Taking positions: Art, education and social space

Art and education don’t always see eye to eye. Often, from an artistic point of view, education has been relegated to providing value enhancement to cultural production and has been viewed under the threat of diminishing the quality of the critical position. From the perspective of education and social action, the artist’s work is frequently considered as not very open to multidisciplinary collaboration, with little ability to influence specific contexts or without continuing to work in processes spanning long periods of time. The approach from which ACVic has positioned itself heads in the direction that these biased views do not rule out the ability to define new settings and to demonstrate that they have been superseded by projects that act in a newly critical way towards these types of attitudes.

If we understand education as the production of experiences and if the knowledge and values that spring from it result in the activation and participation of the social space, we are reaffirming the political meaning of education. If we conduct this transformative potential of educational practice along with artistic practices that share the transformative aspect and put it in relation with the context (urban space, social space and temporary space), the production of knowledge, values and experiences can generate new cultural policies and learning based on collective processes. The educator and theorist Paulo Freire1 said that education is not neutral but is always political, and that educational practice does not exist without ethics or aesthetics. If we combine aesthetic practices with educational commitment (or artistic commitment with educational processes), we will certainly open new perspectives from the field of education and the art world, which will roll out forms of learning based on specific experiences in the region. If these experiences are enriched by complex contemporary contexts, we will learn to know ourselves better, improve our understanding of the cultures that compose it and enhance our critical reasoning abilities in the face of rapid change and an overwhelming barrage of messages, and the experiences will probably be able to convey art’s abilities to articulate collective experiences with a desire for change in different ways.

From this starting point and as an experimental field of action, the relation between art and education aims not only to educate through art or search for new audiences for art, but above all attempts to create situations in which it is possible to experiment with the transmission of knowledge and the exchange of experiences and conduct research in artistic production, all while using techniques and methods that let us communicate and transmit it through the incorporation or revitalisation of social dynamics. The general lines upon which the ACVic programme is based revolve around three interconnected aspects: artistic production, educational work and relationship networks. Most of the activities that fall under this approach are carried out through the programmes EXPO, EDU and LAB, searching for ways to get involved audiences, users and stakeholders to gradually join a project malleable enough that it can encompass all those practices committed to the social space that are likely to be related to artistic practices. In fact, it is a transversal space where various practices intersect, some of which can be linked together through a common project.

Through the looking glass, the exhibition

Artistic practices should reflect the daily conflicts that converge on the social sphere. One of the topics of this contemporary debate relates to the change of paradigm ushered in by new technologies in the field of global communication. Even though art is sometimes considered as belonging to marginal areas of contemporary activities, it cannot help but form part of this wide spectrum of communication. Art, just like communication, is clearly affected by many changes brought about by new technologies, in conjunction with the Internet.

With the exhibition Through the looking glass, Joan Fontcuberta fully engages a number of issues that are critical in this contemporary discussion. The exhibition offers a reflection on the importance and increase of imagery, the proliferation of artists in the face of a transformation in the traditional concept of authorship, the ease in producing images, the loss of control over them, the potential for viral dissemination and dispersion through the Internet and threats to notions of privacy faced with privacy put on public display, all boosted and brought to the fore by the use of social networks and, in this case, intersecting it with the artistic perspective. Compiling these images of people photographed in front of a mirror, most published and spread through social networks, and projecting them in a superimposition of specular self-portraits, the exhibition space is transformed, hinging on the confluence of many superimposed images, turning it into the saturated scene of a spectacle of overflowing subjectivity where, as Joan Fontcuberta says, “playful self-examination prevails over memory”. The exhibition also has a device equipped with a camera and software so visitors can add their own self-portraits to the exhibition.

Once when he was presenting part of his work, Joan Fontcuberta said that broadly speaking there are two kinds of photography: that which pertains to decorative work and that which is located in the field of thought; that which embellishes and that which makes us think. Since the beginning, he has worked in the field of photography that induces reflection, subverting reality and creating a new one written into the viewer’s mind. This is the challenge and the starting point in most of his work: articulating a group of images that orient or disorient the viewer towards certain realities (or para-realities) in order to question, debate or simply induce reflection, urging the viewer to assume an active role. But when the images multiply and multiply, as is the case here, reflection ought to come from the meaning of the whole. Here the Internet is the medium and the message: a means for multiplication and a message that reaches us saturated. Our perspective is conditioned by these mechanisms. An image can make us think, but the multiplication of images does not make us think proportionally; on the contrary it confuses and stupefies us. The artist gives us a mirror that reflects a reality saturated with visual information, a subversive way to exercise social control. The excessive information hinders our ability to concentrate, to reflect and to think.

