Brighton Photo Biennial: Communities, Collectives & Collaboration

by Sara Knelman

The fifteen or so shows (plus an extensive programme of events) that make up this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial, under the banner ‘Communities, Collectives and Collaboration’, revolve around the potential for images to bind us together. If the act of clicking the shutter to make a picture is most often a solo venture, photography is also a fundamentally collaborative medium, invested in the participation of subjects, the engagement of viewers and all the possible ways of conveying meaning through photographs in the public sphere. In Brighton, these themes are developed and explored through otherwise unrelated subjects, from Italian politics, to marine ecology, to authorship on the Internet. This is the second edition of the BPB since the team at Photoworks has taken over direction of the programme, and although the absence of a single curatorial vision means there is, at times, an ironic lack of connection between exhibitions, looser associations allow for an interesting mix of practices and chronologies, incorporating new commissions alongside some powerful explorations of archival material.

The festival gains critical mass in central Brighton, where venues are all within easy walking distance from one another. At Fabrica, the space closest to the sea, Simon Faithfull’s installation Reef (2014) takes us under water to see and hear the phenomenon of a sinking ship. Faithfull, who describes his practice as ‘investigating the world as sculptural object’, has staged the wrecking of the Brioney Victoria, a small fishing boat, off the coast of Dorset. Video footage shows the ship as it slowly takes on water and disappears from sight; cameras mounted inside take over the documentation of its journey. An edited cut of the sinking plays out on a loop from a raised screen mounted to the railings of the gallery’s mezzanine, while below, television screens on plinths show a live-feed of the ship’s ongoing transformation from vessel to artificial reef. When I visited, the underwater cameras had malfunctioned and the screens instead showed a loop of murky images gained while operational. The year-long duration of the project leaves time for correcting technical failures – though I wonder if some secrets of nature are better left invisible.

If Faithfull’s project required a team of experts to execute, Erica Scourti’s So Like You (2014) at the University of Brighton Gallery invites a more active participation in the generation of images. Scourti feeds personal images into Google’s Search By Image engine (where an image, rather than a word, serves as the initial search term) to find other pictures with similar digital footprints – titles, tags and other data embedded in the images. She traces some of them back and invites the people who made them to take new pictures that respond in turn, this time consciously, to some of her other images. As viewers we see a slideshow of these new pictures, partly obscured behind layers of tags and other information embedded in them, such as where they were taken and the make of camera used. If this is hard to follow, it’s because the project seems designed to obscure and complicate, rather than untangle, the webs of exchange, re-use, appropriation and influence that make authorship and originality so murky in relation to the networked image.

As with Faithfull’s Reef, collaboration is crucial to Scourti’s process, but the execution and ultimate creation is attributed to the artist alone. The thematic heart of the biennial, then, is Circus Street Market, where hundreds packed in for the launch party, and which is showcasing ‘Five Contemporary Photography Collectives’. The term ‘collective’, which tends to imply a relation – aesthetic, ideological or otherwise – among the work produced by group members, seems too loosely appointed here. In some instances the label appears to be a means of cross-marketing more than anything else, and as a consequence, these selections looked more like disconnected group shows. The sparse captions also left some more challenging images – in particular from the series ‘La Sala Negra’, by two members of Barcelona-based RUIDO Photo, which depicts the pandemic violence across three Central American countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – without sufficient context. Sputnik’s dynamic look at post-Soviet life, and ABC’s bureaucratic, imageless book-museum (displayed apart from the other four collectives, and to better effect, at the University of Brighton Gallery), stood out for their inventive and thoughtful approaches to collaboration. In theory, the site itself has a neat resonance, as a historic market place for community gathering. But the relatively small and makeshift displays seemed lost in the vast architecture, which calls out for something monumental and site specific to animate it.

