Photographic Island Hopping
Textile installation by Katherine May
Curated by Keinton Butler
An exhibition that is anything but static works on the wall. It has been an absolute revelation to watch this process unfold over the 10 day London Design Festival and several weeks after. Although totally unrelated to photography, to me there is something distinctly photographic about the wet process of dying and rinsing sheets of white silk. As well as visually engaging, the exhibition is an exercise in the sustainable use of water within the textile industry. It brought together artists, designers, craftspeople and curators of varying experiences through a programme of workshops and live demonstrations.
"Water is vital to all living things. With 70% of the world’s surface covered by water, only 0.1% is available for human consumption. Population growth and an increase in consumption, threatens an already limited and unevenly distributed resource.
Every year the textile industry uses in excess of 370 billion litres of water. Thirsty fibre crops like cotton require artificial irrigation, and subsequent contamination of water from fertilisers and pesticides make it unfit for other purposes like drinking water and agriculture. Furthermore, the colouring of cloth diverts water into mills, expelling toxic waste into local water supplies after dyeing. These are the macro issues of a global industry, however the micro habits of laundering our textiles is now known to use more water than growing fibre, processing yarn, and all other phases of a textile’s life-cycle.
Water – Colour is a textile installation that aims to raise awareness of water consumption in the production and use of textiles. The installation will evolve over the course of 9 days using an exhaust dyeing method, after which the process of collective quilt making will draw the installation to its close.
The theme of the Water – Colour installation took as a starting point Arthaus’ past life as a laundry – the raw ingredients of a laundrette being water, cloth and community. An unconventional exhaust dyeing process, that uses colour to show the potential for recycling the dye vat water is illustrated by the dyed cloth suspended in the atrium space. Once the dye vats are exhausted, the final stage of the exhibition will see the dye station replaced by a sewing workspace and the making of the cloth into quilts.
The Water – Colour installation has been designed to raise awareness of water consumption in the production and use of textiles. Designed by Katherine May, the installation aims to reconnect us physically to water through a direct experience of handling water in a dye vat. This socially engaged space is characteristic of Katherine’s work, that amplifies material life-cycles and acts of making."
precinct-arthaus.comFriday, November 1st 2013 4:34pm
Unknown Fields - Journey to Treasure Island.
Three portraits I made on an expedition to Madagascar with Unknown Fields Division. Tank Magazine were also on the trip and subsequently published the images in their 15th anniversary issue alongside some portraits by Toby Smith. The portraits are intended as initial entry points to present the themes of the trip. Additional content, both personal and collaborative, across a range of media will surface over time.
Text below by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie, courtesy of Tank Magazine.
The Unknown Fields Division is a “nomadic design studio” that explores “peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness”. Twice a year its leaders, Liam Young and Kate Davies, who run a diploma unit at the AA also named Unknown Fields, take the studio on the road for one of their research trips, venturing to far-flung places ranging from Alaska to Baikonur.
Tank joined Unknown Fields on their most recent trip to Madagascar, where they aimed to examine complex value relationships between the land, its people and outside forces. The fourth largest island on the planet, it is both ecologically unique and intimately connected to everyday luxuries in countries such as the UK. The cadmium in your mobile phone, the lines on tennis courts, the vanilla in your latte can be traced back to Madagascar. Inhabited by humans for only two and a half millennia, its extreme geographical isolation has produced high levels of endemicity of flora (90 per cent) and fauna (70 per cent). But today its ecosystem is under pressure thanks to relentless global demand for the resources it contains: the source of perhaps 90 per cent of the world’s vanilla, Madagascar is also rich in minerals and ores – ilmenite, nickel, cobalt – used in all kinds of products, and has abundant supplies of precious gemstones. Without a stable government since a coup in 2009, the island is seemingly ripe for exploitation.
Starting at Toliara on the south-west coast, over the course of two weeks we wound our way inland and then up the middle of the country, through the capital Antananarivo to the port of Toamasina in the north-east. Along the way, we stopped to interview some of the researchers and charity workers trying to preserve the country’s biodiversity, representatives of companies prospecting for raw materials, as well as the local traders, farmers and workers caught between the competing interests of these two camps. We were repeatedly told that for centuries, the culture has been based on taking what was needed from the land on a day-to-day basis. It is believed that over 90 per cent of the rainforest cover has been cut away since humans first arrived on the island; satellite photographs show that the rainforest shrank by 40 per cent between 1950 and 2000 alone, a period during which the population quadrupled. On current trends, it is expected to double again in around 22 years. Today, despite its mineral riches, an estimated 90 per cent of the island’s population of 22 million, of whom 41 per cent are under the age of 15, live on less than $2 a day.
Our first meeting in Toliara was with Blue Ventures, an NGO working with fishing villages on the country’s western coast. They told us about a feedback loop in which the strain on fish stocks from a growing population puts pressure on people to have more children, to help supplement the family income; this in turn puts even greater strain on fish stocks, and so on. Inland, slash-and-burn agriculture has proven unsustainable as the rainforest continues to shrink, adding to the burden on marine ecosystems as families move out to the coast in search of food. Gérard Rambeloarisoa, Conservation Director at WWF, suggested that the Malagasy desire to have as many children as possible is also part of a postcolonial hangover – the suspicion being that Westerners want this former French colony’s population to remain small enough that they can “come back and take our land again”.
