This exhibition, hosted by the Carroll/Fletcher gallery, brings together four series of work by Mishka Henner, using publicly available information sourced through social media, the internet and drones, and considers the way in which these technologies are used by the government, intelligence agencies and corporations. All of Henner’s pieces are sourced from the internet, often using sites such as Google Maps and Google Streetview
When looking at a review given by Eddy Frankel of TimeOut.com, I tend to agree with the statement; ‘If Mishka Henner’s work is photography, we all could be photographers. Because nearly every image in the young Belgian-Brit’s show is sourced from the internet.’ I questioned myself, can it be argued that this work is not photography? And can anyone do similar work and gain such recognition and praise? Well yes anyone can, but it’s the fact that Henner has taken the initiative to use the resources available to him and to create a body of work using these resources; his ideas and use of selection has enables him to create his own personal body of work, this he can call his own even though he did not take the images himself. I feel that because he had the idea, vision and initiative to create this project, selecting and editing down the wide range of images available to him, he is still the artist of this work even if he isn’t the original photographer.
In his two series, Oil Fields and Feedlots (2013-14), Henner exhibits large-scale photographic prints showing landscapes and how man has affected this land, carving into it by industries in order to meet the high levels of consumer demand for two of North America’s most prized commodities: oil and beef. These images were sourced from publicly available satellite imagery, the subjects depicted represent a systematic intent to maximise production and yield in order to satisfy human demand.
I love how TimeOut reviewed this body of work, putting simply; ‘Henner’s massive ‘Oil Fields’ and ‘Feedlots’ images are striking and beautiful, and abstract at first – just washes of colour, geometric grids and thick lines – like accidental expressionist paintings. But as you approach, you can start to make out sports stadiums, houses, oil wells, roads. It becomes clear that the images are meant to play on our fears of big business and ecological self-destruction. Henner is showing how we’ve ravaged the land for financial gain, and it leaves you feeling uneasy.’ I agree that from afar these images look like beautiful paintings and abstract pieces of art, as the world looks from above, however it is only on closer inspection that you see humans effect on the land. These images show the true impact that man is having on the land, images that you wouldn’t often see, Henner presents us with them, making the issue bold and clear to the viewer.
To me the size of the prints works well, as not only does it echo the vast landscapes being photographed, but it also shows the high demand for these products and the large scale effect this farming is having on the landscape. This size gives a greater idea on the size of the issue being addressed, however it is still comprehendible to the viewer, they can take in the information easily.
Shown alongside the photographs are a selection of research documents used in developing both series including geological mapping data of gas and oil fields produced in the 1970s and 80s. This addition of text adds context to the photographs, giving the viewer further understanding to the images. I feel that there is just enough information given to the viewer; it does not give away too much or spell it out for the viewer, but it gives them clues as to what Henner is focusing on, yet still allows each viewer to take a personal reading of the work. I feel that this is important, that each individual gets a chance to take their own readings from work, the viewer then becomes engaged with the exhibition, this idea of engagement leads on to the next series of work.
‘Displayed on plinths filling the rear gallery space, Fifty-One US Military Outposts (2010) is a series of photographs of overt and covert military outposts used by the United States in 51 countries worldwide. The sites were gathered and located using data which exists in the public domain, exposed and mobilised by Henner, including official US Military and veterans’ websites, news articles, and both leaked and official government documents and reports.’ – Carroll/Fletcher
This body of work leads on nicely from the two previous ones, they showed aerial shots of the landscape, as do these, however now Henner presents the viewer with an unusual way of representing photographs which is interesting. The photographs are all displayed on top of plinths, showing an aerial and birds-eye view of the selected locations. The viewer has to go to each plinth to view each individual image; once at one plinth, the viewer can concentrate on this image alone, as they are transported to that individual ‘island’, all the other images cannot be seen, so there is full concentration on each individual location.
By having this installation and layout, the viewer had to spend time engaging with the work, each experience becomes personal and unique to the viewer. I loved the use of this layout and installation, it allowed the viewer to view the work how they wanted, each person could take a range of different paths around the photographs, individual choice involves the viewer with the work and they feel part of the experience.
