There will be a special exhibition today at the gallery of the Union of Photographers, Daguerreotypists, Camera-Persons and Obscuranters, a tall brick building that fills up the gap between the Museum of Traditional Antiquities and the Office for The Advancement of Buentoilliçan Culture. In the main hall, where some of the most famous photographic images of Buentoille are kept, five cabinets will be set up, each containing twenty small photographs taken with an instant camera.
Each cabinet is filled by a different artist, who were all voted for at the end of last year’s festival; this year the five artists chosen are Douglas Einer, Glacielle Burrant, Riddea Hoinsfeld, Jaques Volfont and Beatrice Moniker. Each artist will be helped, if they have need of it, by a cryptographer, for these exhibits are not just art; each cabinet is a treasure map. In five locations around the City, a golden camera will be hidden, locked in a box, the key to which is hidden elsewhere. Hundreds of people will search for them today, although those who find them usually have a modicum of code-breaking knowledge and an intimate knowledge of the City’s winding ways.
The twenty pictures that the artist is given to work with must all be used in the puzzle, although in the past some artist have flaunted the rules and left some intentionally blank, and whilst this is considered poor form, it is not specifically against the rules. An exhibit is valued more if it manages to keep the hunters hunting for longer, whilst still having a comprehensible solution. Most artists choose to present a number of photographs of places in the City, very close up, so that only someone who knows that area inside out would recognise it. At each location an additional clue could be left, but an exhibit is considered better if the photographs do all the semiotic work.
Quite often, to solve the conundrum, the hunters will need to have some knowledge of the previous work of the artist, and many who are serious about the whole affair begin to familiarise themselves well before today. This will help the hunters fully understand how the photographer normally constructs meaning in their work, and therefore give them the upper hand decoding today’s riddle. Often the ‘key’ to the meaning of the work is something personal to the artist, and can only be understood after intense scrutiny into their life.
Every acclaimed exhibit over the years since the festival began has had its own complex internal logic that reveals a set of assumptions, views or statements about the world on the part of the artist; often the only way to understand the clues is to work backwards from the artist’s viewpoint. Indeed, the semiotic internal logic of each exhibit is what is considered ‘artistic’ about them, in most cases. They are often not aesthetic pieces, and in some cases are deliberately unaesthetic; in this we can see the origins of the festival looming large.
The festival was set up after a violent schism in the Union occurred, meaning that many left to form their own group, the Buentoille Photographic Society. The essential seed of this schism was an argument between the two great photographers, Earnest Schifferalli and Gladys Vallerie Girft. Schifferalli, who remained in the Union, contended that art meant that a piece had an internal, hidden meaning, and that it was through the unpicking of this meaning that we could appreciate it best. Girft was very much of the opinion that beauty was the central meaning of art; i.e. that there need not be any real ‘meaning’, just an aesthetic joy to a piece. After three artists died in a brawl at The Wraith’s Descent, a popular artists’ haunt, the new group was set up.
Yet though it never became so violent again, the schism still hung over two groups for many years to come (and still does now, depending on who you ask). It was in this climate that today’s festival was set up, in an attempt to further advance Schifferalli’s side of the argument, by showing that meaning is central to art. Now at each festival you will find large gangs of art historians, semioticians and cryptographers poring over the little glass cabinets, trying to divine some essential meaning to the work.
Occasionally the crowds are disappointed; in 1954 the photographer Yagrim Vast presented a work which deliberately lacked any kind of meaning (he was an undercover agent from the Society). Vast looked on in glee as the assembled meaning-seekers all came up with spurious meanings that they were convinced of, only to find no camera where they searched. The spectacle lasted for three days and only ended when an enraged cryptographer knocked over the cabinet and revealed the golden camera hiding beneath its plinth.
This year there is great anticipation around what Riddea Hoinsfeld will offer up; many fellow Union members have been petitioning her to stand in the election at the end of the festival for many years, but it was not until last year that they succeeded. Hoinsfeld’s work is already a dense soup of semiotics (which of course means that it has been derided by the Photographic Society), and she has purportedly been working on her exhibit all year.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of Guilty Crushes
- The Day of the Lonesome Warbler
- The Buentoille Photographic Society’s Day of Pure Aestheticism.