Archive for the ‘Mishka Henner’ tag
Mishka Henner belongs to a small but growing group of artists who, instead of purely using the internet as a promotional tool for their work, appropriate photographic images circulating on the world wide web to create innovative artworks that question a clear definition of authorship, ownership and originality. Born in Belgium and based in Manchester, Henner’s break-through project is No Man’s Land: an eerie collection of images appropriated from Google Street View which depict prostitutes apparently waiting for clientele on the outskirts of Spanish and Italian cities. In contrast to the luscious surroundings of the Mediterranean, the scantily clad women standing at the edge of the road allude to the harsh and repressive conditions of the sex trade. The prostitutes’ marginal socio-economic status is cleverly signified by their position in the landscape: on the edge of the road, on the edge of the city and on the edge of society. Perhaps because of the voyeuristic nature of the project, No Man’s Land took the internet by storm since it first came out as a self-published book in early 2011. This is one of the characteristics of a new breed of online savvy artists: for them the internet functions both as a source and as outlet for their art.
Similar to works by the German artist Joachim Schmid or, more recently, the Canadian artist Jon Rafman, Henner’s project raises an important question about authorship and ownership. Like Schmid and Rafman, Henner appropriates images which are produced by Google’s omnipresent cameras and then made available to the public via the various Google platforms. In other words, the initial production and eventual availability of the image – supposedly for the benefit of Google’s economic growth – is a precondition for Henner’s appropriation. The image would not exist if it wasn’t for Google’s investment; photographing, cataloguing and mapping virtually every street, road and highway in the industrialized world. Henner’s authority on the subject does not stem from producing the image, but rather, it stems from recognizing a pattern, collecting, assembling and publishing images that, in sum, produce a meaning that would have otherwise been lost in cyberspace. Here, Henner has more in common with a curator whose skill lies in identifying, locating, exhibiting and theoretically contextualizing images.
Since the images from Google Street View are freely available online to everyone with an internet connection, artists working with such images consistently encounter issues regarding originality. For instance, a photograph of a black woman standing on the side of the road in the Italian countryside appears both in Henner’s No Man’s Land and also Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes – the title of which refers to the nine cameras mounted on top of Google’s cars that traverse up and down the country (I have written about this work extensively in my last post). In spite of slightly different cropping and image coloration, it is unclear whether Rafman borrowed from Henner or vice versa. This case is perhaps less indicative of the universal availability of appropriated images than it is indicative of how these images are sourced. Rather than aimlessly traversing virtual roads and streets online, Henner’s methodology partially relies on other internet users making a discovery of the odd, the curious, or, in this case, the deeply voyeuristic image from Google’s image archive. In that sense, Henner sources the dynamics of the masses both in the sense that he is searching for individual images amongst an immeasurable mass of images, and also, that this search is facilitated by an anonymous mass of people unwittingly aiding Henner in his project.
Apart from collecting and appropriating photographs, it is important to note that Henner is a photographer himself. In his series In a Foreign Field, Henner photographed young music fans descending on the Spanish town Benicàssim which hosts the largest music festival outside the UK to target British visitors. Henner writes: ‘For four days in July, barren Spanish fields are turned into playgrounds of escape littered with casualties of excess.’ The photographs depict revellers passed out on the grassy fields, their physical disposition perhaps fuelled by the consumption of alcohol and drugs. These tranquil and unusually seductive nocturnal portraits are strongly reminiscent of Sleeping Soldiers – a series of portraits of Iraq-based American soldiers by the late war photographer Tim Hetherington. Other projects too, such as a portrait of post-industrial Oldham titled Borderland, pay acute attention to the social, political and ideological agency of photography and its histories.
As a result of Henner’s knowledge of photographic practices, his work is spiked with references to photography not only as a device to document social conditions, but also, as a cultural practice in constructing social conditions. In Collected Portraits, Henner produced short videos which shows portraits produced by well-known photographers of the 20th century – each video represents the work of one photographer. In these videos, Henner cleverly superimposed portraits so that the eyes, nose and mouth of the subjects match each other resulting in fascinating montages such as ‘Forty-two portraits by Nobuyoshi Araki’, ‘Thirty-two portraits by Sally Mann’ and ‘Forty portraits by August Sander’. Apart from the different age, gender and race of Araki’s, Mann’s or Sander’s subjects, the project alludes to photography’s power in creating cultural stereotypes that inevitably inform historical processes: the submissive Japanese woman in Araki’s work, the innocent child in Mann’s photographs, or Sander’s typological investigation of a cross-section of German society during the Weimar Republic. Henner’s work shows that there is little doubt over photography’s impact on our perception of others, and, inevitably, our perception of ourselves.
