairly typical in Koons’ work, especially when considered in conjunction with the Lady Gaga (with whom Koons has collaborated) influenced dancers. The performed alongside the gallery in a event marketed as family friendly. This is not to simple repeat the idiom, ‘will somebody please think of the children’, as if the context is explained to them then there is no reason why the event should be viewed as a negative influence, perpetuating sexist gender role placing women amongst the other ornaments.

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However, this is not exclusive to how the performance may be seen by men, since it regards the sexualising of young women, or specifically; their commodification and context-based dehumanisation that makes individual’s more able to easily personal objectify someone. But it is worth considering the particularly loaded perspective of the privileged white male gaze plays when it is directed at young girls. To put it crudely, they came for art and were present with arse (sie kamen für die Kunst, und sehen Kunt), but it softies role to amend this presumption of the situation, rather than directing shame on the parties involved. Overall, the event provide a generous opportunity for photographic exploration, with some activities more (academically) provocative than others.

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References:

Jeffries, Stuart. (2014) How the web lost its way – and its founding principles. The Guardian [Online] <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/24/internet-lost-its-way-tim-berners-lee-world-wide-web&gt; Accessed 25.8.2014

Kraftwerk. (1978) The Model [Song] Prod. Hetter, Ralf; Schneider, Florian. EMI Kling Klang. Germany.

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