Societal Provocation

Societal Provocation

The third edition of Diffusion takes revolution as its central theme, utilising the medium of photography to document the repercussions of global revolts.

Since its inception in 2013, Diffusion, a biennial festival of international photography taking place at multiple venues in the city of Cardiff, has proven to be one of the most exciting showcases for photography in Europe. More than an art event, it is a social forum, using photography to initiate conversations around pressing social and political issues, and with remarkable prescience. In 2013 the festival asked the question “Where Are We Now?” and in particular looked at the role photography and digital media have in articulating contemporary experience and identity in a New Europe. For the 2015 theme, Looking for America, Ffotogallery Director David Drake chose images which examined how, in the post-9/11 world of economic recession, the vaunted American dream, the belief that life will get better, and that progress is inevitable if we obey the rules and work hard, had been replaced by a hard and bitter truth.

The 2017 event continues a longstanding exploration of social and political themes with its focus on Revolution. As Drake comments: “I have been actively seeking work that shows how revolutionary change requires a challenge to the established order, acts of protest and rebellion, insurgency, risk and experimentation, new ideas and ideologies.” Given the new global political context, the theme seems especially relevant today, and the urgency is not lost on the festival’s director. “These are turbulent and uncertain times. I am interested in how photography, and art more generally, can disrupt audience perceptions and offer a potentially transformative vision for society, as artists seek new ways to see, represent and understand the world rapidly changing around them. As Bertolt Brecht expressed it: ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’” The outlook offered by the festival is broad, international and diverse, but the programme also presents photography from Wales, a country which has always had a long and rich history of protest and insurrection, from the Merthyr Rising in 1831 and the Newport Rising by Chartist sympathisers in 1839 to the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s. Welsh artist David Garner engages with this history of dissent and direct action. As Drake remarks: “Garner imbues it with a contemporary resonance that seems to reflect the anger and betrayal that led to the 2016 ‘Leave’ vote in England and Wales.”

For this event, Garner has developed new ideas looking at the legacy of Nye Bevan, inspired by an archival photograph depicting Bevan rubbing his eyes, as if weeping at the dismantling of the National Health Service, whose establishment he spearheaded. In Respond, the practitioner offers two contemporary works that link the Chartist movement with the current austerity climate in South Wales. In one of these, an ornate chandelier, a symbol of decadence associated with opulent lifestyles, is constructed from 576 coins with a monetary value of a mere £11.52. Each coin has been hand stamped with words in Welsh and English relating them to the media’s vocabulary of austerity.

Whilst many of the featured exhibitions investigate revolutionary movements in contemporary life, the event also focuses on counter-culture movements of the 20th century. One such show focuses on the contributions of John “Hoppy” Hopkins, as Drake explains: “Between 1960 and 1966, Hopkins captured the vibrancy of discontent and the emerging counter-culture in Britain, which was expressed through activism, poetic expression and art.” This exhibition brings together a selection of unseen images from the photographer’s own archive alongside others included in the very few public exhibitions of his work to date. Captured here is the historic poetry convention at The Royal Albert Hall in 1965, as well as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr’s first visits to London, Committee of 100 and CND marches, and images of anti-racist and pro-Civil Rights demonstrations.

Vanley Burke, as Drake remarks, is “often described as the ‘Godfather of Black British Photography’, whereby his iconic images have captured the evolving cultural landscape, social change, and stimulated debate in the United Kingdom over the past four decades.” Burke’s oeuvre represents possibly the largest photographic record of the Caribbean Diaspora in Britain, and he continues to connect histories through his substantial archive, housed at the Library of Birmingham. He played a key role in documenting protest in 1970s and 1980s Birmingham, including Anti-Nazi League demonstrations and the Handsworth uprising. He also photographed Sharpeville demonstrations in South Africa in the 1990s, as the Apartheid system crumbled.

