Unboxing Photoworks’ Festival in a Box

When coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced early in 2020, art institutions across the world made hasty pivots towards digital programming. But the shift to online experience often left intact the structures and hierarchies that limit accessibility to photographic art. UK-based photography platform Photoworks addressed the problem by producing the ‘Festival in a Box,’ a book-sized container designed to fit through a letterbox. It’s an inventive solution – a mostly tactile experience of work, with a digital programme running alongside, and an invitation to audiences to curate the work themselves. Eugenie Shinkle and Lillian Wilkie unboxed the Festival at Lillian’s studio in East London.

The box contains a stack of loose-leaf printed material, comprising work by eleven individual artists, wall labels and a small booklet of essays. Each artist worked with Photoworks’ curators and designers to decide on the presentation of their work, and the result is a mix of single and double-sided posters, pamphlets and leporello books. The inside cover of the box features a schematic of suggested layouts. It’s a smart, well-designed object, and it’s easy to get seduced by the presentation. This sometimes-uneasy relationship between appearance and content came up frequently in our discussion.

LW: I’m really happy that Photoworks have included an artist like Lotte Andersen. I know her as more of a video artist and a creator of performances and happenings. She’s never really been considered as part of a canon of photographic practice in the UK, as far as I’m aware. She uses photography and film extensively, but she also uses a lot of printed ephemera like posters and flyers.

Andersen’s work explores more vernacular and DIY approaches to image-making and visual communication. Both her online commission for Photoworks (a series of poetic templates for Out of Office auto-replies in the spirit of a labour strike) and her contribution to the box are largely text-based. One side of her single-sheet work resembles a large-scale flyer; the other features a grainy CCTV image from a club night. It’s a striking piece that feels especially at home as a poster, although it’s complicated by the fact that it’s printed double sided.

ES: It’s interesting how much better Andersen’s work is suited to this presentation than some of the more conventional documentary projects. In the latter case, we’re left with rather unsatisfactory things that aspire to the condition of framed images.

Shoehorned awkwardly into a leporello format, Farah Al Qasimi’s photographs of domestic life in the UAE feel underserved by the presentation, as does the selection from Poulomi Basu’s Centralia. Alix Marie’s Du Cou is meant to be cut into individual sections and rolled up into cylinders, but it’s more appealing hung vertically as a kind of fleshy column. This piece seems to make a concession to the idea of a photographic exhibition being exclusively wall-based, and it prompted a discussion around the idea of sculptural photography: object-based photographic works that depart from the gallery walls and into three-dimensional space, popular on the art fair circuit.

The most engaging pieces are those that don’t treat the Festival in a Box as a substitute gallery, but instead embrace the adaptability and ephemerality of the print form without trying too hard to control the viewer’s experience.

The most engaging pieces, however, are those that don’t treat the Festival in a Box as a substitute gallery, but instead embrace the adaptability and ephemerality of the print form without trying too hard to control the viewer’s experience. The selections from Roger Eberhard’s Human Territoriality resemble untrimmed book layouts fresh from the press, and the individual flyers that comprise Ivars Graveljs’ Shopping Poetry are as playful and throwaway as the concrete poetry he creates from grocery receipts.

Occasionally, the choice of format makes for slightly confusing compromises. Ronan Mckenzie’s work is a single large poster from her ongoing project An Exploration of Brown. Mckenzie’s work spans commercial fashion, more experimental and marginal fashion, and portraiture, and it opens onto a broader conversation about the treatment of the fashion image within the gallery space.

LW: This image is from a personal series, but it could quite easily be a fashion campaign, and so it’s the type of image we’re used to seeing in kind of expendable, ephemeral print formats – magazine pages, advertisements et cetera – where creases and ripples are more commonplace.

As it’s presented here, however, Mckenzie’s work doesn’t seem to sit comfortably as either a magazine page or a print on the gallery wall. And the folds slice it up in awkward places.

ES: I’m very interested in where the folds strike – what happens to an image when it’s folded, and whether the image responds well to that – if you’re doing something that’s going to be folded up, you need to take that into account and treat the folds as part of the experience.

Sethembile Msezane’s double-sided poster is cleverly designed to reveal its subject slowly, concealing bodies within folds until the last section is opened. Alberta Whittle’s digital collages use the folds to cut bodies in half – a reference, perhaps, to the violent colonial histories that are the subject of her work. Design decisions like this kept cropping up in our discussion, which probably isn’t the sort of conversation that the Photoworks team were hoping to provoke. On the other hand, applying design features as extensive as these makes such conversations difficult to avoid.

