Centre for Contemporary Photography: 25th Anniversary

Opening remarks presented on the occasion of the 25th anniversary celebrations at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia on Friday 12 August 2011.

Occasions like this provide a wonderful opportunity to both look back and forwards at the same time; an exchange space of both pause and reflection, on where we have come from and where we are heading.

I find it hard to imagine a world of contemporary photography without the CCP in it. This is in part the privilege of having been around for a quarter of a century, but also a testament to the CCP’s foundations and contribution to the world of contemporary Australian art.

However in a society no longer based on duties and responsibilities, but one now defined by rights and obligations, where does a space, an idea, an entity like the CCP sit? In the age of Web 2.0, the interactive socially mediated Internet that we are enmeshed in, indeed increasingly defined by, what significance do bricks and mortar still hold?

There is no doubt like climate change that the rules of artistic engagement are rapidly changing. Has the digitised world of highly available recording, editing and dissemination technology resulted in uninhibited creation – or a world of noise and visual gridlock? Are we on the verge of a great new glittering cultural age, or are we on the verge of a new dark age, where the creative world is destroyed by cacophony and self-opinion. When so much is determined by the number of clicks, is the inexpensive and easy access to digital tools drowning out distinguished artistry and creating a culture of mediocrity?

Or perhaps the paradigm is just shifting back from the individual to the collective. Despite the cult of personality that dominates social networking sites, maybe there have never been more dynamic, diverse or significant opportunities for sharing and collaborating. What is clear is that photography continues to diversify, and the number of people interested in photography, or who practise it is increasing exponentially. I’ve just returned from France, one of the birthplaces of photography, where a Ministry of Culture survey names photography as the dominant cultural activity for French people in the 21st century. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story is similar in our own backyard.

Now I mention these scattered observations because looking back twenty-five years, not dissimilar didactic concerns motivated the first investigations into the question: Does Victoria need a centre for contemporary photography? The late and dear Bernie O’Regan (21.6.1938 – 9.11.1996), then an undergraduate student of mine in the Media Arts program at the former Phillip Institute of Technology, now RMIT University School of Art, asked just that question. With supportive funding from Arts Victoria and an administrative not just artistic background, Bernie set about interviewing just about anyone he could find in the state of Victoria who had an opinion on photographic matters.

Remember this was in the mid 1980s when appropriation and postmodern critiques were redefining our relationships, and as had already been the case for the previous twenty-five years, photography was ‘front and centre’ in many of these critiques. Only now it wasn’t about colonialism, war, sovereignty, apartheid, the environment, land rights, feminism, sexism, or racism, it was about our knowledge of our theory of knowledge.

So the CCP was born out of the agenda of contemporary art, out of an intellectual idea, an understanding that it was needed before there were any bricks and mortar to give it a physical habitable form or purpose.

So like photography itself, the CCP’s history over the past twenty-five years has been at various times both present and simultaneously absent. Of course I’m not just speaking of the complexities of public funding in a time of spiralling commercial rents and diminishing resources. I’m referring to that wonderful illusion, at times delusional premise that is a photograph – remember Barthes opening stanza in Camera Lucida – ‘One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since; “I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.”’ That is, he is simultaneously both present and absent. Though absent, he is present in the Kantian sense where we have to limit reason to make room for a little faith. And so the CCP has inhabited more often than not, this in-between space, simultaneously at the centre of so much contemporary art, but also functioning behind the scenes as an umbrella organisation bringing together that stuff from which great ideas can grow.

For example one of the most promising aspects of recent times has been how the CCP, among other public institutions, are embracing photography and photographers who operate outside of contemporary art. That is, those photographers who operate for reasons and often values that rarely come up in the world of contemporary art, such as those who operate as commercial photographers or illustrative artists, yet who also produce quite marvellous images from time to time that are of increasing scholarly interest to those inhabiting places like the CCP.

These are interesting things that the CCP has also been interested in. Unlike the University sector, where we have failed on quite a few occasions over roughly the same time span as the CCP to bring all the photographies back together, the CCP has succeeded. Indeed it is a key reason why I’m no longer at RMIT – you give up after a while and realise that your energies and efforts can be better invested elsewhere. But in all of this time I have never had to ‘give up’ on the CCP. Which is a remarkable thing in our 21st century.

The CCP as an organisation, as an entity, but also the individuals that are drawn to it, are nothing if not flexible, adaptable, and willing and able to incorporate, forgive, bind and promulgate according to our needs. Anyone who has spent any time behind a desk in an organisation like the CCP would know that running on the good will of numerous people, on the unpaid expertise and admiration of so many, is almost a prerequisite for a contemporary arts organisation.

So I will finish with the observation that I conclude all my weekend courses with here at the CCP – which is a simple announcement, saying thank you to all of you; to the principal partners, sponsors, subscribers, and supporters of all ilks and fashions, for your enduring faith and support. For without such support there would be no CCP. Not just no need for a CCP, that is self evident, but there would be no CCP in the sense that your contributions keep this place and the ideas and values it embodies alive.

Your partnerships generate not just the good will, not just the community, not just the stuff that is the reason we are all here tonight, but the grist that enables all of this to happen, without which all the love, care and attention in the world sadly would not result in a CCP. So as I say at the end of my CCP weekend courses, thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who has ever worked, sponsored and contributed in any capacity at the CCP over the past 25 years. And to every volunteer, intern, manager, curator, educational officer, book keeper, board member, chair, treasurer, advisor, director and artist, and everyone who has walked through these doors, thank you, thank you, and thank you.

I wish you a lovely evening and a good night.

Les Walkling