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As many of you will be aware, Noorderlicht Photo Gallery and Photo Festival are threatened with closure if the Dutch government decides to go ahead with advice – by the Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture – to cut €500,000 in funding. That amount represents 50% of Noorderlicht’s annual budget.
As many of you will also be aware, I have been a public champion of Noorderlicht. Last month I described my delight with working with the professionals at Noorderlicht; the post covers all the reasons I believe Noorderlicht is unique, principled and vitally important to the documentary tradition, as well as to all discourses within photography.
I won’t repeat myself here then in this post. Instead, I’d like to look at some of the language used by both the Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture (or the The Cultural Council of The Netherlands, as it is alternatively known) and Noorderlicht.
Noorderlicht has operated since 1980. It’s history and growth is impressive. There can be no mistake, Noorderlicht is of international importance. This is a fact, I think, the Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture has paid least attention to. The Dutch are known for their exception book design, but in Noorderlicht they have an international pioneer in the genre of socially engaged documentary.
Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. The Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture characterises Noorderlicht as having to heavy a focus on documentary work and not enough participation in “the art discourse, theoretical reflection and experimental development.”
Up front and to the point, Noorderlicht quotes the Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture, listing the most direct of criticisms:
‘The figures for fund raising and sponsoring give evidence of limited insight.’ ‘Disappointing income of their own.’ ‘Because of the complex character it draws only a small audience.’ ‘Conveyance of information by discourse appears to weigh more heavily than visual qualities.’ ‘The number of visitors was very low.’ ‘Concrete plans in the area of education and an outreach to a wider public are lacking.’ ‘There is a concern that the peripheral programming with debates and publications is being privileged at the expense of appealing presentations.’
Noorderlicht does this in order to respond square on:
“Noorderlicht reaches a wider public than institutions that did receive a positive recommendation, has remained critical and self-critical, has generated great enthusiasm and earned an international reputation that the whole of The Netherlands can be proud of. That must not be allowed to be lost.”
Noorderlicht’s overall rebuttal goes into details of how it has “met all criteria.”
Ton Broekhuis, Noorderlicht director, wrote in an open letter to Joop Daalmeijer, president of the Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture:
“I dare to say that the Cultural Council’s final verdict on Noorderlicht was made on the wrong grounds; by this I mean purely theoretical, and certainly in terms of the interpretation of our quantitative data. You advise some whose requests were accepted to generate larger audiences and work on their business model. Noorderlicht has already accomplished these things. And yes, that was at the expense of the elitist, hothouse art debate.”
The politics of funding must also be examined. Noorderlicht argue regional inequalities and bias are at play:
Of the thirteen Northern institutions that several years ago were still financed wholly or in part by national disbursements, only four remain. Certainly in Groningen, where for instance all dance and all visual art is being scrapped, the clear fell is complete. A region where 17% of the country’s population lives is being palmed off with a disproportionately small share in national subsidies. The Council has clearly chosen for the Randstad (the conglomerate of big cities in the west of the Netherlands) and for a number of big players. In itself, this is not surprising: when only 10% of all the advisors come from outside the Randstad, a certain Randstad myopia is built into the process.
Dutch National Advisory Board for Culture also criticised Noorderlicht for not collaborating enough across the Netherlands. Noorderlicht’s response:
Why should Noorderlicht, as an autonomous institution which has set itself the task of operating internationally from the North of The Netherlands, have to show how it works with other institutions in the country? Are institutions in the Randstad also asked how they work together with national institutions in the region? How often do Randstad institutions present their products in Groningen?
Noorderlicht concludes with its view on the recommendation to cease funding:
“[…] The council is making a clear first move in a debate that has become urgently necessary. For whom is art? What is the role of art in society? In any case, Noorderlicht has a less narrow view on this than the Council does.”
This is all very punchy stuff and part of what is now undeniably a noteworthy, frank and public debate.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Noorderlicht has asked supporters to record video messages of support Send the file to Noorderlicht and they’ll post it on the Noorderlicht Youtube page. You have a spare minute?
Ed Kashi, on Noorderlicht Photo Gallery and Photo Festival: “National Jewel […] It is unthinkable to think that Noorderlicht would disappear.”
Other ways to support.
– Joerg Colberg’s Open letter in support of Noorderlicht: “Noorderlicht [has been] an important member of the photographic community for many years, a community that extends beyond regional or national borders.”
