Remember the “long tail”? It was the theory that digital technology would redistribute demand for cultural products, away from a few empowered hit-makers and toward a vast array of niche creators. Thanks to the democratizing force of the internet, a huge and happy crowd of bloggers, song-writers, and artists would be able to find their audience and make their living.
It didn’t work out like that. While some successful art-workers owe their fortunes to YouTube and social media, now that we’re a quarter-century into the consumer internet era, the real impact of our online networking has emerged: increasing monopolization of information, exploitation of influence, and homogenization of taste. Arguably, the so-called long tail has simply prolonged the period that people earn little or nothing before they “make it.”
In this period when earning a living as an artist is so full of promise and peril, the old question of media access deserves more investigation: that is, who gets to say what, to whom, and how? A recent pair of exhibitions at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, in Toronto, offered complementary studies on this theme. Selections from Rainer Ganahl’s Seminars / Lectures series – now twenty-three-years running – occupied the main floor of the homey gallery, while the disassembled pages of Ho Tam’s mock magazine A Brief History of Me were arranged sequentially on four walls of a little room overlooking Queen Street.
In Seminars / Lectures, Ganahl arranges groupings of photographs from public talks often by name-brand artists and intellectuals, such as Louise Bourgeois, Chris Kraus, and Susan Sontag. Ganahl addresses these subjects with a semblance of documentary fastidiousness. He typically includes a shot of the lecturer, one or two of the audience, and an image of a slide or PowerPoint. He presents us with a type of record, though he declines to transmit any of the actual content from the talks, apart from how they were titled: no thoughts, no ideas, no questions. We don’t learn anything from Ganahl’s photographs, except that the event occurred, how the light looked, and the faces people made.
Ganahl’s compositions appear purposefully artless, as though to assert his pretext of creating an archive. His aesthetic is that of the unstudied snapshot. The images feel provisional, like a note that’s been jotted down. The point, Ganahl seems to say, isn’t to produce a photographic work, but to capture an event. Which is funny, because the events in question hardly seem worth capturing, at least when stripped of their particular content. Ganahl’s work smacks of citizen journalism, but gutted of anything that wants attention: People Went to a Room and Listened to Someone Talk, Sometime in the Past.
We sense that Ganahl has made a mistake, like he’s pointed his camera at the wrong thing. That air of misguided reportage draws us to look closer – whereupon we discover that Ganahl’s material is unpredictably and unequivocally rich. In particular, he catches the audience members in every attitude of absorption and rebellion. Slumped over, holding their heads; abstractedly playing with their faces; pinched at the shoulders, in pensive concentration; wearing expressions of unguarded pleasure and admiration; faces wide with dawning revelation, or narrow with skepticism and intellectual aggression; dead-looking, worshipful, perplexed, bored – we’re all there, wearing our bluntest attitudes of closed- and open-mindedness. Although seminars and lectures create a power imbalance, where few people talk and many people listen, Ganahl’s work reframes that dynamic to show the power held by those who choose to pay attention or not, and how.
Tam’s A Brief History of Me also comes on slowly, by way of another subject that seems like it shouldn’t pass muster but somehow does: himself. The exhibition arranges every page of the first issue of his self-published magazine hotam, in consecutive order from 1 to 51, jacketed in plastic and pinned to the wall. Side by side, they form a continuous timeline of Tam’s life, where each page represents a year. Photos of Tam run along the top of the pages, and beneath them flows a series of undated world events, ranging from “Coca Cola introduces Diet Coke” and “Donald Duck turns 50” to “Russian troops leave Germany” and “Tsunami kills 230,000.”
It makes for a rather disorienting and gripping story, these years since Ho Tam was born. The life of the artist – as told in simple, camera-facing poses, without much variation in expression – is less obviously compelling. Like the talks in Ganahl’s Seminars / Lectures, Tam erases the content of what’s happened to him, replacing it with what’s happened to the world. We don’t learn anything specific about Tam’s life, except that he seems to have moved around a great deal, and that people have come and gone, the way they do.
Without any deeper context than world events, on my first pass-through I found myself thinking, “Here’s another person in the world, not nondescript but simply out there, like everyone else.” Simply, I wasn’t sure how or why to care about Tam’s brief history of himself. Everyone’s interesting, if you look closely, but we don’t get to appeal to strangers to study our photo albums, do we?
Like Seminars / Lectures, there’s something appealingly wrong-headed about A Brief History of Me. Facebook and Instagram provide readymade containers for our self-memorializing instinct. They’ve standardized and normalized it so that a great many people can partake unselfconsciously. But outside this framework, it seems somehow silly to manufacture an elaborate photo-biography, like trying to publish one’s diaries or scrapbooks. And yet it makes me unexpectedly happy to see Tam do it, the way I think I might feel if an adult man stopped me on the street to show me the outfit he’s wearing, and to ask if I like his haircut. There’s an odd shock of purity in the gesture of showing oneself. It’s beautiful, the expectation of worthiness to be witnessed.
A Brief History of Me only comes into focus within Tam’s broader oeuvre, which frequently tracks the question of who is worth seeing. His book series, poser, presents large collections of street portraits organized around tight themes: people wearing blue shirts in Grand Central Station on casual Friday; men who won stuffed animals at the 2003 National Exhibition in Toronto; monks in Bangkok wearing yellow. Tam has said that he started out with the desire to photograph everybody in the world, but since it was impossible, he narrowed his parameters.
That trajectory carried Tam to its natural end – his own life. In the hotam series, which came after poser, Tam shifted away from making books to making magazines. A Brief History of Me was the first of fifteen issues, in which Tam strives to replicate the polish and formatting of the mass-market glossy magazine, albeit idiosyncratically. But none of those would devote an issue to the life of Ho Tam, a person in the world. So he did it himself. You could say that he’s quietly and modestly seizing the means of production. Not to win a revolution against mainstream media, but to take back some of its validating power, without its requirement to exploit. It’s a small point, but a powerful one: Look at me, I’m here too.