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Photographer’s Gallery, Mall Galleries & Photofusion Photography Centre – August 2022

How to win at photography was the current show at the Photographer’s Gallery. In our age of ubiquitous imagery, this exhibition explored the relationship between photography and play. There were interesting connections between the history of photography and contemporary practices of image-making with and within computer games to investigate different notions of image play.

Assigned Labels by Dries Depoorter and Max Pinckers grabbed my attention as the work was created by AI. Infamous photographs of war, famine and disaster were fed into an algorithm that assigned key terms to the images based on what it perceived and an unnerving set of words emerged. So much of the AI output was insulting, inappropriate, and just plain wrong that it brought into focus the perils of our over-reliance on AI to categorise the world around us. Are we heading for a time when complex themes of conflict and violence are translated into simplistic and catchy symbols? Already, the vast majority of images we see are generated, ’seen’ and evaluated by machines so what is left for the human brain to do in this game? The human and machine gazes are merging into each other and if we’re not careful the machine will have the last laugh.

Lorna Ruth Galloway creates artworks situated between the analogue and digital which is a mode of operation that I have explored extensively in my own work. Her halftone charcoal silkscreens of petrol stations from Grand Theft Auto were beautiful and I love how these create a space between lived life and simulation. But they have added punch due to the charcoal (carbon) highlighting the polluting effects of carbon, or as Marshall McLuhan said, ’the medium is the message’. An artist needs to remember how much weight is carried by everything but the visual element in their work – materials, space, light, fragility and scale have enormous scope to deliver your message.

Other work explored social media identity and created a future where we might carry our social media profiles around with us as a second skin. Imagine a world where we could continue to hide behind a digital identity away from our devices, out in society itself. What would it feel like to interact with an AI interface instead of a human brain? Could all human body language be represented as a skin of data for us to read? I think not and this makes me shudder as I hope it does you too – I can’t think of a more depressing, Orwellian future than this. The opportunities for manipulation, control and a sub-human existence scream from the rooftops and I deeply believe that we are way better than that.

At the Mall Galleries, we saw an exhibition curated by the Federation of British Artists, which was a selection of award-winning artists from 2020-2022, across a selection of national competitions. I filled my creative tanks with all the best drawing and painting, as ever and in most cases, I absorbed the award-winning characteristics but in some less so. It’s always interesting to wear the judges’ trendy round spectacles in these situations and voice your agreement or disagreement with their choices. If getting yourself on these walls is your goal then you need to breathe their air and punch them in the gut.

A chance find was the Photofusion Photography Centre in Brixton, which had a small but excellent exhibition called The Thin Line, curated by Ukraine curator Kateryna Radchenko. The images were taken by Ukrainian photographers at the front line of the current war in the region. Such powerful, large images made me stop in my tracks and reaffirmed to me that photography is and always will be the most important documenting tool available to us.

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