28 August 2017

The Transmission of Knowledge and Culture in the Digital Era

Four individuals across different sectors of the same industry came together to discuss the overlapping and underlying relationships that envelop the fashion bubble. Charlotte Cotton is a curator of and writer about photography, Jo-Ann Furniss is a fashion editor and journalist, Ezra Petronio is the founder/ Editor-in-Chief of Self Service Magazine and Claire Thomson-Joinville is the Managing Editor of Petronio's Paris-based publication. In another addition of my favourite interview series, the quartet discuss the effect of education on creation, the culture system, the role of magazines and the sharing of information. They trampoline off of each other's developed thoughts to look into transmission as an emotional notion, a nostalgia for the near-past and the behavior of images.

Ezra Petronio: One of the themes that we are focusing on is the transmission of the culture of the past to future generations: how things were, are today and how they should be tomorrow. We also want to talk to you about your vision on fashion and fashion photography and how they reflect societal evolution. So I will open with: what does transmission mean to you? How do you see your role today in perpetuating culture? 

Charlotte Cotton: I don’t personally see transmission as an essentially technical thing, but rather as an emotional thing. We’re definitely at the emotional and subjective stage of thinking around technology and its social impact. Transmission seems like a good word, so I’m intrigued about what that word connotes to you. 

Ezra: We believe that one of our important roles is the transmission of knowledge and culture—which is lacking due to the way the world and our business function today. It is also about the passing on of some wisdom, of some personal experiences and transmitting our emotional relationship with the crafts we love and practice.

Jo-Ann Furniss: We seem to be at a point in time where people have gotten very nostalgic for something that, for me, doesn’t actually seem that long ago. But for a younger generation, of course it’s like, “Oh my god—it’s in the past!” And a lot of this information has been filtered through the Internet and there is almost a kind of rewriting of history—some of it on purpose and some of it by chance, and nothing is properly cataloged or properly documented. There’s a randomness mixed with these weird Chinese whispers... 

Ezra: How does this translate into our relationship with imagery? 

Charlotte: I think that the history of image making—visual culture and photography—has been based on the imperative to document and narrate the fullest story as we’re going through it, which is, “This happened, and it happened alongside this other thing that happened,” and making an account of the time that we lived through. One critical question is: who are the arbiters that say, “This is interesting now and this element of history is worth thinking about or is reanimated by what’s happening in the present” There have been periods where magazines have been really important in doing that. They’ve been the only vehicle to possess new ideas and also a contextualization of why this version of the news is good and worth looking at based on a history and a trajectory. And the same goes with cultural institutions as well. I think a lot of the problematics come from the fact we are dealing with a culture that’s now based on a large database and the behaviour of images rather than the behaviour and the arbitration of human beings. 

"One critical question is: who are the arbiters that say, “This is interesting now and this element of history is worth thinking about or is reanimated by what’s happening in the present” There have been periods where magazines have been really important in doing that."

Ezra: That large database being the Internet and social media... 

Charlotte: We live in an age where some people say that the majority of images that are made are not made for human eyes. So they are machine-made images and they are then analysed as data and often it’s their collected meaning that has some meaning, so we’re moving into an era that is quite existential. Actually it really heightens the idea of nostalgia, which is, in a way, any image that’s produced by somebody for somebody else—it’s a nostalgic idea to make images for other human beings in the larger context of visual culture.

Jo-Ann: We're really just kind of interfering in a conversation between machines. I often think that everybody’s obsession with being online and documenting themselves online doesn't feel like it’s a conversation with other people. It just feels like it’s a conversation with themselves or, at best, like a cocaine-conversation, where everybody is just talking but not really talking to anybody else, just going, “Me, me, me”. But now you’ve said it’s machines—that’s even worse.

Charlotte: Well, that’s just the context. Images have their cobehaviors, which are independent of human being behaviours and emotions. One of the broad strokes that I’m interested in is the fact that in the 20th century—well, actually as soon as photography arrived—it fed into the psychic desires. It was essentially about viewing whatever, and keeping the fear of penetration and danger away, and your boundaries being crossed, by objectifying everything. So in that urge to represent some kind of humanistic vision there’s a conversation between subject and image-maker but actually it’s about controlling the subject.

"Post-Internet practices are just as much about mark-making as cave painting: it’s about reflecting time and acknowledging time, and distilling and creating a critical framework for what’s going on in your life."

