Katrina Sluis, Curator (Digital Programme) The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Katrina Sluis

Interview conducted by Martyn Jolly at The Photographers’ Gallery, 24 June 2015.

Martyn Jolly: You’ve been employed by The Photographers’ Gallery for three years part-time, is it a specific job or a specific curatorial remit that you have here?

Katrina Sluis: Yes, the role was originally funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for three years, and was created by the Gallery to address “the digital” as part of its 2012 reopening in its new building here in Soho. So they created this post of Curator (Digital Programme) with an open mind about what that meant and where that might sit in the institution. I believe there were discussions about whether the role sat in marketing, programming or education, or required its own department. If you look at some other institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s no coincidence that a lot of the interesting digital stuff comes out of the education division.

One important aspect of the post, initially, was to facilitate the Gallery’s plans to develop a permanent display for screen media on the ground floor of the new building. So initially my job was very much to set up and define how that screen or “screens” might be used. Prior to my arrival there had been much internal discussion about how the Gallery could address social media and the alleged democratisation of photography and those kinds of debates. I came with an interest in thinking about the photograph’s collision with screen and network culture, and trying to think how that might be explored institutionally. I think that focussing the job initially around the screen has all sorts of institutional limits and framings, and we’ve played with that in the Media Wall’s programming, but now my focus is very much looking at online programs and developing that. We’ve been doing some social media programming around Instagram and so on, so I’m very interested in thinking about what we can be doing digitally, not necessarily inside the institution but externally.

MJ: There must be a tension too, even in the job title, Curator (Digital Programme), between using the digital to re-present the still photograph (or to increase access to photographs, or translate a previous form into the digital) versus actually curating within the “stuff” of digital space.

KS: Yes, I think I’ve said this elsewhere, the way “the digital” is typically modelled by cultural institutions falls into three main areas, which are: digital as a new tool for the artist (or avant-garde); digital as a broadcast channel, through which you continue to do what you’re already doing but package it in a slightly different way; or thirdly, digital as “culture”. And of course the last one is the really hard one to crack as it requires a complete reassessment of the organisation, its relationship to the public, how it has those conversations, and crucially the status of art and reproduction within that. And, at the moment, I think if you look at digital arts funding and policy it’s very much focused on promoting a broadcast model of “digital” in order to expand audiences and understand them better. The buzz around big data in cultural organisations is very much limited to the idea that “if we can just understand the public better and their desires we can deliver to them the culture they want” – which embraces a market-driven consumer-modelling approach. One must remember the different connotations “the digital” has in terms of arts funding, the relationship of the public to culture, and what’s happening online in terms of the attention economy and audiences. All this is coming to create a perfect storm for cultural institutions and their relationship to the public, particularly in the UK.

I recently presented a paper in New York for the College Art Association, looking at curation, and the way in which it’s been colonised by the rhetoric and practices of digital marketing. The relationship between curation and consumption has also further been complicated by the development of the Google Page Rank Algorithm and Google Analytics. We need to begin to talk about some of these cultural dynamics of software curation, audience and spectatorship – which can be very hard to articulate and make visible. A very interesting challenge.

MJ: In terms of your work at The Photographers’ Gallery, you curated a show of GIFs here?

KS: Yes, that was the first show. I was very much trying to confound the expectations of what we were doing on an ultra high-resolution screen. Of course, a photograph on a screen is no longer a photograph, depending on what theoretical or technical model you want to follow, and I immediately wanted to locate the program in the dispersal and intensification of the photographic image through networks. And of course the GIF is the perfect vehicle to introduce this – it’s a file format native to the web and screen, and around the time of the show it was being rediscovered by audiences, and of course it’s now ubiquitous. There had been shows about the GIF before, but they had been very much about the canonisation of the format, because there is a very interesting history of artists using GIFs. Whereas for me, I was more interested in commissioning GIFs from a load of people who were theorists, photographers who had never made GIFs before, GIF artists and net artists. I said look, send me a GIF, you’ve got a week, and then that formed the basis of a public response, which kept being fed into the screen over the period of the show.

MJ: So that was displayed in this physical location?

