FORMAT International Photography Festival was founded in 2004 in the United Kingdom by Louise Fedotov-Clements and Mike Brown. Currently directed by Fedotov-Clements, who is also the Artistic Director of QUAD, the event is the UK’s leading international contemporary festival of photography and related media, welcoming over 100,000 visitors from all over the world to its biennale. Aiming to celebrate contemporary photographic practice, the festival features the work of emerging photographers alongside some of the most influential practitioners working today and offers an interesting program that includes a large number of events and activities, from curated exhibitions, open calls, residencies, portfolio reviews and conferences, as well as national and international collaborative projects that bring different audiences together. With the emergence of Covid-19, and unable to present the new edition in its usual in-person format, Fedotov-Clements and her team reinvented the festival digitally, therefore bringing it to the domestic space of a global audience and thus circumventing the limitations imposed by the current health crisis. The result was an exceptional program that continues to surprise its audience for the quality it offers regardless of the surrounding difficulties.
Inaugurated on the 11th of March 2021, the new edition of FORMAT approaches the theme Control as a response to the state of the world and its current controversies, in order to promote reflection and discussion around the meaning and complexity of the word ‘control’, but also to promote new discourses that might inform and inspire its audience into rethinking and questioning the world’s political power and the many movements and causes that contest it. As a result, the festival presents over 160 international projects artists, collectives and guest curated programmes such as the exhibition Matrix — fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts curated by Marina Paulenka, that examines the body as an open possibility of control featuring Tabita Rezaire, Juliana Huxtable and Martine Gutierrez. FORMAT21 also includes a global voice through thousands of images that emerge from the experimental and collaborative project #massisolationFORMAT, created worldwide in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and where the experiences and sensibilities of people from over 90 countries are made visible.
Archivo Platform (AP) | I would like to start this conversation by asking you about the challenges of directing an international festival in a radically new way. The pandemic forced us to adjust to a new reality which was already quite demanding in both personal and professional contexts. However, in the cultural domain, directing big events must have been extremely challenging. How was your experience facing this situation while having to improvise new solutions for this year’s festival edition?
Louise Fedotov-Clements (LFC) | From the start of the Covid19 pandemic I didn’t step back, rather our work shifted to take place more online than ever before. We had already been working in this way but the lockdown gave us no option other than to transform, engage and experiment. It gave us new inspiration to develop entrepreneurially and to really learn our digital tools zoom, java, blender.
During 2020 we organised the FORMAT international portfolio reviews online for example, we held these on zoom and Picter. This year our event took place across two days, where we engaged 72 professional reviewers in 768 online meetings, for 160 artists, with major industry awards and participants from 35+ countries. Other programmes online included global minecraft meet ups and workshops for young people and their families. Additionally, our FORMAT PhotoForum talks online were regularly receiving 2,000+ viewers and our conference and workshops work very well online for multiple age groups and abilities. Our audience is already global, the online events have enabled us to reach even more people.
The pandemic restrictions in the UK were extended again during a late stage in our festival planning, at this point we had physical venues lined up and exhibition plans in motion. We only had 10 weeks before our scheduled opening date, I had to decide whether to postpone the festival or to find a new way forward. Fortunately, we were successful in applying for a development grant, from the Art Fund with my colleague Debbie Adele Cooper, to develop FORMAT digitally in response to the new challenges brought about by the pandemic. It was at this point and thanks to the support of the grant that I decided to go ahead and craft a fully online version of FORMAT21.
In October 2020 I encountered New Art City at a digital networking event online and I was overwhelmingly inspired by the visual art space that has been created by a team of technologists based in Los Angeles, initiated in March of 2020 as a reaction to the widespread closure of art spaces and cancellation of exhibitions as a result of the global pandemic. New Art City is a small team of artists and creative developers building the best virtual space for online exhibitions who believe in new art, and the value of bringing new people, new ideas and new technologies into the art world. New Art City's creative team are, Don Hanson (d0n.xyz), Christina Lelon, Benny Lichtner, Martin Mudenda Bbela and Sammie Veeler.
New Art City is an incredibly creative, multiplayer world, instantly accessible from all devices with no restriction on the number of people able to access the sites simultaneously. I saw so much potential to develop FORMAT21, and we love to collaborate, so we went on a new direction together from there. Our collaboration offered the potential for a hands-on development process that would allow for innovation on route. There are alternative online exhibition platforms but these were limited in creative, design and audience capacity. FORMAT21 needed a place that could engage in a shared vision to offer multiple exhibitions to large international audiences, to collaborate with artists, curators and that would empower our festival team to grow the content produce the art and exhibitions, some of which wouldn't be possible elsewhere.
