An Italian Photography Festival by the Sea
With the third edition of PhEST still open until early November, the Artistic Director, Giovanni Troilo introduces us to the Italian festival, explaining their vision and close relationship with the territory.
While a long list of internationally recognised photographers has been shaping the history of Italian photography, there have always been relatively few initiatives aimed at promoting the medium in the country. It is only in recent years indeed that festivals and institutions have started to gather together artists and visual storytellers to place Italy on the map of the international photography circuit also as a hub for showcasing projects and engaging with a broader audience.
The latest kid of a family that includes initiatives such as Cortona On The Move and Fotografia Europea, is PhEST, the photography festival launched in 2016 in the city of Monopoli on the South East of the peninsula. While the third edition is currently open and presenting the work of photographers such as Patrick Willocq, Pino Pascali, and Mandy Barker, we went to learn more about it with Giovanni Troilo, the festival's Artistic Director.
Ciao Giovanni, let’s start from the beginning. How did the idea of the festival come about three years ago and what motivated you, as a recognised photographer and movie director, to invest part of your energies in the project?
The idea of the festival was born many years ago together with Arianna Rinaldo. We wanted to design a festival in Apulia where new photography languages and contaminations among photography, moving images, music and visual arts could find a place and be put in relation with a wide audience. The gestation was long, like it often happens with movies, and finally three years ago PhEST was born, also thanks to the precious support of Regione Puglia, which strongly believes in this vision.
The energies? With energies the approach is different. Tiring sometimes! But actually it is all about creative processes that feed one another. More than through a “disciplinary” categorisation, I tend to select projects according to how much they excite me and how much I believe they can make me grow. What you do must respond to a more fluid idea. Only this way resources can multiply.
The festival takes place in a small town by the sea in southern Italy. Why have you opted for this location and how does it influence the festival?
The relationship between the place and the theme of PhEST is immediate. If Italy is a piece of land thrown in the Mediterranean Sea, Apulia is the last strip of land that almost melts with the sea. PhEST talks about all you can see from that last strip of land. See Beyond the Sea. It talks of the Balkans, of Africa. And this year, thanks to the yellow telescopes on the seafront, it is possible to really see what there is on the other side of the sea. Almost…
There is also another reason. When I studied Economics I tried to concentrate my interest around the relationship that exists between economic development and identity: understanding yourself in order to grow better, a pretty simple combination, even banal, but on an aggregated scale it is sometimes hard to obtain. Having your own imaginary instead of adopting a hetero-directed imaginary can be a key element for the process to be triggered. Photography and cinema, thanks to their strength, immediacy and universality can generate a real process of knowledge and growth. This is the idea at the base of PhEST: bringing stories that happen far away and bringing new gazes that allow atrophied imageries to find new energy.
The works by Piero Martinello, Alejandro Chaskielberg, Edoardo Delille and Leo&Pipo, which PhEST has produced in Apulia during the first three editions, follow this direction: the rediscovery of an identity as a collective process.
The third edition is currently open and will be until 4 November - can you tell us more about it?
For this edition we have 21 exhibitions in different locations around the Old Centre, some of which are outdoor and visible to anyone arriving. There are two parallel themes, ports and family archives, and they intersect on several occasions. Ports are exceptional because they are the end of something and the beginning of something else, a suspended zone that connects faraway places, cultures and imaginaries. Edoardo Delille, with his work produced on an artist residency in the ports of Bari and Brindisi, playfully tries to restore the equivalence between the place and the word that defines it, bringing them on the same neutral level, in a moment when that neutrality seems lost. Other works exhibited at the festival illustrate ports as a mirage: as a new place where contemporary political fragility is being consumed, defining a new space of exception.
The story is told in three acts. It starts from Willocq’s ethno-fiction, exploring an apparently known world, but actually unprecedented: the relationship of a small community forced to host several asylum seekers; it continues with the story of naked life X-rayed by Noelle Mason, who describes the objective suspension of migrants in transit, showing ports as a new paradigm of bio-politics and the figure of the refugee as crisis element of the fiction of modern sovereignty.
The other macro-theme develops around the fluid subject of the past. The past is continuously modified by the look of the present. Thanks to a long-term work of collection made together with the inhabitants of Monopoli and thanks to the intervention of the French street art duo Leo & Pipo, the people of the past come out of family albums and invade Monopoli Old Town. They walk the alleys, come out of the houses, rest against the walls - those same alleys and walls where they were portrayed a long time ago. The lively gaze of these figures of the past comes to remind us who we were, in order to better understand who we are and must be. They remind it to Apulia people and to the visitors. The journey becomes for those who arrive a real process of knowledge of the culture, of the DNA of these places, and brings along a fragment of that proud identity around the world.
The two themes, ports and archives, merge on several occasions, like in Pino Pascali exhibition, consisting of a series of unreleased photographs where he investigates the port and the sea. The two themes also definitely meet on the seafront of the Old Town, where the dazzling sign “See Beyond the See” invites the visitors to approach a series of yellow telescopes pointed towards the sea to discover an unexpected landscape where space and time are suspended and annulled for a moment.
As festival Artistic Director, which are your criteria at the moment of planning the festival and selecting the works? Which are the dynamics of your collaboration with Arianna Rinaldo (Photography Curatorship) and Roberto Lacarbonara (Visual Arts Curatorship)?
From the beginning Arianna has been the real engine of PhEST; last year the precious curatorship for contemporary art by Roberto was added. We plan every edition from far away: Arianna in Barcelona, Roberto in Apulia and me in Rome. During the whole year we search, collect, imagine, but it is only when we are all together in Monopoli that the puzzle is composed, the vision is completed and brings life in the streets of the town. And this is always the most exciting moment.
I really find interesting the idea of contaminating PhEST as a photography-driven festival with cinema, music, and art. How do these interactions take place and why have you opted to go that way? Which has been the audience reactions so far?
Storytelling often tends to reinforce around the concepts of styles, genres, paradigms. That paradigm tends to reassure the audience, who knows that the story will be told according to schemes and within known boundaries. But in the long term stories risk to become invisible. I believe it is necessary to make the form always variable, and establish a constant dialogue with the audience, letting it become an active part in the storytelling, bringing it towards less trodden tracks, border roads. This is what we try to do with PhEST, disseminating the exhibitions outdoor in the Old Town to catch the audience with unexpected itineraries, contaminating photography with contemporary art and vice versa, so that in this articulate story, in this “filmic” route, they become one the punctuation of the other.
We aim to alternate lighter stories and themes and projects that can make the watcher doubt, vacillate for a moment, hoping it will bring along that image and let it live inside him for a while.
What are PhEST's plans for the future?
Thanks to important partners like PHmuseum, we would like to launch an international open call addressed to photographers and videographers, focused in particular on new languages, with no restrictions on means and style, promoting an open and permanent research on visual arts and trying to intercept its rapid change.
We hope this geographic outpost on the Mediterranean Sea, on Africa and on the Balkans, can become outpost of knowledge.