Charlotte: Yes, and if we look at the statistics about our image-making culture today we find that it feeds into some of our most primal desires. Post-Internet practices are just as much about mark making as cave painting: it’s about reflecting time and acknowledging time, and distilling and creating a critical framework for what’s going on in your life.That’s the primal urge of human beings to express themselves but I think there are also some strong psychic urges that play out on the automated system of social media that are resonant of something deep down. The show that I’m working on at the moment is very much about that. 

Claire Thomson-Joinville: The primal urge of human beings to express themselves—can you tell us more about that? 

Charlotte: The show is called “Public Private Secrets” and it’s about the boundarylessness of the 19th-century age in terms of representing ourselves and representing our other. It’s a combination of post-Internet artists, historical precedents and real-time curation, which is an incredibly empowering thing—to be actually getting into the machine and curating this empirical mass of imagery from this often very depressing mass. You only have to look at what ISIS is doing and how incredibly smart they’ve been in terms of communicating their message visually to know that the image world is still extremely powerful. You only need to look at what Black Lives Matter is doing to see that. So there is also this kind of upside to it, which is an incredible power that this image-making environment provides. 

Claire: And how does this relate to fashion photography? 

Charlotte: It is obviously more problematic when it comes to style and fashion because we don’t have a cause to champion. You look back at the periods in image-making history where there was the greatest frisson and the greatest kind of excitement and if you had been there then and you had been of a certain age and had any talent, you would have gravitated immediately to that world. The importance was the context, so Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and Vogue Paris would mean nothing if it wasn’t for the second wave of feminism. It was like a direct conversation going on in the mind of the era—what was being constellated and imagined in the viewer's mind was highly related to the time they were living through. 

Jo-Ann: And there is no defined critical context for images posted on social media—it’s just images. 

Charlotte: Because powerful magazines were too complacent and just didn’t innovate—they didn’t invest in what was about to happen. Everyone is still scrambling around for a business plan for social media, sort of a vinyl-as-opposed-to-MP3-world version of fashion magazines. 

Jo-Ann: But I do think that the fashion brands still believe in print advertising because photography will always look best on a page. And the magazines that really have power tend to be the bi-annuals, and they are full of advertising. I often refer to them as “the engines of fashion advertising”. 

Ezra: I’m a firm believer that you can still operate and navigate between the necessities of commerce and the need to inspire your readership. There exists a negative and hyper-capitalized context to the fashion business that creates a sense of resignation and I think that people are quite lazy and feel safe staying within the status quo.

Jo-Ann: But do you think that they were exploring their own past in a way? Maybe they’ve seen how many other people are exploring their past, so they’re a bit like, “Hang on a second, it’s my past...” 

Ezra: And maybe questioning the purpose of their craft. We all do that constantly and we love what we do and sometimes we get caught up within a system that can be suffocating, and we don’t have the energy or the courage to stand up and be faithful to what we believe to be our role as a creative mind. 

Jo-Ann: There is still a large creative space in editorial if somebody gives you that freedom. And people have gotten so caught up in a system that they have forgotten that there is this world of possibilities—especially with photographers. Sometimes I think it’s good for photographers to just do stuff by themselves—to not even take pictures of fashion, to go and take pictures of something else. I would ask photographers, “Why did you start taking pictures in the first place?” and then tell them, “I don’t want you to work with anybody.” They’d be like, “What?!” And then I would say, “Well, you can have some clothes if you want, but just use them yourself!” And it’s trying to get back to who people actually are, who they were in the beginning in a way, to sort of revisit themselves.

Ezra: I think that people can hide behind the power or pressure of advertisers. Okay, it is a reality, it makes things more complex to navigate, it is more complicated, but I still believe you can find creative solutions in any kind of context. It seems to me that people in major magazines don’t really feel the need to do what the magazine was created for to project an idea, a vision of a man, a woman, of society, of culture. 

Claire: There is another serious issue concerning the younger designers—like Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy, for example: it’s difficult for them to be put at the forefront in mainstream fashion magazines, yet their generation represents so much of what we want to see at the moment. 

Ezra: With the perpetual acceleration of pace and how quickly young people are pulled out of their creative explorations as young students or freshly out of college, there is no longer that much time for any young creative—whether they are a fashion designer, a photographer, an artist, an architect—to nurture that phase of apprenticeship, of their personal social development. And a lot of potentially great people are very quickly pulled into a context that hinders, and maybe even destroys, their true creative possibilities. We all have a responsibility to fight this, and that’s why I value the concept of transmission so dearly: it’s a way to provide a true and authentic vision of the culture of the arts. The great question remains: will the new generation find these values on social media?

