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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Format Festival: 'Viewing discretion is advised'

picture by Fred Ramos

The sun is shining, spring is in the air and I have been visually refreshed over the easter break by Format festival (curated by Louise Mazmanian) in Derby.

One of the loveliest things about Format was the mad dash around the city in search of venues. From a room above the Victorian market to a disused phone shop, the city museum, the police museum and a semi-derelict building called Pearson's, the tone of the spaces was continually shifting which had a huge effect on how you saw the pictures.

And with that shift came a change in the language used. the Forensic Turn was the academic end of the spectrum - and so there in the old mobile phone shop you  got the academic statements - which didn't necessarily help those in the audience who were not already converted to engage with what was visually strong. But engage they did because it was fascinating stuff, as was the Monica Alcazar Duarte and Lewis Bush curated Media and Myth - where there was some of the most engaging and relevant work in the whole of Format. But it took us a bit of time to figure out the names of the Vietnam war dead in Monica Alcazar Duarte's great visualisation of of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Red Mist, and I would have loved to have seen (and read) more on the anti-war magazines in Amin Musa's display (see images below).

But Format was no photographic bubble and there was a huge overlap between the festival and the city. At the Museum of Derby, the Sarah Pickering  installation themed on a famous forger shared space with a line of Joseph Wright paintings - some authentic, some less so. And there was a very nice man (Derby was noticeably friendly) to engage us into guessing what was real and what wasn't - and point us in the direction of the Joseph Wright display downstairs and another very nice man who was only too happy to share his enclycopaedic knowledge of the Wright andhis work ( including 'A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun', shown below) .

In the next room there was an exhibition by Sputnik where I loved the curtained off photographs with the content unsuitable for children; 'Viewing discretion is advised' read the caption.

Possibly my favourite display was at the Police Museum, a dark place with of cells and dampness where the early mugshots of William Garbutt the Deputy Governor of Derby Gaol (not to be confused with William Garbutt, the Stockport born football coach who was the model for Italian football management and won La Liga with Atletico Bilbao) were accompanied by period captions that revealed a mix of criminals, vagrants and outsiders which fitted perfectly in with the low-ceilinged dankness. There was also an old photo-fit kit, on show and out of reach under a glass case. Out of reach That was a shame because everyone was gagging to start handling it.

At the period splendour of Pickford's House, it was great to see the story behind Indian crime photographs, and put a face to Sri Aurobindo, while Pearson's was splendid in its decrepitude and featured Tom Stayte's #selfie which was a great photo-opportunity in itself.

But by the time we got to Quad, which we'd saved till last, we were kind of exhausted and the familiarity of the location (cafe, exhibition space, cinema, sharp-edged architecture) was not as exciting after the eccentricity of the other sites. But it was great to see such a range of works on show, some familiar and some not, and to see what worked better as a book and what, as in Tiane Doan na Champassak's Looters, looked great blown up big on a wall.

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