AND FESTIVAL 2011 – mind bending art, film and digital culture

What makes a good arts festival? What makes a unique and new cultural experience? What does a regional festival of new cinema; digital culture and art in the Northwest have to do with a major sporting event hosted by London 2012 and about elite sport? Answer: Diversity, difference and debate around the human condition and human potential framed within a platform that celebrates both innovation and excellence and promotes the best examples in their category.

The third edition of AND was like no other arts festival I have ever experienced in over twenty years internationally. Its focus on taking a curatorial journey into the outer limits of belief gave the festival a fulcrum from which to spin out to the past and back to the future, with each event carefully chosen and sited to explore and expand perspectives on the theme. Our experience and understanding of festivals are often linear and programmed within a genre and with a community of partners and artists recognised as belonging to a field or sector. This year’s AND festival transgressed this rule. It did not constrain itself to art or film, to digital culture or new media, live performance or theatre, sport, science, politics or history, psychology, biology, tattoo culture, electronics or religion. Neither did it constrain itself to working only with institutions or independents or only with international artists or regional artists or local communities – it connected them all and more in as near an integrated platform as is possible. We need radical interdisciplinary thinking and partnership working across all levels and arenas in order to understand and advance our society and this edition of the AND festival  showed us how festivals can  operate across different geographical, social and cultural structures, processes and territories. By exploring the theme of belief, AND engaged with multiple perspectives on human expression and offered us a study in human play and its relationship to art, experimentation and development, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

My journey into the AND programme began with the drive in screening of Nic Roeg’s film, ‘The Man who Fell to Earth’ in Preston’s market. Still insanely topical, this seminal film remains a dispiriting vision of humanity, illuminating the part of humanity capable of overriding compassion in the name of advancement. The film’s sociological approach to science was only enhanced by the setting of the film in Preston’s market and the drive in experience – a truly sociological approach to play.

My next engagement with AND festival was some five days later at the performance of ‘The Modes of Al- Ikseer’ by Harminder Singh Judge on the Festival launch night in Liverpool. My jaw dropped when I entered into the performance space at The Black-E and was flooded in a visual feast of ancient religious imagery. At its centre the lone body performer slowly turned 360 degrees evoking a techno pagan landscape in which the body was a canvas for visual trickery and the digital age. Mesmerising for a while, the performance told the story of a Hindu myth and portrayed the body as a networked display board for global communications. The performance was earthy, spiritual and digital. It utilised the body as an object and offered another dispiriting vision of humanity.

Around the corner from the Black-E, the Chinese arch provided a really rather regal site for A Small Cinema in Chinatown – a collaboration between AND and Re Dock. This outdoor film event beneath Liverpool’s famous Chinatown arch complete with velvet seats, suited ushers and popcorn manufactured by people, cycling two bikes was a cinematic feast and temporary gathering place for a diverse community that night. Packed out on a very hot evening, it screened Chinese classics voted for my members of the community together with a selection of local and internationally shorts that looked at Eastern Perspectives on belief. I did my share of popcorn making with a companion from the Legacy Trust UK and it felt fitting that we should both be cycling for art as people involved in the cultural programme for London 2012. It was enjoyable to participate in an experience reminiscent of the old days of old cinema and then have my AND journey take a swift about turn into the future and to ‘Atalonia’ – a theatrical tour and ‘descent into the centre of the Earth’ at Pilkington’s Warehouse.

The brainchild of the Kazimier creators of extraordinary club nights, this was a beautifully human and handcrafted Dr Who experience. The journey into subterranean realms was a visual feast with dance, music, operatic interventions and craft. Inviting the suspension of disbelief, Atalonia Tours was a play space for adults and a unique, original and impressive creative experience. It was also a major achievement and labour of love, hand build by people from Liverpool, constructed out of found materials and honest in intent. With Atalonia, Kazimier rise to the challenge of producing something large scale, extending their very successful party nights formula into a new and higher realm of fiction and theatre. I departed the event dizzy from being spun round and around in a time capsule with a real sense that I had truly travelled through time.