KS: Yes, on the Media Wall downstairs. And also online on Tumblr, where we also published essays by Daniel Rubinstein and Matthew Fuller on the GIF file format and that particular moment in relation to photography. The GIF is very close to my heart – when I was studying at the College of Fine Arts (COFA), Sydney, I supported my art practice by working as telephone technical support for CompuServe Pacific. CompuServe was one of the first mass consumer internet service providers which introduced the GIF format in 1987. It’s also worth mentioning that my technical background is another important part of my role here – I’m essentially first, second and third level technical support for the Media Wall. I had worked with video walls before at London South Bank University, so I knew when we launched the GIF show this was an untested system that needed to run smoothly, 24/7. In this respect the GIF show was highly practical – I could pull it up on the fly, didn’t need to struggle with native resolution – which was just as well, as we had other problems (the screens were falling off the wall the week before the show!).

MJ: So this is about the funding environment – the infrastructure came first in a way.

KS: It’s a coming together of theory and practice with a heavy dose of pragmatics at a time when the institution is trying to capitalize on a new building and re-launching the programme.

MJ: But the idea of the Media Wall was planned for by the new institution before the implications were fully developed?

KS: Yes. In one early version of the architectural visualisations of the ground floor the walls were literally covered in screens – a kind of digital utopia where anyone in the café could upload their photos and see them instantly multiplied everywhere. Unsurprisingly, this is the kind of display you now see in Samsung flagship stores.

MJ: Like it might be Bill Gates’ house or whatever.

KS: Yes, absolutely! In my job interview with The Photographers’ Gallery I said “the last thing you want is a video wall down there”! But I’m glad we ended up with it, as it has a relationship to mass culture and the video walls which line Oxford Street. It’s at the centre of the Gallery and it’s in a really difficult space. In a way, something like this would be more suited to the education floor where you can move and interact with it instead of in this strange architectural space. But it was really important for the Gallery to make a statement, and I think very brave for them to put this thing in the centre of the new building. There is also a perception that these software and hardware set-ups are easy, cheap and fluid. I think everyone in the Gallery has been surprised how time consuming and anxiety ridden some of the projects have been – the things I could tell you about the nuances of video codecs! I am definitely now a zen master on video compression… So when it came to actually hiring an assistant for me, we needed to find someone who was also a hybrid – with an understanding of both the technical language and the cultural language of the image. And that’s quite a difficult person to find.

MJ: This contrasts with the idea that in the past a good old-fashioned photography curator would not have needed to know how to develop these separate skills. Most classic photography curators come from Art History backgrounds rather than from technical or photographic practice backgrounds.

KS: Yes, well it’s interesting, because when I was at COFA in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I was teaching B&W, Colour, Studio photography and Photoshop. I remember Phil George asked me to develop the first undergraduate digital curriculum for all the first year students, and we asked ourselves, “do we need to teach them these skills or not?”. The same question is still being asked by educators today, when faced with a room of “digital natives”. I cut my teeth in the darkroom and with large format cameras but then I also remember the moment when I saw the Apple QuickTake Camera. But for me, there was always a separation between what I did as “art” and what I did as “technology”, as an art student working part time at CompuServe. The distinction is much more blurred now.

It’s interesting because at the same time, if we think about photography educators now, there’s a real loss of identity, especially in the UK, with darkrooms closing down. I went back to COFA over Christmas and asked Debra Phillips if she wanted any of my old rolls of colour photography paper for student workshops. She laughed at me and said, “Katrina, we closed down the darkrooms years ago!”. There is a sadness at this of loss of medium specificity, especially in the university where all the creative disciplines are squished together in generic labs. Conversely, you also see a desire in young people to distinguish what they do in comparison to the billions of internet photographers, so there’s this paradoxical return to analogue photographic processes as a shoring up of cultural authority and distinctiveness, which is a kind of return.

MJ: So institutionally then, you’ve got the GIF show, what other kinds of exhibitions have you done?

