CAUGHT RED-HANDED

ISSUE: The Blogger as Intruder
PERFORMANCE: Pin Drop — Premiere season of a work by Tamara Saulwick at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall

Sony F717 Nightshot
Seeing red: The Sony F717 still camera has a Nightshot facility which displays two red spots above the lens.

This post is not a review, but an attempt to canvass some issues related to unsolicited blogging and the changing landscape resulting from the ease with which commentary can be aired online these days, via blogs and social networking sites. Unthinkingly, as a regular blogger and photographer of music gigs, I took my trusty old digital camera to a live theatre performance in which the artist, Tamara Saulwick, explored people’s experiences of physical threat, real or imagined.

Of course I did not use a flash, or even the laser focusing facility of which the camera is capable. But I did use Nightshot, which projects an invisible infra-red beam to permit images in quite dark conditions. I was very careful not to allow any light to spill out from the camera viewfinder, and there was no noise, so I do not think anyone in the audience would have known I was taking pictures. But I forgot that the two pale red lights above the lens would be visible to the performer. As a result, ironically in view of the content of this work being related to fear, Saulwick was worrying throughout her performance (the final in this season) about who was filming or taking photographs and to what purpose they might be put. Some language used, from conversations recorded, was graphic, and I can understand that Saulwick would not want such material appearing on YouTube or similar media, possibly out of context.

Saulwick pointed out later that there is an assumed culture in theatre that photography is not appropriate, and, though there were no signs or verbal directives to that effect, I am not disputing that it was unacceptable to cause grief to an artist during a performance. I did not think of the small, pale lights caused by Nightshot, probably because I am always behind the camera and I do not usually take photographs in such dark conditions.

No controversy so far. But Saulwick raised the issue of intellectual copyright, saying “Artists want to have control over who takes images of their work and then which of those images are released into a public sphere.” Saulwick also said Pin Drop images were “a critical component in the future life of the work and how it is marketed”, so she would not want me to post any images of the performance without her agreement.

I won’t be posting any images of this thought-provoking and at times unsettling exploration of how people experience threat. But this experience set me thinking about wider issues.

I always try to take photographs at music gigs without annoying performers or the audience, making sure the camera is silent. I get annoyed when people with bulky and noisy digital SLRs move around in front of the crowd, obscuring the view and interfering with the sound. But what do the performers think? Are the musicians I photograph really getting annoyed when I use the laser-focus in low light (much different from Nightshot, because it does does show as a red beam for a second on the person playing)? Should I be seeking permission before taking photographs? I have never had complaints, but perhaps the musicians are too polite to say anything (I’m thinking of someone such as Scott Tinkler here — he’s so reticent).

The issue raised by Saulwick is broader. Do performers (including actors and musicians) have a right to control all images related to their work, or even all communications, such as reviews, which may affect how a concert or performance is marketed and the image it presents to the public? Is anyone who attends a performance free to comment publicly (eg on a blog) about that performance? This a broad question.

When Bernie McGann played at Uptown Jazz Cafe recently, I’m told by Sonny that he was playing his old horn and was messing with the timing and altering the way pieces were played. But if someone who did not know his work failed to pick up those subtle changes, they could conclude that McGann was merely playing “the same old stuff” and publish that online. Similarly, when Paul Grabowsky and Jamie Oehlers get together to play some standards (on the album On a Clear Day), their depth of understanding may be more apparent to listeners who know their work really well, but not to others. What if the uneducated, the great unwashed, are out there reviewing away on blogs and Facebook etc? Do musicians potentially have a grievance?

On the other hand, do we want a world in which our artists are protected by spin doctors as efficient as the guardians of Julia Gillard and Tony (R)Abbott? If all the images of a concert are those carefully chosen, vetted and approved by the artists and publicists, will the public miss some of the excitement associated with the rough edges of a performance, the moments of magic and electricity that can be captured in a glance or a grimace? I know sometimes musicians can look a bit weird if caught at an inopportune moment, and their “spin managers” — should they have any — would probably prefer that some images never see the light of publication. But how vulnerable do musicians feel when faced with what Shannon Barnett has dubbed “the sneaky camera” of Roger Mitchell or others?