– Noorderlicht Photofestival faces closure, British Journal of Photography, 22 May 2012.
You probably know about it because I haven’t been shy to promote it; it is one of my proudest achievements. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the Noorderlicht team and publish some installation shots. Part debrief, part abridged journal entries.
The show balanced two interrelated parts. One could not exist with out the other.
The main section of Cruel and Unusual looked exactly like a tradition photo show – ordered, framed prints of 11 named photographers. Cerebral and reliable. Mindful. The mind.
The counterpart was the PPOTR wall – a “mayhemic reflection” of some of the stories and images I encountered during Prison Photography on the Road. It included the photographs and quotes of another 18 photographers.
The PPOTR wall was messy, imperfect, unmediated, and attached to the core of my sprawling interest in prison imagery. It was the best solution Hester and I could think of to reflect our frantic immersion in international, blogging photo-territories. Physical, with tentacles, corporal. The body.
Body and the mind are inseparable. They communication with one another through a central nervous system. Noorderlicht, our host was backbone, nerve centre and sensitivity.
Outside of my home country (and my comfort zone) I clamped onto my host. Noorderlicht gallery connected mind and body; perfection with imperfection; polished ideas with raw, in-process threads; finished photographs with found stories.
The PPOTR wall was the first time I’ve tried to bring my sprawling project to some sort of overview suitable for visual consumption (lecture Powerpoint presentations excepted). As such, I was required to direct the PPOTR installation.
It is at the point of installation, one begins to appreciate the attitudes of the host and its staff.
As a practitioner with little experience in installation, the Noorderlicht installation team of Marco, Ype and Margriet were supportive without qualification, enthused, and willing to make gentle interventions when necessary. Their relaxed professionalism is one reflected through the organization from top to bottom. I worked with Charissa Caron on press liaison, with gallery director Olaf Veenstra on business decisions. Geert printed the work. There was always fresh coffee on hand. There were flowers in the gallery. At the opening they let dogs come in to see the artwork!
Noorderlicht is more than a workplace. It is a home.
It was somewhat of a risk for Noorderlicht to commission two photobloggers to curate. Yes, we have the knowledge and the online networks, but blogging (writing emails, forging prose, editing online galleries) is very different to herding photographers and liaising with gallery staff for a physical show.
I should say that Hester is a much more accomplished gad about phototown with a long CV of collaborations and in the past year has taken on the role of curator at large for the Empty Quarter Gallery, Dubai. Her knowledge and discipline propelled the pre-show nuts-and-bolts organizing. Without her, I’d have been knocked on my arse early in the venture.
There is a reason Noorderlicht took a risk on us though. It is because they do it often. Noorderlicht is probably best known for its international photography festival. The size and reputation of their festival is astounding given the foundation’s modest size. Take a look through the festival archives and see how many big name photographers showed their work at Noorderlicht before they became big names. They are pioneers.
Groningen is in the north of the Netherlands, 3 hours drive from Amsterdam and the rest of the cultural heart of Holland in the west and south (den Haag, Utrecht, Lieden and Rotterdam). Because of this Noorderlicht often gets overlooked or pigeonholed. I think in some cases, folk might be slow to acknowledge Noorderlicht’s accomplishments. We know how London and NYC dominate the cultural psyches of the UK and the U.S., and I think a similar imbalance persists in the Netherlands. If I am in anyway correct – and I wish I were not – then this is everybody’s loss.
The risk paid off.
Cruel and Unusual was extended by a week due to public demand. Visitor numbers have been substantial and the Dutch press went doolally over it. National radio, newspapers, magazine features – the whole shebang.
This does not surprise me. For many reasons, the subject matter is compelling. But I think the show has been a success because there is a dearth of discussion about prisons in Europe. As grand an ambition it may sound, Hester and I hoped the show would be a warning shot across the bows of Europe: DON’T REPEAT AMERICA’S MISTAKES. DON’T MASS INCARCERATE! It would seem people were hungry for Cruel and Unusual because the topic was a challenging breath of fresh air. Much of the work was also being shown in Europe for the first time. As thrilling as photography can be, I think the show was a thrill.
At the opening, were visitors from Amsterdam photo circles. It was huge validation to welcome knowledgeable folk venturing such a distance from their reliable cultural locale. Another indicator of legitimacy.
