FORMAT21 - Control

Room 01, 'Matrix - fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts', featuring works by Tabita Rezaire, Juliana Huxtable and Martine Gutierrez (screenshot) Courtesy the artists and FORMAT21

Derby’s FORMAT international photography festival presents a new interactive online exhibition platform

FORMAT is a biennial International Photography Festival based in Derby celebrating contemporary photography and related media, organised by QUAD and the University of Derby’s Digital and Material Artistic Research Centre. The festival has presented work in over 30 Derby venues, since May. With this edition, to extend the festival online, FORMAT has worked with online gallery platform New Art City to develop a new interactive digital exhibition platform, FORMAT21.

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to many cultural institutions and festivals, and this year’s iteration is aptly titled Control. As the title suggests, the festival addresses ideas around power and moral ambiguity, reflecting a point in time where things appear noticeably out of control. 20 virtual ‘galleries’ are showing over 160 international artists.

The online environment is presented as a navigable 3D spaces in which works are displayed in virtual environments. The emergence of a contemporary photography exhibition that incorporates something akin to game mechanics to influence interactions and motivations seems a necessary development. In the same vein that art can be immersive, surprising and at times uncomfortable, gaming uses these techniques to engage players into hours of play. Efforts to gamify exhibitions and increase audience engagement are by no means new: for example, Tate Worlds produced a Minecraft-esque gaming platform which launched in 2015 as a series of 3D maps inspired by their collection.

Room 17, with works by Pietro Lo Casto, (screenshot). Courtesy the artist and FORMAT21

The opening night of FORMAT21 online welcomed thousands of visitors as avatars who could interact together and view video and photography together, accompanied by a ‘virtual DJ’ set by American Artist Juliana Huxtable. Huxtable’s work can be found in Room 01, in a show titled Matrix – fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts, curated by Marina Paulenka. Huxtable’s work seeks out the limits of contemporary discourse regarding identity, technology, and Queer subcultures. In her photographic installation Interfertility Industrial Complex 3 (2019) she is both maker and muse of sexualised portraits of pan-gendered human-animal hybrids. Her work addresses ways in which a transfeminine body – specifically her body – is subject to relentless scrutiny both by herself and the world around her.

Works by Juliana Huxtable, from Room 01 ‘Matrix – fluid bodies, unlimited thoughts’ (screenshot). Courtesy the artist and FORMAT21

FORMAT21 online does well in breaking down the borders of what photography is, and building new and other-worldly environments to show it in. One of the most playful approaches can be found in Room 07 where Macdonald Strand’s Most popular of All Time (2019) invites the audience to participate in a game of painting by numbers over a selection of  iconic images from twentieth-century history depicting violence, war, poverty and revolution, which are then uploaded and displayed over the duration of the exhibition.

Macdonald and Strand, Most popular of All Time, 2019, from Room 07 (screenshot). Courtesy the artist and FORMAT21

Speaking with FORMAT’s director Louise Fedotov-Clements about the possibilities and challenges of working and inhabiting this online territory, she explained how “enormous amount of time went into making the rooms where all the assets and components can be controlled. It was like building a new art centre.” The power dynamics between curator and artist were expanded as many artists were invited to install artworks together in this unusual curatorial frame.

Does this mean that there is a strong appetite for these types of audience interactions? The online guest book registers a stream of positive reviews, with over 80,000 visitors since March. Not all the interactions have been straightforward, however. Clements admits that “some people couldn’t access or use the space. This could be down to the inability to learn how to navigate the controls or that their internet connection wasn’t strong enough.”

Many art organisations have found that as the pandemic forced programming to move online, the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t has never been so evident. It’s a misconception that in the UK many people have become more digitally literate during the pandemic. This is a fundamental conversation that the art world needs to be having to ensure that when their doors close, producers are thinking as much about bandwidth requirements as they are lamenting their unseen physical exhibitions.

Thankfully FORMAT21 is taking these considerations into account when planning their future public programmes. It’s an incredible achievement in such unprecedented times. FORMAT21 isn’t just a website but a space for imagining a new types of access.

FORMAT21 – Control is online until March 2023

This article is part of Remark, a new platform for art writing in the East Midlands by ArtReview in collaboration with BACKLIT. Read more here and sign up for the Remark newsletter here

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