From activism to A.I. and Orwellian surveillance to climate change: The public installations on show at this year’s Belfast Photo Festival

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Running until 30 June, the 2021 programme examines a provocative array of future(s) against the backdrop of Belfast

One of the first major UK arts festivals to open since the latest national lockdown, Belfast Photo Festival launched their month-long programme at the start of June. Spurred on by the reckoning of the global pandemic, this year’s ‘Future(s)’ theme urges audiences to consider what kind of world they want to collectively create, musing on topics as diverse as climate change, surveillance, technology and politics. 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Belfast Photo Festival 2021 offers a stronger focus than ever on outdoor interventions and installations. From a large-scale building wrap of a Big Brother-esque eye that watches ominously over the populus by artists Kensuke Koike and Thomas Sauvin, to the towering android portraits of Majia Tammi’s One of Them Is Human opposite the city’s St Anne’s Cathedral, the festival delivers work of a scale and impact that is both bold and playful.  

© Kensuke Koike.
© Maija Tammi.

Projects on ‘Environmental Futures’ are strategically placed, adding poignant context to already potent works. An exhibition of Mandy Barker’s work on marine pollution can be viewed at Belfast’s famous dockside, while Alicja Wróblewska’s vivid but shocking renderings of plastic coral reefs are exhibited at large scale throughout Belfast’s main shopping district, Victoria Square. Co-opting the visual language of advertising, Wróblewska’s works both highlight the troubling fact that an estimated 90 percent of the world’s reefs will be under threat by the end of this decade, while forcing us to confront our own culpability through our consumption of plastics.

© Mandy Barker.
© Alicja Wrôblewska.

At Queen’s University, the festival boasts a significant outdoor exhibition by renowned South African artist-activist Zanele Muholi, while Atlanta-based artist Davion Alston’s documentation of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the US is showing at sites across the city. Such projects urge us to consider how collective action in the present can reshape our futures, and remind us – particularly in the wake of the cultural reset brought about by the pandemic – of the continued urgency of activism and advocacy.

© Zanele Muholi.
© Davion Alston.

For all the broad array of public works in this year’s Belfast Photo Festival, there is plenty to experience inside, too. Alongside various gallery exhibitions, the festival has taken over a number of disused spaces to showcase experimental and boundary-pushing immersive installations. In Riddle’s Warehouse, a historic ironmongery store, for example, Simon Norfolk and Klaus Thymann’s awe-inspiring Shroud invites audiences into an arctic-style environment. Here, imagery, sound effects and theatrical lighting and fog collide, as visitors bear witness to the tragic demise of a glacier: a once natural wonder now shrouded in thermal blankets to protect it from global warming. Also embracing the immersive experience, Quentin Lacombe’s Event Horizon sees an empty city centre building transformed into a futuristic landscape, engulfing audiences in an experiential new world. 

© Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann.
© Quentin Lacombe.

Staged in a city that has faced decades of conflict during The Troubles, and where public space has long been a contested issue, Belfast Photo Festival has, year on year, sought to engage audiences with Belfast’s landscape in provocative and surprising ways. This has perhaps never been more evident than this year’s edition, with an extensive programme of interventions that serves as both a salve to a year of lockdown, and an invitation to the people of Belfast to imagine their city anew. 

A place once defined by binaries, this year’s festival makes it clear that Belfast is, in fact, a place of plurality — one in which a multitude of future(s) remain possible.  

Belfast Photo Festival 2021 is on until 30 June