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What do artists get out of arts festivals ?

If festivals are the new platform and sites the new venues, what do they offer artists and audiences ? 

On arrival the signs were not good: « Road closed », « Keep out », « Restricted area », « The crown accepts no liability at law for loss or damage ».

It was not the kind of welcome you’d expect from a creative and free-thinking artist-led organisation like the B-side multimedia arts festival. But then its Resonant Terrains symposium was being hosted by HM Prison The Verne, which occupies a Napoleonic fort, perched high above Chesil beach and Weymouth harbour on the Isle of Portland, Dorset.

And it wasn’t only the location that was unusual. The event, convened to pose the question, « If festivals are the new platform, and sites the new venues, what can and can’t they offer artists, curators and audiences? », was curated more like a mini-festival than your average symposium.

The opening addresses were delivered in the prison chapel. All delegates had to supply photo ID, submit to a full body search and were (temporarily) relieved of mobile phones, cameras, laptops and memory sticks in order to gain access. Being processed this way, and stepping through the heavily-barred double doorway into the prison’s outer yard gave me a certain frisson of excitement.

It also raised questions about the ethics of the voyeuristic thrill gained by a bunch of creatives in the presence of other people’s misery. James Lucas, the fresh-faced governor, welcomed the delegates with enthusiasm and humour (quoting both TS Elliot and the Guardian). Arts Council England’s director of visual arts, Peter Heslip, delivered a personal and poetic appeal for the use and value of art by way of Robert Frost and a childhood spent hiking in the mountains of Montana.

Performer, writer, teacher and researcher Phil Smith’s performance lecture that followed ranged from childhood memories to the physics of matter, via anecdotes and musings about walking projects and his misguided tours. Smith’s concepts of counter-tourism and mythogeography introduced a theme that ran through various talks and discussions over the next two days.

True to B-side’s work, much of the event was focused around performative and participatory site-specific art. Delegates could opt for walks and tours led by a number of artists and producers including Sue Palmer and Joff Winterhart, Jez Riley French, Alex Murdin of Ruralrecreation, and Neal White from the Office of Experiments.

This idea of the artist as guide to the unseen and overlooked topographic and social landscape of a place – exploring the gap between « myth and fact, conspiracy and official histories » – continued on Neal White’s Portland Experiments bus tour. This took in some of Portland’s lesser known sites including the MOD-owned and privately run QinetiQ Compass Testing facility, which is capable of « turning off » the world’s magnetic field.

White talked about « productive secrecy », where a lack of information allows space for the development of the imagination: a place where art as well as conspiracy theories can thrive.

The Portland Experiments and other artist tours and performances all made the argument for the support and development of place-based art practice. How the arts festival format and place-based commissions might facilitate creative output and extend audience engagement seems ripe for more exploration.

Several speakers looked at how this kind of work furthers the various – possibly competing – agendas of aesthetics, local regeneration, tourism, health and wellbeing. Curator and artist Alex Murdin talked about musicians working with dementia sufferers in care homes, while writer Dany Louise noted the proliferation of the festival that had its hyper-banal apotheosis in the Brighton and Hove Festival of Shopping.

These and other examples left a question hanging in the air: are art and artists too often co-opted into a neoliberal agenda, their value being the ability to paper cheaply over the cracks in a failing system?

Dominic Thomas is a freelance artist and educator – follow B-side festival on Twitter @bsidefest

Source :  Dominic Thomas, The Guardian Culture Profesionals Network

Filed under: Analyses, Gouvernances, Politiques culturelles, , , ,

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