New Art City is a toolkit and community for online exhibitions. Every show is a 3D multiplayer environment, designed and built using an online drag & drop editor. Visitors can see each other and chat while exploring the exhibitions. Popular shows can support thousands of visitors at the same time from all over the world. And you can access shows on any desktop or mobile device in your web browser, without registering, downloading or configuring anything. Artists using the New Art City toolkit have built installations that range from pragmatic to wildly imaginative. And you can install alone or together with your team in real time. Our collaboration with New Art City enables us to push the boundaries of our work, to develop new programmes online in a truly innovative way. Together we are building an arts space of the future, for audiences to explore today.
The intention is that New Art City gives all artwork a global stage, which transforms traditional art and offers a new native format for digital art. New Art City is an artist run organisation who are dedicated to supporting artists in everything they do, especially those who face barriers in the traditional fine art world. That's why they provide virtual space to those who are denied physical space, and why they promote and amplify work by queer artists and artists of colour. New Art City are building a system which empowers artists to realise the impossible, and dream a new type of art.
FORMAT21 launched our 20 multiplayer galleries online on the 11 March 2021, featuring 160 projects by artists, collectives, opening night speeches streamed live to every exhibition space and a DJ set by artist Juliana Huxtable. During the opening night we welcomed 2,200+ people from over 60 countries to the event. Looking to future FORMAT programmes, we have ideas to develop the online space further for residencies, participatory engagement, and new commissions. Already we have experimented with collaborative curatorial and artistic co-creation in the online gallery space and this is an exciting new territory for us to continue exploring with artists and curators based anywhere in the world.
AP | The theme ‘control’ seems to address the worldwide social and political controversies that emerged as a result of the pandemic but also resonates another issue that affected Europe in the last years. I’m referring to the Brexit campaign and its infamous slogan. I assume the festival’s theme is also a provocation to this political context? Have you already noticed any kind of reaction from the audience regarding this theme?
LFC | These are extraordinary times, directing our tenth edition during a pandemic, with all the uncertainty and change that it has entailed, has been the most substantial challenge since establishing FORMAT in 2004. We are living in a truly transformative moment, the Covid19 crisis has brought about profound challenges worldwide, the impact of which is yet unknown. The recent year has seriously tested our health systems, economies and social cohesion, the world as we knew it has been severely shaken. Will we remember this time as the beginning of drifting away from each other along national divides, the fragmentation of societies into conflicted communities or will it be a historical moment of cooperation and solidarity?
The virus crisis has disrupted our perception of normality, Misinformation, propaganda and power politics are rife. Consequently there will be deep implications on how we build the future as we enter into the new normal. People around the world have taken to the streets in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, climate justice and more, while shifting power systems and inequality further push us to reconsider our entire way of life. More than ever before this is an absolutely important time in human history to support communities, individual and artistic, by facilitating creative, fun and meaningful engagement to make a difference locally and worldwide.
© Federico Estol, Shine Heroes, Uruguay. #massisolationFORMAT
© Florence Goupil, The Healing Plants, Peru. FORMAT21 Feature Shot Award
The theme for FORMAT21 is CONTROL, it is a multidimensional concept, simultaneously control can be passive, progressive and aggressive, it can provide opportunities or suppress ambitions; it is everything from birth control, state control, border control, remote control, self-control, command and control. We can be in control, out of control, beyond control. The theme is rich, deep and wide. It is about power, politics, relationships, history, propaganda, borders, truth, freedom, knowledge, digital, narrative, surveillance, dystopia and more.
We have considered the idea of CONTROL intensely and have invited artists and curators to explore all approaches and ideas, from the archive to the most contemporary and conceptual projects concerning society, relationships, lands and histories. From long term researched documentary; multimedia; online; performance; participatory and mobile, we have challenged readings of the theme in as many ways imaginable.
CONTROL has many dimensions, at its core it consists of the act of influencing others and yourself through a chain of decisions, strategy, conditioning, power, habit and response. It also implies the losing of, or even defying of control. Photography is intrinsically part of the system of control, used as a tool to exert power and to communicate. Social media, facial recognition, algorithms and AI are all integrated and have begun to decide what or who is socially accepted or excluded. In the act of image production, we pivot between roles; as witnesses or accomplice, actor or voyeur. What happens to society when pictures are read by computers and no longer by humans and when reality is only perceived through an image, what power exerts control and what possibilities for change can they present? Artists and curators are used to controlling the focus on the relationships between images, text, sound and space, they can show us to what extent our sense of sight depends on technologies, ideologies, subtle relations and political strategies, they make the unseeable, seeable.