"...sometimes I see them just reaching back to repeat things that have gone before because they don’t know who they are... they are made up of other people's tastes, in a way, and then they have to perpetuate other people's taste."

Charlotte: I have real sympathy for why a 16 or 17-year-old creative may not be interested in the same things as us, and why they might attempt to learn the language of social media to be able to reach an audience directly, even if, from our perspective, it seems like a very truncated creative process. Now a fashion photographer has to go to college—that wasn’t the case with the last generation of amazing image-makers, because there was an industry to support their apprenticeship. Now there is a sort of holy grail that, before being accepted into the commercial image-making world, you essentially subsidise your life by doing editorial to build your portfolio, and wait for the advertising campaign which pays back the money and you only need a couple of advertising gigs to support your ecosystem. So what are we actually offering somebody who is 16 or 17? If I was that age, I’d do the calculation that this beautiful, creative, reflective phase is going to be over soon and it’s got nothing to do with me and there’s nothing in it for me. 

Jo-Ann: The access to a creative online life means that everybody grows up in public, and that the apprenticeship period is not filtered with the help of an editor or with the help of somebody else’s eye—it’s just all “there” and it’s going to stay there, just hanging around. And so there’s never this time for people to fully form themselves and all of the debris and process is out there forever. Everybody is documenting their shoot on their Instagram. And it’s like getting a DVD and watching all the extras first and not the feature film—like watching all this nonsense; it’s just rubbish. And there is a load of crap basically that people then latch onto, when they’re really not fully formed. They are overexposed and have lot of pressure put on them, and sometimes I see them just reaching back to repeat things that have gone before because they don’t know who they are, so they don’t get time to form themselves, so they are made up of other people's tastes, in a way, and then they have to perpetuate other people's taste. 

Charlotte: I don’t think one could put the blame on fashion or even with image making; I think that’s our culture—this is post-reality TV, post Pop Idol—which is essentially like being caught in an Oedipus complex forever. So, that classic story is the story of the artist, ostensibly of humble origins, but then who is recognized through their talents to be royalty, and all of the bad stuff comes after that, but that’s the bit as human beings that we forget: the downside of that kind of oedipal monster of our ego.

Jo-Ann: There is a constant seeking of online approval, which I just think is insane. And everybody is bowing to this strange virtual focus group, being like a teenager. Should I wear this? Should I do this? I actually would like to see “hate” buttons as well as “like” buttons, in a way. It might make people stop seeking approval all the time. And it’s not just people who are just starting out—it’s also people who are very established as well. 

Ezra: I want to talk about the creative process. How do your projects come to happen? Is it intuitive...? 

Charlotte: It’s less romantic than that. I try to have a process of urgency and, as I get older, I try to remember that it's really in the order of how you do things. The real turning point for me was stopping to work full time for one institution. It wasn't a specific institution’s fault, it was a sign of the times in terms of the culture industry, which is that the system, at some point, gets really broken because it hasn’t acknowledged any of the things that are happening wider within culture industry and all of the interesting bits are sort of added on. Like digital art is just added on—photography was the poor child in the family forages and then suddenly digital became this other embarrassing child that you had to work out how to sell, and it was very difficult to show. This happened around 2009 at the height of the recession, and at the top of ‘culture” you’ve got a group of people who aren’t interested in making any changes—anyone who had a secure job just clung on to it. That seemed like a waste of time, so my process now is to make a division between my labor and my work and to own my work and to not allow an employer to own my work.
Ezra: A very last question: what inspires you today? What keeps that flame going in you? 

Jo-Ann: I have a sort of weird compulsion to do things in magazines. It is this desire and passion to communicate and touch people. As an editor you have to be quite selfless and get a kick out of what other people do and then transmit that to your readers... I think the idea that you are living this moment and documenting this moment and helping other people to do that as well, that’s really important, and that it’s not all about you... 

Ezra: And you, Charlotte? What fuels you?

Charlotte: I think it’s very related to what Jo-Ann says, which is that a curator makes things for other human beings. You can have that luxury of a first idea as well as a very intensely intimate relationship with a subject, and it’s sophisticated, in the true sense of the word, that you can adopt a tradition and create a form and then you can nimbly move to another. So I think what inspires me is the dynamic of the creative trajectory that I’ve been lucky enough to go on. But what specifically interested me is about taking account of the present moment and being in the present. And I think that relates, in a sense, to what you’re doing with Self Service, which is the timelessness of what you’re doing—even if you're referring back to the past, it’s about how it’s validated by the present moment and that’s a very exciting creative journey to be on.