The name of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2016, “Beyond the Bias – Reshaping the Image” is of the Zeitgest. Gender and sexuality concerns have been in the media a great deal in recent years, as socially constructed realities along with associated expectations are being examined across cultural platforms, including literature, TV, films, and art. There is an active and energetic energy emanating from the discourse, which is as it should be after years of repression and enforced hiding. This is, however, not the first time over the last century that these issues have been explored so actively and openly. Parallels between now and the pre-war years, specifically within the Weimar Republic, are highlighted in Amazon’s recent successful TV series, Transparent, in an historical subplot, where the protagonist’s grandparents are set in scenes that take place within the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. (Institute for the Science of Sexuality). This was a real place dedicated to scientific research into male and female homosexuality, bisexuality and trans issues, where related books were collected and archived, and an acceptance along with a sense of profound humanity was promoted. As you might imagine, it was aggressively destroyed by the Nazis and the books all burned. The people who visited or lived there were imprisoned and sent to their deaths, and if it can be possible, treated with even less care, greater cruelty than any of the other Others Hitler and his colleagues could conceive of. (Fellow student, Michael Colvin, is referencing this subject in his current OCA work.)
The echoes with history seem incredibly important to recognise and take note of. There is global social conflict between between those who favour letting go of boundaries and those who wish to react against any relaxation by constructing stronger, greater, more powerful, and impervious outlines around ideas, people, places. This is not only about sexuality and gender, although we see it played out so visibly in much of the Brighton work – but also about language itself (text speak is one minor example), countries (migrants), ownership (Right to Copy magazine – not sure if it ever got off the ground, but aimed to question and explore copyright) and even political movements (is left or right still relevant, or is the central argument in society about whether or not to build walls?)
The relationship we have with categories is changing. Might it be relevant to suggest that the relationship we have with ‘the sign’ is transforming? Or being challenged? Or evolving? And that there are those who wish to come down very heavily against any evolutionary developments that might occur, and those who are eager to drive it or see it flourish? The conflicting tensions between the two positions is manifesting itself in phenomena such as Brexit and all that pertains to it, along with an idealisation of obviously damaged human beings who preach intolerance and make promises to make everything great again, as if it ever was, on all sides of the globe and political discourse. Or in the rise of any form of fanaticism or radicalism. And in the building of walls, in an attempt to keep out what frightens us. If so, it feels like there is a momentous change occurring and one that has been attempting its birth for a long time, even though in the past there were powerful forces which did all they could to stop such a process. As there are today as well. And so, the Biennial’s subject matter might seem absolutely relevant when looked at in retrospect, but it is difficult to know now which work will resonate loudly in time to come. And I’m not sure I saw anything, other than one show, that taps into all of that as dynamically as it might. (Although we did see a very limited selection when you consider all that is there). I am going to discuss the shows that stayed with me and then only one at length.
- Reimagine – University of Brighton Galleries, Grand Parade, Olivia Arthur and Bharat Sikka collaboration “explore public and private presentation of the self-image in relation to the body, gender, sexuality and fantasy” (photoworks, 2016; 3) Artists worked with local communities in Mumbai and Brighton. Arthur’s work was in black and white and Sikka’s in colour. Both worked on large format film. The most compelling thing for me was not that there were two sets of quite different images both dealing with gender and sexuality here – but rather that the two places on the planet are historically related. It is an irony that Britain which once strode across the planet appropriating countries and turning them all pink on the globe now wishes to baton down the hatches, and like a caricature in a story, yell loudly and maniacally “Get off my land!! It’s my land!” And that Mumbai, once known by the anglicised ‘Bombay’ (from the Portuguese, Bombaim – evidence of being ‘owned’ by westerners on several counts) played such a crucial part in that story, enormously affected by British Imperialism. This joint history seemed to resonate more profoundly than the other messages within the images. The two styles were presented entirely separately and so, as discussed afterwards, people wondered at the level of collaboration. There was some text in a slide show but that too seemed separate from the images, although as reported by others from the OCA, contributed a great deal towards making sense of them. I found myself thinking about all the things I have written above, but also noticed nude vs naked as explored in a recent project on UVC. I thought both practitioners were really worth finding out about and their websites good resources, well worth investigating further. I particularly liked Tony by Sikka, a close-up portrait of a man in the bath and available to see on the cover of his website. There was also a wide shot of the same man in the bath which is worth viewing and thinking about.
- The Dandy Lion Project – I will discuss this in Project 4.7
- Sam Laughlin – Slow Time – No 13. The Regency Town House, The Drawing Room. (Photofringe) Perhaps I remember Laughlin’s work best because I ended up speaking to him and asking him lot of questions – well, interrogating him is perhaps the best phrase – after he tentatively asked us to be very careful about our rain-sodden clothes, which he worried would brush against naked prints lying vulnerably on a table in the centre of the room. Or perhaps the fact his images were in a venue that had so much atmosphere, maybe even a good dose of Benjamin’s aura about it, meant that the work stood out in a day saturated with photographic prints. Did the house, a restoration project that is hired out to artists, performers and event organisers, have too much of an impact on the work, I wonder? Or did it compliment Laughlin’s images, adding an additional layer of experience that enriched my appreciation? Would his work have been as impactful in the dry, perhaps more sterile and occasionally oppressive atmosphere of a ‘proper’ gallery? Perhaps that sort of venue would have allowed Laughlin’s work to stand and breath on its own. As much as I liked – actually loved – the venue, I do wonder about this.
