by Martha McCulloch
The Conference for European Photographers held at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen from 3rd to the 5th November marked the close of the month long Fotofeis '95 Festival. The second Fotofeis to be held in Scotland, it spanned the entire country, with over 100 exhibitions and included a diverse community programme, a range of presentations in public spaces and a host of events - live performance, lectures, workshops - Fotofeis aimed to celebrate the diversity of photographic art and to reach communities from the urban centres to rural areas.
Billed as a conference for photographic practitioners, around half of the 73 delegates were artists/photographers and almost half were based in Scotland. Other delegates represented England, Wales, Finland, U.S.A., Australia, Israel, Norway, Ireland, Portugal and Greece.
In the introduction to the Fotofeis catalogue, the director Alasdair Foster states . This statement seems important to quote here as I feel it sheds some light on the sense I have of the conference itself. Having been impressed by the programme on paper, I came away after the conference with the impression of an enjoyable but slightly unfocused event: as if it had just missed the target.
The conference was structured around four key presentations: Powers of Art, Survival Skills for Artists, Education and Dissemination and The Artist in the new Europe. In retrospect the distinctions between these apparently discreet areas seem less clear. Each presentation was expanded on through a choice of workshops. While embracing theory, the conference aimed to focus on practice, offering a range of views on approaches to making work. Its essential purpose was to highlight a range of problems facing Photographers/Artists and possible solutions The organisers provided ample opportunity outside the structured parts of the event to meet other delegates, exchange views, share problems, grumble.
The tone and concept for the conference was outlined by the chair, Pavel Büchler, in his introduction. He began by attempting to locate a title/concept for the festival. He begged the question He proposed going back to the etymology of the term, Conference: talking/exchange. Meeting, talking and exchanging ideas is important in that it helps make our coexistence with the medium of photography meaningful. So, he suggested, this was perhaps the subject of the conference and that, with such an ambitious agenda, we should not seek to reach a conclusion by the end of the weekend but rather that we should reach the point where we feel the necessity to meet again to talk about these same issues.
The first key lecture was presented by Jan-Erik Lundstrom. Entitled POWERS OF ART: Symptoms, Sympathies, Systems, Change, it set out to discuss the ways in which art can effect real change, offering a sound beginning to a conference aimed at photographers/artists. The first workshop I took part in set out to discuss collaborative practice. The workshop leader Jamelie Hassan, a Canadian artist, activist and curator, set the background to the discussion by presenting a number of projects she had been involved in, which had involved working collaboratively.
Section two was introduced with a presentation by Thomas Seeling, a German curator, on survival skills for artists. The main focus was the difficulty of reconciling the isolated experience of working as a photographic artist and the necessity to deal with distribution and dissemination of the resulting work.
In the workshops questions arising for young artists leaving college were tackled in a variety of ways. 'Education: Virtual or Real Worlds?' set out to address whether the formal education establishment should prepare emerging artists and photographers for the daunting task of earning a crust. Although there was some interesting discussion on matters such as the impact of the rapidly developing areas of electronic media on traditional teaching, the differing roles of academics and resident artists in art colleges, and the benefits of looking at the tradition of cross-fertilisation of research found in universities, the fundamental question raised by the workshop was never really touched upon.
Joan Foncuberta in his presentation 'Teaching to learn / Learning to Teach' brought forward this discussion about the role of the educator and the very nature of teaching and learning, as well as the responsibility of the artist to educate his or her audience. As with a number of the conference speakers, his practice is not only that of a photographer/artist but also that of a teacher, critic, historian and writer. The workshop 'Art and Community' attempted to deal with aspects of the problem of educating an audience. Discussion focused on the gallery space and its relation to the immediate community, touching on the pressure galleries are under from funders to take on the roles of educators, and how this could in the long term have a beneficial effect on the quality of engagement with the audience.
Vaclav Macek, co-organiser of the month of Photography in Bratislava, outlined his view of the artist in the 'New Europe' from the Slovak perspective. He argued that the preservation of cultural disparity ought to be the essence of European culture, while acknowledging the importance of keeping an international perspective. There is increasing evidence that artists and curators are remaining in their home countries and establishing centres and festivals for photography, rather than moving to the traditional centres of excellence. Examples such as Saaremma Festival, Estonia, demonstrate this shift of emphasis from centre to periphery.
If the conference made one impression on me it was that the photographer/artist in the '90's is by necessity or design a multiskilled individual, able to juggle the intensive activity of making work with a career as a curator, exhibition organiser, fundraiser, teacher. Most of the speakers, workshop leaders and even delegates were working across a number of these areas with photography. And what interests me is the way that these activities interrelate and enrich one another.
So in the end what was achieved, what new questions were raised, what issues did we grapple with? I can't help feeling that the agenda was too ambitious, too broad, to have reached any conclusion. And in the workshops I had the nagging feeling that the workshop leaders hadn't really had much time to consider the topics (I should mitigate this by pointing out that I could only attend four out of twenty workshop options) in order to focus the discussions. Pavel Büchler's opening remarks urging us not to expect a resolution should probably be borne in mind, but some slightly more heated discussion or conflict of views would not have gone amiss. Could the lack of an edge to the debates be put down to the transitional stage we are in, on the threshold of changes in education, technology, funding and so on? Another concern was the impression that photography in Scotland didn't feature high on the list of significant topics for discussion. However, if conferences like this are ultimately about meeting, talking and exchanging ideas, their success or failure I expect lies in the continued dialogue between the participants - we can probably count on being back at Fotofeis '97 to continue the discussions.
More detailed information on the Fotofeis conference for European Photographers is available in the form of a conference handbook which includes abstracts of the main presentations, notes on workshops and useful information such as addresses of galleries and museums in Europe.