The Exhibition Whisperer

In Conversation with Theo Cook


As contemporary art’s affair with image-sharing technologies and its desire to emulate the image-driven ecology of fashion become more and more evident, technology is rapidly and radically changing what it means both to see art and to put on exhibitions. Mahan Moalemi talks to Theo Cook – the invisible hand behind the artist-run project space Auto Italia South East in London, about what goes on behind the scenes, from preplanning to postproduction.


After a foundation course in lens-based media, Theo Cook enrolled in Camberwell College of Arts to study fine art photography. At the end of his second year at school, he started working as an assistant with commercial and still life photographers, and decided not to go back to complete his degree. Barely a decade later, he has a portfolio of commercial work for Loewe, Valentino, Prada and David Morris, and has worked on Hollywood film productions and British TV commercials.

Alongside such projects, Theo also works at Auto Italia South East alongside the team of Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest, Marleen Boschen and Edward Gillman, where his remit includes producing a representative body of images to document an exhibition or project. The most basic unit of such images is the installation shot, but Theo says: “this whole idea of installation shot is kind of boring.” A fundamental question has become “whether and how an image truthfully represents an exhibition is important at all”. Instead, Theo sees his work as both a translation and expansion of the act of exhibition—consciously mapping “the trajectory of a project by how it’s represented in images.”

At the packed opening of Metahaven’s Information Skies at Auto Italia’s new location in East London this past October, Theo shared an anecdote about Pascal Dangin, the photo-retoucher of choice for fashion photographer royalty. He is known as “the photo whisperer”, and, Theo tells me, anticipated the emergent interrelation between camera and computer in the 90s, when he showed his work to clients on color- and contrast-calibrated monitors rather than photographic proofs. Part of the new landscape of contemporary art is that exhibition spaces themselves exist within and form part of a networked ecology of images.

Today, Theo’s trading of art studies for technical training a decade ago seems a wise anticipatory move that has coincided with macro-shifts and the restructuring of hierarchies within the creative industries over the last decade. Tech-sector work practices have infiltrated the creative sphere, and the visionary authority of the singular artist-creative has been overshadowed by a range of collaborative technical functions, from the administrative to the algorithmic.

An installation shot may appear as if abruptly captured in the flick of a shutter, but there are calculated considerations lying under the surface. “I usually take a few hundred shots and bring them down to one or two,” he says. “The more that you shoot the more elements you have to work with in postproduction, as some of the images are heavily retouched after… if you can’t get everything in one frame, you need to stitch lots of images and fake a wide angle. Also if you’re shooting a projection in the room, you need multiple exposures to balance the different elements afterward.” For Theo, such images should not serve as a proxy for a visitor wanting to move through space on an optical journey. Instead he “thinks not of a flipbook but a single image to create a successful representative image for a project, it has to stand as singular.” Such a representative, however, often abides the myths of representation and complicates certain notions of mediated or mechanically aided empiricism.

Images thus give exhibitions a parallel yet distinct life in a different experiential economy. It is hard to tell which aspect of an exhibition complex is hosting the other and which is living off the other, symbiotically or parasitically. The exhibition that inaugurated Auto Italia’s new space in June 2016, Hailweed, revolved around the notions of parasite and host, with contributions from the Research Center for Proxy Politics, Aimar Arriola, Syria Mobile Film Festival, Suzanne Treister.

Theo produced bespoke images of the show that were featured in a profile of Auto Italia in i-D magazine. Responding to the aesthetic language of the fashion almanac, he contrasted a few straightforward exhibition views with close-ups of the walls on which highly graphic vinyl marks were layered. These shots illustrate the contiguous materiality of clean-cut digital line drawings, while revealing the institutional flesh in surgical detail. The surfaces that are usually rendered so silky and subtle by installation shots are exposed as imperfect up-close, with uneven surfaces and slapdash painted corners.

This was not Theo’s first attempt at subverting the documentary purpose of the image through the graphic and the digital. Auto Italia’s 2015 show On Coping started out from the shape of a billboard in Johannesburg to become a shape-shifting durational project. It became a two-minute animation for a show in Bologna, then a group exhibition in Liverpool, a performative lecture series in Nottingham, and finally a sixteen-page piece with eight images in Sleek magazine, for which Theo worked exclusively in CGI.

Over his career, as the technology of image production has shifted, Theo’s technical expertise, too, has shifted from 2D image retouching to 3D rendering. What does this industrial shift from 2D retouching to 3D generation offer beyond a more purely graphic visuality? The effects are twofold. First is an expansion of space into parallel spaces. In the run up to Metahaven’s exhibition, Theo made digital models of Auto Italia’s space so that placements and lighting configurations for Information Skies could be tested out without the artists and curators needing to be physically in the space.

Second is a reconfiguring of time itself. While documentation used to happen after the fact, it can now preempt an event through 3D simulations. Given that the exhibitions are based on these image-plans, such optimized renderings can themselves serve as better documentation than actual photographs (search for the results via #autoitalia and #metahaven). “SketchUp models can help because they do get very sophisticated, so then it’s not really that much work to stick in some lighting and texture and produce a fully rendered image of a show. I don’t know whether that is necessary, if it is a case of faking or something like that, but what is certain is that it’s totally possible.” Following Theo’s logic, it is thus already feasible to generate and distribute images of an exhibition that may never take place. Perfectly incorporating the spectral space between the no longer and the not yet, exhibition views might soon not only haunt us from the past but arrive from the future too—whispers detached from the trajectories of a voice.


Published on Spike as a follow-up to the Young Curators Workshop Post-Contemporary Art, 9th Berlin Biennale.