A diary, a hard-drive, a tooth: The students of HFBK’s photography class forgo a physical exhibition and reinvent the concept of the web-shop

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Capitalising on our compulsion to online-shop, the platform showcases students’ work through ‘products’ reflecting their wider practices

As is almost a given today, the pandemic prevented Hamburg University of Fine Arts’ fotoklasse conceiving their anticipated annual exhibition in physical form. Instead of simulating a digital version, the fotoklasse, composed of 26 BA and MA level students led by Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg, created something distinct, coopting the format of a web-shop for ‘Media Art and Misfortune’ (MAAM). MAAM, as the platform is aptly is titled, deftly unsettles the type of digital outlet that has become a form of therapy during the pandemic. It capitalises on our compulsion to online-shop by showcasing the students’ work through ‘products’ reflective of their wider practices. 

“The situation is an opportunity to explore different ways of exhibiting,” say Lena Kunz and Malin Dorn, students of the fotoklasse and instrumental in the platform’s conception. Both have a product for sale. Kunz, a photographer living and working between Berlin and Hamburg, sells her diary for 800. The notebook contains Kunz’s everyday reflections, peppered with secrets. However, it also harbours something deeper: Kunz’ ongoing attempts to process her family trauma. The artist’s parents physically and psychologically abused her until she left home at 14. It was only recently that Kunz reconnected with them to further heal. Meanwhile, Dorn, who also rendered MAAM’s landing page composed of the digitalised, dissolving forms of decaying fruit, sells her old hard drive, containing 500 GB of personal files, including old work, sensitive data, and nudes. Dorn prices the hard drive at 21.98: 20 is the estimated sale value of an equivalent empty hard drive; 0.98 is the value of Dorn’s data according to an online calculator, and 1 is an additional handling fee. 

my old hard drive. 2010 - 2021 © Malin Dorn.
The diary edition! September 2020. Disclaimer: Energy field around the diary might glow © Lena Kunz.
© Lena Kunz.

There is an eclectic mix of other products on display, each packaged in a conventional web-shop format: a standard product shot, a description, and product-details. But, similarly to Dorn and Kunz’s offerings, the other goods for sale are wholly unconventional. Artist CJ Chandler sells the ‘tooth of a white South African farmer’s son’ for €432: his molar, removed by his family dentist following complications from the extraction of Chandler’s wisdom teeth, and priced to reflect the cost of a 9mm self-defence pistol at a firearm dealership in the artist’s hometown in South Africa. The work “questions the role of white, male artists making work in South Africa,” reads the description, while touching on notions of societal violence, ongoing racial dynamics: racism, oppression and racial violence, farm attacks and indeed the procurement and sale of African art on the global market.”

Elsewhere, Krystsina Savutsina presents ‘extension for the ruler with bruise chart. Belarusian edition BLR082020’. Standard evidence rulers for documenting and measuring bruises are 15cm long. Protesters beaten by police during the ongoing protests across Belarus, which began following the widely-disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko on 09 August 2020, were sustaining injuries too big for such rulers to adequately measure; some stretching over half the body, 50 cm or larger.  Savutsina’s extension starts at 16cm to account for these injuries.

It is not just the students who have ‘products’ for sale. Tutors Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg do too. The renowned photographers, who also teach on the MA Photography & Society programme at The Royal Academy of Art (KABK), The Hague, which they co-designed, have had numerous solo exhibitions at major institutions; received multiple awards, including the ICP Infinity Award (2014) for Holy Bible, and the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize (2013) for War Primer 2; and published numerous photobooks. Chanarin sells his Instagram account, complete with 12.6 k followers, for €75,000; “a powerful promotional tool for any young artist trying to build a following in the attention economy,” reads the accompanying text. “The account is available, along with the password, to enable the new owner to rename the account as they wish.” Elsewhere, Broomberg sells ‘my wedding ring’ (2010 to 2021) for €459.86: its buying price, inflation-adjusted.

Tooth of a White South African Farmer’s Son. 2021 © CJ Chandler.
Extension for the ruler with bruise chart. Belarusian Edition BLR082020. 2021 © Krystsina Savutsina.

The ‘products’ and their prices vary greatly; some, such as Dorn’s harddrive are ‘sold out’. Viewers can entertain the possibility of owning these, but, ultimately they cannot. And the web-shop itself is a performance of consumerism, designed to invite visitors to reflect on desire and ownership. How many times do we fill up a virtual shopping basket, only to abandon it? The possibility of owning miscellaneous objects fills some void: a hit of happiness, fulfilment of desire, an illusion of control or possession. As visitors click to buy a test tube of twelve unshed tears, or a piece of glass discovered in the artist’s hair following a car accident, or a Google search of one’s name, they might consider what compels them. Masquerading as a web-shop, MAAM seems to parody the very form it takes. Something, which the friendly Susan Sontag chatbot, developed by Esteban Perez, only serves to accentuate. Employing a generative algorithm model, trained on Sontag’s texts on photography, the chatbot predicts and generates new text based on visitors’ prompts.

The project encapsulates the students’ engagement with photography in the most expansive definition of the medium. It is brilliant in its subversion of the conventional student art show. A playfulness and humour veil MAAM. However, it also challenges and provokes, calling visitors to reflect on the attention economy and its effect on our experience and appreciation of art; and, also, the contemporary art market’s capitalist core itself.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.