“There is no such thing as an innocent photograph… But what is the alternative? Whose image is it anyway”. I scribbled these quotes from Georgiou & Tolley’s Zersetzung: A Quantum Poem for Generation Z (The Concluding Part of the Magician’s Trilogy), amongst the notes I scrawled whilst watching the duo’s hour long single-channel sound installation, commissioned for the 2021 Coventry Biennial, and exhibited in the city’s Old Grammar School.
The first two instalments of The Magician’s Trilogy were created by artists, Darryl Georgiou & Rebekah Tolley-Georgiou, for the 2017 and 2019 editions of the Biennial, with the current exhibition rounding off the cycle. The work features the voice of actor Jack Klaff, and music from composer Brian Duffy.
Zersetzung: A Quantum Poem for Generation Z picks up the themes of these earlier works. Exposing how the supposedly “truth telling” mediums of photography and film, far from passively reflecting the world they capture, are in fact endlessly malleable tools which can be used to assert, maintain and reinforce existing hierarchies, tropes and power relations. In this way, whether through their long standing place in the filing cabinets of the bureaucratic state, as a digital means of surveillance, intelligence gathering and capital accumulation in contemporary attention capitalism, or even more insidiously through the peer-to-peer enforcement of beauty norms through social media, photography far from being a mirror of truth becomes a technology of control.
These themes are riffed off and conveyed in the work through a disjointed poem performed by Klaff, recalling the chaos (to humans) of the contemporary digital realm of ones and zeros that is the chatter underpinning our online existences. His recital blends with Georgiou & Tolley’s multi-layered soundscape and video art, punctuated by Duffy’s intermittent music.
Alongside snatches of text and occasional still images, the installation consists of long, slowly changing sequences of human eyes turning into the lens of the camera. A device showing the symmetry between the biological lens of human eyes and the mechanical lenses granting cameras their documentary power. It neatly underlines one of the central themes of the work, which is an appreciation of how whenever a photograph is made, it is a subjective human, or increasingly algorithmic, intelligence framing the image, taking the shot, passing it through post-production and seeking to control how it is circulated.
The work is presented as part of Coventry Biennial’s Proof exhibition, which responds to the evocative space of the city’s Old Grammar School which can trace its roots as an educational institution back to the 11th Century, by presenting works which explore themes related to education. Georgiou & Tolley’s work shares clear, although not necessarily explicit lineage, to several of the intellectual networks, scenes and subcultures with connections to Coventry that the Biennial celebrates and invites artists and visitors to respond to.
Their concern with how photography can be used to confound, control and dominate speaks to many themes powerfully explored by The Blk Art Group whose Keith Piper is also exhibited as part of Proof. It also, in its suggestion that the prevalence of photographic devices and the central place of networked digital photography in contemporary society, something rather cyborg like, speaking very clearly to the work of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) who were enthralled by and welcomed humanity’s entanglement and intermeshing with digital technology. The work is underpinned by an entire mythology centred on the magician, something developed in the first two parts of the series, a fantastical figure existing outside of nature at the intersection between humanity’s individual and collective consciousness and the cold logical function of machinery, data storage and electronic transmission. Which also recalls the CCRU, whose work at its most detached from anything found in the conventional academy, also created and utilised extensive mythological systems and demonology to create and convey meaning.
As suggested in the title the work is framed as “A Quantum Poem for Generation Z”, who are the first generation to grow up from early adolescence fully enmeshed in the cybernetic photographic system of smartphone cameras and social networking platforms. Its objective therefore, is perhaps to try and ground this emerging generation in the long tradition of inquiry and critique, which aims to arm viewers with the tools to understand how the photographic images which saturate our world seek to confound, control and conform us?
This is undoubtedly more imperative than ever. We are in a time when – as the other part of the work’s title “Zersetzung” (corrosion or attrition) indicates – alternative perspectives, organisations and spaces where people could learn to comprehend and challenge pervasive systems and ideologies of control and oppression are more fractured and enfeebled than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution. And that is something that everyone regardless of age or ability to critique images should be concerned about.
More work by Darryl Georgiou and Rebekah Tolley-Georgiou can be seen on their website. It is also possible to purchase limited edition prints and apparel relating to “Zersetzung: A Quantum Poem for Generation Z (The Concluding Part of the Magician’s Trilogy)” through their art shop, as well as works based upon other projects that the duo has undertaken.
Coventry Biennial 2021 “Hyper-Possible” ran between 8th October 2021 and 22nd January 2022 at venues across Coventry, Leamington Spa and Rugby.