This cerebral, thoughtful but ultimately dry collection of shows is what one would expect from Photoworks, organisers of the event. Photoworks has always been committed to exploring the conceptual currents in Photography politically motivated. This is an organisation that believes in the power of the medium, and tirelessly promotes it to those for whom it has lost its potency, yet in their tireless dedication, it seems they can lose sight of what Gerry Badger would call ‘the pleasure of good photographs’
‘Agents of Change’ refers to some of the creative strategies that included artists have deployed to document the secret machinations of the surveillance state, the Techno-Millitary industrial complex, protest movements and the slow, destructive encroachment of globalisation into the Middle East, amongst other things. Many of these topics are not only under-represented in mainstream media, if at all, but actually incredibly difficult to get access to, let alone photograph. This is an impressive feat in an age when Photographers can be treated with as much suspicion as terrorists. In an introductory talk, the Biennale’s curator, Benedict Burbridge revealed how many of the artists had had to engage with government organisations, be it the Home Office or the FBI, before getting their work completed. Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unfair to criticise work so constrained by rules and regs for not being more immediate. Another consistency seems to have been to showcase work whose ultimate destination isn’t the gallery but alternative forms of display, whether it be newsprint, billboards or fly-posters.
Within the University of Brighton Campus are several shows that grapple with the theme. Most impressive is Edmund Clark’s ‘Control Order House’, in which the artist was granted unprecedented access to one of the houses in which those placed under a Control Order are forced to live. Suspects are deliberately relocated and placed under house arrest without anyone knowing where they are or for what crimes they are under suspicion. Clark had to have all photos screened by the Home Office as to reveal any details of the location would have been a criminal offence. Consequently, the images present details of a generic suburbia, pebble-dash and coving, wallpaper and curtains. Unremittingly bleak, it is an important reminder of the cruelty inherent in psychological torture, and a logical progression form Clark’s brilliant ‘Guantanamo: When the Light Goes Out’ , also published by Photoworks.
Corrine Silva has two projects on show in the campus, one hung jointly with Jason Larkin. Interested in the borderlands between Africa and Europe , Silva seeks to explore the economic and cultural relationships between the two Continents. In ‘Imported Landscapes’, the artist has pasted photographs of the North African landscape onto billboards located in Southern Spain in an effort to highlight the similarities between the territories. Once part of the same empire, they have become economically and culturally estranged, so it is fitting that a primary capitalist tool (the billboard) is used to communicate what these neighbours once admitted to sharing. In ‘Badlands’, Silva documents the architecture of the ‘holiday home in the sun’, juxtaposing these hyper-real structures with images of the plastic and the shanty-type settlements used by the North African workers who have to build these monstrosities. Larkin’s work is equally preoccupied with the effects of urbanization, showing the development of rich suburbs and gated communities in the suburbs of Cairo. These manicured, pre-meditated spaces clearly do not belong in this landscape, a point encapsulated in the image of a golf-course in the middle of the desert. The show is called ‘Uneven Development’
Also in the Campus is the frankly outstanding ‘creative documentary/film’ ‘Five Thousand Feet is the Best’ by Omer Fast. Although I was not able to watch the entire film, which apparently has an ‘unforgettable ending’, it was clear that this was a superior piece of work. Using interviews with a former drone operator who worked form a base in Las Vegas, the film deliberately confounds by veering between fact and fiction, using narrative, action and even surrealism in some cases. Superlatively shot, it creates a oppressive atmosphere laced with sinister cynicism and shocking testimony. Indeed the high production value makes of this the most engrossing of all the pieces.
Trevor Paglen’s exhibition at Lighthouse is uneven with two projects on show. In ‘The Other Night Sky’, Paglen (to quote press release) ‘uses data from an international network of amateur Satellite watchers to photograph and track classified spacecraft’. The resulting images are nocturnal skyscapes with what looks like a shooting star at their centre. In his other project, ‘Limit Telephotography’ Paglen uses astronomical telescopes as lenses with which to shoot top secret U.S government bases. Here the images are grainy blurs, recalling the surveillance photography of which they are, ironically, a part. But the two projects don’t gel and the work, hung and framed traditionally, might have benefited form an alternative mode of presentation.
In ‘Space @ Create’ are also two shows: one an ode to the past in the form ‘Freedom is Career’ by John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, the other utilising new technologies in specially commissioned ‘October’ by Thomson and Craighead. Hopkins was a leading subversive figure in Sixties London, with fingers in many pies, one of which was photographing the activism of the time. As classic black and white photo-journalism, such sincere work is fighting for breath in the sea of conceptualism around , and there is curiously little on show. ‘October’, in which Thomson and Craighead have assembled Youtube footage of Occupy movements from around the world, is installed in darkened space, with an illuminated, projected compass on the floor in front of the screen, that rotates to indicate the geographical provenance of each clip in relation to Brighton. This is an underwhelming piece, lacking a critical bite in its selection of clips, and the compass seems unnecessary, if not a little gimmicky. Occupy was/is an important phenomenon, but is for the artist to take some critical distance here.
By far the most exciting work is on show at Fabrica. ‘Ne Olho D Rua’ by Julian Germain, Patrizia Azevedo, Murilo Godoy and Street Kids from Belo Horizonte in Brazil, is a long-term, ongoing project by a collective of photographers who, since the mid-90’s, have been furnishing Street Kids in a deprived Brazilian Favela with cameras with which they can document their lives. The images are surprising, moving, devastating; vital. The gallery space seeks to re-create the original presentation of the work which had been in the form of fly-posters pasted around the Favela, and in a newspaper circulated freely around the slum. Some participants have been involved from the start, and tough their existence is day-to-day, and photography probably means nothing to them, it is possible to gleam a dim mastery emerge, an engagement with a language to which they would previously had no access, creating poignant biographies of extremely difficult and precarious lives. Alongside the fly-posters and some matted prints, are the boxes that constitute this project’s archive with which visitors can interact. This is a really nice touch, and perhaps indicative of why this work stands out: it isn’t precious.
Other shows include Lulu Ash’s ‘Urban Farming in London and Havana’, at the station and Jury’s Inn, ‘Urban Exploration’ on Kings Esplanade and ‘Another Space: Political Squatting in Brighton’ throughout the city although on opening day there wasn’t much of it to see.
This is an important edition of BPB that seeks to ask difficult questions and grapple with different issues. It is perhaps therefore either pointless or a given to say that it has resulted in a difficult experience.
Words: Kerim Aytac © ArtLyst 2012 Top image: Free Speech 1964 © John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins
6 October- 4 November