The photographic archive offers another sense of collective understanding, and three shows revolved around the retrieval and reinterpretation of archival material, thinking through both the collectives that contributed the original images and the different lenses that have shaped them. A modest show at Dorset Place Gallery organized by the photo-historian David Mellor, ‘Real Britain 1974: Co-Optic and Documentary Photography’, gathers pictures by the Co-Optic group, whose members included Gerry Badger, Fay Godwin, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and Martin Parr. The centerpiece is a set of 25 postcards that counter typically romantic tourist-friendly imagery with views of ‘real’ Britain, a black-and-white social landscape, many of which have since gained iconic status.

At Brighton’s Museum & Art Gallery ‘Amore e Piombo: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy’ also looks back nearly forty years, at a more expansive and perplexing set of images. The so-called ‘Years of Lead’, a period that culminated in domestic terrorism and intense strategies of political propaganda, are here re-lived alongside images of a burgeoning celebrity culture, all taken by the Italian press agency Editorial Team Services, and now part of the collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict. To say they depict the events of the time is only a half-truth: the lines between fiction and reality were so effectively blurred by the theatre of war that the circumstances around many key events, even those plainly pictured, still remain unclear. A selection of press prints, as well as news footage, film clips and books, take over the gallery’s high-ceilinged library. In a striking display, the prints stand in wooden frames dispersed along tall gridded bookshelves that line the room. A compelling floor installation at one end commemorates the still-mysterious kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro, the architect of the Historic Compromise between Italy’s Communist and Christian Democrat parties, by the Red Brigades in 1978. It’s an emotionally charged show with plenty of fascinating pictures. A catalogue and essay in the Photoworks Annual by curators Roger Hargreaves and Federica Chiocchetti lend further insight into this tumultuous period and remarkable archive.

The theme carries through at the De La Warr Pavilion, a short train-ride along the coast in Bexhill, which takes up the most imposing of documentary photo archives, Magnum. Before digital technology took over, Magnum relied on a functional archive of prints to disperse their images. ‘Magnum Photos: One Archive, Three Views’ asked anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards and artists Uriel Orlow and Hannah Starkey to mine boxes of existing prints – about 68,000 taken between 1950 and 1995 – and make selections that both reflect personal interests and illuminate the cultures and agendas that shaped the archive’s historical development. The restrained selections showcase 130 images, beautifully displayed as three discrete image-sequences, labeled only by geographic place-name (there are take-away sheets with full image-lists available). Starkey’s take, for example, pulls out images of women made by both sexes, beginning with a knockout Eve Arnold self portrait. Left uncaptioned on the wall, the photographs leave the viewer to move from image to image trying to guess the gender of the photographer in each case, and wondering if it matters. It does, of course, in the larger scheme of things. Though made over a period that saw intense social and political progress for women – documented, in fact, in Magnum images like Leonard Freed’s Women’s Liberation (1970) – women made up less than five percent of Magnum-represented photographers.

If that’s a staggering but believable statistic, then Douglas Gordon’s deeply disturbing two-channel projection, Hysterical (1995), showing footage from a 1908 medical enactment of treatment for female hysteria, is a reminder of the not-so-distant yet unfathomable depths of patriarchal control. Gordon’s work is part of ‘Twixt Two Worlds’ at the Towner in Eastbourne, another regional partnership, alongside the De La Warr show and ‘The Amazing Analogue: How We Play Photography’, at Hove Museum and Art Gallery.

Though uneven, as exhibition programmes on this scale tend to be, there are some great pictures to be seen here if you’re willing to devote the time. What’s missing, in the end, is recognition of the downside of collaboration. There’s a pathological optimism in the view presented by the biennial, which itself hinges on strategic partnerships and collaborations tied to funding opportunities – the reality for a publicly funded arts organization, especially a relatively small one without a dedicated space. But it would have been interesting (and honest) to take a look at that reality, and the steep challenges currently faced by art and institutional practices. Other ‘C’ words, like Corporate, Committee and Compromise, might come to mind.

– Frieze Blog, 2014, Sara Knelman.