As photography festivals innovate and restructure, questions surrounding the purpose and functionality of the gallery have been raised.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many artists and curators had begun to grow tired of the gallery. That is to say, the standard exhibition space seen across most of the world; artwork hung on silent white walls, normally in expensive areas of metropolitan cities. Photography festivals, for the most part, exhibit in these buildings. Because of the pandemic, they have been forced to rethink how, and if, they will continue to do so. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, social distancing and a sudden lack of funding has disrupted galleries. This has created a sink or swim moment, forcing adaptation.
While galleries remain closed or at a restricted capacity, many festivals have been innovating despite current situations. These success stories beg a question: where do we go from here, and will the gallery ever be the same again?
“The pandemic has taught us that the cultural sector is perhaps not as accessible as we once thought.”
Shoair Mavlian, director of Photoworks Festival
“Prior to Covid-19, we had already begun to research and interrogate the relevance of the traditional photography festival model, which is now more than 50 years old. Specifically, we asked who photography festivals are for, and who the traditional format reaches,” explains Shoair Mavlian, director of Photoworks Festival in Brighton. When it became apparent that travel would not be possible for many, Mavlian and her team created the Festival in a Box, a mailed collection of posters, text and prints reflecting the exhibitions that would have been shown at the physical festival, bringing the exhibitions into both homes and schools. By “flipping the traditional ” model and hierarchy of curator/viewer, Photoworks brought in new festival goers. “Eliminating the traditional gallery space allowed us to reimagine who our potential audience could be,” Mavlian says.
“The pandemic has taught us that the cultural sector is perhaps not as accessible as we once thought,” Mavlian explains. “It has taught us to question everything, and just because something was always done a specific way doesn’t mean it’s the only way it can be done. The pandemic has really highlighted how many people fall through the cracks of traditional arts programming, and that we can all do much more to propose new ways of experiencing arts and culture.”
Calls for change have been heard (and unheard) from within and outside the art world for decades. “Festival in a Box gives the audience a hands-on experience with photography. Instead of showing precious objects framed behind glass, the festival is functional and affordable,” Mavlian explains.
The Photoworks Festival in a Box represents only one answer to the Covid-19 dilemma. Through the use of both physical galleries and digital exhibitions, the upcoming FORMAT Festival (12 March – 11 April 2021), the biannual UK-based photography event, has doubled in size. “With the online festival, you can go into this world, this virtual space. Everyone will have an avatar with the ability to talk to each other,” says Louise Fedotov-Clements, the festival’s director. FORMAT has collaborated with LA-based New Art City, a digital exhibition design company that launched during the pandemic. Working with artists, galleries, schools and festivals, New Art City facilitates online meeting spaces that achieve environments that could not exist in the real world. The online FORMAT festival avoids one of the largest issues physical exhibitions encounter: a lack of space. With a virtual gallery, the viewer can peruse at their own pace, scrolling through the halls for as long as they like.
“An unlimited number of people can visit. We’re hoping that our audiences will come together, and the artists can be present in the space. All throughout we’ll be holding events there,” says Fedotov-Clements. By opening the festival to the online world, people who wouldn’t usually attend the festival now can.
Meanwhile in Kiev, the Bird in Flight photography prize addressed similar issues with completely different solutions. Kiev is a city plastered with posters and advertisements. When a physical, indoor gallery became impossible, co-curators Asya Zhetvina and Dmitry Kostyukov decided to utilise the city’s urbanised image culture, by displaying the festival across Kiev’s streets. Footage of the posters were live-streamed online via CCTV, allowing the people of Kiev to engage with the work, as well as an international audience.
“There is no border between online and offline anymore.”
Dmitry Kostyukov, Bird in Flight co-curator
At the heart of all of these festivals, accessibility has been achieved on a level rarely seen in physical galleries. From the comfort of your own home, you can tune into the art world. For those outside the festival circuit, this engagement allows for a non-invasive, non-elitist, and non-judgemental approach to art. “There was this 16 year old, I asked him if he would go to a gallery normally, and he said of course not, because they’re always full of millennials.” Kostyukov says.
An important question to ask is: What’s next? Once we begin to imagine a return to ‘normality’ within the arts festival circuits, will we go back to what it once was? The issues raised against the white-walled gallery predate Covid-19 by quite some time. What the last year of Covid-concious festivals has shown is that non-physical spaces are not just a secondary or reactionary response to a lack of physical galleries, but a wholly different form of art consumption. “There is no border between online and offline anymore,” Kostyukov explains.
“Covid-19 has allowed for this playground, this space to experiment,” Zhetvina and Kostyukov say. All of these alternative measures, from outdoor venues, online exhibitions and mailed festivals, have existed for years. Covid-19 has not invented them, but allowed the experiments to run. What is still yet to be seen, is what lessons we take with us, and which ones we leave behind.
A full list of FORMAT Fesitval’s events can be found here, with links to view the Bird in Flight festival here. Photoworks Festival in a Box can be found here.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.