© Etinosa Yvonne, It's All in My Head, Nigeria. FORMAT21
For the edition this year we have formed a programme of compelling works by artists and collectives that explore many dimensions of the festival theme, ranging from the struggle for control in personal and political spheres; the oppressive control of 24 hour surveillance; the liberation from control through self-expression to the lack of control that is a consequence of discrimination and deprivation.
Audiences have been responding very positively so far to the theme, the works and the online space which has attracted a considerable amount of interest. Certainly, there are fundamental issues locally and worldwide regarding access to digital tools and the internet. We cannot assume that everyone has equality of access, this is why we will continue to work with materials and create physical programmes in the future. Also, as we know there is a fatigue that comes from engaging too much online as a result of the pandemic environment and because of the status quo of modern life. However the online space has given artists the unique opportunity to realise a new kind of art, some of the exhibitions presented in FORMAT21 can only exist in the online space. Indeed when translating the exhibitions to the online venue we worked closely with the artists but some of the artworks have developed as a consequence of being open to the creative process involved in the installation of the work. Within New Art City we have been able to present larger exhibitions, as well as new work in extraordinary spaces such as a star shaped gallery, an installation in a banyan tree, giant sculptures alongside animated text and more.
© Pietro Lo Castro, FORMAT21 ROOM17
AP | Alongside the curatorial line developed for this year’s festival, there was a collaborative project set up in March 2020, right after the first lockdown, where people from all over the world were invited to create a visual record of the Covid-19 crisis on Instagram and post it with the hashtag #massisolationFORMAT. The project ended up becoming a huge success. Did you ever imagine such an outcome for this initiative?
RJT | Throughout my career I have programmed, commissioned, and instigated mass participation and socially engaged projects, from commissions with Marinella Senatore involving 15,000 people to the project we are looking at here, #massisolationFORMAT. This project was launched by myself through QUAD, a centre for contemporary art and film, and FORMAT International Photography Festival in mid-March 2020, just 3 days before the UK entered its first lockdown. Since then we have been inviting image makers from around the world to participate in documenting the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, charting the time before, after and during the lockdowns. Consequently FORMAT co-ordinator Niamh Treacy and myself co-curated the Instagram stream for an incredible 181 days, looking through the images and highlighting thousands on our @massisolationFORMAT account, every day. The result was overwhelming with over 40,000 images from 90 countries. The images submitted expressed important views of the world around us, the impact of isolation, creativity, bereavement, nature, family, alongside the resurgence of DIY, baking and so much more. It was a heightened time emotionally and visually, but through this project we are united through a common experience.
#massisolationFORMAT is focused on the year 2020-2021 during an unforeseeable situation where we found ourselves instructed to stay at home, all locked down in a global curfew. Apocalyptic narratives combined with dystopian futures became a reality, as life as we knew it slowly faded into memory. As a new world order started to take shape, the situation was difficult for many and a creative provocation for others, all the while the digital realm was like the wild west of the past where entrepreneurial individuals and organisations were clamouring to get the best claim on audiences and extract the riches from this new land.
(left) © Daisy Noyes, #massisolationFORMAT
(right) © Chase Barnes, Wilderness of Mirrors, USA. FORMAT21
The pandemic also gave humanity a much needed pause of everyday life, to stop, rethink and reinvent for better or worse. Throughout the project it became clear to see that during this enforced period of slowing down, people were looking more closely at their living spaces, neighbours, the light on the wall, the view from windows, aging fruit, home schooling, diy. Attention was brought back to the microcosm of our domestic spaces and the people that we share it with, or not. Of course there are many people that this had already been a reality for, being housebound is not a new thing, but the equalising effect of the lockdown en masse enabled us to relate to each other through unique shared experiences. Indeed, where space is more scarce, people found a new love for the space outside or even right on their doorsteps.
#massisolationFORMAT giant photographic mosaic archive. The focus image titled Lovers was shot by Argentinian photographers Luisa Magdalena and Nahuel Alfonso and inspired by Renè Magritte’s painting Les Amants. It is a double self-portrait, created in response to the Covid19 pandemic, its painterly quality of colours and soft light coupled with its youthful optimism of young love made it a strong image to present as the base for our giant photo mosaic viewable here. The online interactive high resolution 180 giga pixel image is composed of a total of 180,574 photos. When the viewer zooms in they are able to see each individual photo from #massisolationFORMAT up close and in detail. The Lovers was the perfect contender for the giant mosaic, which has been created and produced by The People's Picture in partnership with FORMAT/QUAD.