On some levels I feel that to artistic individuals the intent of the positioning and layout of the images is clear, they would appreciate the work and gain greater understanding from the work due to the layout. However would less artistic people get this idea and would the message be clear? Or would they just see it as an inconvenience, an impracticable way of displaying the work, meaning that they spend less time in this exhibition and appreciating the work?
But could it be argued that if these prints were presented in the same order but on a wall, would the viewer see each image much better? Yes visually it would be easier to see the detail of each photograph if they were on the wall; however I feel the map-like viewing of the images would be lost, possibly leading on to less impactful and meaningful images; meaning and understanding would be lost. I am not saying that these images couldn’t be displayed in a normal everyday exhibition, but to me the Carroll/Fletcher exhibition encourages engagement and echoes what the photographer is trying to show.
Neither the gloss quality nor the sheet of protective glass on top helped the viewing of the images. These combined with the continuous lights shining down on all of the plinths meant that it was difficult to see some images unless you were directly next to it and close. No matter how good the photographs are, the light and reflections were very distracting and took focus away from the images. Having said that, the reflections in the glass and prints showed the surrounding room and the viewer; this brings the viewer back to reality and shows how even though this is captured from way up in the sky, this is actually happening in reality and to the landscape now.
The viewpoint is unique looking down on the scenes below, similar to how the viewer looks down on the images; the viewer is almost transported into the camera, showing the particular viewpoint through the lens. The layout is combined with a gentle mist that covers the room, the mist gave a heavenly approach to the images, placing the viewers up in the clouds where the photographs would have been taken, this further enhances the idea of looking down from above at the effect man is having on the landscape.
‘The exhibition also includes new multimedia works from Henner’s Scam Baiters series (2013-present). Scam baiting is a form of internet vigilantism which has flourished with the spread of the World Wide Web to Africa, South America and the Far East. In this process, the vigilante poses as a potential victim in order to publicly expose and waste the scammer’s time, by responding to their email and subsequently feigning receptivity to their demands. Henner discovered numerous examples of extensive scam baits online, and will exhibit a number of signs that various scammers were asked to make as a result of email conversations, negotiation of fraudulent documents and bogus websites. Documentation of this correspondence, including one particularly lengthy exchange between Henner’s associate, Condo Rice and a trio of scammers spread across Libya and the United Arab Emirates, will also be displayed, alongside photographs of the scammers posing with their signs. Sound recordings of the scammers singing popular songs will permeate the space, giving human presence to this otherwise virtual correspondence.’ – Carroll/Fletcher
Even though this work is exhibited in the lower gallery away from the other three bodies of work, I personally feel that this work can be seen as a weakness to the exhibition, to me it does not link as well to the other three. The other three bodies of work are visually similar but addressing different issues, whereas this one seems to stand out as the weaker body. The walls are lined with a mismatch of images and signs which look almost lost within the space, unlike the large images in the first two body of work and the instillation in the back room, these are impactful and fill the room, whereas this last body of work seems to just be a bit of a jumble. I appreciate the fine links of using the internet to uncover this subject, as Henner did in his other work, however I feel that combined with the other three bodies this one almost seems as though it does not belong, banished to the lower gallery as a last thought.
The uses of the internet links the bodies of work together, showing how these things wouldn’t often be seen or accessible if it were not for people now having access to the internet, however I still personally feel that this work does not belong with the rest. In this work you see individuals, in some images, who are involved with the issue being addressed, unlike the previous three bodies of work where you only saw the affects humans are having without having human presence in the photographs. Is it fair that Henner reveals the identities of these scammers, even though they are in the wrong, surely they are allowed some privacy? But in this modern age what is private anymore, what with the use of the internet and social media? I personally feel that even though so much is now out their on the internet, people still seek and want parts of their lives and identities to remain hidden from the world, TimeOut agrees me when saying that exposing these peoples’ identities seems unjust and inconsiderate; ‘Henner was implicit in getting these people to pose, and while it’s funny, it’s also exploitative and mean. There’s no doubt that internet scammers are in the wrong, but forcing people from deprived countries to demean themselves for your entertainment – or your art – leaves a pretty nasty taste in the mouth.’
Having said all this overall I feel that this exhibition is a great exhibition, challenging not only social issues but also issues around the photographic practise. Henner pushes the boundaries of photography showing new and innovative ways to create a strong body of work.