The construction of images and the representation of the world no longer belongs to a select group of artists, whether they be photographers, filmmakers, reporters, video artists, draughtsmen, painters or people working in any branch of contemporary artistic creation. Image technologies are those that have evolved swiftest towards democratisation and generalised use, and not just in the field of image creation, but in the context of communication as a whole. The contemporary environment has brought about profound changes regarding the production, dissemination and consumption of texts, images, sounds, infographics and data is such a way that the production, interpretation, publication and reception of images can no longer be understood as uni-directional (sender, message, recipient). Recipient are senders at the same time and then become producers of images, since the ease in doing so with new technologies has allowed producer-consumers’ message-images to increase exponentially. On the other hand, public communication has broken up in order to address individual users; messages are tailored to individuals or groups that share affinities. Recent radical changes have led to raising new paradigms of communication with the appearance of the current media landscape provided by the Internet. José Luis Orihuela has systematised these changes in ten points to explain the move towards e-communication.>2 In abridged form, they are: (1) the user becomes the axis around which the communicational process spins; (2) content as a vector of identity should be accessible from various platforms, brand imagery conveys value through credibility and prestige; (3) multimedia languages have become democratised and universalised, different media come together on the Internet and all informational supports converge (text, photography, video, audio, graphics, animations); (4) information and content updates are provided in real time, and this is expanding with the rising use of social networks, which in turn are real-time story multipliers; (5) from scarcity to abundance, we have moved from restricted channels of communication to an excess of information, and with it to excess management; (6) the lack of mediation in communicational processes leads to a discussion environment that involves searching for and editing information, the contrast of sources and a sense of opportunity; in brief, aspects that affect professional authorship; (7) the emphasis on system access acquires value and is given priority, provided that distribution is multi-directional and asymmetrical; (8) the various dimensions of interactivity, from uni-directionality to dynamic, immediate and participatory communication; (9) hypertext as the grammar of the digital world, which includes a branched and intertwined reading system; and (10) the new appreciation of knowledge above information. The management of knowledge, its dissemination and the creation of a critical mass (users) become some of the main reasons for concern for any sender-recipient who is also a user-content producer in a universal communicational space.

Most people possess many technological devices that allow for frenetic multitasking activities, and people have increasingly had to adapt to this need to do several different things at once. The youngest seem to have it in their DNA. This does not mean that the same level of concentration is maintained for the different tasks. In fact, rather than technologies of information, they tend towards dispersion. Clearly, the device that concentrates this whole group of devices most effectively is the mobile phone, due to its compilation of patents and a reduced space that lets us talk on the telephone, browse the Internet, connect to any social network, take photos and use geolocalisation, listen to music, record audio, send messages, play, record high-definition video, upload it to the Internet and use a whole series of constantly increasing applets that depend on the imagination of software developers and the fabulous telephone business; a business divided between a few large multinationals that exploit technological “democratisation” through products that bring people together in an increasingly reduced space, one of the greatest inventions of our globalised age. Even through the telephone is clearly the pioneer, many other, more specialised products should also be taken into account that also allow users to combine communication (relating with others) with archive functions (knowledge and recording) and content distribution (globalised dissemination) through still or moving images, messages, texts, tweets, blogs, posts, etc. The multiplication of media and their interrelations expand the possibilities for voices in the public sphere and increase the possibility of self-management and of building socialisation networks that inevitably affect the socio-political space. “The proliferation of these lesser media inventions means that there is a growing number of alternative views advertised about our social reality, which creates the possibility of a growing diversity of focal points and voices in the public domain.”3 In a lecture given by Joan Fontcuberta at the University of Vic as part of the exhibition “Through the looking glass”, he said that once, before today’s technological explosion, when he was providing consultation for a company that was carrying out a study, he was asked his opinion on whether or not he thought a telephone could take photos. He replied that such a device would be an utter failure. That was a time when good photos depended on good cameras, which were unaffordable for most mortals. Obviously, time has proven his view wrong, and he added that if they had asked him his opinion on a camera that let you make telephone calls, he very probably would have said yes, that would be a great invention.