I am grateful the show was a success. Prior, I didn’t think about it; I didn’t know how to define success with a show. And I don’t know what I’d have done if it had been a flop!
I’m happy for all the beautiful staff at Noorderlicht that it has worked out. Hester and I were treated like family. That’s not an exaggeration – I’ll leave you with the words of Ton Broekhuis, Noorderlicht Foundation Director as written to me in an email following my return to the U.S.
“Pete, you mentioned ‘being welcomed into the Noorderlicht family’. You did not mention leaving the Noorderlicht family, which is reasonable. Everyone who joins the family by free will makes – at the same time – a promise to come back. Family is family. It is forever.”
PRESS FOR CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
American Photo: “There’s a wide range of photography blogs on the internet, but how would it be possible to measure their impact on the real world? It’s difficult to see the offline effect of an idea published online. […] We’re interested to see what other ways photography bloggers choose to usher their projects into the real world, and Brook certainly sounds excited. “This is going to sound crazy,” he said, “but I’ve never seen these works any bigger than 600 pixels wide on a screen.” Spoken like a true 21st-century curator.”
Elizabeth Avedon: “Noorderlicht Gallery is producing a ‘must-have’ catalog for Cruel and Unusual, designed as a newspaper by Pierre Derks in an edition of 4,000. Along with visuals from the main exhibition, the catalog contains articles, interviews, ephemera and material from photographers Pete Brook encountered during his crowd-funded road-trip through the U.S.” (One and Two and Three)
Daylight Magazine: “What steps are being taken to productively rehabilitate inmates, rather than simply secluding them from society and releasing them once their term is up? The Nooderlicht Photogallery has curated a show from nine women photographers to explore the effect that mass imprisonment has had on our sense of justice and virtue.”
Marc Feustel: “Brook and Keijser write two of the most dynamic and esoteric blogs that you will find on the web. To state the obvious, prisons are not exactly a sexy subject and the fact that they have managed to put this show together is very impressive. Instead of a ‘traditional’ exhibition catalogue, the curators have put together a newspaper in an attempt to reach more readers than an expensive photobook could. The world of photography online can be an exasperating, sprawling mess, but the fact that it can lead to projects such as this one makes it genuinely worthwhile.”
Stan Banos: “If you’re interested in documentary photography and interviews with the top notch photographers who made the work, Cruel and Unusual [newspaper] is very much worth the look.”
Greg Ruffing: “How citizens (aka taxpayers) understand the prison system and life behind bars, and how do they formulate their thoughts and convictions about mass incarceration based on the information they receive (and where that info is filtered through)? Cruel and Unusual gets to the heart of that issue by examining how prisons and prisoners are presented in images, and how those images are created, distributed, and consumed.”
Colin Pantall: “It is testament to how the internet and blogs are having a real impact that is breaking new ground and making new visual discoveries and connections.”
No Caption Needed: “Cruel and Unusual will provide another occasion to consider how the carceral system condemns those within and without, and how photography can reveal and build relationships where before there was only confinement, within and without.”
re-PHOTO: “Regular readers will know that I’ve often mentioned Pete Brook’s Prison Photography blog on these pages. He’s someone who has often raised interesting issues, both photographic and political, and the forthcoming show Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht which he is curating together with Hester Keijser looks to continue in that vein.” (One and Two)
Hamburg Art & Culture blog
Dutch free daily, De Pers ran a double spread of Scott Houston’s Arizona Female Chain Gang work. Dutch and Google translated English.
Noorderlicht has links to the De Pers article as a PDF and also a PDF of the Vrij Nederland feature on Alyse Emdur’s work (Dutch only)
And finally, a Feature Shoot interview I did with about how the road-trip and exhibition have shaped the Prison Photography “Project”.
Firstly, the message behind the exhibition is one that calls for political thought and hopefully political change. Shifts in attitudes come about through public education; it made sense to distribute information as far and wide as was possible. Not everyone can afford a photobook/catalogue, but 4,000 free copies of a newspaper nullifies the issue. Some might call the newspaper medium democratic, but I just call the solution common sense.
Secondly, we had a lot of photographers to feature. 32 pages of a tabloid-sized newspaper is a sizable amount of column inches with which to fairly deal with the many issues in the photographers’ works.
