Diffusion offered multiple perspectives on America and American society through a range of lens based media, photography and film. The festival showed America as a divided, fascinating and contradictory country at odds with itself. Exhibitions showed uncertainties, inequality, neglect, social and economic deprivation, extreme politics and lifestyles and reactions to the norm. The festival does not criticise but interrogates and celebrates the layers of America and lays them bare.
‘And Now its Dark’, curated by Mark Rawlins, included works by Todd Hido, Will Steacy and Jeff Brouws and explores America, its cities, highways and estates, at night, empty, sparsely populated and remote. As with many of the exhibitions the work here looks at the American dream in relation to contemporary experiences and reality.
Photographer Julian Germain was awarded a new commission for Diffusion and in his exhibition ‘Hidden Presence’ he looks at the relationship between Cardiff and St Kitts and the years of immigration between Wales and the Caribbean. In a rich and unsettling series of photographs, exhibited appropriately in the dilapidated and atmospheric Customs House, he tells the story of Nathaniel Wells, a mixed-race illegitimate son of a Welsh slave owner, who progressed from the sugar plantations of St Kitts to high office and social standing in 19th century Wales.
Other highlights that reveal the truths, humour and aspirations of America included the sightly creepy ‘Purity’, where Swedish artist David Magnusson has photographed and interviewed young girls and their fathers in Louisiana, Colorado and Arizona. The girls have pledged to remain virgins until they marry and here attend the Purity Balls with their fathers.
Work by Stacy Kranitz explores the former mining communities of Appalachia. Her ‘As It was Give(n) to Me’ is shocking, honest and textured and through photographs, folk artefacts, maps and found objects provides an insight into the communities living post-industrial decline. Another celebrated work by an American woman photographer is Jona Frank’s ‘Right’. Here she speaks about American politics and society through portraiture. Her portraits from the elite Patrick Henry College, a university for Evangelical Republican students are not judgemental but allow the audience member to draw their own conclusions about a school and a youth movement with the potential to create future world leaders.
The Symposium on the final weekend was a great accompaniment to the festival exhibitions offering an opportunity to hear from a number of the exhibiting photographers and to explore themes and context in more detail. The highlight was hearing from Hillerbrand + Magsamen about their collaborative domestic practice. Husband and wife, and often involving their two children and pets, they draw upon the contents of their home and the American suburban lifestyle. Often purchasing their ‘art materials’ from Walmart they comment on life in Houston, consumer access in America and they re-contextualise their objects, family, culture and home for exhibitions and commissions. ‘Higher Ground’, shown at Diffusion, is a work consisting of video, sculpture and photography where the family construct a rocket ship to travel to the moon in their suburban home.