Blogs Field Guide Christine McVay

Christine McVay, a writer, has been a Tour Guide at the Walker Art Center since 2000 and a Contemporary Arts Forum Guide since 2002. She has delivered presentations at two recent Society for Photographic Education Midwest regional conferences.

Slab Angel makes an appearance

Here it is, the “Slab Angel,” hand crafted by Walker Tour Guides in an epic bronze pour at Vesper College on November 2. The piece will be on view and for sale at the Vesper College holiday sale and show December 2.

Here it is, the “Slab Angel,” hand crafted by Walker Tour Guides in an epic bronze pour at Vesper College on November 2.


The piece will be on view and for sale at the Vesper College holiday sale and show December 2.

They call us fearless: Tour Guides rediscover the Bronze Age

A Walker Tour Guide field trip (November 2) to Vesper college for a bronze pour was a gas.  Many of us expected a tame demonstration that we could photograph from a safe distance. But no, the evening was to be participatory learning at its most adventuresome: we made the molds, and what’s more, we poured […]

A Walker Tour Guide field trip (November 2) to Vesper college for a bronze pour was a gas.  Many of us expected a tame demonstration that we could photograph from a safe distance. But no, the evening was to be participatory learning at its most adventuresome: we made the molds, and what’s more, we poured the bronze.

The college, a niche institution that grants MFAs in Ecological Architecture, is located in a repurposed brick telephone building off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Dan Noyes, its director, and assistant Heidi Sime issued goggles and gloves and showed us how to use power tools, chisels and hammers. With these tools and in a spirit of experimentation and cooperation, we chipped a pitted figure (already outlined) a la Giacometti into the wooden boards that served as a mold for our “slab angel.”

Two of us were summoned outside where a small but fiery furnace, shooting blue flames out its sides, brought the metal to a formidable 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. We received a quick lesson on handling a hot, heavy crucible with a three-foot long set of two-man tongs that could hook the pot, clamp it, and transport it to the mold. We also received helmets, leather leg gaiters and giant gloves as well as the urgent advice to move quickly but smoothly and under no circumstances, to drop the crucible.

When the mold was ready, Dan pulled off the furnace’s cover and sidewall to reveal the fabled crucible and its contents of superheated molten bronze. The thing looked dark, dangerous and hotter than Hades, but we managed to snare the container, lift it, move it, and tip its load of liquified metal into the wooden mold, which immediately burst into yellow flames. Dan doused them with sand; we set the empty crucible down and unclamped the tongs.

Later the mold, partly gone but still holding its hardening lump of bronze, went into a wood fire (only 800 degrees) until the mold was burned up.  Feeling somewhat surprised and mightily pleased at our hands-on mold-making and bronze-casting achievements, we sat around the fire, feasting on grapes, camembert, truffles and wine, all provided by our hosts. Heidi says the finished piece will be on view at “Scarpa’s Holiday Sale/Show” Friday, December 2 from 5 to 9 pm at Vesper College, 201 6th Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

Looking at Exposed: Coda and Invitation

This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three.  Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes:  a fellow tour guide told me about a […]

This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three.  Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes:  a fellow tour guide told me about a show that exposes Cold War spying on its citizens by the East German government.  On this side of the Cold War, the FBI’s files on U.S. citizens still make the news, while museums have looked at responses to old and new surveillance.  Self-surveillance as an art project can work as a personal act of conceptual resistance.

Making institutions themselves visible seems point up our vulnerability as subjects and also our responsibility as viewers. Last time I wrote about Trevor Paglen’s photograph of a chemical weapons plant and  Simon Norfolk’s image of Echelon transmitters. Several years ago, the Walker Art Center exhibit “Event Horizon” featured a photograph from Paul Shambroom’s “Security Series” that documents sites in the U.S. made and used for terrorist attack training.  “Exposed” also includes such a mock village for military training:

Shai Kremer, Urban Warfare Training Center, Panorama, Tze'elim, 2007. Chromogenic print. Collection SFMOMA. © Shai Kremer; photo: Ben Blackwell

Its emptiness reminds me of a stage set, its drama surely a coming street battle.  But once the battle is lost and won, what happens to the village?  What if this scene is afterwards and the little people in the foreground are responding to an electrical glitch that left the houses dark and the streets and minarets lit?  What if someone  offstage is planning schools and hospitals?  Or more chillingly, what if the schools and hospitals are part of the takeover plan?  Trying to imagine more than the bloodless soldier training the caption dictates frees me to think about warfare’s aims and consequences, about the democratic control of communities, state power and the care of humans.

