The Cardiff-based festival returns for its fourth edition, looking at how, in contemporary visual culture, images come together with sound.
In 1927, the film industry was changed forever with the release of The Jazz Singer. Many aspects of Alan Crosland’s work are now painfully antiquated, but at the time, the movie was startlingly, terrifyingly new. It was the first motion picture to include aural lip-synchronous speech. Due to this, the film effectively ended the silent era, with its wide-eyed, histrionic modes of performance and explanatory title cards. It heralded a dramatic introduction of cinematic landscapes built around sound. These were known for years afterwards as the “talkies.” Crosland had looked at moving the audio-visual medium closer to the depiction of reality, marking a pathway for a multi-sensory revolution the world over.
The Jazz Singer is not – within the far-reaching history of photography and filmmaking – all that long ago. The first partially successful camera image was made in approximately 1826 by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. After Niépce’s death in 1833, his partner Louis Daguerre continued to experiment and by 1837 had created the first practical process – the daguerreotype – which was publicly unveiled in 1839. In 1840, across the English Channel, Wiltshire-based polymath Henry Fox Talbot perfected a different process – the calotype. Sound, in films, therefore, is about half as young as photography and is still largely unexplored. Whilst almost all contemporary cinema spends as much time on the music as the images, those interested in creating visual arts are still looking at a rather more complex relationship. London’s esteemed Royal Academy, for example, has just closed a far-reaching video-art exhibition, Bill Viola / Michaelangelo: Life Death Rebirth.
At the frontier is Diffusion. Throughout April, the Cardiff-based festival highlights the most recent developments in new media, whilst drawing upon the shifting identities of Britain and Europe. The theme: Sound + Vision. “I have always been interested in how sound changes a viewer’s perception,” says David Drake, the Director of both the festival and Ffotogallery. “I travel the world and see a lot of exciting practices which are crossing traditional boundaries.”
Carrying this ethos, Diffusion places special emphasis on pieces that define themselves as Virtual or Augmented Reality experiences. “With the availability of immersive technologies, one’s repertoire can progress into areas of interdisciplinary and hybrid media. The possibilities are endless, and we are at the beginning of an exciting journey.” The 2019 edition of the festival offers a multitude of projects which investigate concepts of displacement and belonging through interdisciplinary methods – sparking new conversations along the way. Many of the exhibitions discuss the aftermath of being marginalised, victimised or defined by exterior sources or communities. “A sense of social exclusion, political disenfranchisement, otherness or identity crisis is as much due to cognitive, perceptual and emotional factors, as it is to social and cultural circumstance,” Drake continues. “I’m interested in artistic series that reflect the prevailing Zeitgeist, teasing out complex issues in subtle ways, rather than through didactic approaches.”
One such example comes from Michal Iwanowski. In 2008, the photographer found some graffiti in his neighbourhood. It stated: “Go home, Polish.” A decade later, two years after the divisive Brexit referendum, Iwanowski set off on a 1900km trip, on foot, between his two homes – Wales and Poland – with a passport in each hand. His goal was to ask people about the idea of “home” and what it signifies during a journey that would take 105 days to complete. The resulting exhibition recounts the story of the expedition as it unfolded through a new political discourse and changed into something different entirely. “It took many years of simmering, but eventually the small sting of the phrase turned into a thorn in the context of the 2016 referendum results. I was finally ready to respond to it. And I did so literally,” Iwanowski notes. “Having lived in the UK for 17 years, I had no doubt that I was home already, but the issue of belonging was so much more complex and suddenly also extremely politicised. I knew that ‘home’ was a bargaining chip for the propaganda tube, but I was curious about what it meant to real people, in the UK and across the continent, as the wave of nationalism was gathering momentum.”
Art has long been a mediator for making sense of shifting landscapes – conceptual, political and social. Diffusion, as a festival and a movement, is looking not only at the surface achievements of lens-based media to communicate to audiences, but the stories that are hidden in the gaps. Iwanowski continues: “I decided to point the lens at myself, the Polish immigrant, interacting with the landscape in a very instinctive way. I would set my camera on a timer and walk into a lake or squeeze myself into a roll of wire. I was claiming the land I was standing on. Emotionally it was a healthy process, and the initial anger and confusion gave way to confidence. I approached the slogan with auto-irony from the get-go – that was my modus operandi. At the end, I felt somehow that I owned the slogan. I stripped it of its venom and turned it into something more positive.”
