Photoworks: Propositions for Alternative Narratives

Online and across Brighton

24 September - 25 October

Review by Gulnaz Can

The longest running photography festival in England, the Brighton Photo Biennial, has reincarnated itself in the form of the Photoworks Festival. The inaugural edition is made up of three parts: an outdoor festival on the streets of Sussex, an online festival hub, and at home, a ‘Festival in a Box’.

The launch of the festival took place on Zoom, where the Director Shoair Mavlian said that the change of the name didn’t mean losing any of the biennial’s legacy. The Photoworks team wanted to challenge the formats of photo festivals and how we experience them. The pandemic forced them to take that challenge one step further to a place they didn’t expect. Mavlian was talking from her living room, in front of the wall where she had curated her own Photoworks Festival, which came in a box.

The ‘Festival in a Box’ comprises a booklet of essays, wall text to hang next to the photographs, and artworks by eleven contemporary artists—all the tools needed to create your own festival as part of the biennial’s curatorial control is handed over to the audience. Mavlian says: “We thought that after almost six months being at home and everything going digital, it would be good to have something that is physical and tactile.” Indeed, it feels quite different, as unlike sculptures or paintings, photographs are not tactile and don’t invite us to touch their surfaces. They are often hung on the walls, behind glass frames or appear in books in gallery environments.

In the outdoor rendition of the festival, photographs are displayed on billboards and shop windows in the streets of Brighton, Hove and Worthing. The works utilise advertising spaces that are increasingly left empty due to the pandemic. The town’s walls are mainly occupied by murals and a mixture of new and old Extinction Rebellion posters. The works blend in, but also stand out somehow, as they are installed in unassuming places. Following the map on the Photoworks website, you can walk around the town, cut across the Open Market, grab a drink from a café or pop in a vintage shop during your search. This part of the festival adds a performative aspect to your viewership and reminds us of how the biennial used to activate public spaces.

Mavlian says that they didn’t want to encourage people to travel to see the festival given the current restrictions and guidance. The map provides a description for each photograph installed on the streets and related podcasts. The online festival hub hosts 25 events running throughout September and October, consisting of virtual tours, workshops and artist talks.

The theme of the festival is ‘Proposition for alternative narratives’. Co-curator Raquel Villar Pérez says that the festival invites us to re-think the photographic discussions and representations of geography, gender, race and ethnicity. It looks at the history of photography and interrogates the usefulness of definitions like ‘documentary photography’ or ‘street photography’. The theme, although it was decided two years ago, is relevant to our since very much changed world, where we are forced to rethink the uses of visual means and languages. Race and gender relations are at the heart of the festival, although it also touches on environmental justice and power, colonialist history, and trauma and healing. The festival succeeds at highlighting personal stories in their criticism of these institutional methodologies.

Poulomi Basu’s ten-year-long photographic investigation ‘Centralia’ (2010-20) highlights how Brazil and India’s indigenous communities have similarly demanded environmental justice, and reveals that we are all connected through common concerns and experiences. Roger Eberhard’s ‘Human Territoriality’ (2016-19) documents new and historical borders across the world, including the divide between North and South Vietnam, and Spain and France. Through this, Eberhard explores how borders are marked and how national or imperial borders have shifted or disappeared over time.

Pixy Liao photographs herself and her partner in her ‘Experimental Relationship’ series (2017-ongoing). The pictures depict their relationship in its domestic setting and the staging of the two characters turn traditional gender roles upside down. Gender, seen through the lens of intersectional criticism, is at the centre of Sethembile Msezane’s works too. The South African artist performs in public places and uses her own body as a living statue to explore themes of African epistemologies and heritage, and public healing. Alberta Whittle, who has just won the Frieze Artist Award, Lotte Andersen and Ronan Mckenzie’s works also speak loudly on economic, racial and gender inequalities. Alix Marie’s ‘Maman’ (2019), a loving portrait of the artist’s mother’s, resides next to the posters for Alicia Keys’ new album in a not-so-busy street in Brighton. Her bare thorax behind tulle curtains is tantalisingly tactile and creates a strong sense of the person in our limited view. In our own ‘Festival in a Box’, Marie’s work of multiple photographs of her neck is included, which are meant to be rolled into cylinders and attached to each other. Here, Marie deconstructs her body and allows others to put it back together, adding another means for the audience to experience the festival.

This is a brave new festival. It is showcasing new uses of and new narratives for photography, and experimenting with new ways of making a festival. It is an exciting event in the days of screen fatigue and yet, it is safe. Running a series of talks on Instagram is almost an aged idea at this point, but dropping a box of a festival on our doors is very much within the solidarity spirit of the pandemic.

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