As soon as I came through the entrance I was struck by No. 13’s dramatic presence. It’s state of semi-restoration, so perfect for DIY dreams by Tom Heatley in the bottom front room. The grey, dull Brighton weather contrasted with the warm glow of household lamps, and props associated with DIY complimented Heatley’s images immensely, and I was quickly intrigued by how performative the atmosphere and work seemed. Nevertheless I spent most of my time upstairs in Laughlin’s temporary gallery, where there was less in the way of props, although a few such as stones and rocks by a wall below an image and pebbles on the table, and many more images than in Heatley’s theatrical space.
Laughlin presented several collections of his work, some of which are on his site, however Slow Time has not been seen publicly before. He has been working on this for 3 years. Laughlin explained he operated in a way that tallied with the slowness of his subject, described on a typed sheet as “a reflection on natural forms; flora, fauna, landscapes and the quiet processes that happen within them”. He might often go for a walk and not even use his camera but instead notice something that he could go back to and photograph at a later date. He walks alone and for hours at a time. He uses 35mm for Slow Time and a 4×5 camera for larger works. His images are extremely low in contrast. They are black and white, or as Laughlin described, grey and grey. In fact one of the OCA tutors asked him outright, “why so grey?” (they knew each other). The tonal range is extremely narrow. There is very little black in the images, except in darker pieces which are almost entirely black, and where highlight details are so faint they become almost inaccessible. In addition, the paper he uses is as smooth as he can find, an ultra smooth version of Hahnemühle German Etching. He prints his own work after scanning negatives, which he has developed, and does very little in post production. He achieves the affect he is after in-camera and in the printing. The images are not framed or glazed and it is simply the print on a wall or table. As you wander past images you are drawn closer to them to search out detail and make sense of them. The Slow Time pictures are not overly large, a mix perhaps of A5, A4 and A3. They are subtle, quietly reflexive and contemplative. They do not shout. They whisper. And they are enchanting and beautiful.
At first when thinking about how Laughlin’s work relates to the Biennial title, it might be easy to overlook the connections. I am not sure how closely the fringe entries are meant to align, however, Laughlin’s Slow Time seems to me to be all about shape and bias, or rather the lack of it, and how that differs from so much we are used to, visually and beyond within our world. What, after all, is contrast if not a defining element of separateness? The higher the contrast between one thing and another, the greater and more startling the difference. In Laughlin’s work the contrast is deliberately rendered extremely low, quite opposite to the sort of images we are used to seeing online, where contrast is often boosted so images stand out on small smart phone screens. In Slow Time difference, visual categorisation, separateness is scaled down to a point where at times it becomes barely detectable because of the low contrast, and which is continued physically in the smoothness of the paper. Again, that choice tells us about removing difference. There are no protective, separating frames or glazing. The images remain open and vulnerable to the elements but in being so are all the more powerful for it. They may not last under those conditions but perhaps there is something to be read within that. Laughlin’s way of working is an antithesis to the fast and furious way in which images are uploaded nowadays; moments snapped, filtered and posted on social media, highly manipulated and lost in the melee within a few minutes or hours after they’ve been consumed by friends and online contacts, but also trapped as evidence of a moment for as long as the internet will exist in some cases – Facebook profiles don’t die when we do, for instance. Laughlin’s subject, nature, has an alternative pace to the online world. Objects are continually transforming, never static, even when they gives us the impression they are, and in some cases, such as rock faces, mountains, river beds, the time scales are counted in evolutionary terms rather than moments.
Slow Time is a fantastic counter to so much in the modern world and celebrates the universe at the same time as highlighting the ludicrous hubris of busy, speedy, human activity. It also, without any didactic lecturing, provides an alternative view to one that promotes separateness, outlines, borders, definition. And it seemed to do this in a more profound way than a great deal of the other work we saw over the weekend. Laughlin is young but he has a very clear artistic voice already and it was a real privilege to hear about his work in his own words in addition to seeing the images.
- On Sunday we had a couple of hours to discuss work in groups. I always find looking at other student’s work incredibly inspiring and exciting. It’s great to see what people are doing on various courses. I am quite jealous of the lovely creative opportunities because as much as I love this academic course, I am really missing creative projects, even though I work on my own anyway. I presented an idea I had about doing the final assignment more creatively than in a formal essay, as that is what suits me best, and gave lots of good reasons for doing it that way, mainly incorporating the ideas we have learnt into the project. The tutor in our group said he wouldn’t have a problem with it but that he didn’t mark UVC. He then asked about it further up the chain of command and told me I would of course be allowed to do the multimedia idea I had, as long as I also wrote an essay…. Isn’t it strange how language often doesn’t mean what you think it means? (Semiotics!) This is the assignment brief; “Explore the issues surrounding the real in contemporary society. You may use an illustrated essay form or extended annotations of illustrations, which ever suits your subject and personal approach”. Those words apparently mean “write a formal essay”. I think I need to pursue this further though before making any decisions. I wrote notes down for ideas in the slide show below so I wouldn’t forget – perhaps I should post these in the A5 section separately too. (These are only notes, I feel the need to stress this because someone thought it was the project…No!) slide-show-a5-ideas
Image in the basement of 10 Brunswick Square, Brighton, (c)SJField 2016
Photoworks, Brighton Photo Biennial 2016, 1-30 October Magazine