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Monday, 30 January 2017

Juno Calypso: "In photography you're not allowed to laugh"

picture by Alejandro Acin

I saw Juno Calypso speak in Bristol (twice - once at UWE where I teach on the journalism course) and once at the Arnolfini.

She spoke to packed houses both times including to over 200 people at a sold-out Arnolfini. It's the biggest crowd there's been at an IC Visual Labs or Photobook Bristol Event and a lot more tickets could have been sold.

So what is it about Juno Calypso that makes her so popular!

It's the work. It is instantly recognisable. Mention mirrors and green bum and everybody will know who you mean. Everybody will remember it too. It goes beyond the mirrors and green bum though. Calypso says her work is about the mythologies of romance, of love, of femininity, but it's also highly cinematic work that dramatises those things but also links in to Calypso's world view and the complete weirdness of the locations and styling she uses.It hits all the big spots of gender, identity, and space but does it with humour, with the personal mixed with the sinister underbelly of those virtual sets that she photographs herself in, all told through stories in which gender, identity and space do not get a mention. Instead we hear about why baby oil gets repeated showings in her pictures - she used to have an older boyfriend who had a bottle of baby oil that would always be at completely different levels. She eventually worked out it was because he was fucking absolutely everyone. So there's baby oil in a few of the  pictures - "Sad Sex" in a bottle.

That helps explain the audience. There were a lot of young women there. In contrast, the people who buy her photographs, explained Calypso, are "drunk rich white men in suits" - there's a six-word critique of the art market for you.

A Dream in Green by Juno Calypso: "I wasn't going to show anyone this picture. It was going to be just for me."

The other reason peope came was because she's an entertaining speaker. She's really funny, and she's also very direct. At UWE she talked about the value of great teachers and a good photographic education.

But she also wondered why there is that spirit of gravity in certain sectors of photography. "You can turn People on. You can freak people out. You can make them smile. But  in photography you're not allowed to laugh" she said. "At university, you'd have breaks and everyone's joking and laughing and then you go into the seminar and everyone's deadly serious. Noone cracks a smile. Why is that?"

It's a great question. Why is it that normal, interesting, funny people suddenly start making work and saying things like "I'm interested in the politics of non-space"  and we don't wet our pants laughing and say "no, you're not." Because actually, and quite obviously they are not remotely interested in it. There are maybe 7 people in the world who are really interested in non-space (or whatever, put any word that sends shivers down your spine in here) in a meaningful way. So why say it. It's just something they say because somehow they think they are suppposed to say it. Why do they think that? Who's put that idea into their heads?

And there is a world in which this is something you are supposed to say. But it is self-defeating. The audience is small and self-selecting, it limits the work and it stops communication. Calypso could have spoken about her work in a drier way because it does reflect questions of gender and identity, but it would have been painful to sit through. Those ideas are embedded in the work, and leading with the personal and cultural insights into how and why the work was made was more engaging, interesting and life-affirming and honest.

That voice is also apparent in the way she talks about her work. She recognises the strength of the work but there is a lack of preciousness to it. "I took this big 5-4 camera with me and unpacked it but then just used the Canon 5d. It looks the same! Nobody can tell the difference," she said.

So it was great to have this different voice speaking about photography. Perhaps that voice is one of the most important things in photography. It's not just about the images, it's about how you frame them, how you talk about them, how value them. There is more than one way of talking about photographs. You don't have to talk about them with a single monotone voice. You can be interesting, you can be funny, you can be irreverent. Because photography, especially now, is not  a single monolithic audience of sober-minded people obsessessed with gender/space/identity. In fact very few people are interested in gender, space and identity. These are not interesting subjects. It's the stories which manifest gender, space and identity that are interesting and these are should be full of  life, love, tragedy, humour... And that's what Juno Calypso has. And that is why so many people came to see her talk.


IC Visual Labs review of the talk. 

Juno Calypso interview on Port Magazine

"Everyone was taking about Bristol. I'd never been they but we all knew you had the best fucking ketamine." Juno Calypso on Bristol


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