To broaden this further, when Kenny Weir starts a food blog Considerthesauce, has he the right to post reviews of food that he eats because it is the public’s right to know, or should he be accredited as a food critic worth his salt, or at least ask permission?

That’s about it, folks. I raise these issues hoping that musicians at least will not bombard me with abuse that they have long been suppressing about the frequent camera in their faces at the local haunts of jazz and improvised music. But my silly attempt to take my camera to Pin Drop has prompted some doubts. What I have regarded as a means of capturing the spirit or live music may be merely a nuisance. Don’t all agree at once!

ROGER MITCHELL

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9 responses to “CAUGHT RED-HANDED

  1. Yes, interesting stuff, mate.

    For the record, of the three reviews I have posted so far – for the first two I took pics without preamble and no one commented.

    For the Yemeni Restaurant, I did seek permission because 1. I was at the time the only customer; 2. I had already established a talkative relationship with management; 3. I like the place and what it adds to our food culture; and 4. I wanted to be welcome to return.

    I will continue to seek permission where I feel it is advisable or needed. How I’ll react when someone actually objects remains to be seen.

    And in many cases, the place and people I write about/photograph will – I suspect – be only to happy to oblige. Despite all the food blogs out there, and particularly in Melbourne, we continue to find small and very cool places about which no one has opined. THAT is my mission.

    The Age ran a piece on food bloggers a while back:

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/snappy-bloggers-rankle-restaurateurs/2010/07/03/1277577551757.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

    And here’s a pertinent quote from a chef: ”I don’t have an issue with food bloggers. I have an issue with manners.”

    If you read the article, you’ll find some of the ideas you’ve addressed covered. By and large, the industry – as quoted in the story – seems appreciative.

    To echo your thoughts: Does a burger, no matter how fancy, possess the same degree of, um, “intellectual copyright” as a jazz performance?

    As music nuts, we’d both feel a little uncomfortable with that, I think.

    Yet if I pay for a meal, can a cranky restaurateur then rightfully or correctly tell me I don’t actually own it?

    Hmmmm ….

    And a factor for you and the people you photograph and/or write about is that so many of them richly deserve and would love to have their work so covered.

    Did Shannon Barnett really refer to your “sneaky camera”?

  2. Yes, just a dig at the fact that I can take pics and musicians may not even know I’m there.

  3. It’s an interesting discussion – one we’ve had internally here at the club off and on over the years. Every so often we’ll get musicians who have part of their contracts stipulating that no recording devices (audio or visual) can be permitted into the performance area, and while that is ultimately their choice to make and we respect it, it’s pretty hard to get everyone to hand over anything that might possibly be able to do this. This is the modern age where a phone the size of your palm can be used to record both audio & video at a quality that would make people even a decade ago gasp in astonishment. We can ask people politely not to record, the musicians can ask the same, but ultimately if someone wants to capture the moment – they will.

    A good example of this was Dave Weckl. Before the show he spent 5 minutes asking the audience to respect that each performance is unique, that they should feel privileged to be in the room for that experience and not to record it for those that weren’t there. An hour after the show was finished, the entire gig was up on youtube because someone decided it was important for them to record the show and put it in the public domain.

    Basically, you can ask and plead, but ultimately it’s up to the people watching the show to decide for themselves whether they should respect the artist or venue’s wishes.

  4. As a jazz photographer with a big, black dSLR these are issues that I’m hyper sensitive to. As you say, it’s hard to stop people with small cameras, and some are not that far behind a dSLR in terms of image quality, but at least they are quieter.

    My approach is always to ask the performers for permission (so far I’ve not been refused) and to shoot in such a way as not to detract from the listening experience. It’s hard to be totally invisible, especially in smaller venues, but if I exercise care when and where I shoot then it is usually possible to get good shots without significant disruption. At least that’s my objective, and in any case I also want to enjoy the music!

