September 17, 2012

Forward FORMAT : Louise Clements

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Written by: Manik Katyal
Hijacked III exhibition in QUAF Gallery image by Chris Seddon

United Kingdom -

With her name among the top 40 creatives in the European Review of Photography, Louise Clements is the brain behind one of the UK’s leading photography biennales, the Format Festival, which was founded in 2004. Aside from being an internationally renowned  curator, artist and writer, Louise is also a Kathak dancer and a bass guitar player. Emaho talks to her about her work, her ideas, the inception of Format and what the Format Festival 2013 has in store for us all.


To take your love for photography and curating and turning it into one of the largest photography festivals would’ve taken more than just passion. Tell us how you developed an interest in the two.

Photography, I have always had a passion for, it is undoubtedly one of the most important mediums of our time. It is also one of the most democratic. Nearly everyone has a camera. Granted, not everyone is a great photographer but we are all familiar with the art. Developing visual literacy is something that I am very involved with, in terms of thinking about how we can read and interpret through the programming, writing, portfolio reviewing and teaching that I do. I am very fortunate to have visited many photography festivals throughout the world and find the festival structure to be a brilliant way to focus activity, festivals are laboratories of the future, they are an essential meeting place for ideas to coalesce; they transform the everyday and build a critical mass. When programmed well they are pioneers of intercultural dialogue, whilst celebrating difference and fostering a platform for voices, multiple narratives and engaging audiences and participants in developing understandings. Photography festivals are often pivotal international meeting places and a catalyst for contemporary photographic practice.
Derby has a history of pioneering in photography, from Henry Fox Talbot and the photographers of the day taking trips into Derbyshire coming back to the dark room and processing their images experimenting and extending the form of photography a fascinating archive of photographic studios from that time.

Derby and Trent University was the Photography Degree in the 1980s, and Derby had a Photography Festival in the past which ended in 1997. I started working with QUAD in 2002, when the opportunity came when a colleague Mark Durden from the University of Derby hosted a Creative Camera Conference there in 2005. This was the catalyst in 2004 for FORMAT co-founder Mike Brown and I to start the FORMAT International Photography Festival. The first festival was themed around Documentary, Memory and Place was run on a lot of goodwill, partner programme funds and a small grant from the Arts Council of England for marketing; which we used to create the logo, website and guides. We were very lucky to have great artists participating in the first edition such as Tom Wood and Willie Doherty. Right from the start we established some of the frameworks that we work on to today such as EXPOSURE which is an international open call. It is our ethos to be open to find new talents. Essentially it came down to the right time and place, initiative and enough energy to do something new. We are now established as a large scale biennial taking place in March.


FORMAT11 exhibition in QUAD Gallery; Image by Graham Lucas Commons


What were some of the crucial challenges you faced initially?
It is always exciting to do things that I haven’t tried before; it requires a certain leap of faith and trust from the people involved. We started the festival with a lot of energy and goodwill which enabled it to happen, this is still an important factor in the process today but every time I organize the festival we develop on learning from previous editions. Each time, we are more ambitions and have new ideas, we also respond to the interests of our audiences, practitioners and the field. I set up FORMAT whilst having another full time job; therefore time is always an issue. I am also Artistic Director of QUAD, curate the programs and manage the programme teams. At QUAD we have a full programme of exhibitions, events, residencies, commissions and I specialize in directing large scale mass participatory commissions. I am very used to juggling multiple projects. I started as a practicing visual artist and still continue this through writing for magazines, performing with a Kathak dance company, playing bass in a band called Muha and and managing the production of films as well as artists residencies.

‘FORMAT11 Bruce Gilden Commission’


For the first year of the festival, what were your expectations like?
With the first festival we were wonderfully naive we went ahead and everything was new and an achievement. The audience and community response was very positive and gave us great confidence to progress to fundraise and hone the next edition. We are always in a constant state of development, flux and reinvention. It is impossible to reflect contemporary practice and contribute to future thinking without this approach. It is great reflecting back at what we have achieved, but there are still many elements to develop and new ambitions to aim for.


‘FORMAT11 portfolio reviews’


Why Derby? What made you settle on the location for the festival?

