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“Transcend” is a word I do use loosely; I’m talking liberally. I could employ its services to make bootleg jeans read like a rejection of woke culture. I use it because, “in the age of the algorithm”, the term has become hollow, therefore loadbearing, catchall, and essentially easy. A Perfect Sentence truly transcends in dichotomy. Its aim isn’t to soar aloof; nor embody some superior ideal other than ethical representation of the thing itself, since the thing itself is what it is irrelative to what we might think it is or ought to be. That’s saying something; that might mean it is transcendent. The photographer-artist behind it all, Oliver Frank Chanarin chats with METAL.

We might as well ease ourselves in with a question bordering on existential. Do you consider yourself an artist or photographer first, and what do each mean to you?
I never trained to become a photographer, but I learnt the craft of it while working on Colors Magazine which was my first job. After that I worked as an editorial and commercial photographer for a long time, while also developing an art practice. The two things ran side-by-side for many years, but gradually, more and more of my focus moved towards working in museums, galleries and making books. So, at some point I’d say I became an artist. I stopped working commercially as a photographer because I felt like the two worlds were incompatible. I don’t think that is the case anymore. These industries are far more interchangeable and fluid.
I wondered, while perusing the picture of the newsagents, what is the hook that pulls you towards a scene or subject, the thing that implores you to point the camera and shoot?
When I started out as a photographer twenty-five years ago, I was working in this purely documentary mode, travelling away from home, and having encounters with the world, through my camera. I was working in collaboration with Adam Broomberg and after the publication of Ghetto and then our book about South Africa, post-apartheid, we both become suspicious of this mode of working. After the dissolution of our partnership, I felt really unsure about how to make photographs again and so I decided to return to it and see how it felt, as an exercise really, to re-learn some old methods of engagement. Honestly it didn’t go too well. The world had changed so radically in that time and very quickly the work shifted to accommodate that.
The world had changed so radically in that time and very quickly the work shifted to accommodate that.
Working on A Perfect Sentence I was so much more aware of my impact as a stranger walking into other people’s communities. Collaborating with museum partners and following safeguarding procedures presented some real difficulties and the daydream of meandering with a camera felt quite impossible.
So, to answer your question, there are some photographs like the one of the newsagents that are taken spontaneously along the way, but the vast majority were made through a carefully choreographed series of engagements with communities, people’s places of work, charities, and informal social groups; casting through Instagram and Grindr; and reaching out through friends and underground networks. It’s another way of meandering.
In studio, for Art on a Postcard, you stated that you were “much more interested in what’s going on out there than what’s happening in here or what’s happening inside [your] head.” I’ve hitherto assumed the artist to have worked as much internally in their creative pursuits than externally; perhaps even more so. Is art, for you, mere imitation of life, and would you say that the purest art can only come from the artist of least intrusion upon the quote unquote real that they wish to depict?
Working with the quote unquote real has become complicated. The inside of my head is a much easier place to be! Although, as I’ve said before, it is probably less interesting. And my practice has always exploited the tension between the conceptual and the real. It has been about the experience of making photography in the real world and the expectations and disappointments that come from that.
When I started working with photography there was very little conversation about consent. The photographs I made belonged to me, were authored by me, even when they involved the lived experiences of other people; even when those people were young, or vulnerable, or powerless. The balance of power between photographer and subject has shifted massively, and while that’s a good thing, and the days of mostly male photographers sneaking around with their cameras capturing quote unquote real life are thankfully on the way out, something else is also lost; spontaneity, transgression, and the feeling that anything might happen.
I wasn’t sure how to be a photographer in this new paradigm; how to approach people in the street, in their homes, in their communities; and what is a reasonable expectation of privacy. I knew the answer was to go back to the impulse that drew me to photography in the first place: encounters with strangers; the beautiful accidental moments that come with getting lost in the world with a camera. It didn’t go well though, and I wanted to write about that, about the difficulty of making photographs in the age of the algorithm, when there is so much anxiety about how images are shared and experienced, and that became the main preoccupation of the book.

