Exciting meets exotic meets the exasperating meets the exceptional. Such is how Andrew Comben, Chief Executive of Brighton Festival, describes the seaside city. He calls it the “city on the edge,” evoking a place that is part of a larger whole yet in some ways distinctive, perhaps even a little devious. This medial nature is perhaps also apt for thinking about the contemporary art festival: on the spectrum of cultivating international relevance on the one hand and maintaining local specificity on the other, the art festival typically sits somewhere in between.
Emphasizing this bridging role is the modus operandi of HOUSE, a curated contemporary art festival running in tandem with Brighton Festival through the month of May. Given its commission-based programme, HOUSE has the potential to bring together a meaningful constellation of projects. On the occasion of Brighton Festival’s celebration of its 50th year, the two festivals have jointly taken up the theme of “home,” provoking ruminations about place and identity—and also the relationship between the local and the international.
Headlining the visual arts strand is Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing premiering a video work titled ‘A Room With Your Views’. The work is showing at the University of Brighton’s University Gallery, inside a viewing room constructed in the abbreviated form of a house within the gallery space. The video runs for about two hours, all of it composed from footage submitted by others. A while back in preparation for the work, Wearing sent out an open call for video footage of one’s window view. In the end she received over 600 submissions from 163 countries. There are even entries from notable people, like Wolfgang Tillmans, but the viewer of these personal footage has no way of telling the identity of its maker.
The crux of the work is indeed its uniformity that cuts across the diversity of locations and individuals. Each clip plays for a few seconds, always beginning in an initial moment of anticipation before the curtains or blinds are drawn open to offer up the view. The work’s repetitive format and ambient noises lull my mind to a state relaxed but not unfocused. The window views range from a snowy backyard in Stockholm to impatient Brooklyn traffic to a herd of sheep in the streets of Karachi. I begin to think about what kind of person might be behind each view; after all, do not our everyday views affect our sense of place and identity? But as if to counter this urge, the clips leave the viewer at the window out of shot, maintaining their anonymity; this has the effect of collapsing the distinction between the viewer at their window and the viewer in the installation room, with the camera’s viewfinder standing in as a mediator between the two. This self-conscious double framing lends remote and unfamiliar views a sense of intimacy, and even of identification.
While the myriad views of Wearing’s video reflects nicely on place, the more fascinating art commissions in the context of the festival were those that sprung out of the specificity of their exhibition site. One such project is emerging artist Felicity Hammond’s quasi “showroom” installation constructed inside the University of Brighton’s photography department’s new building, formerly occupied by American Express. It’s a tableau-like presentation made to parody the slick marketing suite, mocking its superficial surface fetish with the liberal use of MDF marble and leafy plants moulded from warped photographs; the total visual saturation is topped off with vibrant mouth-watering fruit imagery and columns the hue of bubble gum pink. Hammond’s installation also ironically assimilates itself into the architecture by borrowing from its immediate surroundings; its colour scheme appropriates the Pantone yellow of the building’s branding motif, while other parts of the structure are left unpainted to match the exposed renovation work inside the building as it undergoes transition.
Another unusual pairing pits Thompson Hall’s chromatically dense, expressionistic paintings with the yet un-renovated old Regency Town House. The building is a grade I listed terraced home of the mid-1820s that’s undergoing transformation into a heritage centre highlighting Brighton’s architectural history. But in the mean time, its dining room and drawing rooms have been made available for temporary exhibitions. As with Hammond’s project, Hall produced a body of paintings after visiting the space in person, and the particular dusty mauve and terracotta hues of the walls are certainly detectable in the works on view. The site’s transitionary state lends the display of these mostly small canvases a casual feel, like a DIY art show in a friend’s kitchen. The intimacy takes us back to the very personal video submissions of Wearing’s work. Together, the projects in the festival offer a pointed reflection on homeliness: the familiar isn’t always intimate, and so too the unfamiliar is not always detached.