I am a believer in that great things can happen anywhere. Derby is a medium sized city in the East Midlands which gives it beneficial qualities in terms of partnerships and the willingness of individuals and organizations to collaborate locally to create something larger than the sum of our parts. But also in the UK we are only 1hr 30 from London by train and there is a local airport so that it’s easy for our international collaborators to travel. The Internet also is an important factor to reference as much of our work is done through Skype, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on. Since I began the festival our visibility, opportunities and achievements really accelerated about five years ago when we became more involved online.


‘Alessandro Marchi’


A venture as big as Format is hard to keep going without support from the fraternity. Who do you partner with?

Format has great partners locally and internationally, my main partners are QUAD, the University of Derby, Derby City Council, and we are supported by the Arts Council of England. Programme partners who have continued with us over the years include Magnum, Blurb,, Troika Editions, BJP, Source Photographic Review, 1000wordsmag and many more. Our patrons also support us a lot. We have Brian Griffin as an ongoing patron and we often have theme related patrons such as Joel Meyerowitz in 2011. The photography community globally is small, supportive and very enthusiastic. FORMAT festival also works to expand and extend what photography is and can be through the programme including film, installation, performance, mass participation, music and more. The diverse programme enables us to involve broad audiences.


 ’Hin Chua Format Festival 2011′


What has been your most interesting or controversial project to curate till date?

Hmmm interesting question, I was recently invited to write about censorship in relation to the projects that I have curated (more info here).“When I worked on an exhibition of prints by Tracy Emin, a representative of a local city council (a funder of the gallery) came to inspect the show prior to the exhibition preview. The representative was there to check the ‘suitability’ of the exhibits before we could launch to the public. They took issue with certain images depicting masturbation and a naked girl vomiting into a WC, and we had to stand our ground and directly reason why, in the context of contemporary cultural expression and in relation to the wider body of works, the drawings should remain in the show. Fortunately none of the works was removed.


‘FORMAT11 Joel Meyerowitz talk’


The theme for submissions you’ve chosen this year is Factory. Why Factory?

I think that previously we’ve always had a theme and having a theme is a good idea. We continue to discuss whether we should have a theme or not each time. And we’ve had themes such as ‘Photocinema’; last year was ‘Right Here Right Now’ – which was to do with street photography. Factory as a theme is working quite well for us and we are very fascinated by how you can construct around it I think when you look at the sub themes within it like In work, At Work, Out of work.  Yes there were reasons we chose ‘Factory’. Derby had the world’s first factory and mass production started there, it’s got world heritage status alongside the pyramids and other significant places around the world which is an incredible thing. Another reason is that it enables us to work with some great incredible factory buildings to show the works there as well. It also enables us to collaborate more with regional partners  from Derby into Derbyshire, practically speaking, it’s been a good partnership.

It also allows us to offer a more considerable number of places for the shows to happen in. One of the venues is the ex-Chocolate factory, and this factory shut down because of economic changes. We’re using the world’s first factory as one of the other venues and we’re going to create mass production inside there.  We plan to bring out the Human face of the factory through an artist called The Human Printer. They create a dot matrix of an image using just blue dots and green dots – that makes up the image by hand. We’ve also got an area where images from the Internet will be bound into books by people’s contributing. We’re bringing to life the classic process of creating a book. It’s going to be quite a lively, living festival.

An exhibition with a factory theme also allows us to really bring to life the process. Factories are basically the transformation of material where you have a starting point of an idea that you work on. And we’re kind of using portfolio reviews and talks where the whole four weeks of the festival are going to be like a production line of a kind. The content of the work is such that we’re inviting people to challenge the theme; so that it can be broadened and we are also open minded about what it can be. It’s not only about people working in factories, or the products, it can be the life outside the factory, it can be the building, and it can be the economic aspect. We were thinking about how in the time of the Industrial Revolution, how the electric light  completely changed how much time people spent  working, how there could be 24 hour production, how that changed people’s lives considerably at the time, and also the phenomenon of leisure time, where you’re getting a wage and you have a day off. So what we’re doing is that you travel and you take your camera with you and there are all these other areas and details you can interpret with Factory as a theme.


‘FORMAT11 QUAD Gallery exhibition’ 


What is the format of the Format festival? What all will be happening in 2013?

So the basic structure of the festival is that we have Focus which is the big curated show, Exposure which is the curated exhibition from the open call, and we have Development which is the professional aspect: the talks, tours, the conference and screenings. We also have live photography and the public spaces are also going to be quite interesting.  And we’re going to do a Magnum workshop for which we’ll have three photographers. There’s one novel project for the closing of the festival. We’re working with music producer and guitarist John Parish who along with a team of musicians, photographers and film makers will be in residence in a jumper factory in Derbyshire during the last week of the festival creating a live performance.  Basically there’s going to be live music with photography and film.


