Ghost in the Machine

By Lisa Hunter on September 18, 2013

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Every two years, Montreal’s Mois de la Photo makes me do a double-take. Suddenly, billboard-sized images appear around town that aren’t trying to sell me lipstick or car insurance. Public spaces I’d normally pass through without notice become pop-up photography galleries. And museums with widely different mandates—from architecture to history to fine arts—all have photo exhibitions related to a central theme.

It’s a bit like being back in university, where you’re constantly and casually surrounded by smart ideas, even without making a special effort to seek them out.

This year’s edition of Mois de la Photo, Drone: The Automated Image, is an intriguing, high-concept show by London curator Paul Wombell. It explores the idea of “author-less” types of images like Google Earth, photo booths, and surveillance-camera footage. In Drone, we’re reminded that humans can be stripped out of the process of photography.

So, is a camera like a shark that glides aimlessly through the sea, its mouth open for whatever happens to be in its path? Or is it something more?

A camera does have certain advantages. It can see things we can’t, and go places we can’t go—whether inside our bodies or outside our solar system. With robotic and computer technology, the camera isn’t just our tool anymore. As Wombell points out, it has its own agency. Is there literally a ghost in the machine?

If a camera can function as our eyes and hands, does that humanize technology, or dehumanize humans? Some of the most interesting viewpoints come from artists—such as David K. Ross and Jana Sterbak—whose work is also in the National Gallery’s collection.

Several explored the idea of splitting up the camera and [human] photographer. David K. Ross, for instance, attached a camera to Montreal’s iconic beacon in Place Ville Marie, to “see” what the beacon sees. Jana Sterbak mounted a camera on a Jack Russell terrier, to show our world in a way that challenges human-centric assumptions. (If you’ve never noticed how often photos are taken at our own eye level, you will after seeing her show.)

For a loftier viewpoint, Sterbak’s work is paired with Kevin Schmidt’s High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio. Schmidt attached a camera to a weather balloon to take images outside the stratosphere. Where does a human fit into his vision? You’re it. As his images are projected against a wall, you stand in front of them, creating silhouettes. The result is a hybrid collaboration of technology and humanity.

But there’s more to Drone than, well, drones.

Max Dean’s installation, As Yet Untitled, presents a robotic arm that either “archives” or shreds family photos—the most personal, emotional type of photography there is. The viewer gets to choose the picture’s fate; either way, the photograph is effectively “dead.”

Cheryl Sourkes also riffs on highly personal snapshots. In Everybody’s Autobiography and Facebook Albums, she explores how our social media images and voyeurism collide. In constantly documenting our lives, we have, in a sense, become our own drones.

Barbara Probst explores the idea of cameras taking pictures of cameras. In an empty apartment, she set up multiple cameras on timers, so that they continually document one another. It’s sort of like a hall of mirrors, where you see reflections of reflections that never seem to end.

Michel Campeau’s exhibition, Industrial Splendour and Fetishism: The Bruce Anderson Collection, is also, literally, cameras taking pictures of cameras. His large-scale photographs of analog cameras have a discomforting documentary quality. If you’ve ever seen a natural history archive where curators pull open drawers of taxidermy tropical birds or butterflies, you know what I mean. You only see things laid out like this when they’re dead.

Is photography as we know it dead? As usual, the Mois de la Photo gives us a lot to think about. I’m not sure a month is long enough.

Le  Mois de la Photo à Montréal is on view until 5 October, 2013. Click here for artist information and exhibition sites.


By Lisa Hunter| September 18, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lisa Hunter

Lisa Hunter

Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.

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