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Ocean Farini

This interview was originally commissioned by Open Eye Gallery as part of the Socially Engaged Photography Network. Open Eye Gallery invite producers and photographers working in the field to get together to discuss their current projects for the A Spotlight On… series. You can see the original interview here:

Front Door – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Ocean Farini

I spoke with Ocean Farini about her multimedia work (mix up of collage, photography, clothes and humour) and her exploration of how young people can use both familiar and new materials, methods and platforms to talk about stuff that feels important to them.

Sara – How did you get into photography? And how do you use a variety of styles and methods in specific works and projects?

Ocean – I’ve always been interested in images, as opposed to ‘photography’ and the way that images influence the world; the way they have this ability to box things off like ‘that’s what things look like’. I got really interested in it much more from a collage/dissecting-images-that-already-exist way. From that I kind of went onto trying to form an alternative image to the way that say an ordinary family looks or what an ordinary man looks like e.t.c. I started making my own images of people in my life or things that I felt offered a different view of something. That was the way I got into and approached photography.

Because I’m working in a collage-y way, I think that’s what made me look at using so many different materials and methods. I needed lots of different stuff to say what I was trying to say. I ended up having to use lots of bits of existing materials and imagery as well as starting to make my own stuff. I was always trying to put my work into ‘normal’ contexts, making it feel accessible, so that it felt like it was part of your everyday as opposed to having to seek out in galleries.

I love that. I feel that it’s way more personal and more interesting than a standard photo if you can make it your own through extra methods and materials.

So, your focus seems to be very much around the idea of disturbing the idea of ‘normal’ and creating alternative perspectives of the everyday. I know it is what you and we all live with day to day but how and why did you choose to focus on this as a topic for your work?

I guess everything I make is a bit autobiographical so everything sort of comes from something I’ve experienced, or the way I have grown up, or something that’s happened to me that I’ve thought ‘that’s something I need to make work about’. I think my obsession is with the more normal things in life if you like. Especially stuff to do with family and what’s ‘normal’ and young people and the way that they see their world. I have this thing about the value of first hand experience, ‘you’re the expert in your own life’, an expert by experience, because you’ve done it, you’ve lived it. So, to be able to translate that genuineness into imagery, I’ve ended up focusing on topics like class, family and identity. Things that people often think are really mundane and boring but are actually really important parts of life.

Front Door – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Ocean Farini

Does this way of thinking link in with your new project with Open Eye Gallery?

Yeah, for sure. I did a residency in Fleetwood near Blackpoool, for about a year and a half. That was the last major project I was doing and involved living on an estate and making work with the local residents. We ended up making our own streetwear label, loads of photographs, a photobook and had a fashion show on the street. So, this new commission with Open Eye Gallery (Fashion Forms Protest) felt like a really relevant project to get my teeth into, because it was about collaborating with young people and making stuff about identity and with clothes!

The Open Eye commission started with young people visiting the Vivienne Westwood exhibition with all of her clothes through the years, at their local gallery and museum, the Atkinson. The commission is a response to that initial visit, the politics that cloth can carry and the way the young people felt they wanted to respond to her collection. So, the starting point of this project is textile and clothes based, but the process will hopefully explore lots of materials & ideas. The hope for the project is that the young people feel excited to produce a dynamic collection of their own and ‘say something’ through textiles and images. It’s about how we can use things like textiles to discuss big (or small) topics which affect these young peoples lives.

It will be really interesting to see the young people’s take on it. Vivienne Westwood clothes now are so high fashion and expensive, I hope they can see through this surface to explore the way she started by deconstructing the world around her and reconstructing it, to say something with both the process and end product.

In this project, are you working as a socially engaged photographer?

Yeah I think you could say ‘socially engaged artist’ because it’s quite multimedia! The other artist I’m collaborating with, Sally Gilford, is textile and print based, so it’s going to be a really cool combo actually, with my experience of photography and hers in textile and print work.

In what way do you see the project being socially engaged?

The commission really focuses on the young people producing it. We’re like the facilitators and their collaborators. We can try and support them to get going, with some initial starting points and ideas but the project will be very much led by them and made by them.

My last question is about COVID and how you kept going, or how this might have affected or transformed this project throughout lockdown?

It’s a funny old thing because the commission was meant to be April and it’s all totally moved. I think it’s been harder than anyone thought for the young people to move to online engagement with the youth service, let alone starting anything new like this project! It’s not the same, the social bit isn’t the same, so it’s meant the approach/start to this has to be different too. It is important that the project starts when it is right for the young people and in the right way. So we are actually starting the project via postal packs, so that adds a whole new dimension. Hopefully this will mean when we can work with the young people as a group in person, they will also have some physical, tangible stuff that they’ve already produced as opposed to feeling like it’s all been massively online, like everything else in the world right now.

What are they getting in those packs, is it like textiles, pictures of the show or the clothes?

It’ll be lots of those different things. We’re still at the early stages of working out how to do it, how to start it. Give them a sketchbook, some materials, newspaper headlines and things like that to bounce off. I think initially we’re going to try and do some text work, so working from newspapers or magazines, mixing up and cutting up some texts and making some prints out of them. Even if this is one big word that stands out to them at this stage!

This project will have to be super fluid. I think the last few months have changed a lot. And also, everyone’s experience of lockdown is very different. They are 14-17-years-old so it will be interesting to see how it informs the process of making the work because they have had a long time out of ‘normal’ education now.

It will be interesting to see how these different ways of thinking affect ideas for the commission going forwards, especially in terms of ‘what would you like to change about the world now that you’ve had a step back from it’ or maybe during this time, or even before they start they have been thinking, ‘God no one talks about that and it’s actually really great’ or ‘I’d like this to stay the same, and not be destroyed’.

It’s quite difficult for young people sometimes when you talk about protest or what you are angry about and what you are mad about. It often feels really far removed, like something you just see on TV, but actually to bring it down to the everyday through exploring it through textiles and photography might bring up some really interesting ideas. Maybe it is something that seems simple at first but it is not simple – it is a topic or issue, which is really big for you.

There are lots of other ways to protest or call for change. Hopefully, the process of making creative work with these young people will open up these different ways of talking about change/activism and our role within it.

Front Door – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist
©Ocean Farini

I feel you’re doing this project as just a pivotal moment, with Black Lives Matter and climate change protests and all that media coverage, it feels like the right time.

Yeah, I think especially with the BLM & XR movements, which have been massive and really important to witness. People haven’t been at work full-time or in education, so they’ve actually had the opportunity to be out doing stuff like researching, protesting and talking about important stuff that impacts them – without the danger of losing already unstable work. I think that the last few months have changed the idea of what a protest is and what for, in the modern world. We are actually living in a revolutionary time; a moment to explore how much having time to step back enables you to revise what you really care about.

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