Exhibition Review by Theo Reeves-Evison
All That Fits: The Aesthetics Of Journalism, The speaker (part one of three installments). QUAD Gallery, Derby. 28th May – 31st July 2011.
When the celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled through the majority world, he always kept two notebooks with him: one for detailed information and factual observations, the other for images and metaphors. According to a new biography by Artur Domoslawski,[i] Kapuscinski often allowed material to stray from one book to the other, writing for the Polish Press Agency on one occasion that the fish in Lake Victoria had grown enormous feeding on the corpses left to them by Idi Amin, a claim as affective as it was false.
Just like some of Kapuscinski’s journalistic prose, many of the artworks in All That Fits – a new three-part group exhibition at Derby Quad – operate in an area similar to creative non-fiction. Eric Baudelaire’s glossy diptych, The Dreadful Details (2006) is a case in point. Caricaturing countless other images of modern warfare, Baudelaire’s photograph depicts the immediate aftermath of a bomb blast somewhere in the Arab world. Complete with dusty shop fronts, grieving locals, and scattered limbs, the photograph was in fact taken on a film set in Hollywood. Referencing not only American war films, but also Goya, Alexander Gardener and a countless other war photographers, it is saturated with memories of other images, vibrating with the visual energy of all wars past. Baudelaire inhabits clichés in order to make us aware of how little they affect us.
But All That Fits is not just another exhibition about the plasticity of truth. What it really wants us to think about is the way truths are framed, the way they depend on rhetoric and convention in order to be perceived as truth. Curated by Alfredo Cramerotti and Simon Sheikh, the exhibition takes its name from the New York Times slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print!” According to the curators, the title refers not only to the content of the news (we’ll print anything that adheres to our ethical standards), but also to its formal characteristics (we’ll print anything in news-style, structured according to ‘the inverted pyramid’). In this regard many of the works in the exhibition highlight, emphasise, or flout journalistic convention, offering us a ‘view of the view’[ii], or a means to unmask truth-framing devices. The problem is, by reflecting on journalism and its determining structures, whether professional or semiotic, many of the works in All That Fits forget to deliver us back to the world journalism depicts in the first place. As an exhibition experience, it’s like someone reminding you that you’re looking through a camera by replacing the lens cap, alerting you to the fact that your gaze is mediated, but blinding you to what you were looking at in the first place
Writing of Renzo Martens’ Episode 1 (2004), Cramerotti and Sheikh claim that ‘The film is not about some external phenomenon, but about the terms and conditions of its own existence.’[iii] Episode I is a travelogue through war-ravaged Chechnya in which Martens plays the part of a narcissistic interviewer, waltzing through refugee camps and devastated cities in order to ask the disenfranchised what they think of him and how they think he feels. Like many of the works in the show, Episode 1 operates in a self-reflexive feedback loop approaching Peter Hallward’s category of ‘the singular’.[iv] In other words, it operates irrespective of geographical and historical difference, unconstrained by any logic outside the immanent critique of its own operation. Episode I could have been shot in any crisis zone, because it chooses to focus on a particular media figure – the popular news reporter – rather than a specific situation and its historical and cultural determinates.
Like much of the postcolonial theory that followed the ‘linguistic turn’, the first part of All That Fits concerns itself with enunciation in general (the subtitle for this section is The Speaker) rather than what is being enunciated itself. This is quite literally the case in Katya Sander’s Televized 1 (2006), in which the artist interviews anchor men and women about their use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. While Sander’s succeeds in exposing a journalistic device designed to give television news its air of objectivity, the curators stop short of applying the same logic to their own practice. Accordingly, All That Fits presents itself as an objective, balanced and impersonal ‘view on the view’. Wall texts and exhibition design follow conventions of their own, (the fist person pronoun notably absent) and subject positions are left unexamined. The exhibition would be a lot more rigorous if it married forms of institutional critique with a lesson from the notebooks of Kapuscinski. Namely, that by playing with convention, format and enunciatory effects, one need not eclipse the issues they frame.
[i] Artur Domoslawski, Kapuscinski Non-Fiction (Greenville: Agapea, 1990)
[ii] Alfredo Cramerotti and Simon Sheikh, All That Fits: The Aesthetics of Journalism [Publ. In Conjunction with Exhibitions at Derby Quad, 28 May – 3rd July 2011] (Derby: Quad publishing, 2011), p. 6.
[iii] Ibid., p. 14.
[iv] Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing Between the Singular and the Specific (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)