Excepting the giant wall of purple light, the Tate launch event didn’t make for a very visually impactful beginning to LOOK/15. Rather than show a large projection, Tate Liverpool opted for several modest flatscreen monitors dotted about their lobby space; each showed the same montage assembled by documentary photographer Anna Fox, featuring her work alongside that of students and graduates. DJ and artistic collaborator Yousef was there to produce a soundtrack response to the montage in a live mix, but seemed intent on creating a schmaltzy atmosphere for the entertainment of a polite milling and drinking crowd. There was little to no supplementary information about the work – odd, especially as the stated intention was to enhance the public profiles of talented women photographers. In sum, this was a thin, gestural preview of the upcoming Women’s Photography Festival, due at Tate Modern in October. If, on LOOK’s part, the aim was to underline the social value of art, this was at the expense of the work and the artists involved.
But, by and large, this experience was not an accurate representation of the festival to come. There were some surprising, rather better implemented projects designed to promote new talent – the exhibition space in WarpLiverpool, for example, where photography foundation students shared a platform on equal terms with Jona Frank and her portraits of juvenile boxers (‘The Modern Kids’).
Another highlight was Open Eye Gallery’s OPEN 1, the first in a bold new series of annual exhibitions aimed at showcasing the best work submitted to the gallery by open invitation. The show coins the concept of ‘social portraiture’, i.e. photography featuring individual subjects that reflect local cultures and global attitudes. In a launch mirroring the Tate on LightNight, Open Eye hosted DJs the Faux Queens, dressed fantastically in ’futuristic tropical’ themed outfits; though visitors anticipating a serious direct engagement with photography on their part would have been disappointed (relieved?).
A bit of everything for everyone is the mantra of LightNight, perhaps, but should LOOK adopt that approach by association? Attempts to thematise and sub-thematise the festival resulted in a bit of a muddle, but did represent a conscious decision to take positive action to protect the interests of the disenfranchised and overlooked. As an organisation, LOOK’s drive toward inclusivity is impressive, but, in trying to please everyone, the festival doesn’t seem sure of its footing. Intellectual and artistic focus is wanting (or not wanted), though an eclectic approach has resulted in a lively sprawl of a programme – one that has benefitted students, emergent artists and creative community projects in particular. In terms of the legacy and impact of the LOOK festival on the local arts scene, the addition of an affordable public-hire darkroom at Constellations (Eclipse) is a truly wonderful thing, and Small Cinema’s LightNight contribution provided a much needed platform for experimental video work that would benefit from becoming a serial event.
Though LOOK has officially retreated into two-year hibernation, it leaves us with several related exhibitions that extend long after the close of the festival-proper. In the short term, though, Lorena Lohr’s kitschy, plushy roadtrip through American diner culture (‘Ocean Sands’, The Gallery) is well worth a look.
Jake Thorne is a writer based in Liverpool.
Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Grindley.