Trust the unknown? Tom Stayte’s #selfie

With the internet now less something that we use than live, it’s curious to look back from the privileged viewing position of the here-and-now at the way ‘cyberspace’ was thought about a couple of decades ago.  Often written in prose that was almost open mouthed in its wonder, marvelling at the anticipation of- as Nicole Stenger put it in 1991- ‘a space for collective restoration, and for peace’, such dreamy optimism was offset by a tendency in others to take a rather more gloomy view of where digital technologies would lead us. In 1996, ‘panic theorists’ Arthur and Marilouise Kroker spoke of the coming of a ‘virtual elite [with] the ethics of the hangman’ and, even more chillingly, ‘the human species as a humiliated subject of digital culture’. Anyone who’s dared to offer a comment below a YouTube video may well wonder exactly how much collective restoration and peace the internet has actually prompted, and if you’ve ever been lax in your combination of social media and alcohol then the Krokers’ point about humiliation mightn’t be the doomy overstatement that it can first seem.

Regardless of the tenor of yesteryear’s speculations, we’ve come to invest a lot of trust in digital technologies and the internet over the last 20-odd years and routinely use them to work, play, talk, love, hate, listen, watch, learn, make…. At the same time, the internet has been increasingly colonised and moulded by the Big Money; the unpredictability of its early days giving way to greater regulation, order and control. We’ve certainly been afforded an unprecedented ability to communicate, upload, share, and do plenty of things that might even bear out some of the Utopian views of old, but it’s hard to ignore how increasingly we- in John Naughton’s rather bleak words- ‘can only do so courtesy of the giant corporations that own and control the platforms… and which are reconfiguring the network for their purposes rather than ours.’ When you factor in Edward Snowden’s ‘revelations’ about privacy and surveillance, the idea of the internet simultaneously ‘belonging’ to everybody and nobody seems like one that belongs to a very different, more innocent age.

This all resonates in Tom Stayte’s work. A photographer who seems to realise that digital culture has triggered enough of an avalanche of images without him needing to add to the pile, his #selfie project- which opens at Sheffield’s Bank Street Arts in February– consists entirely of photographs snapped by strangers. Taking the humble ‘selfie’, the era-defining arm’s-length self-portrait, Stayte uses it as a starting point to consider our willingness to trust what we don’t necessarily understand and the notion of individuality in post-digital society. Using custom-built software, the publicly available RSS feeds provided by Instagram are accessed and imagery tagged ‘#selfie’ is appropriated more or less immediately after it is published. Open source facial recognition libraries then scan the images to identify instances of single person, arm’s length portraits. These are then printed on a roll of paper by a small, no-frills printer before being sliced off and dropped to the floor to join a pile that, over the course of the show’s 3 week run, could number anything up to 80,000 images.


Standing next to #selfie as it patiently yet relentlessly clicks, whirs and spews out yet another smiling or pouting face is a startling experience that provides fairly compelling evidence of the extent to which we routinely use digital technologies to ‘reach out’ to the wider world, and put our trust in those that supply us with the means to do so.  While in one sense the whole point of uploading stuff to the internet is so that other people can be affected by us in some way, #selfie cares little for our vanities, and simply dumps us on the floor alongside the thousands of others who’ve no idea of what they’re participating in, clinically exposing how our desire to be unique only really reveals our similarities…

#selfie opens at Bank Street Arts on 4th February and runs until the 21st.

Another destination #tmssaadiior

The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right, a photographic response to Simon Armitage’s poetry pamphlet of the same name, makes is second appearance this month. After debuting at Bank Street Arts in 2013, the show crosses the Pennines for a run at Edge Hill University’s Arts Centre.


The show is a slightly different version from the one that appeared at Bank Street Arts, where the photographers invited to take part were given the title of Simon’s pamphlet and asked to respond however they saw fit. Some chose to work using the title alone as a starting point, navigating maps of their own design, whilst others explored further the connections they’d made with Simon’s poems. Simon Carruthers, Jessa Fairbrother, Richard Chivers, David Barnes, Sam Mellish, Tribble and Mancenido, Roy Bayfield, Si Barber are those taking part. The Drive, featuring sound artist Ian Baxter and Simon Armitage reading from his poem ‘Gymnasium’, is also being screened at various points around the campus.