Recent echoes of mass counter-culture movements are woven throughout the contributions from kennardphillipps, a collaboration between Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, who have been working together since 2002 to produce art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Drake highlights that this idea stretches beyond the display space: “It is made for the street, the gallery, the web, newspapers and magazines, and aims to engage audiences in a direct manner and help them understand what’s happening in the world through visual means. The piece is made as a critical tool that connects to international movements for social and political change.” In State of the Nations, which has been specially commissioned for Diffusion 2017, resistance to the status quo is embedded in the deconstruction of news images and narratives built from everyday materials, photomontage and text. The artists have extended this critique into the contemporary political environment, as Drake explains: “kennardphillipps dig into the surface of words and images to visualise the connection between the oppressed majority and the political and financial elites of the everyday, remixing earlier pieces and creating new artwork that addresses contemporary issues relating to Trump, Brexit and the refugee and migrant crisis.”

Photography as an art form, has been strongly linked to a sense of upheaval. This is because of both the technological and the creative possibilities it affords, and also its accessibility. This revolutionary quality of photography is continually evolving, as Drake highlights: “Digital technology has dramatically changed ordinary people’s relationship with photography in that on a daily basis we now consume and process a vast quantity of image-based information on our computers, televisions, mobile phones and other devices.” Laís Pontes questions the construction of identity in the digital age, as well as the role social media and its characters play in this construction. In the same way that she uses a camera and performance, Pontes utilises virtual platforms like Facebook and Instagram as tools in the process of creation, giving viewers the opportunity to take over the role of artist, which allows the piece to shift in meaning during a collaborative process. This is an invitation for onlookers to experience, interact and develop a critical view of the effect that social media has on identity.

This exhibition, Drake suggests, focuses on some of the ongoing revolutionary possibilities of photography: “In examining how fictional and real narratives collide on social media platforms, Pontes’ work explores issues of gender fluidity and how personal and other data is captured, analysed and used in art and society – both for good and for less benign purposes such as surveillance or data mining.”

If Pontes’ aesthetic is of the technological age, this festival as a whole also locates social change in relation to modernist aesthetics and architecture, for example, in French photographer Manuel Bougot’s Chandigarh: Portrait of a City. Chandigarh was one of the early planned cities in post-independence India and is internationally known for its innovative architecture and urban design. The master plan was prepared by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Chandigarh is regarded as one of the most progressive cities of the world in terms of architecture, cultural growth and modernisation. Bougot investigates how Le Corbusier’s philosophy and approach was realised in this unique city.

For Drake, this particular aspect of the festival highlights photography’s revolutionary impact on the built environment: “Since its invention in the 19th century, photography has always done more than simply capture the shapes and spatial forms of buildings and skylines. The medium transformed how new developments were conceived by architects and how they were received by the public. Architecture in the 20th century relied on photography to communicate its modernist and post-modernist practices within a utopian view of the emerging “new world.” The last century saw a change in architecture and the built environment across the developed parts of the globe, realised through the dramatic expansion of towns and cities; the expansion of new technologies; the creation of suburbia and new towns; a transformation in road, rail and air travel; post-war reconstruction of cities and the need for social housing in response to population growth.”

The centenary this year of the Russian Revolution, of course informs Diffusion in both thematic and direct ways. Photography was an essential part of how the events of 1917 were documented and awareness was spread, but its formal possibilities also engendered some of the most innovative and revolutionary art practices of the 20th century. Photography and, by extension, film were used not simply as propaganda and to document revolutionary change but also to create new forms of artistic expression. “Many of the featured artists, including kennardphillipps, Paolo Ciregia, George Blair and Danila Tkachenko, directly reference Soviet styles of photomontage, Constructivism and Suprematism.”

In addition to the curated programme, there is also a special exhibition, Zeitgeist, which takes the temperature of contemporary photography and its relation to protest and revolution. As Drake remarks: “Our news feeds have latterly been dominated by Brexit, Trumpism, globalisation, climate change, poverty, religious intolerance, the migrant and refugee crisis, diversity, nationalism, border control, hate crime, gentrification, and community division. For all the technological socio-economic progress made, we live in a world blighted by inequality, war and political upheaval.” The powerful and politically engaged images featured throughout Diffusion highlight ways in which art can stimulate the conversations that engender social change.

Words Colin Herd

Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography. 1-31 May .