Friday, 9 November 2012

Brighton Photo Biennial 2012 Study Visit

Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space
All Images posted are used with the kind permission of Photoworks and Brighton Photo Biennial 2012; please do not copy them from here.

The BrightonPhoto Biennial 2012 was curated by the journal Photoworks and included a wide spectrum of photographic art from established and emerging artists exhibited at a range of different venues across the town.  On the day I visited I managed to see work by Corinne Silva, Jason Larkin and Omer Fast and as well as a range of other collaborative offerings.  BPB12 aspired to “look at how space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves.”  It also claims that it “provides a critical space to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images.”  This was the first time I have attended such a multi-venue event and I thought that the dispersion of the exhibitions and the opportunity to get a breather between each session greatly added to the experience compared with the room to room progression of a visit to a single large gallery.

I attended this OCA study visit along with 26 other students and tutors Gareth Dent, Jose Navarro, Sharon Boothroyd and Clive White.  I was only free to stay for the Saturday, a day of gallery visits, and unfortunately missed the Sunday student’s portfolio review session which would have been great to attend.  I am relatively new to visiting galleries with the intention of actually thinking specifically about the images and how they make me feel rather than just viewing and appreciating the aesthetic qualities of what I’m looking at, and again I was struck by the absolutely vital importance and role of the image title and the synopsis in the exhibition notes and guides.  Without titles to steer thought processes, many images have little impact as there are no signposts to navigate the viewer in the direction the photographer intended, and without the notes there is often little context for the visual experience.  I think it is surprising how often I see photographs that would leave the viewer in doubt as to their content and intent without some words to point the way ..

The first session of the day was at the University of Brighton and was ‘Uneven Development’ by Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva, both covering the effect of urbanisation on the environment.  Silva focusses on the ‘meeting’ of Africa and Europe in Southern Spain and in ‘Badlands’ juxtaposes the contrast between the illegal African migrant workers and the villas and leisure developments for the rich that they are building. She considers the impact of the vast amounts of plastic sheeting that abounds in the area with the high end architecture and rapid development of the leisure trade as it spills across the landscape.  Although much of the plastic in the area, which is generated by the building and horticultural industries, is recycled, an enormous amount finds its way into the sea to be washed up along the coastline.  Corinne Silva contrasted two images of either black or white plastic which were displayed as a diptych in a vertical pair and contrasted with a pair of images showing the black and white plastic utilised in the building of rough shacks for the workers, in stark contrast to the dwellings they were constructing.
Copyright Corinne Silva.  Plastic mountain I.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks

I thought this was an interesting comparison of the rich and poor and how each has an environmental impact of its own, albeit of very different natures.  Her other offering, ‘Imported Landscapes’, apparently clashes global south and north by pasting Moroccan landscapes onto Spanish billboards but it was not something that resonated with me, and the claim to “consider their on-going trade, mobility and colonisation”  struck no meaningful chord at all.  I really see nothing of appeal in mashing together images like this and it left the same sort of impression, or lack of it, that I felt with John Stezaker’s efforts that I have posted about before.  It is possible that I am missing some fundamental artistic point here, perhaps I’m being too much of a photo purist, but these combination works and mixtures of found and photographed subject really leave me cold.
Copyright Corinne Silva: from Imported Landscapes.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks
Jason Larkin produced what I felt was a far more accessible work in his images portraying the building of gated communities for the rich and the workers who labour to construct them.  The photograph below from ‘Cairo Divided’ showed a large number of similar dwellings under construction and it was some time before I noticed the small figure of the worker placed in the centre.  I think this was true for a number of us, and having discovered the figure, it did much to put the image in context.

Copyright Jason Larkin: from Cairo Divided.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks

The other exhibition at the UoB was in marked contrast to Silva and Larkin and was Omer Fast’s ‘Five Thousand Feet is Best’, on Vimeo here, a reference to the best height to shoot from when using an unmanned military drone operated from the US and attacking targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This was a strange offering which flipped between sequences from drone footage, a disguised drone operator, and staged events on the ground which offered several alternative takes on developments.  This left me rather unmoved, although the ending was dramatic as the apparently real drone strike images were cut with the actors and their seeming escape on foot from the scene.  From a personal perspective this was several steps too far away from photography, although I would concede that the drama and intensity of the short film was worth standing in the dark for.

