For the past week Cologne has been home to the 2014 Photokina, arguably ‘the world’s leading imagery fair’ it attracts photography geeks from across the globe to ogle at the latest in camera technology.
It is not surprising then that Olympus timed the opening of their Cologne ‘Photography Playground’ to cleverly coincide with this influx of camera fetishists to the city. Located in a former stockyard in Ehrenfeld, better known to Cologne residents as the home of ‘Jack in the box’, an underground venue famed for its all-weekender warehouse parties, the Olympus ‘playground’ looms conspicuously over this usually covert space.
The idea behind the ‘Photography Playground’ is that visitors have the chance to ‘photographically interact’ with the art around them. Upon arrival you are given a state of the art Olympus camera and are told to snap away to your heart’s content safe in the knowledge that once you’re done the photo memory card remains yours to take home.
Sounds great right? Or so I thought until I discovered that I had left my ID behind, a necessary requisite for them loaning me a camera. So stranded without even an iPhone to hand I found myself stuck in a playground, banned from touching any of the toys. However, bitterness aside, I believe that the absence of a camera allowed me a more astute, or at least different perspective on things. Without a viewfinder in front of my eyes I was not only impressed by the innovation of the artwork but by how little those around me seemed to be engaging with it.
The ingenious marketing behind providing each guest with a camera meant that Olympus had unwittingly endorsed visitors’ vanity at the expense of the Art. Take Eric Olofson’s beautiful installation made up of hundreds of mirrors that are hung to form a perception-distorting cubic grid; The amazement I felt on seeing my face and body transformed into a reflective game of Tetris was immense, however when seeking a glance of shared appreciation from my neighbour, my eyes met with someone busily snapping ‘Selfies’, dazzled by the potential Instagram-love to be had post-exhibition.
This sort of behaviour remained true of guests throughout the exhibition and if I had had a camera then I am sure that I would have behaved similarly. However not having a camera made me consider this interaction between industry and art more sceptically. Whilst the art on display is both cutting-edge and powerful one is still left with the feeling that this is a playground where Olympus makes the rules.