The tragic irony is that it is precisely this abundance of labour that makes the extraction of wealth so cheap and easy. Colonising a nation in the 19th-century manner is no longer advantageous or even necessary; all that is required is the promise of a meagre wage to a plentiful workforce for the land to be stripped of its value, its resources shipped out for extraction, processing and use. The most dramatic example of this occurs in Ilakaka, a modern day Wild West town that has emerged from nothing in the past 15 years, since the discovery of sapphires. We spoke with Swiss prospector Marc Noveraz, who was among the first to arrive there, and whose company finances one of the largest mines in the area. He refused to be filmed, but we were able to record an audio interview. Under Malagasy law foreigners are not permitted to take from the land directly, but Noveraz persuaded local leaders to let him prospect for the gems, providing tools and rice for Malagasy workers from whom he buys any sapphires they find. He has established a firm footing in a region where government involvement was minimal even before the coup.Labour in Madagascar is so cheap that it is more cost-effective to employ chains of people – a human conveyor belt – than to use expensive machinery. That would require maintenance and training; it would also formalise the existence of the mine to the extent that permission from the central government would be required – a particularly off-putting complication in the eyes of local leaders and foreign investors. Instead, lines of young men shovel dirt up and out of a pit 20 to 30 metres deep. At the same time, people come to the region from all over Madagascar to operate their own mines. These smaller operations are worked entirely by members of the same family, such is the fear of theft. Unlike in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the migration of workers here is internal. The buyers who take the gemstones to the international market, on the other hand, mostly come from Sri Lanka and Thailand. When they sell the stones, the source is often obscured: gems from Madagascar are mixed in with those from Sri Lanka, for example, which has a much better reputation on the market – and thus commands a higher price. The material leaves the hands of Malagasy workers at the point at which its value is lowest.
Mindful of the brevity of our trip, Unknown Fields tries not to jump to easy conclusions. The real work happens now: the interpretation of all the interviews, the footage and stills, combining these pieces of information into speculative narratives in a process Liam Young describes as “data dramatisation”. Part of the result appears here in a series of portraits of Malagasy workers, most of whom are drawing value directly from the dirt beneath their feet. These are overlaid with text that speculates as to the value of their hard labour, which feeds the consumption habits of richer countries. More of the output from this trip will be appearing online and can be seen by using the app to scan the pages.
unknownfieldsdivision.comFriday, September 20th 2013 11:13am
Earlier this year I was asked to help judge the series category for the Renaissance Photography Prize. The panel was made up of two magazine editors, an artist and myself. We all had slightly different criteria in terms of assessing the work and after an intense day's judging could not reach a unanimous decision. After a few days reflecting on a shortlist we narrowed it down to three artists. Those few days were key in allowing some of the more nuanced and subtle work to emerge. Later I presented the award at the Wapping Project Bankside to the winner Hanna Putz who made a very moving speech and dedicated the award to a close friend who died of cancer aged just 24. All proceeds from the award go to the Lavender Trust at Breast Cancer Care.
breastcancercare.org.ukSunday, September 8th 2013 7:17am
Inside the White Cube.
Referencing Brian O’Doherty’s 1976 collection of essays that argue the importance of the art gallery in shaping our responses to art, White Cube's playful title disrupts the viewer before they've even entered the space. Three expertly interconnected solo exhibitions by Lucas Blalock, Matthew Booth & Erin Shirreff made pleasurable yet occasionally uncomfortable viewing. Divided into three separate but adjacent white cubes, this show was also a lesson in clever curating and gallery management; you had the rare sense of entering each artist's practice whilst also benefiting from the conversational element of a group show.
erinshirreff.comTuesday, August 20th 2013 4:14am
This year I was invited to select a graduating student from the LCC BA Photography course for a mentorship with me at Flowers Gallery. The main criteria I set was originality - I looked for people who were beginning to display signs of developing their own unique voice. After a 3-year BA I don't expect students to have arrived at the finished article yet. In that sense I wasn't necessarily looking for gallery-ready work - it was the potential that intrigued me. I chose two students in the end, only later to find out they were planning on sharing a studio space once they graduated.
Louise Oates displayed 10 unique works of varying sizes, all silver gelatin fibre based prints with a variety of hand-manipulated interventions including watercolour, wool, cotton and linen. "Born out of memories of the tactile warmth of shelters built as a child, this project explores nature’s ability to connect us to the archaic. The frame itself becomes a shelter, enabling dreams of the past, which are manifest as the physical process of printing and stitching into the images."
Sadaf Chezari (b.1991, Tehran) produced a set of emotive colour prints exploring the disorientating experience of migration. "The cold and sterile spaces engage with a sense of 'un-belonging', loss and 'in-between'. Centring on Iran, England and elsewhere the isolated and disjointed locations resist the imaginative construction of a narrative, and thus any suggestion of logic implicit in their chronology."
Wednesday, June 5th 2013 10:55pm
Landmark: The Fields of Photography
A roaming exhibition taking on the manifold forms of landscape orientated photography from the sublime to the ridiculous. Curator Bill Ewing has brought together over 100 works by photographers employing technology ranging from 19th Century plate-camera techniques to the use of planes, drones, robots and even satellites to capture vivid images of earth’s varied terrain - and even distant planets.
The exhibition is spread across the terrace rooms of Somerset House with single broad terms serving as "signposting". By delineating subsections in this fashion, it gives the viewer simple entry points for their imagination to take over: Scar, Control, Dillusion...I found this method quite effective and it very much suited an exhibition that will no doubt be seen by large volumes of the general public. The images above are simply a selection of works that caught my eye, perhaps moving away from literal translations of the landscape to the more abstracted.
For a more concise review, read Francis Hodgson's piece in the FT where he comments on how acutely aware photographers have become of each others work. Hodgson feels that this show is partly about photographers finding their way through a world where nearly everything has already been photographed; "it's less about the fight for subject matter, and more about the fight for style".
somersethouse.org.ukSunday, April 14th 2013 7:55pm