A bus load of artists and curators drive off into the sunset: a look back at Novo Mesto’s Fotopub Festival

, 12 September 2018

‘New is less new every year’ notes the introduction in the catalogue of last year’s Fotopub. I’m not sure if this newness is intended as an end in itself or is merely intended to make each iteration of the festival more difficult to pull off. It’s been five years since Fotopub was regenerated from a bankrupt documentary photography festival into an experimental programme committed to young artists. Staged over six days in the rural Slovenian town of Novo Mesto, a few things remain the same every year: the ubiquitous festival logo of the egg, the presence of Slovenian national television, copious quantities of schnaps. Otherwise, the revolving team of organisers aim to occupy new venues across the town and bring together untested projects from young artists and curators across Europe. At this year’s festival, running July 30 to August 4, proceedings are endearingly, if indulgently, chaotic. In addition extensive building works in the town have excavated the entire main street creating  a sense of dislocation.

Two shipping containers have materialised in the centre of the town’s park. Golden Record: Finally the First Part of the New Vocabulary! is an installation by Zuzana Markéta Macková, winner of last year’s Fotopub Portfolio Prize. Inside the first container, a camera on a tripod faces a selection of primary coloured building blocks which can be repositioned by the viewer. The camera then ‘photographs’ the scene. However rather than producing an image, the resulting pixels produce a kind of musical score. Variations in hue, saturation and contrast create a sonic language, that unlike an instantaneous snapshot, unfurls over an extended period of time. The second installation reverses the process, turning sound into digital image. Viewer interaction with a Theremin produces a series of monochrome squares of delicately fluctuating hues. The dreaminess of the experience is intensified by the unbearable humidity of the environs. Presented as a ‘nameless entity,’ the work addresses the viewer with an offer to evolve a new sense in human beings: ‘I came to this place, Fotopub Festival, because here is where the open-minded, free and exploring elites of your time are… You stand before a great evolutionary step, one which you are trying to avoid by creating more technology.’ I’m struck by the nonchalant eloquence of the exhibition text and the ambiguous attitude to progress.

Courtesy Fotopub Festival, Novo Mesto (2018)

A cake gets eaten at the opening of Dorotea Škrabo’s installation Please Do Not Take Photographs. It’s one of those light as air cream confections that seem to melt in the mouth. The icing is printed with an image of the DVD cover of the film, ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ and the title of the work ‘Let them eat cake’ implies a kind of Marie Antoinette-ish attitude to impending technological redundancy. The artist suggests the work is evocative of Snapchat, the file sharing application that only allows posts to exist for 24 hours. ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ is a reference to the centrepiece of the exhibition, a digital replica of the Mona Lisa with a moving video of the artist in the title role. This screen is overlaid with two interactive tablets. One, placed over the background of the image, switches between various discoloured reproductions of that segment of the painting. The other, placed over the hands, allows the viewer to alternate between various activities for the figure: scrolling an iPhone, clapping hands, giving a thumbs-up. The viewer is forced to step over a gallery rope in order to interact with the work while the artist as Mona Lisa looks on bemused. The misuse of technology is satirical, but also sweetly engaging.

Courtesy Fotopub Festival, Novo Mesto (2018)

The Wanderer Proximity, a group show curated by Gabriele Tosi, suggests that images can acquire mystical value through their distribution. A video work by Alef Grillo depicts a detail from the frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel. The tiny, to scale, projection is nestled into a corner of the crumbling building that is acting as the exhibition venue. The panel in question is ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ the scene where Jesus appears to Mary Magdelene after his resurrection and tells her to stop trying to touch him. The detail reproduced shows just the hands, in black and white.  It becomes apparent to the viewer that this is a moving image that is slowly becoming fainter and fainter, a reversed video of a photograph developing. Once the hands have faded the real hands of the developer are shown placing the photographic paper into the photographic chemicals in a manner both gentle and, seemingly, supernatural. Elsewhere in the show, Claudia Sinigaglia’s drawings and digital prints remind me of tea leaves, the diagramas seem to act as divinations rather than infographics. During the course of the festival, the entire exhibition is also taken down and re-materialises into a large ditch that forms part of the building works taking place in the main street.

Another kind of  wanderer is the rock group ‘on tour’. Steve & Samantha are a band comprising artists and self-taught musicians who  are living and performing in their residency space for the duration of the festival. Their only second ever gig, at a local open-air venue, is dramatically interrupted by a massive electrical storm. The next day, their residency space, an old post office,is filled with foliage and apples felled by the storm. A video depicting various plastic bottles collecting rainwater is projected onto the wall while they play and echoes the fact their temporary home is without plumbing and they have been collecting water daily. Sheets of lyrics are piled up in the space. Reading some of the repeated refrains – ‘You don’t come here anymore / I have nothing, nothing to look at / Got nothing to look at / Nothing to look at / Got nothing to look at’ brings home the hypnotic repetition of rehearsing..  ‘A good loop takes you places’, the drummer tells me later, ‘Is it the loop changing or is the world changing around you?’ 

Courtesy Fotopub Festival, Novo Mesto (2018)

The closing performance of the festival by Nataša Berk takes place in Novo Mesto’s bus station. Excessively big for the town’s current needs, the bus station is a post-modern amalgamation of concrete spheres and stained glass housed within wooden panels whose angles take the form of the letters ‘N’ and ‘M.’ The empty building is in a state of extreme dilapidation as its architect is refusing the town’s help to renovate it in case this corrupts his original creative vision. I can’t help but admire this stubbornness while I’m waiting on the platform, which is, for once, crowded. A bus pulls up and the queue boards with all the excitement of a school trip. The bus hesitantly manoeuvres 360 degrees, discharging paint that draws a circle on the bus station forecourt. The passengers break into applause at the end of this gesture. Everyone is so convinced that this is the extent of the jaunt that it comes as a shock when the bus gets into gear and drives out of the station to a destination unknown to all but the driver. I’m amused that final act of the festival comprises a real rather than metaphorical journey, there seems something perversely literal about driving a bus load of artists and curators off into the sunset.**

Header image courtesy courtesy Ulijona Odišarija