Henner’s refreshing approach to photography alludes to a variety of related yet also disparate disciplines and methodologies: historical, technological, ethnographical, sociological and vernacular. Here, Henner consciously appears to push against the boundaries of documentary photography asking the viewer to (re-) consider his trust in the camera and modern technology. Looking at No Man’s Land, Henner’s collection of images thus confronts the viewer with a surprising question. What is more shocking? The crudity of the sex trade on the allegorical margins of our societies, or, the unstoppable invasion of the camera in every aspect of our lives spurred by financial interests. This question is further provoked by the vantage point of the Google camera, looking down on the subjects as they either avoid, not notice, ignore, or act for the camera. These differing reactions, as subtle as they may be, are a powerful reminder that our problematic relationship with photography is, informed by our historical understanding of the photographic apparatus, constantly in flux.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
In the last few years a growing number of artists and photographers self-publish their work in an attempt to make their work visible while bypassing more ‘traditional’ publishing routes. The popular website Blurb.com is perhaps the best-known platform on which artists can upload their work and create a book that customers can purchase directly from the Blurb website. Instead of printing hundreds or even thousands of books all at once, many of which might never be sold, Blurb prints books on demand and thus reduces the risk of over-stocking to both artist and publisher. This system bears similarities with the just-in-time production philosophy introduced by the Japanese carmaker Toyota – auto parts are only delivered once they are required in the production process, which, in turn, reduces the cost for storage, rent, insurance and so forth.
In the same year that Blurb was incorporated in 2005, Google introduced an early version of Google Earth which proved to be an instant hit on the internet. Users were initially drawn to locate their home as seen from space in Google Earth. With the introduction of Google Street View in 2007, a growing amount of streets were captured by Google’s omnipresent camera. The ever-expanding network of images in Google Street View allows users to virtually traverse their neighbourhoods from the comfort of their own home. As the network of images grew, users ventured further and further to ‘discover’ the world as recorded by Google.
It was only a question of time until the worlds of self-publishing and Google Earth would collide. The German artist Joachim Schmid – well-known for appropriating images from sometimes bizarre sources – was an early adaptor of Google Earth and Blurb. In his book ‘O Campo’, Schmid collected satellite images that captured football pitches in Brazil. Unlike the perfectly groomed premier league pitches as seen on television, Schmid collection depicts pitches that are dusty, misshapen and crooked. Though as Schmid points out, these pitches, some of them located in economically deprived areas of the country, produce some of the most celebrated footballers in the world. Schmid’s collection of images is an ironic commentary on the rules of the game literally being bent on the fringes of Brazilian society.
In Schmid’s ‘O Campo’, the dusty football pitches function as a metaphor for the extreme disparity between those hoping for a better future through football and those profiting from the game. In addition to this power dynamic however, ‘O Campo’ also address a disparity between the ‘artist’ and his ‘subjects’. Schmid accesses the internet from the comfort of his home to literally look down on the footballers on the dusty pitch in faraway Brazil. My point is that this is a one way relationship, the artist (and by extension the viewer) is looking at the footballers, while the footballers are unaware that they are being looked from high above. The power to look, collect and subsequently publish images from Google Earth lies with those who can afford an internet connection.
Joachim Schmid’s ‘O Campo’ and similar projects such as Mishka Henner’s ‘No Man’s Land’ thus throw up a number of questions in this newly emerging cultural industry. In the first instance, to what extent can the ‘artist’ also be regarded as the producer of the image considering that the images are appropriated from the internet? Similarly, who actually owns the copyright to the image? The artist? Google? The public? Lastly, are we justified in collecting images of subjects, particularly in the so-called developing world, without their awareness or consent? Schmid’s project highlights the precarious condition perhaps characteristic for a cultural industry that is still finding its footing.
Please also read my post Google Street View and the Politics of Exploitation.
No Man’s Land by the Belgium-born Manchester based photographer Mishka Henner is a collection of images appropriated from Google Street View that depict the periphery of Spanish and Italian cities. The camera’s high vantage point gives the viewer a towering perspective over the landscape. To achieve the best image clarity, the Google Street View car is usually shooting on clear days while the Mediterranean sun ads a painterly quality to the images. Also, like all Street View images, Google seemingly protected people’s identities by blurring their faces.
