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A few thoughts on single-medium institutions and transdisciplinarity

Position by Danaé Panchaud

Since 2018 Danaé Panchaud is director and curator of the Photoforum Pasquart, in Biel. She studied photography at the Photography School in Vevey before turning to curatorial practices at HEAD-Geneva in the CCC programme. Next to her practice as an independent curator, she worked in various capacities for museums and galleries in Switzerland in the fields of contemporary art, design, photography and science.

Danaé Panchaud
Photoforum Pasquart

How can a museal institution present the photographic medium in its full scope? In my ongoing research and reflections on this question, and going beyond the usual binary between artistic and documentary positions, I aim to include the social and vernacular uses of photography, as well as other fields such as scientific and medical imagery. It may seem an oddity to still have museums dedicated to a specific medium rather than a field (art, history, science, etc.), in particular in contemporary art, as artists tend to use a broader spectrum of mediums than in past centuries, while the very limits of the mediums gradually blur, and the distinctions between them often do not necessarily matter anymore.

 

Schaulust (2019), Installation view

Yet photography institutions remain. To examine their complex histories and the reasons for their emergence and continual existence – alongside other single-medium galleries and collections – is beyond the scope of this text, but it seems important to acknowledge a history often based on private initiatives, and sometimes on a sentiment of marginalization in art- (and sometimes historical-) museums.

It seems equally important to note that these institutions tend to interpret their historical definitions rather loosely and that they often do not have a very narrow approach to their medium. Most photography museums’ focus and scope evolve with photography and how the medium is defined and used in contemporary cultural practice. They remain attached to a single medium but with an ever-expanding definition, such as “lens-based”, “digital”, or “post-photography.” This constant rethinking and redefining of the medium also contributes to the field’s debates about definitions and identity, and allows some galleries to tap material from a very broad range of sources: scientific and medical archives, historical public archives, architectural repositories, etc. and then to produce exhibitions incorporating contents of different origins and purposes. Not unlike the practices of many artists who use archival material of various provenance and disciplines as the basis of their own work.

To me this multifaceted history presents a double opportunity. The first is the continuous possibility to examine the medium, its definitions and its limits. Presenting paintings or metal sculptures in a space dedicated to photography is not by any means in itself provocative or groundbreaking, but it means its connection to the medium of photography (or lens-based art) will be examined whereas it would not be a question in a contemporary art context, for instance, and the work thus will be contextualized in relation to photography. It creates an opportunity to add some nuance and complexity to an exhibition, to highlight some aspects of a given work or some unexpected connections, and, of course, explore (and sometimes even push) the limits of the medium.

The second opportunity, and probably to me the most important, is the possibility to stage exhibitions at the crossroad of photography, sociology and history, and to examine practices that would not quite fit in an art museum nor a historical museum. In that sense, an institution dedicated to photography is sometimes uniquely positioned to examine some vernacular phenomena. Paradoxical as it may seem, a single-medium institution can produce transdisciplinary exhibitions, or at least exhibitions combining material of different natures.

This is what we attempt to do at the Photoforum by including in our programme exhibitions and events, or sometimes art educational projects, which examine how images populate our daily lives, how we all produce and consume images on a daily basis and what this means. We sometimes produce exhibitions in which artistic positions and vernacular material mingle. In such exhibitions all content is used with little regard to art historical hierarchies to pursue a reflection on our complex relations with images. Here are two of our recent explorations of some aspects of image production and consumption over the last two years.

Perfect Time Ahead

This exhibition was part of a joint project with a contemporary art center (the Kunsthaus Pasquart) and a history/social museum (the Neues Museum Biel) on the watchmaking industry and more generally time and its measurement. Perfect Time Ahead explored the commercial iconography that accompanied the development of watchmaking houses in the 20th century. The exhibition retraced a certain history of watchmaking at the crossroads of its techniques, advertising and trade, photography and graphic design. In addition to the technical virtuosity of the photographic reproduction of watches, photography has produced a vast corpus of images that has accompanied the development of watchmaking brands and contributed to shaping their image. Here, he Photoforum proposed a critical and contemporary rereading of its history, by presenting original historical advertisements, in conjunction with a site-specific restaging of these iconographies.

Exhibition views by Léonard Rossi

Schaulust

Modern image consumption and production are increasingly designed to satisfy our longings and fantasies while at the same time stirring them up: live streams, food porn or unboxing videos are among the screen-based phenomena from the realm of digital desire and fetishes that fathom the limits of the obsessive, intimate and perverse. These phenomena flourish thanks to our desire to see and can give us a sense of belonging, participation or demarcation. The exhibition Schaulust uses artistic and vernacular cultural manifestations to explore the interplay of gaze and desire, the role of the image and the legitimacy of the gaze against the background of the contemporary networked image. The lust to look is negotiated in different subcategories. The theme of intimacy explores the border between the voyeuristic interest of the viewer, the photographic intrusion into private spheres, and the voluntary surrender of privacy. The regularization of the gaze and the standardization of images are addressed through phenomena such as food porn or selfies. Furthermore, the question of how a feeling of comfort, contentment and security can be generated by means of pictures is examined. As a counterpart, the social retreat made possible by images, the promotion of addiction-like behavior and the image as a proxy for real life are also investigated. Finally, the commodification of the image, technophilia and the creation of new images by artificial intelligence, which both awaken and satisfy new possibilities of seeing and the desire to look, are explored.

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