These series, Drake says, articulate the distinct role visual art plays in a world more democratised by photography than ever before. “I’m somewhat sceptical about ideas such as art being a ‘mirror’ held up to reality or a ‘hammer’ with which to shape it,” he notes. “In an era of flux and mutability, art is a prism in which meaning is conveyed between the artist and audience by a combination of its content, the context in which it is being presented and the aesthetic and technical language used. We’re providing a platform for projects with strong narratives, like Go Home, Polish or X-Ray Audio’s story of cold war culture and bootleg technology. Both shows are multi-layered and still evolving, acquiring new meanings through being displayed in Cardiff at this time.”
X-Ray Audio – an installation by The Bureau of Lost Culture – looks at how music has been used as a form of resistance. In the Soviet Union, an underground community defied government censors by copying and distributing forbidden albums – building recording machines and cutting their own tracks with X-ray film. As a further exploration of the cultural significance of jazz, and leading on from their award-winning, Indian-based film Liminality, Cardiff-based collaborators Matt Wright and Janire Najera present jazz and trip-hop band Slowly Rolling Camera – a merging of live compositions and still / moving imagery. Other events include John Rea’s Atgyfodi, an introduction of lost voices from the archives of St Fagan’s The National Museum of History. The strand comes in the form of an immersive installation, with found and specially filmed images interwoven as a contemporary audio-visual composition. Then there’s Finnish director Jonna Kina’s Foley Objects, a collection of items used by various foley artists and sound designers. The work contains images of objects with seemingly unconnected definitions, offering a sense of synaesthesia between perception and reality.
Building on Iwanowski’s social preoccupations, another key highlight is the deeply human series Children of Vision, by Alina Kisina. The photographic works are nominally based on the Ukrainian artist’s long-standing relationship with the Kiev Special School of Art N11 for Children with Impaired Vision and Other Disabilities. Kisina can remember one moment in particular which sparked the series. She watched as one student closed his eyes, trying to imagine what the music was saying. Years later, she realised the child had, quite unwittingly, changed the course of her life. Bogdan was seven years old, a pupil in the Art N11 School. His eyesight was severely limited. Kisina watched him take hold of a pair of headphones and listen to a Ukrainian classical opera. His facial expression began to transform as he became completely absorbed by the music.
“It was a still, silent moment,” Kisina says. “I stayed in that space with him. Then I realised, even though he could not look clearly with his eyes, he could still see.” Kisina raised the camera and took a portrait of the boy. It marked the birth of a new project focusing on changing perspectives. “These children often have a different relationship with the material world to many of us, but they have a vast inner world. I wanted to try and communicate that, but I couldn’t work out how to do it. He showed me how it can be done.”
Disability is often misrepresented in today’s world – using the lexicon of victimhood or describing a person’s life in the context of care. As Kisina, a student of linguistics, points out, it’s built into our modes of communication – from the etymology of “disability” onwards. Through the images, audiences are encouraged to see these children as people who can challenge our ideas of what constitutes an ability or lack thereof. “We often think we are fully capable in every way. But how do we learn to transcend and overcome difficulties? That’s the beauty of the human experience.”
At first glance, the compositions are simple portraits. They’re not actively sensationalist or expressionist. They don’t push us to feel. They are pictures of people taking enjoyment in quiet moments that pass by quickly. And yet, grouped together and suspended in time, they have the capacity to teach us something, and that lesson is profound. “We should learn to accept disability fully, to recognise it in others, but never see it as the sole aspect of one’s identity.”
Diffusion, as a whole, is engaging with these visual languages as they are being written – opening up discussions about our place within the world and connecting communities through that which is not always seen or not always heard. It is here that the senses are truly brought into the light, and innovation gives way to understanding.
As Iwanoswki summarises: “These types of conversations are wholly important because of how we live today: we are nomads again, we commute between countries and explore the world. This is not new, but we’re witnessing globalisation on extreme levels. With all this movement, the idea of being from ‘here’ is no longer the same – as a concept it struggles with change. Slogans like ‘Make Britain great again’ are a perfect example of that – contrasting the desire to create an accepting and inclusive society with a romanticised past. That’s why it is important to ask these types of questions.”
Diffusion Festival, 1-30 April. Cardiff, various venues.