Is there anything that you won’t photograph?
Yes, but I won’t tell you.
(Laughs) Incredibly fair. Your collaboration with Adam Broomberg was loosely described as a trinity between yourselves and a fictional other. Does this third-party still preside, to some small degree, in your art today, or was it an entity summoned solely in union?
Oh yes! After such a long collaboration, in which so much of my craft around image-making and my concerns around the life of images were formed, the fictional third person is there, even though I did try to murder it a thousand times! Remarkably, the flaws of the dead disappear.
Hearing about the “Glass Hole” in W. W. Winter’s Studio in Derby drew to my mind Gaudi’s statement that “art is beauty and beauty is radiance of the truth, without which there is no art”. Does this bear weight to the work you have produced for A Perfect Sentence?
I am suspicious of the word, “beauty,” which is used here in a universal sense like there is one beauty, which we know is wrong. Our life in images, in the age of the algorithm, in the age of social media, is so much trickier to untangle. There is so much anxiety around the production of images; beauty appears alongside the grotesque, and it isn’t always easy to know which is which. Human beings have become so adept at working with the visual, and the world feels so much more complicated, and more interesting than Gaudi is letting on here.

Which path lead to FORMAT International Photography Festival being the birth site of your first solo exhibition?
The exhibition at the Museum of Making in Derby is a kind of laboratory, and an opportunity to review the project in the spirit of something that will always be unfinished. Sometimes a small collision with an audience is required to do this!  The next exhibition of the work is going to be radically different.
The perpetual state of flux that this new work confronts, in a world fretful over aesthetic perfection, begs the question; is this photo book ever finished, and if so, who decides when? Collaging, destruction, and erasure art spring to mind. Would it bring you joy or diverse emotions to imagine another using your art as their own stimulus for discovery?
This has happened over the years. Somebody once tattooed a drawing I made on their arm. A prisoner serving a life sentence once sent a rolled-up canvas. It was an oil painting of a photograph Adam and I had taken in a prison in South Africa. It is all raw material that is there to be recycled, and our practice hijacked, robbed, stole, appropriated, referenced and re-used the work of others. So, I have no objection. As Brecht once said, “don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.”
Looking back on your time as Professor of Photography at HFBK (Hochschule für Bildende Künste), were you ever surprised to find yourself learning as much as you imparted to others in the process of teaching?
The atmosphere at HFBK is very free. It terrified me at first! Professors are encouraged to invent their own methods and it took me a long time to understand how to create a cohesive group with the class, which felt like a safe place to share work. In art schools there tends to be an attitude of having to defend your work which I disliked. I put the emphasis on a collective class experience. My role is less like a teacher and more like to guide, and but the real lesson is how to respond and give valuable feedback to each other. When I first started I noticed that some few individuals did all the talking and most others sat silently in the back. By the end, once we mastered how to work collectively to give valuable feedback, everyone was talking and there was a dynamic and free flowing exchange. Teaching is an art practice in its own right, but there are moments to turn away from it and do other things. I had to stop teaching in order to make A Perfect Sentence.

Your work draws from varifold mediums and formats; from photography, to installation, to sculpture, to the extent where I imagine it might quite agreeably take up much of your time without ever feeling stale. Do you, though, have any other pastimes outside of a drive of necessity or passion?
I have six-year-old twins! That keeps me busy.
Which of Loose Joints publications, besides your own, has had the most profound effect on you from the previous, or perhaps near future?
Felipe Romero Beltrán, Dialect.
Thank you for your time! Before you shoot, what have you been plotting for the future?
A Perfect Sentence is touring in different formats for the next 2 years, so I am tied up with that until 2025! The next incarnation of the show has been developed in collaboration with a team of robotics engineers who have designed and built a machine capable of hanging and rehanging a display of the framed photographs from A Perfect Sentence automatically across the gallery walls.
The mechanism, which is inspired by automated fulfilment centres used by online retailers like Amazon and others, responds to visitors’ attention in the gallery. I built a prototype of this mechanism for a solo presentation at SF MoMA in 2021 which demonstrated the concept but was a little unreliable. The work was on display for 4 months and continuously rearranged the framed photographs in a loop of activity: removing photographs from the wall and returning them to a stack on the floor; picking up a photograph from a stack and placing it on a hook on the wall.
The machine gathers information about where viewers in the gallery directed their attention and uses this data to decide which photographs to display. In an inversion of the types of algorithms that govern the behaviour of social media platforms, this machine privileges images that get ignored and shows these more often and for longer than the images that get most attention.
A Perfect Sentence by Oliver Frank Chanarin is published by Loose Joints. An exhibition of the work produced by Forma is on show at the Museum of Making, Derby, until 3 September 2023.

Jackson Harvey

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