Go back to article: Moments of danger: photography, institutions and the history of the future

Moments of danger

In a synergy I still find startling, Elizabeth Edwards’ conference paper quoted the same passage from Benjamin’s ‘Philosophy of History’ essay as my own: ‘The past flashes up at a moment of danger’ (Benjamin, 1940). The phrase has haunted me from the moment I read it, as an MA student years ago. Over time, I have come to understand it as a challenge laid down to anyone ordaining to make sense of the past, who must endeavour to comprehend their actions as implicated within, not outside of, the field they set out to survey. I am still coming to terms with what that means for Revelations.

How was our project the product of the history it brought into view and the circumstances from which we viewed it? In one of the essays I wrote for the exhibition book, and a paper I gave at the conference organised to coincide with the closing of the show, I concluded that our bleak endpoint had something to do with the claims being made for ubiquitous networked technologies. The exhibition, I suggested, placed two moments of space-time compression in dialogue, thinking through a so-called ‘digital revolution’ in relation to earlier experiences of industrial modernity. As Mark Andrejevic has suggested, the type of emancipatory politics attached to earlier avant-garde projects has been recycled by a corporate PR-machine, through talk of emancipated ‘prosumers’, global connectivity, and a new technological democracy (Andrejevic, 2011; Burbridge, 2015, pp 200–204). The effectiveness of those claims derives from the truth that, at one level, they contain. But the realities of extensive surveillance, extraordinary inequality and the drive towards a culture of 24/7 labour raise profound and difficult questions about their uncritical acceptance (Crary, 2013; Harvey, 2005; Andrejevic, 2011).

The politics of an earlier avant-garde, I thought, had been reshaped as a hollow futurism, dreamt up by advertisers to serve the interests of the multi-national corporations that own, survey and profit from the networks the rest of us are told to worship (Burbridge 2015). The fact the earlier scientific images had ‘flashed up’ had something to do with the allegorical roles they had been assigned by artists and societies in the past. This had the capacity to cast new light on myths being spun around technology and progress in the present. The exhibition, I believed, had grown out of a similar impetus to the contemporary art projects gathered together in the final room. While I still think this is probably true, events at the National Science and Media Museum have led me to suspect the diagnosis fell short; that something else – or, rather, something more – was at play.

Figure 12

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/004