    One of the things that I really like about jazz is that there is a strong tradition of photography, especially live photography. That’s not the necessarily the case for other genres or other performing arts. The jazz musicians that I’ve dealt with seem to appreciate the documentary record.

  5. I was glad to read your post. I’ve always felt that documentation creates a tension around performance… yet I take notes at gigs. In my attempt to help introduce a new audience to jazz and improvised music and to create a body of work about the music that will help bring more people to it, I take notes at gigs, publish others’ writing about and in response to themusic, and use uploaded YouTube videos to create context around my mentions of music and musicians. Part of extempore’s purpose is to document an amazingly vibrant scene, but I’m discovering that with very few exceptions, musicians in the jazz scene don’t know how to talk about about themselves, except to themselves… what am I supposed to do? I don’t take shots because I feel like an intruder when I do so. Yet I use Roger’s excellent shots (with his permission) from time to time… I would respect any request not to document, but no such request has ever been made, to date. This is not a simple matter of ‘teaching musicians to market themselves’ but it is a matter that would benefit from much more discussion. There are audiences out there, hungry for information, context, images, words about the music… People like Roger at AusJazz.net are opening up a world to new audiences, as are we at extempore. Marc Hannaford and his blog, Eamon Dilworth and his blog, and all the jazz tweeps… maybe if enough of us keep trying to get the word out, all this will become academic… but meanwhile, this tension exists. And the truth is, if people are doing beautiful things at gigs, some of us will keep wanting to spread the word, with our sneaky cameras, our blogs and our journal…

  6. Hi Roger,

    It’s great to have this issue raised and to hear about it from your perspective.

    An increasing number of artists are doing work that blurs the boundaries between established art forms and genres, and it’s sad when fans and the commentariat specialise to the point of ignoring really interesting stuff that’s going on in another part of the forest. So first off, it’s great to know that you were at Tamara’s show in the first place!

    On the other hand, all performance (and I’d include restaurants as performance spaces) works by establishing conventions of behaviour within more or less defined cultural and physical spaces. This basically allows the people involved to know what’s going on and to regulate their own behaviour, including making judgements about when and whether it’s OK to stick with the rules, bend or break them, and so on.

    This can get quite complicated.

    A lot of the energy of modern/contemporary arts practice has come from breaking the rules! but there’s a fine line in there between wow and wottheheck. It can take a while for a newcomer, even someone with a lot of experience who is moving from one ‘scene’ to another, to figure out what’s going on, learn what’s cool and what’s not from the perspective of the current ‘scene-ists’, and then decide whether they’re going to join the club and go with the flow, lob a few grenades or simply leave them to it.

    The question of critical freedom raised by ‘consider the sauce’ and others is part of this same landscape. OK, in the end the customer’s reaction is up to them and comment doesn’t have to be complimentary to be fair, but there are still going to be issues of ethics, manners etc and it can be tricky to get the balance between interests right, as recent legal stoushes have shown.

    The unauthorised blog or mobile phone pic is a new phenomenon in itself and has created new issues.

    In this case, you were interested in Tamara’s work and had thought about what you were doing to the point of using equipment that you thought would be unobtrusive. But as you say in your post, you were working on a mindset coming from music gigs which generally have a much looser set of arrangements around audience interaction and the use of recording devices.

    You and other people who have posted comments, have pointed out that this is changing as the music industry generally gets more exercised about IT and image control. I’d say there’s a ‘swings and roundabouts’ parallel there with the issue of bootleg recordings and music copyright, i.e. the pluses and minuses of ensuring quality and increasing the chances that artists get paid! vs the energy and the personal perspective that can be the reward of the dirtier sounding bootleg, or in this case the image blog.

