Brighton Photo Biennial 2012: Public interventions and provocative exhibitions

By Richard Moss | 05 October 2012
a photo of children handing out newspapers on the streets of Brazil
© No Olha da Rua, The Beautiful Horizon, 2007

Review: Brighton Photo Biennial 2012: Agents of Change, Photography and the Politics of Space, various locations in Brighton and Hove until November 4 2012.

The windswept setting of Hove Lagoon, a seafront watersports centre wedged between Hove Lawns and the industrial complex of Shoreham Harbour, may seem like an unlikely place to encounter this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial. 

But a mixture of expediency – the result of Brighton’s woeful lack of suitable contemporary art spaces – and a rebelliously innovative approach to curation and content is making photography pop in all sorts of places and spaces in the city this year.

Curated by Photoworks, Brighton Photo Biennial 2012 carries the tag line “Agents of Change, photography and the politics of space” and the imagery ranges from photo essays about squatting and the secret activities of the US military to the first gallery show for a long running-project with the street kids of Belo Horizonte in Brazil.

At Hove Lagoon the large prints, of a gravel sorting depot and the back of man’s head, have been plastered to a concrete wall. They are just two of 40 shots taken by Preston is my Paris, a collective of North West-based photographers who have been fanning out across the city’s political constituencies, cameras in hand.

a photo of the back of a man listening to a Walkman
© Jamie Hawksworth, from Four Versions of Three Routes from Preston is My Paris
Their photos have been pasted everywhere from a seafront subway near the 1930s Lido in Saltdean to a temporary wall at the Black Rock car park near the terminus of the Volks Railway. A walking trail and map helps visitors find them, but the intention is for people to just encounter them.

“It isn’t really about the photos, as much as the experience,” says Adam Murray of the group. Sure, they might get vandalised, but I’m not bothered about that.”

Together with “the process”, the experience is a recurring theme in this year’s Biennial.

A mile or so back down the seafront, next to the bandstand, a lonely shipping container is home to a series of flickering images taken by the self-styled “Urban Explorers” who boldly  go where no man is supposed to go (abandoned factories, tunnels, construction sites) photographing their exploits. And in Jubilee Square a series of lightboxes is about to reveal 20 photographs taken for local rag, The Evening Argus, chronicling the city’s “rich history as a contested political space.”

Everything from National Front marches to CND protests are on display here – all drawn from the archives of The Argus, which in line with many local newspapers, leans to the right. Just one of the uncomfortable juxtapositions and ironies in this year’s biennial.

At Fabrica, the city’s atmospheric contemporary art space sited in a deconsecrated chapel, there's some irony to be found in one of the Biennial's most complex and absorbing exhibitions, showing for the first time ever in a conventional gallery.

The Beautiful Horizon, which saw Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Godoy give cameras to streets kids and gangs in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte and then develop the results, has been running for 17 years and has resulted in a vast archive of candid snapshots.   

“At its busiest 55 cameras were lost in the city,” says Germain, “the next day we would have 55 rolls of film.

“We usually work through public actions, fly posters in cities,” he adds. “The idea is to generate the story rather than collect the story.”

The photographs make for raw viewing – it’s citizen photography with an edge. Germain and his colleagues still work with “about 15 people” who are still living on the streets and still photographing. “Quite a few of them are dead" he says of the people he has encountered over the years, "quite a few are in prison, some of them we have no idea."

The project is full of moral complexities and raises all kinds of questions, but it’s worth grappling with as one of the stand out shows of the Biennial.

a photo of red sky with stars and satelites visible
© Trevor Paglen, Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco
The complexities are of a different kind at Lighthouse, where a selection of photographs taken by self-styled geographer, social scientist and “provocateur” Trevor Paglen offer a glimpse into the murky world of US military drone bases and satellite tracking systems.

Some of them are blurred and enigmatic, others are simply beautiful, like Ansel Adams style landscapes with a touch of magic glow that makes these sinister and secretive sites look mesmerising.

There is no such irony in the work of John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. The sixties activist and flower power photographer shares his scrapbook and some of his best and iconic imagery of activism from “swinging London” in a show at Space @ Create, a gallery in a 1960s brutalist tower.  

Joining ‘Hoppy’ are Thomson and Craighead and their images of the Occupy movement, which they culled from the web. These flick across the walls in fragments while a floor projection plots their locations across a kind of virtual compass.

At the University Gallery, Edmund Clarke, a photographer famous for his Guantanamo Bay photographic essay, tackles the thorny issue of the Control Orders used to detain people without judicial process under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

An installation of sorts, it tracks the complex journey of the project via a series of complicated letters from the Home Office. Banal photos of the 1930s interior of the suburban detention house flick by on a monitor. There are two shots of a bedroom and, as if to ram home the dull intransigence of English Law, a series of four large pictures of flocked wallpaper.  

A bit laboured perhaps? But the University Gallery does hold a trump card. As well as two engaging photographic essays by Jason Larkin and Corrine Silva exploring the absurdities of building developments in the deserts of Egypt and Morocco, there is a darkened doorway that leads to Omar Fast’s Five Thousand Feet Is The Best.

Based on the story of a drone operator who recounted his experiences controlling unmanned planes over Afghanistan and Pakistan from his base in Las Vegas, the film unfolds slowly, sometimes hypnotically.

The Brighton Biennial asks quite a few difficult questions and rewards patient investigation, this film also does that but it has an immediacy and an unforgettable dénouement that will stay with you for some time.
More photos:

a black and white film still of cars seen as if from a satelite drone from above
© OMer Fast. Courtesy of the artist, Arraita Beer, Berlin and gb agency, Paris.
a photo of an open window looking out onto a pebble dashed wall and tiled roof
© Edmund Clark, from Control Order House, 2011
a photo of an illimated installation of building and radar devices in a green landscape
© Trevor Paglen
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