What at first appears to be a rather banal depiction of the encounter between the natural and urban environment, turns out to be, on closer inspection, a strikingly haunting and surreal representation of the sex trade. Trawling Google Street View while researching a potential photographic assignment, Henner discovered that Google’s omnipresent camera inevitably photographed what appear to be prostitutes waiting for their clientele. The landscape, no longer innocent or benign, is marked by a trade that thrives on inequalities, exploitation and abuse.
It is with considerable irony then, that a number of images depict accessories that presumably make the physical demands of the sex trade more bearable: one women stands under an umbrella to protect herself from the scorching sun, water bottles give an indication about the daytime temperatures, others have found a chair to sit on.
While the women in Henner’s No Man’s Land clearly stand out from the surrounding landscape, at the same time, some of them also appear to withdraw into it. Hidden pathways, tiny side roads and cave-like hedge formations further emphasize the ambiguity in the sex workers’ activities. While they ‘wish’ to be seen by those seeking for sexual pleasure, they also need to remain hidden from the public, the law and the police. The title of the series No Man’s Land thus evokes a number of interpretations. In a literal sense, No Man’s Land highlights the gendered dimension in this body of work – in Henner’s project no man is represented in the land. Yet the title also refers to the fact that the sex trade functions precisely because it is located in a space in which the land’s law is seemingly suspended.
While Henner’s work alludes to the harsh gender inequality of prostitution, it also refers to the politics of globalization. A photographic series by the Italian photographer Paolo Patrizi, recently highlighted in an article by my blogger colleague Pete Brooke, suggests that the sex trade not only thrives on the exploitation of women in general, more specifically, it thrives on the exploitation of the migrant worker, or, in the extreme, the victim of human trafficking. The women in No Man’s Land thus appear marginalized on a number of levels: marginalized by their locality on the edge of the city, marginalized by their ‘trade’ on the edge of legality, and finally, marginalized by their presumed status as undocumented, or maybe even, illegal workers.
Standing along the country roads leading to Bologna, Rome or Cremona, the women, some of them wearing little more than a bikini, seem wholly out of place. It is perhaps the extreme contrast between luscious greenery, bright clothing and exposed skin that makes Henner’s work so unsettling. This visual contrast functions as a metaphor for the extreme socio-economic contrast of modern day slavery apparently thriving in one of the world’s most advanced economies. This is of course Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy where bunga bunga parties, underage prostitution and the wholesale sexualization of women in the mainstream media is not only silently accepted, but rather, it is endorsed by the highest echelons of power.
It would be incorrect however to assume that these landscapes of exploitation don’t equally exist in other parts of Europe, or indeed, in other parts of the world. In that sense, No Man’s Land also alludes to a prototype borderland in which the sex trade flourishes because of economic, monetary or judicial differences. I am thinking of the middle-class German sex tourist driving over the border to Poland to exploit economic disparities, or the Chinese trucker who capitalizes from a cheap currency conversion in Vietnam, or, as the American ambassador to the Philippines recently highlighted, the American men who take advantage of seemingly lax laws in the Philippines. Yet Henner’s No Man’s Land is no distant country: for those visiting in search of sex, it is often only a few minutes drive away from home. In one photograph, the tire marks coming from a dirt road gives an indication on the frequency with which No Man’s Land is visited by man.
Mishka Henner’s work also raises questions about authorship: these are, after all, images that are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. To that extent, Henner himself inhabits a peripheral state as photographer as he is neither taking, constructing or even printing the photograph. Rather than photographing No Man’s Land himself, Henner’s work is more closely aligned with that of a curator who assembles and edits images to create a visual narrative.
For me, Henner’s work is about exploitation. In the first instance, it is the subjects in the photographs that are sexually and economically exploited. Yet, as physically removed the ‘photographer’ or the ‘artist’ might be from his subject, No Man’s Land also evokes questions about the subject being exploited by the image-maker. But who exactly is that? Is it Google’s invasive lens scanning the landscape in pretty much every advanced economy on the globe? Or is it Henner who has subsequently collected a wholly subjective and voyeuristic interpretation of the urban periphery? The viewer, too, is complicit in this exploitation: Google Street View and the various photographic projects that have since used it as source material emerge out of the demands of an economy thriving on images, thriving on seeing what would otherwise remain unseen, and thriving on the complex and unequal power relations that such form of seeing entails.
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