The Photographers' Gallery opens a new multimedia exhibition
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The Photographers' Gallery opens a new multimedia exhibition
Cleries_Helle_Gloria López Cleries and Sive Hamilton Helle, The Unreal, 2019– © Gloria López Cleries and Sive Hamilton Helle.

LONDON.- How to Win at Photography – Image-Making as Play is a new multimedia exhibition exploring the relationships between photography, image-making and play. It invites audiences to focus on the playful aspects of visual culture, and creates unexpected connections between the history of photography and the practices of image-making within computer games and wider digital screen culture.

Featuring over 30 international artists and a rich assemblage of multimedia artworks and vernacular images representing a variety of positions across contemporary and twentieth-century photography, How to Win at Photography questions the very meaning and function of photography today.

Artists include Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian and activist Ai Weiwei; Polish multimedia artist Aneta Grzeszykowska; post-conceptual technology-based American artist Cory Arcangel; French surrealist photographer, sculptor and writer Claude Cahun; feminist artist, Cindy Sherman; German filmmaker, video artist, theorist and writer Harun Farocki; legendary American artist Ed Ruscha; Taiwanese visual artist John Yuyi and American photographer, painter and conceptual artist Sherrie Levine.

Photography is inherently playful, but the play is not free. There are rules that the photographer must master, skills to conquer, expectations to fulfil. The very circulation of images is now a trackable, surveilled, quantifiable process like everything else on the internet. Photographs receive a ‘score’ in the form of likes and reposts. They are instantly monetised, becoming part of a larger economic competition for attention in which gamified elements and score systems are increasingly influential. At the same time, photography is a fundamental part of today's video game culture. Not only does it drive forward the photorealistic development of digital imaging; it offers ‘open worlds’, vast environments that can be explored and documented by virtual photographers.

Taking over all of the Gallery’s main exhibition spaces How to Win at Photography is arranged in five thematic sections or chapters: Game Travel, Game Play, Replay, Camera Play and Role Play. Designed to be experienced in any order the chapters explore connections and rule-sets between image-making, identity, politics, technology and entertainment.

On the 5th floor, Game Travel, delves into how screenshotting has become commonplace within contemporary video game culture. ‘Players’ explore online environments like tourists, mapping them out and collecting souvenirs of their journeys with virtual cameras. Often disregarding the game’s intended goals, they choose instead to visually document what they encounter. Artists and photographers focus their attention on the specific properties of the digital image, modify the original code or create new tools to deconstruct these spaces and their photorealism. In some cases, their activity is a form of resistance, a refusal to accept the rules. In others, it highlights the conditions that make the construction of these environments possible in the first place.

Also presented on Floor 5 is Gameplay, which looks at the competitive, ‘win’ orientated
nature of game, and by association, photography culture. Gameplay highlights the production and circulation of images as increasingly shaped by game mechanics with the building-blocks and rules of gaming defined by metrics and point systems. Quantifiable values such as views, likes, shares, followers, reposts and so on, have actively promoted the gamification of visual culture; the application of game-design elements and principles in non-game contexts have today become normalised score systems for images. Data extracted from the images we share online, are harvested both by corporations and governments for opaque purposes. With an aura of objectivity, the so-called attention economy is legitimised, clearly demarcating ‘winners’ from ‘losers’ and spawning a new aesthetic that has become standard for a generation of online influencers. In this context, content producers can either conform to the status quo by creating ‘successful’ images or they can try to subvert the prevailing logics to challenge, reject or sabotage gamified labour.

Floor 4 encompasses the chapter, Replay, which examines how artists change the original meanings of images by re-photographing, re-enacting or re-contextualising them. These replicas play with notions of memory, history, authorship and truth, exposing them as constructions and bringing to light underlying power structures. As games become more ‘realistic’ and reality takes an increasingly gamified turn, the very concepts of original and copy are blurred: mage play becomes a tactic used to challenge truth and fiction, reality and representation. By appropriating and re-contextualising images, artists and photographers question the dominant authorities by generating counter-narratives that can shape reality.

Additionally, Floor 4 offers a video installation work from film-maker and video artist Harun Farouki, as a point of enquiry that sits somewhere between all the chapters and provides a central space for pause and reflection. Farocki is known for his investigation into the nature and effects of image-making technologies and towards the end of his life, specifically turned his attention to the digital image, best exemplified by video games. The four-part cycle Parallel I-IV (2012–2014) focuses on the development, aesthetics and inherent rules of computer-animated worlds. Situating video games within a broader tradition – the history of representation – the film-maker illustrates the rise of the computational over the photographic. At once analytical and poetic, these ‘video essays’ deconstruct the notions of truth and fantasy.

The 2nd Floor presentations offer a more traditionally photographic departure point for exploration. Camera Play looks at the apparatus behind photography and questions the use of the camera as a photographer’s tool. Since its inception, artists have challenged both the rules and the ways in which the camera ‘sees’ the world. By playing with prescribed, or preconceived notions – sometimes against its prescribed functions – photographers bring to light the ideologies informing the production, circulation and consumption of images. By deliberately misusing, modifying, challenging and reinventing the camera, new ways of seeing emerge. Meanwhile in virtual reality, computer games are equipped with powerful photo modes that combine a simulated camera with versatile editing software, encouraging players to share images on social media.

Role Play looks at the myriad ways that artists have used image-making to challenge and play with identity. From photographic portraits to selfies, from video game avatars to cinema stars, role-playing has been one of the few constants in the ever-changing history of representation. In the final chapter, Role Play – Playing with Identity, the exhibition concludes with how construction and reconstruction of identity has become a full-time job on social media. Our pictorial alter-egos embody the idea of success, beauty and wealth. Far from being neutral or objective, visual culture actively constructs the subject, either legitimising or delegitimising certain roles, standards and categories. Artists and photographers have always challenged normative notions of sex, gender, ethnicity and class.

How to Win at Photography – Image -Making as Play is an open invitation to rethink photography through the act of playing with - and breaking – the rules of the game and to consider who is playing who. It challenges visitors to consider such questions as: Are we playing with the camera or is the camera playing us? What is our role within the system of photography? Are we mere pawns in a larger social and cultural network? What can a playful photographer realistically achieve? And, ultimately who can ‘win’ this game?

The exhibition is curated by Marco De Mutiis and Matteo Bittanti in collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery’s Anna Dannemann,and is produced in collaboration with Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland.

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