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Festival / Krakow Photomonth 2018: ‘Space of Flows’

Festival / Krakow Photomonth 2018: ‘Space of Flows’

“The omen belongs to the observer.”

This short quote included on a postcard in the presentation of Daniela Friebel’s installation ‘Auspicia’ unknowingly gnawed its way into my consciousness over the weekend spent investigating the many photographic projects included in this year’s powerful Krakow Photomonth festival. Ostensibly a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca (from his writing in AD 62-64) it couldn’t resonate more convincingly today, in considering our contemporary world with its many powerful but hidden flows of information, people, radiation, pollution, capital, power – in short, exactly the kinds of abstract concepts that may otherwise remain invisible, if not for this expertly curated festival of photographic work aimed at making them visible to us.

Back to Friebel’s work, ‘Auspicia’ is a project looking at the impact of the sturnus vulgaris, or common starling, which floods into Rome and the surrounding counties each year, causing environmental damage of grand proportion, as well as beautiful mid-air swarms. These murmurations of uninvited aviary migrants have echoes which can resonate with stories of refugees dominating the daily news.

Guest curator Iris Sikking has worked many complex topics such as migration into this year’s Krakow Photomonth festival, entitled ‘Space of Flows: Framing an Unseen Reality’, with a curatorial touch at once light and profound. Visitors to the ten venues in this city-wide festival are reminded we have a dual existence: we live in the physical world, but we are constantly surrounded by and included in flows –  among groups of people, within swarms of data, in virtual cyberspace or within endangered natural landscapes. These other-dimensional spaces in which we travel have been illuminated by the artists selected by Sikking, combined thematically with reference to Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells’ 1996 publication The Rise of the Network Society. “The space of flows”, explained Castells, “dissolves time by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous, thus installing society in eternal ephemerality”.  This type of overarching idea lends itself well to the lens-based practitioners within this festival, who work with and against the very possibility of capturing the ephemeral and making it visible.

The festival’s opening weekend included a welcome trio of thematic panel discussions which brought not only a speaking opportunity to many of the exhibiting artists, but also framed the discussion with input from practitioners outside the arts. For example, the discussion of works concerned with migration was complemented by sociologist Inga Hajdarowicz, reminding participants that we are eagerly discussing migration within a country (Poland) which itself had in 2016 only admitted less than 1% of those 13,000 people applying to seek asylum here, yet whose citizens have constituted sizeable flows of movement in recent history.

It was with this in mind that seeing Tudor Bratu’s poignant installation, about his own family’s stories of migration and assimilation brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes considering the cumulative volume of individuals’ stories becomes almost more than one can grasp, the idea of swarms of personal histories an unbearable weight but one that compels to keep looking, even when the views are of an otherwise pristine but now tragically malign island of Utøya in Sander Breure & Witte van Hulzen’s bi-screen installation ‘Shores of an Island I Only Skirted’ back to back with found footage of maritime refugee encounters. Here the sea and landscape become implicated as receptacles of good and evil, and most of all, potentially resonant with the collective memories of those who have passed through. Again, an impossible task to find with the eyes, but one the artists’ camera embarks on poetically.

What does cyberspace look like? Can art help us explain better the things we cannot explain? Cybersecurity expert Dominik Skokowski introduced themes of technology moving in directions without mediation, in an afternoon panel discussion on data and power, which led elegantly to considering the practice of lens-based artists not to explain but to question and attempt to visualize – and also engage other media where the photographic may not be a big enough medium for the job.

“Shadows can be frightening because they obscure the shapes and sizes of objects within them.” Mark Curran uses this phrase in relation to the unregulated and fast-growing shadow banking system, which is an unknowable quantity quickly surpassing and bypassing established national markets and their relative security. Curran’s engaging ongoing project ‘The Market’ resonates with investigative interviews, the result of many years of building relationships and gaining hard-won access, as well as haptic, visual interpretation of otherwise non-visual financial market information. Expertly curated alongside Eline Benjaminsen’s project on high frequency trading – where data attempts to travel at the speed of light to maximize profits for large volume capital flows – these concepts defy our tribal brain’s processing capability. Perhaps once limited to the confines of village life, friends and family and a sense of the remote ‘other’, our brains are now frequently asked to convulse our consciousness into cyberspace, vast unfathomable quantities and the infinitesimal. It is here where the artist can become artisan, crafting ideas into a physical manifestation to deliver to our hungry senses, eager to soothe the aching left-brained analysis grappling with the future impact of AI on financial algorithms.

In other parts of the festival, the camera turned to the camera itself, particularly visitors to Jules Spinatsch’s solo installation can derive pleasure from the all-seeing but often-times irrational and nonsensical information delivered by surveillance cameras. The curved installation of his giant ‘Cul-de-Sac’ project taking on mural-like depiction from 10,008 images from a Vienna Opera Ball was a highlight of contemplation of surveillance and also the ever elusive ‘decisive moment’ of photography, here conflating duration to a form of pixellation from the mechanical eye of the camera. Equally engaging, across town, were self portraits by Clément Lambelet using early facial recognition software as ‘old’ (26) as the artist himself.