And third, Hester and I wanted to bring attention to the fact that [photo]bloggers continue to shape, react to, and distort new media economies. As we say in our curatorial statement:
“Cruel and Unusual looks at the utility of freelance online publishing. As bloggers with academic backgrounds, we happily invest time and intellectual capital in our research and writing. Our blogs and those of colleagues have become resources – almost contemporary libraries – that others utilize and perhaps even capitalise upon. For a host of reasons, printed journalism is in decline. Simultaneously, bloggers refine their messages unhindered. Related, but not necessarily causal, we want to acknowledge these two trends and the disruption at hand.”
We aren’t particularly worried about not knowing what the future holds, because for now we are propelled by opportunities to create things in the present.
SOME OTHER NEWSPRINT PHOTO PUBLICATIONS
Most people are probably aware of Alec Soth’s Last Days of W. President Bush was a constant source of partisan news stories, and Op-Ed’s on Bush were divided and divisive. Given that Bush was a leader who orbited world events without necessarily controlling them and given that he was a Commander-in-Chief whose war cabinet tried to warp media to its own message, Soth’s use of a newspaper is ironic and appropriate. Jeff Ladd noted that Soth’s subjects look worn out and exhausted as if reflecting the American psyche after eight years of Bush. A newspaper will soon yellow and show aging – perhaps Soth hoped his newspaper would be short lived like the memory of Bush and the reparations required following his presidency?
Recently, Harry Hardie at HERE has collaborated on two newsprint photo publications.
CAIRO DIVIDED (32 pages) sequences the photos of Jason Larkin with an authoritative essay (in both English and Arabic) by Jack Shenker about suburbanization around Egypt’s capital. Since January 25th of 2011, Egypt has not been out the news, and yet this project is not about revolution. It is however about poverty, wealth and class stratification and as such provides a good context for the revolution in Egypt. Excellent design with eye-opening photographs. Highly recommended. More info here.
Guy Martin’s The Missing is borne of a collaboration between Panos Pictures, HERE and Martin’s alma mater The University of Falmouth. Each of its 48 pages has a large image of a missing poster photographed by Guy Martin. The posters “adorned the walls of the courthouse and justice rooms on Benghazi’s seafront.” Martin estimates that in Libya, 30,000 men are missing after the 8 month conflict. As such, the quasi-legal vernacular documents he re-photographed in-situ were the making of “communal place of memory and mourning.” The newspaper acts as a bulletin existing somewhere between the makeshift and the permanent; between memory and knowing; and – as with those pictured – in ambiguous flux with time. More info here.
Shifting gears, Portrait Salon 11 is not about political events. It is, however, a political stand against institutional exclusion. In the tradition of the 1863 French Salon des Refuses, the London-based Portrait Salon is a curated showcase of photographs that were submitted but not selected for the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. The use of a newspaper is a mischievous challenge to the immobility of a gallery exhibition that chose 60 works from 6,000 submissions; the newspaper can move cheaply and in large quantities beyond gallery walls. Furthermore, the accompanying Portrait Salon exhibition projected portraits in order to include more photography and not be limited by physical space. The exhibition and newspaper were organised by Miranda Gavin, Wayne Ford and others. For purchase.
I’ve highlighted these projects and in each case tried to justify why the choice of newsprint was appropriate and theoretically consistent. I believe that the Cruel and Unusual newspaper is those things too.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL: AVAILABLE ONLINE
A non-printable, non-downloadable, non-alterable screen-preview version is available online.
Starting February 18, the newspaper is also available for free in the Noorderlicht Photogallery and for sale in the webshop.
The exhibition is split into two sections: 1, a traditional presentation of 11 photographers, and 2, a heady mayhemic wall of work-prints, background material contact sheets from Prison Photography on the Road (PPOTR).
Similarly, the newspaper is divided into two sections. A 20 page PPOTR pullout is enveloped in 12 pages of descriptions of the photographers in the main part of the exhibition.
Below are the opening page and the back page of the PPOTR pullout. The portrait on the opening page was made by Tim Matsui who documented my workshop at Sing Sing Prison.
The back page is a list of 32 of our favourite international photography blogs with QR codes linking to their websites. This was our cheeky riff on the classifieds section of newspapers!
And below are two pairings of PDF pages and Hester’s photographs of the actual printed object. The paper is really beautiful … so Hester tells me; I’ve not held one yet! I would like to thank the designer Pierre Derks who worked with Hester and I. He has expertise, patience and put in some hard graft.