There was one particular reason for my interest in going to the Brighton Photo Biennial this year: the need to see something different. I have been feeling jaded by the incessant streaming of the same names on display at festivals, or indeed the same market-driven choices being promoted at every opportunity. Having spent time in Brighton for this edition of the Biennial I was sufficiently satisfied that I had made the correct choice and not only this, but had been pleasantly surprised along the way.
With the theme ‘Communities, Collectives and Collaboration’ it could be a case for right-on Brighton proving its much-satirized disposition, but this preconceived notion was dispelled by the quality of programming and broad range of individual presentations. There was darkness contrasted with light, troubled times compared to hopeful ambition, and playful gestures measured against profound endeavours. In other words, the premise for the Biennial was pushed to its fullest, and as a result it succeeded in delivering a fascinating and challenging experience.
One of the surprises was how the exhibiting artists and curators interpreted the theme; from FotoDocument’s commissioned One Planet City project involving 10 photographers working to the 10 principles of the One Planet Living brief, to the subtlety of Simon Faithfull’s REEF. Faithfull is an artist who uses everyday objects when creating sculptural interventions in extreme environments. For REEF, he acquired the £75 defunct fishing boat ‘Brioney Victoria’ from Ebay before struggling with the bureaucratic minefield involved in legally sinking the thing off the English coast, so as to transform it into an artificial reef, thus providing a sustainable underwater habitat for native sea life. What began as a simple idea collaborating with a small curatorial team, evolved into a long-term project requiring the input of non-profit groups, environmental experts, legal representatives and craftspeople. As the project developed so to did the understanding of what collaboration entails. Ultimately, after safe-guarding the boat and building a new cabin, Faithfull then filmed its sinking and subsequent plunging into the green depths. Unfortunately the recording technology could not sustain a permanent real-time position but he did manage to get just enough audio-visual footage to create an eerily striking installation within the grand hall of Fabrica. Using both projection screen and monitors with a muffled submarine score, the viewer witnesses the last moments of the fishing vessel as it descends into the deep and once down, can then watch as the fish gravitate toward this ghostly structure. Of course, REEF spelled backwards is FEER, and it is without doubt a scary sight to see the water gushing into the cabin as the boat sinks. As Faithfull agreed, the work is one of a series of unintentional ironies, and a rather poetic inclusion to the Biennial.
The Amazing Analogue: How We Play Photography at Hove Museum and Art Gallery was a workshop based collaboration between German artist Jan von Holleben with young people from the local community, and probably the greatest surprise of the Biennial. That the workshops were fun there is no doubt, and judging by the final works hung on the walls of this small yet open and hospitable space there was a genuine engagement with the medium as a physical entity and as a conceptual device. The science of analogue photographic practice merges with imagination and invention to create beautiful and intriguing pictures that while seem playful could also comfortably reference both the history of the medium and allude to its state within the digital age (and what this means to the younger generation collaborating with the artist). This show proved that the artist can maintain their unique sensibility in a credible manner while avoiding the trap of patronizing the young participants, and the viewer, at the same time.
The collective spirit was given some historical grounding at the University of Brighton’s newly opened Dorset Place Gallery thanks to Real Britain 1974: Co-Optic and Documentary Photography curated by David A. Mellor. This deceptively simple yet impactful group show provided a glimpse at the historical context of the British documentary tradition while still managing to offer a commentary on today’s politics and photographic practice. The various works on display by the likes of Paul Hill, Fay Godwin and Ron McCormick showed balls and prowess that seem to have been dulled in the subsequent years. The small monochrome prints, and their postcard incarnations, retain the initial immediacy in visualizing the vicissitude of the times. The political, cultural and societal changes that were occurring in the United Kingdom during the period when these pioneers were at their zenith seem almost alien to us now, but one then questions are they really that alien, or are we just more apathetic? Also, one wonders at how the members of this group have fared since their overtly subversive work of the 1970’s; Martin Parr in particular has become the most well-known yet somewhat paradoxically it is his work that is the most passive. It is important that exhibitions like this are included in the Biennial as a critical interrogation of specific photographic traditions are of continuing value to contemporary practice.
It is without question that this edition of the Brighton Photo Biennial managed to pull off something that could have easily gone awry, and it is equally without question that there were more exhibitions of note to comment on. Overall, the biggest surprise might be that such a seemingly chaotic group of collectives and collaborations actually came together so well, and in the end this is what a community is all about.A final surprise was the exhibition Plane Materials at the University of Brighton Gallery. A collaboration between Cornford and Cross with Andrew Lacon, the trio set about deconstructing both our idea of photography and the material photographic object itself. In many ways this show plays the academic role, so it was perfectly suited to its space, but more so it also inhabits a very important place in today’s wider context of where photography as a contemporary artform rests. Engaging sculpture with time-relative concepts, the process of harnessing particle physics in the creation of an image however temporal, are all aspects of what we call ‘photography’ and it is this idea that Cornford and Cross along with Lacon were exploring. Through minimal acts they managed to express complexities of physical and metaphysical language in a way that was aesthetically astute and intellectually stimulating. Admittedly, this show may not capture every visitor’s gaze but it was a real pleasure to see in programme.
Brighton Photo Biennial runs various venues across Brighton & Hove, 4th October – 2nd November 2014