Copyright Omer Fast: from 5000 feet is best.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks
Copyright Omer Fast: from 5000 feet is best.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks
A brief lunch in small groups was followed by a short walk around Brighton to catch a couple of the other exhibits, and including an outbreak amongst the students of picture taking of one another, we managed to look at Whose Streets’, a selection of photos from The Argus Brighton newspaper looking at the history and politics of contested space in the town over forty years of sit ins, marches, protests and demonstrations.   The selected images certainly made their point and encapsulated the emotions of the times, although mostly they were quite relaxed compared to many events taking place in the capital at around the same time.  There was certainly historical interest here and the photojournalistic approach was very much just to show scenes that reflected peaceful demonstration.

Map ... gps ... iPhone ... where are we again ...?
Copyright The Argus Archives: From Whose Streets?  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks
Copyright The Argus Archives:  From Whose Streets?  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks

The highlight of the day for me was the final trip of the session to Fabrica, a gallery housed in an old church which seemed much in its original state, and which provided a splendid setting for viewing images I thought.  The Beautiful Horizon: No Olho da Rua (In the eye of the street) was from a seventeen year collaboration between Brazilian street kids of Belo Horizonte and artists Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Goday.  The kids had been given cameras to go and document their lives in any way they wished, and the photographers edited, published and distributed the resultant images.   Many thousands of photographs have recorded changes in the lives of the participants over a period of massive economic expansion in Brazil and have allowed the ‘socially and economically excluded’ to have a voice.  The impression I took from the photographs on display was one of mostly happy kids wanting to show off what they saw as the best elements of their lives, although there must be many dismal aspects to a life of grinding poverty (see later).  I have seen some of the areas of Sao Paulo where similar images could be taken and the smiling faces are there, mostly when there is a camera and the possibility of a few rials for posing, but in close proximity to crime, drugs, violence and prostitution.  I had an interesting conversation with Jose Navarro at this exhibition around how I felt when viewing the images.  I actually feel quite relaxed about what I was looking at as although I know the kids were sometimes showing happiness and the best parts of their lives, they had made a conscious choice to do this, as apparently no guidance was given to them.  There were some shots showing the paraphernalia of drug use and some subjects in various stages of undress and squalor, but largely I thought they had used their opportunity to look quite optimistically and expressively at their situation.  Now this was my impression and feeling from looking at the exhibition in the gallery, but when I got round to looking at the article in Photoworks, I was really surprised to see that the images selected there were almost exclusively of the squalid and sordid side of existence.  In the Photoworks selection, there is not one single smile … it has impact yes, but it certainly did not seem to reflect the totality of the photographs taken.

The artists claim that their work “deals with the politics of identity and visibility, self-expression and power” although rather depressingly also says that the kids have almost no sense of future, although in the short term the project has let them see that at least someone cares about what they do.  I thought the exhibition was emotionally very powerful and the environment of the old church in some way enhanced that experience.
The Beautiful Horizon: No Ohlo da Rua gallery space
The Beautiful Horizon: No Ohla da Rua gallery exhibition
Copyright The Beautiful Horizon: No Ohla da Rua.  Used with kind permission of BPB12 and Photoworks

My overall impression of the BPB2012 was that it was an excellent event with a huge amount to see which could never have been covered in a day, which was actually my original plan before the OCA study visit was announced, so I’m glad I never got the opportunity to attempt it!  The choice of galleries for the Saturday visit were good ones and the additional exhibitions we fitted in over lunch added significantly to the quality of the day.  The only other exhibition I would particularly like to have seen, and I was too late to catch it before it closed as I headed for home, was Bradley Garrett’s ‘Urban Exploration’ which is a series of photographs taken by intrepid folks around the world after they have infiltrated forbidden spaces such as building sites and underground tunnels where public access is prevented and the space controlled.  The images from the top of The Shard in London Bridge Quarter are astonishing and were taken by evading security and ascending almost to the top of the structure as it then stood.  There is an interview with Garrett (called Capital Striation) in the BPB12 edition of Photoworks and he focusses on the point that so much urban redevelopment is dedicated to facilitating the flow of funds and finance and how nothing can be allowed to stand in its path, so the jarring discontinuity caused by the clandestine exploits of these urban explorers cause waves.  It is well worth a read as his commitment to purpose really comes through as does his insistence that we all have the right to explore public infrastructure funded by our taxes. 

Overall, a great day out in the company of other students and tutors, and one which gave me a lot to think about in how I consider photographs and try and interpret the artistic intent.  It is an infrequent occurrence that I get the opportunity to discuss the courses and the views of others apart from in the online forums, and there is always a lot to be learned from the direct contact these days provide in addition to the more direct benefits of the exhibitions themselves.


  1. It's amazing how much you can get from a one day immersion into photography. I'm still at the stage of allowing it all to percolate through.

  2. I find that if I let it percolate for too long it all percolates away and I can't remember what I saw or what I thought of it!!!