I have a half-frame camera from the 1940s, when film was expensive and it made sense to squeeze twice as many pictures from a roll. Now, of course, one can take 50 digital photos before breakfast at no cost, and delete or upload them before the coffee has gone cold.
Some artists who work with photography see no reason to add to the glut of images created by phone cameras and photo-sharing websites. They prefer to find new meaning in the chaos through the kinds of works that dominate Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, the biennial festival which opened its 14th edition on Thursday at 16 venues across the city.
The theme chosen by guest curator Joan Fontcuberta is "the post-photographic condition" – a misleading term in that his chosen artists still deploy photographs, mostly as found objects. But his phrase does reflect the way in which the art begins only after the photograph has been taken.
You could say that the primary media for the artists whose work I saw before the official opening are the image search-engines developed and popularized by Google. These are used to retrieve and repurpose what Fontcuberta calls the "dormant" images buried in the great online midden.
Memories Center, an installation by Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois at Centre Clark, uses search terms derived from a huge text database of dreams at the University of California. Every few seconds, three snapshots appear on adjacent walls, each related to a phrase spoken by a computerized voice. The images are processed to look like black oil crayon rubbed over a matrix of orange cloth, as if in a hand-drawn graphic narrative – and a narrative thread often appears. "My mother was getting married for the third time," the voice says as a wide-eyed child's face is flanked by an image of a couple kissing. But Sirois and Chatonsky also foreground the role of the narrative-blind software through the synthesized voice and the beeps that register each new image, like a price scanner at a supermarket. A nearby sculptural component includes mirrored surfaces that invert the images, and open shelved cabinets that evoke the sorting and storing processes underlying the work.
Dina Kelberman's Torrent, at the same venue, includes a display of images from her I'm Google project (at dinakelberman.tumblr.com) in which she sorts the online imagesphere into a daisy-chain of visual similarities. Photos of heaped bricks and sand, for example, give way to similarly shaped canopies and tents, which lead to draped mosquito nets, screens of other kinds, misty windows and so on. The segues are sometimes whimsical, but all relate to our deep-seated need to find patterns. In that sense, search-engine art tends to exalt patterning and visual categories, sometimes to the point of caricature. Kelberman's animation of a linked sequence of superimposed, mostly yellow images also emphasizes the disposability of her found imagery, by not allowing any photo to hold the screen alone. Each image in this transfixing display is a veil that is as much seen through as seen.
MissPixels (Isabelle Gagné), at Maison de la Culture Frontenac, applies Google's image search to landscape photography. Gagné found images from 17 Quebec regions, searched for photos with a similar pixel structure, then mashed up the results into composites that layer the different vistas in horizontal bands. Her procedure scrambles and flattens the usual visual logic of landscape, centred as it is on the vanishing point. But the eye still searches for that anchor; mine ultimately settled on one band or another as the base of the composition, from which everything else deviated. Mountains floated over layers of sky, as if to apotheosize an Olympian ideal of the profound, and slabs of exposed sedimentary rock testified that the Earth also works in layers.
Andreas Rutkauskas, in an adjoining gallery, offers what at first glance could be a display of photos from National Geographic. But his route to the spectacular Rocky Mountain images of Virtually There ran through searches with Google Earth and GPS software. He tracked down some of his finds and photographed them himself, but other images in his show are taken straight from Google Earth. Most photography of remote landscapes tells us both that "we are there" and that the photographer really was there, but Rutkauskas was only there sometimes, and he challenges us to notice when he wasn't. Sometimes it's clear, when a hitch in the download broke the photo into pixel blocks, but sometimes it's not. In any case, there's a sly humour involved in conceptual art that looks just like razzle-dazzle scenic photography.
A charge often levelled at artists such as these is that they let the software do the work. But as Fontcuberta said in a phone interview, "creativity always involves a selection process," whether you're a photojournalist choosing from 50 shots or an artist sifting the results of tailored searches.
"Digital culture is producing a new kind of creativity in which all artistic functions merge," the curator said. The focus widens from making things to curating them, with all the textual apparatus that may ensue. In that sense, digital culture is really setting the seal on a development that has been under way for decades, as artists discovered or were told that they needed not just to create objects but to verbalize about them, in artists' statements that explain aims and methods and lay claim to critical context.
Given the strong Internet focus of much of the art in this festival, it seems fair to ask why it's happening in conventional places for viewing art, and not virtually. Fontcuberta replied that aside from the customary focus on Montreal venues, and the site-specific nature of some pieces, he would have been happy to put the whole thing online, where the new digital culture is unfolding.
"It may be much more important to look at the Internet than to go to art galleries," he said.
Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal continues at various venues through Oct. 11. The complete list of offerings is at moisdelaphoto.com