BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 152

Brighton Photo Biennial 2012

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 01 JAN 13

Omer Fast, Five Thousand Feet is the Best, 2011, DVD still

‘Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space’, the fifth Brighton Photo Biennial (BPB) since its 2003 inauguration, couldn’t have marked more of a departure from the last edition, organized by Martin Parr. Parr’s biennial was decidedly populist, engaging with fairly fashionable artists such as Rinko Kawauchi and Alec Soth, as well as a diverse range of vernacular photo­graphy collections that could just as easily have been coffee-table books, from the interiors of African dictators’ jets to litterbins from the Design Council’s picture library. All of this was brought under the all-seeing vision of Parr, who appeared to have adopted MoMA photography curator Edward Steichen’s 1940s approach of ‘curator as all-powerful author/editor’ by producing all of the photographs in the biennial using sponsor Hewlett-Packard’s printing technology.

In contrast, this year’s edition – the theme for which was largely conceived by Ben Burbridge and Celia Davies – marked a much more serious and political turn. Although the term ‘politics of space’ can often denote a flaky Postmodern, aestheticized version of actual politics, ‘Agents of Change’ averred itself quite explicitly as a response to the recent financial crisis, the Arab Spring, mass protest, Occupy and new forms of grassroots activism. This positioning made clear that the issues at stake were far from abstract, and equally rooted in photography’s relationship to the public – albeit via a very different vision of the vernacular or popular than that employed by Parr. These claims were matched by an ambitious refashioning of the biennial as a kind of activist catalyst or social space to spur critique and debate, with an extensive education and events programme. This was also evidenced in the many specially commissioned projects that related explicitly to Brighton’s own political landscape: from the collective Preston is My Paris, who explored the politics of constituency reform in the borough, to photographs of protest from The Argus newspaper archive exhibited in the guise of advertorial light-boxes in the city’s gentrified cultural quarter. Similarly, photographs documenting Brighton’s history of squatting were dispersed across the city, in the windows of empty, recession-hit shops; an exhibition pamphlet parodying ‘property porn’ was displayed outside an estate agents.

The relationship between technology and protest, and its specific UK context, was introduced via the work of British photojournalist and political activist John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, exhibited at the Create studio complex in New England House. Famous for documenting 1960s protest culture, a selection of his images depicted young CND protestors being dragged through the suburbs, Notting Hill’s anti-racism marches and Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Newspaper cuttings from publications such as Sanity, the monthly newspaper of the CND movement, were displayed in accompanying vitrines. As well as playing a part in establishing the London Free School and the Notting Hill Carnival, Hopkins co-founded the counter-cultural magazine International Times, launched in 1966 with a Pink Floyd gig at London’s Roundhouse, an event that promised a ‘Pop/Op/Costume/Masque/Fantasy-Loon/Blowout/Drag Ball’. The conflicts and paradoxes between that Utopian moment, when protest collided with free love and idealism versus the social-media, lifestyle culture of the present, was nicely set up with the installation of Thomson & Craighead’s specially commissioned October (2012) in the adjacent gallery space. Produced using material downloaded from the Internet, the installation documented the Occupy movement’s worldwide protests. Coupled with a projected compass on the floor, showing both the location of each video clip and the spectator’s distance from it, October worked well to convey a sense of the movement’s global reach. However, its problematically linear narrative appeared to chart a movement that began with euphoria and carnival, and fizzled out with police violence and suppression. Although the later footage was effective in offering a counter to the representations of anti-establishment violence against the police and state, stage-managed by the mainstream media, it was unclear whether, in their apparently defeatist chronicle, the artists were also critiquing the politics of Occupy and pre-emptively dismissing its future potential.

Many of the works exhibited engaged directly in interrogating new military technologies, systems of surveillance and civil liberties – such as drones, ‘control orders’, satellite technology – as well as the role of social media in protest and activism, or the politics of uneven urbanization and social conditions under globalization and neo-liberalism. The project Cairo Divided (2011) and Corinne Silva’s ‘Badlands’ (2008–11) were well-paired at the University of Brighton Gallery. The former, originally produced as a newspaper containing photographs by Jason Larkin and an essay by journalist Jack Shenker, documents the construction of vast gated communities built by international investors for Egypt’s wealthy and isolated from the extreme poverty and political uncertainty of the capital. Silva’s series transplants the landscapes of Morocco onto Spanish billboards, revealing the invisible neo-colonial flows of trade, migrants and capital.

Brighton also played host to the UK premiere of Omer Fast’s film Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2011). Characteristically cinematic and slick, it splices documentary with dramatized, psychologized fiction, using professional actors to tell the story of a former drone operator. Humour and seemingly spurious but beautifully embellished details are combined with a kind of Brecht-gone-blockbuster ‘making strange’. We follow a family of Americans in a station wagon to their drone-death. The repetitions of the film parody the rhythms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although strangely seductive, one wonders as to the critical substance and political potential of the work. It is clever like a neo-noir movie, but whether Fast’s appropriation of Hollywood’s production values deepens or dampens his critique is unclear. Interestingly, a much more DIY and socially engaged film project by Cairo-based Ronnie Close was one of the biennial’s highlights. The film Ultras (2012) documents a group of non-sectarian football supporters who have held demonstrations and occupations outside Parliament in Cairo following the death of 74 fans during protests at Port Said in February 2012. Close isn’t speaking through actors, but his own fraught relationship with the group is the basis of an ongoing project. Focusing on football chants, and reminiscent of the work of Phil Collins, the film effectively problematizes East/West and local/global stereotypes, getting to the heart of the biennial’s themes.

‘Agents of Change’ made good on its curatorial promises, by looking at how political action can be produced and mobilized through public and popular spaces and what roles representation, aesthetic fashioning, documentation and dissemination can play in facilitating real change.

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.