My work as a Brighton Biennial volunteer

The Brighton Biennial has now ended, bringing to a close the six weeks I spent working as a volunteer before and during the festival, which has been a far more rewarding and enjoyable experience than I anticipated. The social side has been a huge bonus and I’ve met the entire Photoworks team, other volunteers, a few curators and artists, and literally hundreds of exhibition visitors and other members of the public.

I have become very familiar with all the works in the festival, and have spent many long hours in the presence of some of them, which has taught me how much more there is to find in a piece than is first apparent. Some of these insights came simply from looking and allowing my thoughts to develop; others came from watching the public’s reactions and hearing their questions and comments. Uta Kögelsberger’s Uncertain Subjects Part II, for example, a performative piece in which 24 head-and-shoulders portraits were displayed in relays on the side of a shipping container over the course of the festival, prompted a surprising number of people to tell me they recognised one or more of the faces but couldn’t quite place them. As this happened several times every day I was in this location, I came to understand that this sense of familiarity was almost certainly due to the way Uta had photographed her subjects, naked and with completely neutral expressions, which seems to have made them into something approaching archetypes.

Much of the volunteer work was invigilation, and doing this in different venues with different degrees of public access (small dedicated gallery spaces vs spaces within Brighton University vs spaces within and outside the public library) gave me unexpected insights into the way different people react to artworks. The most interesting thing I learned from the public library spaces was that a small but vocal proportion of the general public feel strongly that artworks should not represent a single point of view but should also include its converse. Some saw this requirement as flowing from its public location, others from the assumption that public funding was involved, and others simply felt that there was a general moral duty for “balanced” argument. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the works that prompted these responses were the aforementioned Uta Kögelsberger portraits, each of which was accompanied by a statement by the subject about Brexit, the call for participants having been a request for people who felt their views weren’t being heard in the current debate. What was more surprising to me was that it wasn’t only self-confessed Brexiteers who felt the work was too partisan; some who claimed to have voted Remain also believed that the artist should have made more effort to ensure her subjects represented the 48/52 divide of the referendum.