A panel discussion on humans and nature included the strong work of Agata Grzybowska, whose moving solo installation ‘Gates of No Return’ and publication empathetically shares the stories of people who have exiled themselves or found refuge in the basic life of rural Bieszczady, away from the contemporary world, its opportunities and oppressions. Dark, brooding prints told timeless stories of existence in contemporary but primitive nature outside the reach of cyberspace or the connected world. Across town we also consider the varying effects of man on nature, in the work of Axel Braun and Michał Łuczak, for example, documenting the Anthropocene from the different ends of the spectrum of effect on landscape and people working it.

Here the element of the lens-based search for truth becomes tangled with beauty, as artists create poetic installations with sometimes alluring imagery of landscapes, while still instilling those ideas in the mind’s eye of things that are otherwise unseeable and fraught. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s zen-like installation in the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology encouraged visitors’ tranquility watching these giant screens of moving image from Japanese countryside, only to realize these forests have been irreparably damaged from invisible radiation from the 2011 tsunami and related Fukushima nuclear disaster. Eloquently referencing pre-Anthropocene findings from naturalist Franz Philip von Siebold’s collection provides a kind of before and after of this knowing landscape. Across town, Eva Leitolf visits places in Europe looking to depict locations discovered from her research into migration, where incidents of exclusion, xenophobia, or violence toward migrants have been reported. Where unremarkable or even beautiful images may not match with text in her captions we are left wondering how much of the stories pass through these landscapes without visual trace. 

Łukasz Skąpski, in ‘The Clinch: New Architecture of European Borders’ (2016) gives sculptural intervention into the mostly photographic image-led space with his white scale-models of the intricate structures of fences and no man’s land around Schengen borders, a reminder of the impossible task faced by migrants on a daily basis, as well as ruling powers’ desire to defend themselves from perceived invaders – even considering Europe has been home to flux between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrations in the past two centuries. Also in the time of borderless data flows, countries continue to shore up physical borders for the protection of their sovereignty. When asked at a panel discussion why he produced physical models and not a photographic project of these border fences, Skąpski’s reply was that his project was alluding to objective fact versus the subjectivity of photography. This was quickly followed by his sly remark: “I’m kidding.” Or was he?

Maybe forget the camera for a second, or transport it to another continent. Rune Peitersen’s ‘The Operators and The Targets  was made from footage from the internet woven together with voiceover in a faux-documentary that is at its core, real, about unmanned aerial combat, drone strike system operators and targets. Conflicts are no longer at any perceived border, but played out on video monitors thousands of miles away – how is this processed by human conscience? This idea governs also surveillance systems in urban centres, like in the work of ‘False Positives’ by Esther Hovers where anomalies in observed behavior by surveillance systems leads to some artistic intervention. “Confusion can be very productive as well, more poetic” said Hovers in her discussion on the topic of machines analysing human actions. 

Moving into the other parts of the festival, visitors are rewarded with a multitude of ‘emerging’ stories from the Showoff section, some which coincidentally contained themes continuing into the ‘Space of Flows’, for me, particularly Kuba Stępień’s ‘Mana’ about energy patterns which are present in all of the material world and can create a bridge between various kinds of existence, looking beneath the surface to try to connect things on an elemental plane where everything flows. Equally spiritual, Rafa Raigon’s project within Showoff introduced to me the Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’, that everyone has their purpose, their reason for living – we only need to find it for ourselves to reach fulfilment. One wonders if the inventors of the dark web, bitcoin, shadow banking systems – or equally – asylum application deniers, border-wall architects and drone operators have found their ikigai?

Coming away from this year’s Krakow Photomonth I have been offered a glimpse into chasms of the unknown through these presentations of photography that do so much more than capture what is in front of the lens. An interesting sidebar to the exhibitions was that most of them were reassuringly ‘old-school’ – wall-based, sound enhanced, video and even a wonderful double slide presentation of Tudor Bratu – meaning that the mechanics of the artistic delivery did not overpower the message itself, as can sometimes be the case in virtual reality or online presentations.

Having enumerated the serious topics in discourse within these exhibitions, it is also important to appreciate just how fun the exploration of themes actually is within this festival. This certainly is not an exhaustive list of artists, and themes spill out into the streets at every turn, with a healthy fringe programme extending the pleasure. Traipsing across historic Krakow to some of the city’s top museums and cultural spaces is a rare treat, and one which highlights how well-supported this festival is within Krakow, and ideal to consider these themes amongst the histories resident outside the exhibition walls. Does this landscape carry the memory of us, our actions, our good and evil?

As my weekend visit coincided with the last deluge of GDPR-hungry emails begging to continue our data relationship, it couldn’t have been a more perfect reminder of exactly how on-time and urgent these artists and their projects are, considering our connected world, even the very ground we walk on. These stories remain resident in my consciousness and now alert me at odd moments to pay attention, to observe my own special omens. As Sikking would remind us, while navigating this Space of Flows, ‘we don’t have a map, we need artists to guide us.’ Go soon, take in this festival, and engage with these compelling works, which will possibly accompany you for a long time to come.

  – Reviewed by Christiane Monarchi

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Krakow Photomonth 2018: ‘Space of Flows‘ continues until 24 June 2018.