Fontcuberta’s comment demonstrates his sense of irony and his ability to adapt to new settings, but it simultaneously raises the unavoidable anguish that this change of paradigm spurred on by new technologies has meant – and continues to mean – for many photographers. The fact that they are affordable technologies and the possibility that they have a large number of people devoting most of their time to them has facilitated their expansion. The delayed incorporation of young people into the job market, the many people who are out of work and the conquest of the right to leisure time by those who work, all contribute to the proliferation of images and texts that continually circulate through social networks. Indeed, it is not just the management of free time that allows for so much communicational activity (as well as time spent consuming and sending out images), but also the need to constantly feed the circulation and dissemination of content, which makes companies, professionals, associations, NGOs and any other project that aims to provide value equally dependent on these technologies and an Internet connection. And whoever is not present in this virtual public space ceases to exist. The transformation of productive economies into service economies, with greater needs for communication and multiplying markets, the demise of full employment with a resulting increase in available time, the transition from a society of work to a society of knowledge and an entire string of changes that have gradually become accentuated, each contribute in their own way to increasing the presence in these new virtual (and real) public spaces. In a political economy based on insecurity and the society of risk4 and where the social engine is still characterised by speed, the anguish of many photographers in these days of image ultra-productivity and the appearance of new roles is only comparable to the frustration of painters when photography first appeared in society. At that time, painting had to change tack radically to survive the competition posed by a combination of scientific inventions (optic, chemical, mechanical) involving representation. In the same way that the appearance of the first daguerreotypes around 1839 were supposed to portend the end of painting, at the beginning of the 1990s, William J. Mitchell5 thought that digital imagery had radically and permanently displaced photography, and with it one of the values still upheld by analogical images, which is the visual guarantee of reality. The digital image obliterated this with its ease of manipulation and the disappearance of the concept of the original and its copies. As Fontcuberta points out in an article published in the “Cultura/s” supplement of the newspaper, “Cutting away the moorings of its foundational values, abandoning historical prescriptions of truth and memory, photography no longer provides testimony: all that remains of the photograph is the post-photograph”.6

This is an article that clearly explains his vision of the contemporary art world in relation with photography, with new technologies, with our social context, with the circulation of information and with access to it (what he calls the aesthetics of access), and he presents a ten commandments that lucidly summarise the essential aspects of the existing tension, provoked by their change in paradigm that fully affects the contemporary arts. Some of them include the dissipation of roles in contemporary artistic creation (artist, curator, professor, producer, etc.), the circulation and management of images over content, the economy of recycling over the new production of images, sharing more than possessing and the dissolution of the concept of authorship.

This contemporary situation on the subject of authorship is nothing more than a prolongation of the end of authors, predicted by Roland Barthes in 1967:7 a situation that not only affects photography, but the practice of art in its entirety. The production of images has turned into a widespread practice; if anybody could be the author, then the author is probably increasingly unimportant or takes on a testimonial and temporary importance. What does grow in interest is the global phenomenon that orders and gives meaning to the disperse and prolific whole. In the art world, it is the biennials, festivals and large events that are collectively constructed, consumed and shared; a kind of reproduction of the Internet’s excessive information, but by means of routes selected and ordered to give a certain meaning to the permanent chaos of the public sphere in a disoriented, culturally diverse and globalised world.

The huge production of images and texts that give and will give meaning to today’s ethnological studies in the future take shape on the Internet. Here, Joan Fontcuberta has turned this subject into the basis for his most recent artistic production, as well as the reason for his research into a contemporary artistic practice based on post-photography in a post-Fordist context.

1 Paulo Freire Pedagogía del compromiso, Barcelona, Hipatia Editorial, 2009.

2 José Luis Orihuela, “Los nuevos paradigmas de la comunicación”, eCuaderno, 2002. Available online at: < http://www.ecuaderno.com/paradigmas>.

3 Andreas Broeckmann, “Engage.net: estrategias mediáticas menores para la fotografia en internet” [2000], in Jorge Luis Marzo (ed.), Fotografia y activismo. Textos y prácticas (1979-2000), Barcelona, Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2006, p. 367-371.

4 For more on these topics, see Ulrich BeckUn nuevo mundo feliz. La precariedad del trabajo en la era de la globalización, Barcelona, Paidós, 2007.

5 Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, Cambridge,MIT Press, 1994, p. 23-57.

6< Joan Fontcuberta, “Por un manifiesto postfotográfico”, Cultura/s [La Vanguardia, Barcelona], no. 464 [11 May 2011].

7 However, Roland Barthes felt that the end of authors refers to the rise of the spectator, since he interprets the work and thereby acquires an author-like responsibility because he is the one who ends up giving meaning to texts and artworks. The dissolution of authorship in today’s world is a discourse constructed above all from Internet use, the reappropriation of images and the philosophy of open code software, where authorship is shared.