KS: We’ve done many. For instance, we did a show on cat photography, which involved working with the internet curators of cat photography. In this way I was “curating the curators”, because I’m not a connoisseur of cat photography – although I was by the end of it! Apart from pornography, cat photography is the most shared form of imagery online, and to me it was a way of tapping into questions around virality, creativity, community and the contemporary photograph. The show included everything from Harry Pointer’s cat photography from the 1870s made in his Brighton studio, to Glenda Moore’s extensive internet cat image archive from the 1990s, to MaruYouTube’s favourite cat, which involved liaising with his US publicists to secure his involvement. Alongside we did a great panel session looking at meme culture, including “Dr Lop Lop” who ran the “Somebody else’s cat” Flickr Group and brought a completely different audience from the Gallery.

MJ: So you were choosing the cat as a meme, as a way of cutting across all those pre-established hierarchies of taste and so forth?

KS: Absolutely. We also commission new work in dialogue with other parts of the programme. We recently had a show called Human Rights: Human Wrongs, focused on the Black Star Archive curated by Mark Sealy, and I was wondering how you might think about the agency of the photographer today? With the ubiquity of the cameraphone and the arrival of the citizen journalist, we have also seen a proliferation of policed “non-photographic” spaces, such as government departments, airport immigration queues and privately-run public spaces in cities. We worked with the artist James Bridle who has a background in computer programming on the project Seamless Transitions, which made use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to visualise contentious spaces of immigration and detention. James worked with an architectural visualisation company to make architectural fly-throughs of the UK Special Immigration Appeals Commission where secret evidence is held around cases to do with migrants; the Harmondsworth Detention Centre; and the Inflite Jet Centre at London Stansted Airport, which is a luxury jet terminal where asylum seekers are deported late at night by the Home Office. James and the production team visited the Special Immigration Appeals Court to sketch the space in detail for its “photographic” re-creation back in the studio. The project allowed us to think about what sort of imaging strategies might be possible in spaces where photography is policed, and visualise these sites where human rights are tested. It allowed us to address debates around the agency of images today in the current context of sovereignty and rights.

MJ: To me that’s really interesting, because that’s what Jacob Riis used to do – to go to the unseen spaces, you know the dark slums that aren’t visible and illuminate them with magnesium powder flash. But since CGI performs the same sort of function…

KS: So there’s a historical tradition…

MJ: It’s not indexical – to use that over-used word – but it still has some kind of reportage effect and evidential power, it’s a tool to propagate.

KS: And it’s interesting because there were people here at the opening who have been in Harmondsworth and who were really moved by it; there was an article by James in The Guardian about the whole project, and people were talking about their experiences as detainees in the comments.

Besides commissions, we have also been doing the more traditional participatory projects – during our Mass Observation show we partnered with Guardian Witness to do directives, which the audience then responded to. So it’s been kind of a mix of projects, a process of research to discover how different curatorial approaches might serve the Media Wall. We also re-presented older work such as Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico’s “Face to Facebook” – an archive of material documenting the media storm when the artists scraped millions of Facebook profile photos to make a fake dating website using facial recognition to match people. So in short we’ve been trying to understand what a screen can do in a Gallery, and how it might offer opportunities to make the Gallery more porous and bring it into temporary alignment with communities of practice, online and offline. I think it’s still highly problematic, very difficult institutionally to do that.

MJ: How have the other mainstream, normal, ongoing activities of The Photographers’ Gallery or even other institutions changed?

KS: This is a difficult issue. New media art was ghettoised and separated off when it entered the fine art museum and there is a similar process going on when you establish a “digital programme” and hire a Curator for this in a photo institution. There are of course advantages to this approach, for example to indicate to funders obviously, that this is an area that we are “leading” in. But it creates the problem that the “digital”, whatever we mean by that term, becomes seen as one person’s problem or one part of the exhibition programme. I am in the process of expanding the digital programme and the question of institutional/sector-wide change is something in the forefront of my mind. I’ve thought long and hard about this too – because it’s very hard when you’re one person in an institution and you really do need buy-in support. What you do really does challenge a lot of the established ideas around photography and that is a long process to unpack – especially because it’s very easy to contain when it’s on a screen. I’m developing a programme in collaboration with peers in the UK photo sector to facilitate discussion on analytics, born-digital photography, copyright, audiences, big data – subjects which are quite pressing but there is little understanding of. I’m also developing an online platform called “unthinking photography” which aims to map and become a resource for students, educators and the wider public, by focusing on the automation of photography and the culture of software which surrounds it.

