Friday, 20 July 2012

East 100th Street

The seats on the return train from the Bank Street Gallery to the Shire were limited. I found a seat, after some squaddies on leave very kindly made room for me, so I look that old eh? The seat though was facing to the rear of the train – it meant I was travelling backwards, not my favourite direction as it tends to engender in me a slight motion sickness. I started writing my notes of the visit to Tanya Ahmed's exhibition in manuscript form, both because I thought that it might help with the slight giddiness and also because I like to write with a tool in my hand, rather than the springy black squares that demand constant attention to detail, Word constantly self-edits in it's infuriating "assistant" way, writing with a pencil is freer, less need to worry about how the punctuation looks – or whether the rhythm of the words fall into any pattern, it lets the ideas work. Typing detaches the typist from the words; it provides a remove from the construction of the sentence, the paragraph, the notion and the feel of piece. Editing the manuscript is best accomplished with a re-write, editing the typed page is done by painstaking viewing of the screen, or, as my preferred method – print it off and highlight, highlight, highlight and then delete.

Photograph reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tanya Ahmed

The Bank St Gallery has two rooms with Tanya’s work in it – both on screen. The New York marathon pictures were all seemingly taken from a similar perspective – I think about 5 shots – with exposure times designed to blur any passing runners. The crop (of which more later) was on a piece of inner city road, with very little else to situate it anywhere in New York, or New York State, or indeed North America. These runners could have been anywhere; we had Tanya’s words to place the action, these blurs of coloured form, in motion from right to left. There was no music to accompany the projected images, which very slowly turned one onto the next – but the extraneous sound from the adjoining space, where Tanya’s other show was being staged, somehow seemed to add to the experience.

“It’s a body of work, however it is diced and sliced. But I still recognize it as my work..” I paraphrase Tanya’s words. I wondered about this as I travelled backwards to the Shire. I didn’t see the first OCA sponsored exhibition of Tanya’s work, so I only had the OCA website to compare with. I could of, perhaps should of, visited to have gotten a perspective “but hey” I hear her say “no perspective is a perspective!”. John Clark who is part of the Gallery in Bank Street suggested that he and Andrew Conroy (photographer in residence at the gallery) are both fans of architecture photography (not in the pure sense, buildings perhaps, inhabited spaces..) – so, no surprise there were only two shots with people in them - see above, and they are both as accent and anonymous (unless we discount the “can-guy” that Tanya pointed out that was missed by John). I, like Stan and Rob (two other OCA students up for the afternoon) expected something maybe a little more like the OCA show – people in their rented apartments. It was as an “outsiders view” of an outsiders view, was how Clark described the curation.

The set of images were a projection of a city anywhere, the insularity of city life, compartmentalized and insulated. The monochromicity helped and the background soundtrack that was termed sombre by one of us helped to generate a reflective sense in this viewer as the images flicked through on a repeated loop. Not being able to compare the earlier set to this series, I can only add my reaction to both the images seen individually today and as a set as curated by the gallery. John and Andrew had a clear idea of how they wanted these photographs to be viewed, both as a series of images and, by the use of the screen which dictated how the viewer interacted with them, the distance we (the viewers) would need to be; no need to get near and peer at the print. From my perspective the gallery succeeded in projecting a sense of insolation. The sense of detachment that seemed to emanate from these photographs offered, if not a cold view of city life, then certainly one which wasn’t overly inviting; their word was “dystopian”, which on reflection seemed about right. The screen did seem a little contrasty compared to the images in Tanya’s book that she kindly brought for us to look at and compare, this is almost certainly because the screening room was darkened and the book of course had to be viewed in the light. The soundtrack also contributed to the ambience of an almost other worldly atmosphere from almost any city anywhere. I think the gallery did a very good job.

So both exhibits could have been from anywhere, the New York marathon set perhaps more so, unless there are typologists of manhole covers viewing, it is likely that the scene could be repeated wherever these road races are run. The East 100 Street set had some with fire escapes that are also found in Leeds and Bradford - John informs that the same architect may have been responsible. So more pausing for reflection.

Tanya was dismissive of the technical accomplishments in what was clearly a set of superbly rendered images, which when viewed in the book at the pace that I decided and not what the gallery had determined for me, allowed me to see the quality, the subtlety and the eye (Tanya’s) that had expertly cropped the image to suit the narrative of each image. It is a book that will probably sit on my shelves very nicely.

The discussion after viewing had on it’s agenda curation. John who had joined the four OCA students, informed us about the gallery thought processes, how detached editing can inform the viewer in many ways, distorting the original intent of the artist, perhaps even delivering a completely different narrative. Though it has to be said that the gallery largely succeeded in it’s objective, they weren’t fans of the way the original exhibition was staged and they had the opportunity to make their own proposition. I think they did a very good job, but looking at the body of work – that was limited by the number of shots in the book, I would have had a completely different take. As Clark said, a different take would not have been wrong, but right in a different way, he also stated that he was "shit at editing his own work" and had given up, preferring to work with other artists to refine and draw conclusions from their bodies of work. I know editing is tough, whichever method is chosen. Delete, delete, highlight or if I was looking as The Bank Street Gallery did with that pool of resource, what story would I want to tell?

Returning south I found myself wondering what Tanya thinks. Travelling backwards towards a destination is an odd way to reach your goal. Tanya has seen this work exhibited twice and both times the work has been acclaimed, the source of this praise must surely be in the excellence of the work at its core; from where a skilled curator can seemingly project a narrative theme almost at will. Looking backwards over this process perhaps there are a number of other stories to recount from this body of work that situates this part of East Harlem to Anycity AnyState.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Makes me wish I could have been there and trying to imagine the excellence of work which opens itself out to so many different narrative processes.
    Travelling backwards to reach your goal - well there is that saying isn't there? Two steps forward and one step back (or is it vice versa?).


  2. I think it depends on whether you are a glass half full or glass half empty kind of person:)

  3. Interesting thoughts John. I don't have many opportunities to visit exhibitions over here (RSA) so enjoy reading others thoughts on exhibitions they have viewed. Fortunately, I will be visiting one tomorrow. Tx. R Doug

  4. Thanks Doug, I'd like to get to more and would do if I didn't live in the shire! Hope your visit tomorrow is rewarding.