Recently I spent a couple of wet days looking round the 2012 Brighton Biennial. This year the event has been produced and curated by Photoworks, ‘the UK’s leading visual arts agency for photography’, perhaps best known for its eponymous journal. The agenda for the festival is ‘Photography and the Politics of Space’ -’ How space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves.’ This translates into issue-charged photography from around the world.
The Brighton Photo Fringe expands the festival considerably, and though I saw as much as I could, I covered only a fraction of what was on offer.
For me, a photo festival has two main aims: to put on a great show of photography city-wide and to engage people who would not normally view or enjoy photography. Having been involved in the 2010 and 2012 Bristol Festival of Photography, I know this is extremely challenging.
A successful festival relies on several elements. The first is available space and an existing arts infrastructure. Bristol and Brighton are both thought of as creative places, mini-London’s with the creative infrastructure to match. However, this is misguided. Both cities’ proximity to London means they lose out to the capital. Why have an amazing gallery space so close to London when you can have one in London itself?
Whatsmore, the bigger venues in these cities can have strange superiority complexes and prejudices against photography. This leaves organisers with a small selection of available galleries, but also having to work creatively to repurpose other, perhaps less suitable, spaces.
The second challenge is budget: even if spaces are available, the cost of hiring can be prohibitive. Festivals have a tiny budget that must be spread thin to make sure of a ‘city wide’ event, but not so thin that the quality suffers. Sensibly Photoworks seem to have invested in small array of key shows and let the fringe take care of itself.
In essence, festivals are logistical nightmares and faced with all these difficulties the 2012 Brighton Biennal is a mixed bag but well worth a visit. Here is what I made of the fringe and festival.
One way of working around issues of budget and space, is to display imagery in the windows of open shops or pasted on the outside of buildings. These are often easy to walk past and if it’s raining you’re not going to stand in front of them. In the case of pasted images, rain has the added impact of damaging the work.There were two exhibitions of this nature on the Old C0-Op building, though both suffered from the scruffy nature of the building and exposure to the elements.
The A-Z of London Road – George Coles
A simple premise: 26 monochrome of people on London Road. The images were pasted side-by-side, not allowing space for them to be considered properly. To me, only a couple stood out as outstanding portraits. But hats off to George Coles, so few of us have the courage to photograph strangers.
Being Nobody, Going Nowhere – John House
A project documenting found objects and the bizarre in the everyday. House states ‘the images represent a desire to achieve visual contentment during an unremarkable period in time through a consistent obsession to find poetry in the overlooked’ .For me, this is a collection of those images that everybody takes, but doesn’t know what to do with. After a few years you have a fair few and then you attach a concept to them. Not the most original, but some quirky moments to be found.
University of Brighton Gallery
As with the last biennial this is the most conventional gallery and in my opinion the best space the festival has to offer. The University is also home to Photoworks and not surprisingly this is the hub of the festival with the best printing and presentation.
Uneven Development - Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva
The exhibition is well curated, the pairing of Larkin and Silva was well thought out if a little similar for those not into ‘deadpan’ (no complaints here). Larkin’s study of construction in Cairo’s suburbs carried out by underpaid labourers, complements Silva’s documentation of Southern Spain, where Europeans come to live in urbanizations built on cheap African labour. Silva’s prints are more impressive in terms of size and quality, but it is still interesting to see Larkin’s images in exhibition form (many will be familiar with them from the excellent newsprint ‘Cairo Divided’).
Leafing through the program many of the most arresting images seemed to be displayed at the Phoenix. The Phoenix benefits by being a large space in close proximity to the university. However the general state of the building and presentation of the work is shabby.
If you can look past this much of the work is of really high standard, for example:
Border Work: Nogales – Alice Myers
Nogales bus station in Mexico receives thousands of deportees from the USA. Myers has created dignified portraits accompanied by text, enlightening us to the plight of these deportees.
Does Not Suggest Death Within 6 Months Is Likely to Occur – Sean Carrol
Woefully pasted to a chipboard walk-in room, but nonetheless an interesting set of images, looking at life after a sub-arachnoid brain hemorrahage.
The best use of all the chipboard was to create a mini-room for the Photobookshow. Here you find quirky zine style books as well as some heavy hitters such as Javier Arcenillas’s Sicarios: Latin American Assassins. The books here present a contrast to the rest of the Phoenix, with so much care and time being poured into these objects. It is definitely worth visiting the Phoenix just to immerse yourself in this collection.
Overall, the Phoenix could really do with a smartening up. It’s closeness to the University would have enabled a really solid core to the festival.
The upside of cities with limited gallery space is the inventive use of unusual spaces to create galleries. Fabrica is a very centrally located gallery within an old church. As with the previous Biennial the show here is inventively displayed and well curated.
The Beautiful Horizon – No Olho da Rua Collective
The work is an ongoing collaboration between photographers and those living on the streets of Minas Gerais in Brazil. Most of what is displayed is imagery taken by the street dwellers themselves, using borrowed equipment.
As well as photographs there is film, audio and printed material. Even if you don’t like the work, the presentation is a flawless multi-media experience.
Formerly SandPiper books, this place is a Brighton gem and a must visit for anyone with an interest in photography. Ps has a fine selection of photobooks, many that you will struggle to find elsewhere. Their stock is always changing so if your passing it is always worth a look. Ps is acting as the official festival bookstore, a really good partnership and an example of how a festival can successfully interact with an existing establishment.
Brighton ArtsFORUM 2.0
This is a group show of photographers who engage in the Brighton ArtsFORUM, a monthly group critique of work in progress. The exhibition is located in the basement of the Brighton Media Centre. The show was smartly displayed and it was a refreshing for the exhibitors to acknowledge the imagery as work in progress. John Ferguson’s Forgotten Cowboys were stand out images, exploring the overlooked tradition of Black Cowboys.
In contrast to the rough and ready nature of some of the shows Whose Streets? ( Images from the Argus Archives) Is by far the most polished and accessible work. This is an outdoor exhibition of press images from various street protests Brighton has witnessed over the years. The raked mounted images even imitate a defiant crowd of people. This body of work helps show Brighton as a politically aware and active city, really tying in with the festivals agenda. If money were no object, it would be great to see Brighton flooded with similar shows.
Inside the Jubilee library is another collection of books, this time exclusively self-published. This provided another great way of engaging with the public, as the library is bright, modern and well-used. The attitude here was relaxed, with people strolling up to the huge white table and leafing through books. With the success of Contemporary Japanese Photobooks at The Photographer’s Gallery and two book shows at BPB, we can expect to see photo books playing a larger role at future UK festivals.
Photoworks have put on an impressive festival, their promotion has been great and they have arranged some top quality shows and events (events I haven’t discussed because I didn’t get a chance to go to any!).
I think the team has worked hard to engage Brighton as a city in the medium of photography and put on just enough high quality shows to paint over the cracks of the Phoenix. Hopefully some of the team will work on the next Biennial, making it bigger and better than this one, not just different.
The festival runs until the 4th of November for more information: www.photoworks.org.uk