MJ: Yes, when it has its own little spot – that’s our “New Media” Gallery on the way to something else.

KS: Exactly. And I guess if the Media Wall hadn’t been there the web would have always been where I would have started. I think beginning with the web and using whatever you do there to feed back into the Gallery is a better strategy than generating content within the Gallery and hoping that it gets transmitted elsewhere.

MJ: But visitation must be a big driver for the whole institution and for funding?

KS: Absolutely. I think the way the Arts Council [England] understands audiences and the reporting of them has very much been based on traditional visitor figures. There hasn’t been an online model of visitor engagement that the Arts Council has specified beyond number of hits and dwell times, and those sorts of metrics very much, again, come from a digital marketing perspective – likes on Facebook. That is disturbing because there are huge white label companies that are there to guarantee hits on content.

MJ: And the whole thing is gamed anyway.

KS: Yes, Constant Dullaart did a great project around this on Instagram. So there is a need to develop longitudinal audience research, which is not very fundable in this climate, in order to generate more sophisticated understandings of spectatorship. Because I think there is a real anxiety too, if we think about visual literacy in photography institutions, there is this real desire to slow the image down and determine how the audience responds. The ideal spectator is one who steps away from their mobile phone, sits and stares.

MJ: A kind of Chapel.

KS: Yes, a monastic experience. [There is a presumption] that if you’re staring into a screen in the gallery you’re therefore distracted and not engaging with the work. This is very different to my experience of my own iPad-wielding students in cultural spaces, whose engagement continues after they leave the building, and who work with the material they have captured and annotated. I think that those ideas float around what the “model” spectator really is, which I think really needs to be unpacked a lot more.

MJ: Is this “Unthinking Photography” a series of workshops?

KS: Hopefully by the time you transcribe this, it will be off the ground, it will be a “thing”! Underlying the project is a desire to move the debate in photography and digital culture away from “manipulation” and “truth” in individual images, in order to think more expansively about the digital photograph in relationship to global systems of computation. What does it mean to think about the photograph as a software output? What does it mean that photographs by machines, for other machines, outnumber those shared by humans? How is the camera becoming a really important sensor in the world and what are the implications for that? And what are the aesthetics for that? How do we think about photography after Edward Snowdon? All these sorts of questions! This is also influenced by my own academic research at The Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University. I guess even though I am a curator I’m still also thinking as an educator – and it is exciting to be working with the general public and professional practitioners on these issues. “Unthinking Photography” will have slideshows, YouTube essays, commissions, and a feed of existing artists’ work which map and point to these shifts, and I hope it will become a useful resource. Ideally it will also become a platform that feeds back into events in the Gallery, such as our series of bi-annual Geekenders. Then hopefully I won’t be asked by photography students, “Where do we read about this stuff?”. How do we move beyond asking, “What would Roland Barthes think about Google Street View?”.

I do think in Australia these distinctions between art, media and technology have been very much more fluid – as a photomedia undergraduate I was given both the photographic canon, but I was also exposed to artists like Orlan, Stelarc, Mongrel, Dement, VNS Matrix etc. In the UK it all feels very much separated, because of the different disciplines and the history of the way photography has emerged within universities and polytechnics. The 1990s New Media scene in Australia has had a lasting influence on me, even though at the time I was never making my own work in that way. So it’s been fantastic to draw on all these concerns and experiences together in this role.

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Katrina Sluis is a New Zealand born artist, writer, curator and educator. She balances her present post as Curator (Digital Programme) at The Photographers’ Gallery with her role as Senior Lecturer at London South Bank University where she has taught since 2003. Prior to this, she lectured in digital photography at the University of New South Wales and the Sydney Gallery School. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) from the University of New South Wales, and an MA (Fine Art) from Central Saint Martins. Her writing has been featured in journals including Photographies, Philosophy of Photography and ArteEast, as well as in recent publications including The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, Exhibiting Photography and The Companion to Photography.