One of the surprising things about Contact, the month-long photo festival that has invaded Toronto galleries this month is the sheer amount of work shown outside of galleries. For a month, bars, restaurants, clothing outlets and almost any space with bare walls or a big enough store window can be part of the fest, with mixed results.
What is more interesting is when Contact photographers decide to show in truly public spaces: outdoors on the streets, on billboards, bus shelters, and more. In fact some of the best work at Contact can be seen at these “venues”: The photographic billboards of Roger Lemoyne and Lana Slezic on the corner of Richmond and Spadina, two series of photographs by Russian collective AES+F and James Mollison inside Osgoode subway station, and finally David Byrne’s bus-shelter catalogue of new sins.
Photography makes its appearance in the public sphere as part of advertising and much of this work is highly stylized and finely crafted but ultimately tries to advance advertising’s purposes. They are didactic (our watches are Swiss-made and are reliable), seductive (our watches will make you sexier and thus happier) or some elaborate combination of both.
Walking on city streets we get thousands of these pitches everyday and most of us have developed a shield of indifference, an ennui to the billboards and advertisements our eyes might encounter. So what do these photographers have to gain from placing their images in a context where they will be ignored or worse misinterpreted as just more advertising?
Andrea Carson, in her essay available in the Contact programme, brings up Benetton’s campaigns of the 1980s, which used politically sensitive images to “[shift] the language of publicity from futuristic fantasy to reality and bringing advertising into the present moment”
These images do just that but sadly only when their intent is made clear. A viewer unaware that they are looking at art, tunes out these images considering them as just another urban oddity, an ad perhaps from a particularly edgy clothing company?
One woman I spoke to about David Byrne’s installation didn’t realize that she wasn’t looking at an ad, and its easy to see how his pedestrian looking “New Sins” series could be seen as a publication of a rather twisted and amoral new church and in fact Byrne was going for this anonymous, semi-official look and tone with these photos.
So we return to the question of whether these works can punch through that shield of indifference that we’ve put up? Yes, but only if we let our guard down, perk up our ears and let ourselves listen in on that “unexpected dialogue” between art and our ad-filled urban environment that Roland Barthes was speaking about. Their conversation might just be pleasantly surprising.