ES: There’s a certain level of homogeneity in these objects, isn’t there? They all fold down to the same size, they all fit perfectly into the box – the format lends them a kind of articulacy as a collection.

LW: I wonder why the notion of everything folding down to the same size is such a leading factor in the design? Whilst the work opens out at a range of scales, I think it is unnecessarily standardised, considering the uniformity of paper choice too.

This standardisation is also an issue in the reduction of many of the projects to single images. The selections raise interesting questions around how new meaning is produced or lost when an individual, iconic image is taken from what is actually a broad and detailed survey or study, or an extensive sequence of images. And the image credits are tiny – you have to look closely to find them.

ES: I suppose, in some ways, it made sense not to splash the name of the photographer all over the image, so that it doesn’t interfere with the experience of the work. But it creates a strangely decontextualised kind of encounter for the viewer who isn’t already familiar with the photographers featured here.

LW: When you decentralise the identity of the photographer, you perhaps encourage a more playful experience, in some sense a rebalancing of the work in terms of its power as a pure image, rather than being about the identity of the artist.

ES: You create something like the Family of Man, don’t you?

LW: If this is happening across audiences in that way, then that’s a really profound exercise. Perhaps the problem is the over-emphasis on the idea of it being hung on the wall as the ultimate expression of the work; that a “festival in a box” ought to be an exhibition in a box, rather than a tactile and playful experience of print.

The Festival in a Box is a genuine effort to create new publics, to meet its audience in the middle and hand over some of the creative process to them.

As well as Photoworks ‘Friends’ and a range of institutions and independent curators around the globe, the Festival in a Box was sent to universities, schools and community groups with the offer of lectures to coincide. It’s a genuine effort to create new publics, to meet its audience in the middle and hand over some of the creative process to them. But although it’s a welcome alternative to bandwidth-sucking online programmes, it nonetheless feels like a missed opportunity: a bit safe, and wedded, in significant ways, to institutional imperatives. 

In practice, many of those who receive the box will examine the contents individually then carefully fold it all back up again and archive it. Even the suggestion to ‘curate’ implies that the material needs organising into some kind of meaningful form. And the assumption that audiences will have somewhere to display the work also makes certain suppositions about who and where these audiences are. Its form may be compact, but the Festival in a Box still benefits from the kind of quiet space that’s an unimaginable luxury and a privilege for many, especially now. It’s also hard to avoid the fact that space and lack of distraction is one thing that a gallery context provides. We unpacked the box on a modest-sized table in a shared studio space – to the accompaniment of invasive street noise – but many won’t have anything more than a kitchen table.

LW: There’s something else that’s playing on my mind, about everything being brought into the home these days, whether it’s through a mail-order ‘Festival’, or through the laptop screen… We’re suddenly having to have all of our experiences – professional, educational, cultural, social – in the home. There are more collective and democratic experiences available elsewhere in the Photoworks programme, such as the billboards dotted around Brighton, but these make for fleeting encounters. The Festival in a Box still feels most accessible to people already in the know, the patrons, and the gatekeepers.

ES: It’s a shame that the relationship between space and audience involvement wasn’t treated more adventurously, encouraging audiences to get more physically and politically involved with the material – to move it around, to tear it in half if they want to, to be confused by it, to find ways of making it work together, or to refuse the entire exercise and to create something that’s weird, asynchronous, and fragmented – which is actually a more honest reflection of the way we’re all living our lives at the moment.

In the end, the Festival in a Box opens up questions about the nature of alternative narratives and the difficulty that both audiences and institutions have in really challenging customary forms and experiences of photographic art. The decision to dispense completely with convention is a scary one – it takes courage to make something unrecognisable, to shake loose photography’s obligations to the world of commercial art. Whether this happens or not, is out of Photoworks’ hands – providing an opportunity doesn’t guarantee that it will be taken.  

Guanyu Xu’s project Temporarily Censored Home, which saw the queer artist return to his conservative parents’ Beijing home to install a temporary photographic display, functions as a more radical template for the way the Festival in a Box could be experienced; in a less orthodox location, experimenting with different manifestations of the work, depending on where it’s situated. At a time when we are all being asked to shape experiences for ourselves, we should take advantage of the opportunity to take the Festival in a Box somewhere totally out of context – wherever that might turn out to be.

All Rights Reserved: text © Eugenie Shinkle & Lillian Wilkie; images © Eugenie Shinkle unless otherwise noted.