I want to try on alternate readings for other images in the exhibition–the street and social reform photographs, the celebrity and voyeuristic images, the “surveillance style” photographs, the consciously posing subjects, the unaware and helpless subjects.  I want to bring the latent stories in the images to life, and give voice to the people visually represented.

Harry Callahan, Atlanta,1984. Dye transfer print. Collection SFMOMA. © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

For this project in creative and hopefully ethical looking, I need your help: many different imaginations are better than one.  So, Thursday, August 25 I’m hosting an Open Field event to re-imagine the stories within “Exposed’s” images and re-think our relationship with the people in them.  Please check out this upcoming Game of Words on the Open Field website and put it on your calendar.

Looking at Exposed: Trading Surveillance Places

My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions.  Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity.  And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory […]

My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions.  Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity.  And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory chips, or make arrests.

Take top secret military sites, for example.  A chemical  and biological weapons testing complex is no poor immigrant blinking in the light of a magnesium flash:

Trevor Paglen, Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway, UT/Distance ~42 miles/10:51 a.m., 2006, 2006. Chromogenic print. Collection SFMOMA. © Trevor Paglen

The Dugway Proving Ground has so much control over its image that you can barely see it. When I clicked on its Google-listed web site to learn more about the place, I was stopped at the virtual perimeter by a blaring error message complete with my ICP address. Making public what an institution wants to keep private takes stronger eyes than mine.

To get his image, photographer Trevor Paglen resorted to astronomy instruments to peer across the thick atmosphere separating him from the site. Even so, he hadn’t a long enough lens to make this invisible thing knowable, or to strip it naked for our scrutiny.

Instead, the indefinite image suggests a sublime landscape–transcendent as a painted heaven or wilderness empire. All this photographic document of distance can do, as long as its caption remains attached, is to make the military plant dimly present. Is this enough information to dispel our ignorance? To convince us to agree or disagree with these activities done on our watch?  Or is the whole thing just too far away to worry about?

Simon Norfolk’s also-ghostly  transmission towers from his series on the Ascension Islands are the instruments of a global dataveillance program.  They are also the objects of his concern about democratic controls on such projects.  The image alone, severed from its series, is an enigmatic play of wispy gray on gray.  It left me wondering about the fragility of technology rather than worrying alongside its author about the effect of shadowy global organizations on democracy and world peace.

Thomas Demand’s video loop of an ordinary surveillance camera seems a more obvious cautionary image: we are all suspects now it seems to say, monitored by machines whose capability to control people is a matter for their manufacturers to crow about. Instead of ignoring this brave new phenomenon, perhaps we should fight back:  map those CCTVs, zap them,  find out where to look and how to hide.

I did look, at least  for an image of Demand’s “Camera” to post as the touchstone for these questions about privacy, visual control, accountability and security,  It turned out the camera image was originally shown with another piece of the artist’s, “Embassy,”  which re-creates a nondescript Nigerian embassy office, where the early 2001 theft of some stationery seems to have changed the world.

That context changed the way I saw “Camera,” as though the image had been recaptioned. Instead of an all-seeing Cyclops, the fake camera became a blind witness to a future history it was helpless to prevent. Yawing compulsively on its cardboard wall, it seemed neutered, its soundtrack more annoying in the gallery than alarming.  What can any camera see?  What can it expose? Who owns it? Who watches its images?  Who has the patience to watch?

The issues these images raise seem more political than ethical, unless the two are bound up with one another.  Do we retreat into the delights of voyeurism and let power take care of its own business?  As viewers, do we accept the mystery  of hard-to-photograph state and corporate institutions?  Do we try to see through the distances that separate us from them?  If we look at photographs that do help us see our society’s well-protected institutions, are we responsible for this knowledge? Can we responsibly look away?

Postscript:  The August 8 screening at the Summer Music and Films program, (“I’ve Got My Eyes on You”) is “1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.”  Our surveillance society has also been anticipated by an abundance of  surveillance sci fi novels, documented by countless photographs, and has engendered the academic discipline of Surveillance Studies. Countless web sites describe this environment, capitalize on it, advocate resistance or seek to understand it.

 

 

 

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