    The sort of work that Tam Saulwick was doing is finely crafted – contemporary performance art pays attention to a range of variables that are probably not so much at risk in the average music gig. This includes the use of sound, spoken word and physical movement, the use of space and objects, the way images are constructed and sequenced to allow for perspective and distance and also how the relationships between performer and audience are calibrated from one moment to another. A lot of contemporary performance works on intimacy – distancing actions such as the use of cameras or obvious note taking (cf Miriam’s comments) can have a big impact, depending on the size of the space and the ‘size’ of the action.

    Creative rights as well as intellectual property come in here. I can understand Tamara’s concerns about acknowledgement, creative control, quality etc, but I suspect her basic problem was that she didn’t know who you were, what you were doing or how to deal with it, either on the spot or in terms of what might happen to the images you were taking. As we are all aware, digital images can now spread like wildfire and the sometimes confronting material in contemporary performance can easily be taken out of context. I’ve had trouble with this in the past – nudity is an obvious example but it goes pretty much across the board.

    On the other hand, this sort of work generally plays to very small audiences and could do with a bit of a boost, especially now that usable images can be taken under the low light conditions common in independent theatre and gallery spaces. Until very recently, technology wasn’t up to it, so most available images supposedly of live performance are in fact from restaged action in photo shoots, there are very few visually interesting shots taken under actual performance conditions.

    Is there room for negotiation here?

    My show, <a href=""Instability Strip="", is coming up as part of the Girls at Work season at Theatre Works in St Kilda, during the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Dates are 5-9/10 @ 10pm, there is also a matinee 9/10 @ 3.30pm but that's much more of a straightforward concert with additional people and different material to the night time show. The piece is best described as a one woman performance that grew. It has elements of spoken word, physical theatre and sound/music theatre – no jazz I'm afraid, but I'm working with two composers (Natasha Moszenin – digital soundscape and Guillermo Anad – tango viola). Guillermo is also performing. I'd like to invite you along (Miriam too, if she's interested) and you'd be welcome to bring your camera, if we can agree on some ground rules e.g. I know when you're coming and you keep a low profile.

    If you're interested, let me know and I'll get you an invitation – you could also contact Angela Pamic at Theatre Works or our publicist Carolyn Logan .

    If you do come along, I would like to see any shots you think you might use, before they go up. You look as if you know what you’re doing and as a critic should be free to come to your own conclusions, but I would like to be able to say no in the unlikely event that there was something really problematic in there. On the other hand, I hope you’d also be open to us using shots of yours in documentation or on e.g. the theatre website – with proper acknowledgement of course, as you ask for on your home page …

  7. Alison, cool reply! I’m going to think about it a bit.

  8. OK, leaving aside the ethics and so on of taking notes, using a camera, writing a review and so on …

    When I pay for a meal, I know I am going to eat.

    When I buy a book or record, pay for a movie or ticket to a musical, I know I am going to be entertained – even if sometimes very poorly!

    So, Alison, I wonder if you can give me some sort of idea what it is customers/patrons are paying for when they attend an art show of the type you are concerned with?

    I have no doubt it’s not your intention …

    But some of your comments do leave me a little creeped out, with a bit of a nagging feeling along the lines of Roger’s question: “Do we want a world in which our artists are protected by spin doctors as efficient as the guardians of Julia Gillard and Tony (R)Abbott?”

    BTW, this level of control freak manipulation is also, AFAIK, SOP in the world of the big business entertainment industry. An industry wherein it’s commong for some questions and topics to be banned in pre-interview contracts signed by journos. An industry wherein film writers’ main job seems to be to persuade readers they’ve won an intimate, personal insight into Tom Cruise, when in reality they’re just one of 50 so hacks shuffled in and out for 10-minute interviews.

    Many, many artists – Dylan is one who comes readily to mind – have learned to live with the truth that once they’ve put a song or work of art out there, in many profound ways it ceases to be their very own alone.

    Some of your comments seem to suggest artists such as yourself not only want to hold on to your work but also the way others perceive it.

  9. I’d like to invite you along but there are some ground rules? In the words of young Leighton “C’mon”!!! You can’t be serious?

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