The image was selected from a project that I instigated in March 2020 at the start of the first Covid19 lockdown in the UK. We invited people to use the hashtag #massisolationFORMAT on Instagram to create a visual record of the pandemic worldwide. This mass-participation project received over 40,000 photo submissions from 90+ countries, sharing people’s experiences of living through a pandemic. The images came from a wide range of people – photographers, professionals, amateurs, members of the public – and came together as a large scale photo mosaic, a digital gallery, an online exhibition and soon to be a physical exhibition to commemorate this moment in history as we emerge into the ‘new normal’. The images will go on to form a unique archive, in partnership with the Photography and the Archive Research Centre at UAL.
AP | The picture that was selected as the cover of the enormous interactive mosaic, where it is possible to go through the 40,000 photos of this project, was a photograph clearly inspired by Renè Magritte’s painting “Les Amants” [The Lovers] from 1928. If the original surrealist painting dealt with issues of identity, secrecy, frustrated desires and perhaps the impossibility of love, this photograph by Argentinian photographers Luisa Magdalena and Nahuel Alfonso seems to dislocate the subjects gesture of touching the invisible, towards a visible act of love and the desire to touch and connect, in a time and circumstance that imposes isolation behaviours which, indeed, is one of today’s hardest and cruellest challenges to overcome. However, the interactive exhibition manifests many other issues that emerge from this ‘mass-isolation’ condition, could you mention other significant topics approached in this visual display?
LFC | The image of The Lovers was selected to be the focal point to unite the huge selection of images, encapsulating the feeling of hope that so many of us have clung to over the past year and gives us a glimpse into the intimacy, friendship, laughter and love that is awaiting us as we begin to exit the pandemic. Photography really became a lifeline to many people to communicate and express themselves. Fear, loneliness, anxiety, tender moments, separation and loss sat alongside play, creativity, invention, kindness and a real sense of community. The sense of the commonality of strangers had been lost in many ways along with the pervasive rise of global capitalism, in which our working lives take us far from the place where we live. Reclaiming space was a common sight across the world, where people found solace in the woods, or any place in between on the streets to get some fresh air, see the sun or exercise whilst eyeing each other suspiciously and observing the social distancing rules. Rethinking our public spaces is one of the many new norms that we have had to navigate during this era of Covid-19.
The volume of images submitted have allowed us to see both the unity and diversity in the experience of this global event. From rainbows in windows supporting NHS workers in the UK to the striking and obscure self-portraits made with limited resources, to front-line staff fighting the virus in hospitals in Iran. The images we have received have been humorous, shocking and absolutely moving. It is too soon to understand the impact and trauma of this pandemic, these are certainly challenging times, but what is clear is that this is an important moment in history that had to be documented and preserved.
(left) © River Claure, Warawar Wawa, Bolivia. FORMAT21
(right) © Atikah Zata Amani, Times Like These, Jakarta. #massisolationFORMAT
AP | Was there any picture that impressed you the most?
LFC | This is an impossible question to answer, I genuinely found impressive images every day! Because of this we created a team of around 10 individuals from QUAD, FORMAT, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, PARC, The People’s Picture and volunteers to look through the archive, hosted on PixCollect from The People’s Picture, enabling us to view every single image submitted. In order to make sense of the material we created themed collections of the most outstanding images many of which are featured in the exhibition online in Room 5. Here there is a curated selection of my highlights and the collections, many of which feature in a giant mosaic vinyl poster that is on the outside of QUAD.
Visit the online exhibition here: https://format.newart.city/show/room-5
#massisolationFORMAT, mosaic produced by The People’s Picture on QUAD, Derby. Featuring works by multiple artists and the lead image by Luisa Magdelena and Nahuel Alfonso. Photo by Charlotte Jopling.
AP | Until when will it be possible to interact with this amazing online installation?
RJT | Our FORMAT21 programmes are live now and running until the 11th April, the online exhibitions on show here will be available to view for two years.
Published by QUAD/FORMAT on the occasion of the tenth FORMAT International Photography Festival 12 March – 11 April 2021, Derby UK.
With texts by Louise Fedotov-Clements, Marina Paulenka, Paul Lowe and Jennifer Good, Brian Griffin and W.M. Hunt.
All images courtesy of the artists and FORMAT International Photography Festival. FORMAT is organised by QUAD in partnership with the University of Derby. www.formatfestival.com
— Interview conducted by Ana Catarina Pinho.