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Art Gifts

Phil Collins’ free fotolab (2009)

by Nina Chabel 

Having recently declared my art history major, all the art history classes I have been taking so far were focussed on the European renaissance: the greats of the canon. It is only this semester that I’ve finally dipped my toes into contemporary art and I absolutely love it. Little by little I’m starting to discover Montreal’s contemporary art scene and last week I made my way to the DHC/ART for the first time to see their exhibit L’OFFRE.

I walked in without knowing exactly what the theme of the exhibit was going to revolve around or what to expect. I walked through the first two floors of the gallery without any of the artwork having much effect on me. When I got to the third floor, I walked into the exhibition space through a curtained doorframe into a space that was plunged completely into darkness. In that darkened room there was a huge projection on the wall of a slide show of photographs, with each slide staying in place for about 10 seconds before changing to the next one.

I stayed and watched the photographs for about two cycles as they changed on the screen. Ten seconds was a good choice for a time frame because it was long enough for you to take in the whole landscape of the photograph but short enough to keep you on the edge and make sure you saw everything in the frame before it changed to the next one. As I was sitting there I tried to make sense of the photographs. Were these old forgotten family snapshots that the artist decided to bring together? I thought I could recognize the geographical location of the photographs, maybe somewhere in Greece or Eastern Europe, but then I would be dumbfounded when some snapshots had snow in them and the promise of cold winters with the subjects dressed in warm clothes, while others depicted warm sceneries with no hints of the possibility of any snow. I was also trying to make sense of the subjects being depicted in the photographs: they all looked like they were related, part of an extended family. As the photos would pass by on the screen, it felt like I was seeing the same people in different settings. A lot of the photographs looked like they were taken by a child, unfocused and in strange. A lot of the photographs depicted people sitting around a table eating and drinking after a long night of festivities, other photographs were of people sleeping, empty train stations, bookshelves, and group photos of friends.

I wanted to know more about these images. Did the artist take all of these photos? What year were these photos taken in? As I was leaving the gallery I asked one of the employees if they had more information about Phil Collins and his free fotolab. The employee got excited about my questions. She wanted to know who I thought was depicted in the photographs so I gave her my hypotheses, she then gave me the real story behind free fotolab.

Collins put up an open call for people all around the world to send him their unprocessed rolls of 35mm colour film that he would develop free of charge in exchange that he would be allowed to have universal rights on one photo from each roll. Each photo that I saw was submitted by a different person. Even though the author of each photograph was different, each image appeared to be consistently in dialogue with the previous image that was shown in the slideshow. The colour tones and at times even the voyeur-like camera-work were alike in all images and could be attributed to the same author. When I found out about the artist’s process I was surprised that so many people were willing to participate in his project, send him their photos and allow him to keep one. I also started wondering to what extent could this work be attributed to Phil Collins: why did we only see his name besides the slideshow and not the names of all the people who send him their photos? Thinking more about it, if these people never sent in their photos, their work would have probably never been shown in a gallery setting.

Later, reading the leaflet about the exhibit, Phil Collins’ free fotolab starts to make sense. L’OFFRE means to give, to gift. All the pieces in the exhibit were focussed on some kind of giving aspect. For Phil Collins, his work was given to him by his subjects, raising “questions about collaboration and the agreement between maker and subject.” It was interesting to see a work that was crowd sourced and still had elements uniting all of the photographs together making it seem like they were taken by the same photographer.  Being interested in photography, I was impressed to see all these photographs brought together in one slideshow, with the authors of each photograph giving the viewer a part of themselves.

Free footlab (2009), part of the exhibit L’OFFRE, is on display now through March 11th, 2018 at DHC/ART.  

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