Ars Graphica London visit to "CULTURAL SNIPING: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Me
On the evening of 18th April Ars Graphica London were treated to a private tour of the exhibition “CULTURAL SNIPING: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive” in the Peltz Gallery at Birbeck, University of London by curators Dr Patrizia Di Bello and Christie Johnson.
The archive of the radical photographer and self-styled “cultural sniper” Jo Spence (1934-1992) [Di Bello explained “cultural sniping” as a term coined by Spence to describe her practice of honing in on and exposing the hidden structures that shape contemporary society] was recently bequeathed to Birbeck by her long term collaborator and former partner, Terry Dennett (1938-2018). Comprising books, photographs, props and a wide, and at times surprising, selection of other objects and reference materials (a handful of chocolate gold coins), the archive reflects Spence’s diverse interests, ever-developing working methods and her committed resistance to traditional categories within the broader “History of Photography”.
Adopting the collaborative working methods that Spence promoted, the Peltz Gallery exhibition was co-curated by Dr Patrizia Di Bello (Lecturer in history and theory of photography at Birkbeck) and students Frances Hatherley, Christie Johnson, Hazal Özdemir, Leanne Petersen, Lucy Purcell, Linda Robins da Silva, Elka Smith, Helen Walker, and Chloe Wood. The concept, which centres around highlighting the key themes of class, collaboration and photography, all central to Spence’s work, was developed by unfettered access to the uncatalogued archive and many hours spent sifting through boxes and boxes of eclectic and disordered material.
Preserving the disorderly character of the archive was of also paramount importance to the desired feel of the exhibition. Johnson explained that the curation team wanted to follow Spence’s lead and maintain an element of “taking the piss” in the final arrangement. They did this by using a range of innovative and informal display methods, such as sugar sheets affixed to the walls with bulldog clips, prints displayed in archival polyester pockets, and even the inclusion of empty archival boxes. Above all, the exhibition successfully adheres to Spence’s own instructions for her archive, passed on to Dennett shortly before her death from Leukaemia in 1992:
“You should of course continue to do stuff in England but only where it is useful for students and promotes the debates that we have been trying to raise. I don’t want to end up as an ‘Art Gallery Hack’ – my work will be sterilized if it is shown out of context. So “little treasure,” keep it polemical and socially useful.”