‘FORMAT11 Magnum Exhibition’ 


Tell us a little about Mob Format.

The Mob format, which is our online mass participation project that we’re working on, is our USP. We invite submissions and have had over 10,000 images from over 98 different countries. We care quite a lot about the people who participate in the festival. We have entries from people we’ve never heard of to high quality practitioners. Anybody can send images but we select and create an exhibition for the festival and online, a live stream of photos on the web going live with the exhibition.


Today you see photography happening all around the world, every second person has a camera. Iphoneography has emerged as a separate genre. A lot of photo festivals are coming up. How important of a medium will it be considered in the future?

I think photography is the most important medium of our time and I think it’s relevant to say that. Having worked with other art forms and other mediums, I think that people are literate in and familiar enough with to enter into a discussion to want to know more, to a certain degree. I think that’s the greatest reason that photography festivals are popping up everywhere is the need for activation within the public space. And photography is the kind of medium that most people can interact with. In the future I’m not sure where it’s going to go but I am interested in how it’s going to follow its course even in this festival. I think we need to collaborate more with industry partners to develop that further in terms of how people work in that space.

People in that confined space of the festival, blogging on their phone, putting it on their blogs and then physically coming to the space and printing stuff out is all very involving. But I think there’s still a disconnect between all audiences and that is one thing we’re trying to work on in terms of interactive media to connect between all the audiences.

Today, the younger audience are extremely competent at more things than I even know about, and I think that’s an area that’s very fascinating. How we live our lives online, share images online and how we view them online, is something that’s catching on. Having both the opportunity and inclination to document the changes in our lives, exploring and interacting with them


How do you see Format five years down the line and how is it different from other festivals happening in the UK?

In the UK, there’s not so many and somehave happened just once. Format is the same age as Brighton while Hereford, which had been on for about 25 years, just stopped running. Format is different because it is very much about investing in how photography is living and working today. The photographers’ focus is different.  We’re also very supportive of working with our Exposure artists of open call. We work alongside all the photographers that we select to curate their work into our show. As a result the participants form a key part of our festival and we work with them a lot.


‘FORMAT11 Collectives Encounter’ 


You were recently in India regarding your fellowship with UNBOX festival. How was your experience working with Blind Boys, an organization which is very active in the Indian fraternity?

It was very fun and very lively! We did an exhibition in the India Habitat Centre and had four-five photographers to curate the exhibition and conduct a workshop. We worked together to select the images and conceptualize the exhibition, and we specifically selected the images for the exhibition and did all the hard work collectively. It was a really interesting though I was only there for a short amount of time. But it was a really fascinating project to collaborate on.


Did you get a glimpse of the booming photography industry in India that has been coming up in the last 5-10 years?

I’m very excited by that. I’ve seen from afar the Delhi Photo Festival and was very interested in that, as well as the Photoink gallery. I’m very excited by what’s happening in India and the sort of new age for photography, the medium and the way that people there are participating in the activity and the initiatives as well, the setting up of various projects. It’s all really exciting.



How do you see Emaho magazine’s collaboration with Format festival and what is this collaboration all about?

The collaboration is about sharing opportunities with our collective audiences and taking the interest in a new direction. What we care about is collaborating with talented organizations and what we can collectively offer over what we can do individually; opportunities being larger now.

We’re looking at a feature in Emaho Magazine for exposing artists, and then we will be selecting an artist from Emaho’s open call for the Format Festival to feature them on our blog. If we work our networks collectively, we can reach the world. It’s a quite simple idea but it’s going to be great working together.


‘QUAD and FORMAT image by Graham Lucas Commons’


You know how Emaho strives to promote art in all its forms from around the world. What do you have to say about our initiative?

One of the things that I’ve explained to some people was that Emaho magazine reflects into our everyday lives. We all have our interests and our focuses, we have multiple interests and you’re putting that into one magazine, which is difficult to do. You put several different things put into one space online and you’re doing it in a way that’s coherent and is interesting to explore. There’s always something fascinating when I go online.
I also think that entrepreneurialism is something that I’m always interested in. The way you have brought out your exhibitions and collaborations internationally is the way we should be working right now.


Interviewed by: Manik Katyal  and Marukh Budhraja

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