The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right runs from 2nd June until 27th June.

See also: Service stations the focus for Ormskirk exhibition // #tmssaadiior

On either side of the Pennines

The November 2013 exhibitions of The Big Society and Here, again at Edge Hill University in Lancashire represented the first in a series of informal exchanges between curators, associates and creatives at the university and Bank Street Arts in Sheffield, featuring photography, text, poetry, design, sound and performance. There’s no (obvious) connecting thread between the shows in a conceptual sense, but rather than being straightforward facsimiles of  their South Yorkshire/ West Lancashire incarnation, each exhibition will be expanded, constricted, chopped, changed, and tinkered with according to the vagaries of whim and circumstance. After their show at Edge Hill in October and November, Helen Newall and Mark Edward’s Dying Swans will be the first to make the trip Eastwards to Bank Street for an exhibition this September. Plans are also underway for it to be followed by The Unforgotten Coat, a collaboration between Clare Heney, Carl Hunter and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on his acclaimed children’s book.  

Ahead of this, following his show at Bank Street Arts in early 2013, Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia opens at Edge Hill on 3rd March for a 4 week run in the university’s Arts Centre. Jim’s tireless work on the project- subject of this recent feature in The Guardian– has meant that much new work has been generated since last year, so the Edge Hill show will feature photographs that weren’t included in the Bank Street selection. On June 2nd, The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right, a series of photographic responses to Simon Armitage’s volume of poems of the same name, crosses the Pennines for its second exhibition. As well as featuring the work of an extremely eclectic group of photographers, the show also includes Simon reading from his poem Gymnasium, accompanied by sound artist and Bank Street resident Ian Baxter

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See also: full programme of events for spring and summer 2014 at Edge Hill’s Arts Centre // Current and forthcoming events and exhibitions at Bank Street Arts

Building The Big Society in 2 minutes and 31 seconds

…or at least some of it: the full show consists of 30-odd of Si Barber’s photographs which will be at Edge Hill University’s Arts Centre until Fri 13th December. There’s more info about the exhibition here.

See also: more new work by Si

Here, again in winter

Here, again , the collaboration with Angelina Ayers and Thomas Mann, is at the Arts Centre in Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, this November and December. The show will be in the same venue as Si Barber’s The Big Society (more or less- it’s actually in the space just above it). Both open on Mon 18th Nov and run until Fri 13th Dec.

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Here, again is also available as an ebook for iPad and iPhone that can be downloaded for free. You’ll need to have the iBooks app on your device. You can then download Here, again through this link.

Another 35 reasons: more scenes from The Big Society

A year is a long time in politics, two a lifetime in documentary photography. Since Si Barber’s The Big Society exhibited at Bank Street Arts in 2011, the coalition government’s grandiloquent and much-trumpeted vision of the same name (‘a froth concealing the reality beneath‘) seems to have quietly faded from prominence. Instead of signalling the winding down of Si’s work, it’s provided him with further motivation to push on into the fringes of David Cameron’s Britain, pointing his camera towards the chasm between political rhetoric and everyday experience. Bureaucratic nitwittery, sentimental attitudes towards the military, weird and malevolent patriotism, and the draining ubiquity of consumer culture, are among the themes in a body of work that’s consistent with the traditions of British documentary photography, but also has something of the ragged urgency and immediacy of war photography. Provocative, angry, yet warm and affectionate, The Big Society takes its cues as much from Tony Ray-Jones‘ sweetly bemused view of Englishness as Paul Graham‘s burning indignation at unsympathetic and ineffectual governance:

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The Big Society hops across The Pennines in November for an exhibition at the Arts Centre in Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire. It’ll feature 35 photographs from the entire project so far. On Thurs 12th Dec from 11-1 Si will be at Edge Hill’s Creative Edge Lecture Theatre to talk about the project. The session is open to all. If you’d like to know more, contact me at andrewdconroy[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk.

See also: The Big Society in Vice magazine // This rather odd piece in The Daily Mail, featuring some irked reader comments  // Si on Twitter


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