My journey of discovery into concepts, research and experimentation in art and science continued on with a visit to The Game of Life at Makeart Studio which was a talk led by a group of Damanhurian’s and about their collective dream and how they hope it can contribute to the growth of humanity as a whole. Damanhur is laboratory for the future founded in 1975 and a world authority on time travel. I visited their community in February 2011 and it was good to see their secret mission being debated as part of the AND festival before moving on to visit the shop hosting Pigs Bladder Workshop on Bold Street.

Pigs Bladder Workshop is a year long programme of artistic enquiry by artist John O’Shea’ and a Wellcome Trust funded project exploring the medieval origins of our national game. One for the sports fans at the festival and lovers of art and science, the project is engaging with cutting edge scientific processes along the way and will culminate at AND 2012 in the cultivation of a uniquely captivating sculptural object, a football made out of living cells. In the shop, the public could have a go at making a football out of Pigs Bladders, see the film made of the game of football using a pigs bladder which AND hosted at Egremont Crab and Sports Fair the week prior and behave like a proper sports fan and buy some Pigs Bladder Football memorabilia. Contextualising this project and the AND focus on belief was the accompanying AND Salon on Fanaticism. This panel discussion chaired by Dr Andy Miah took a look at what it means to be a fan in the 21st Century and joining John O Shea in conversation was James McKenna of Spirit of Shankly, a Liverpool supporters union that since its inception in 2008 has tried to close the gap between supporter and club. For an arts festival engaging with sport, the most interesting question arising from the debate was the idea that supporters should decide what happens to their clubs. Looking at this from the arts venue view point is food for thought indeed. If arts audiences ran our venues, what art would we get?

As a committed AND fester, I participated in most of its programme over the weekend and there were way too many events to comment on here but some special experiences worth commenting on include the ‘Zee’ Exhibition at FACT – an immersive experience that leaves your physically and mentally altered, out of body and out of mind. All I will say is that they give you a tissue at the end and you need it.

‘Primate Cinema’ at the TAO art Gallery was cinema at its most sublime. An Arts Catalyst project made by Los Angeles based video artist, Rachel Mayeri, it was the result of years of working with Primates and studying how they respond to different types of media and what genres interest them. Billed as the first movie made for chimps, it made a great contribution to the new cinema programme. Included as part of the experience was another AND Salon, Simian Safari conducted on a bus touring around Knowsley Safari Park amongst Lions and Baboons. By the end of it I could scarcely see the difference between me and the chimps.

Dopplereffekt’s ‘Neutrino’ is also worth a mention for its fabulously comprehensive lecture on experimental physics, enhancing my understanding of the farther reaches of science. Using astrophysics lectures as the basis for an audio visual experience, it was a cooperation with AND Festival and the Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics. I had the joy of being there with the Damanhurian’s and our discussion added a layer of significance and meaning to the theories performed through Neutrino.

The screening of Finisterrae by director Sergio Caballero was a pilgrimage par excellence – hypnotic, absurd and visually captivating. A cinematic marvel of performance art on screen, it was a meditation on the end of the world, the end of life and the land of the living.

Likewise, the AND Salon on Reality Management was very inspiring with Author of Mirage Men, Mark Pilkington presenting a superb overview of a labyrinthine story of deception and paranoia during the cold war and how governments may have encouraged cults and fringe beliefs to distract from issues of real importance. He was joined by cultural theorist Mark Fisher in a feisty debate chaired by Roland Denning.

~media2012 also had an outing at AND, the festival providing a networking and gathering place for this ever increasing community of bloggers and citizen journalists who are interested in reporting on the London 2012 Games. I also interacted with the journalists, hacks and hackers who took part in the Media2012 and Scraperwiki workshop exploring the new tools which help ambitious newshounds break new ground. The challenge they had was not with the new tools but with finding their way through the labryinth of  2012 web sites to understand what was going on in the cultural programme for London 2012.

And, last but by no means least, a tiny little piece tucked away in a porn booth inside a sex shop. You go inside the shop, enter into one of the booths, put 2o pence in the slot and see something you would not expect – a short video piece of disaster porn, with buildings going up and down in frenzied sexual excitement. Titillating, surprising and no need for tissues – which you get at Zee.

I don’t recall going to a festival like this ever and I enjoyed the visionary intersection of craft, content and context – evidently the best art mix. The partnerships AND generated made such a marvel of a festival possible and must be commended – they resolutely illustrated the value of crossing boundaries and of forming collaborations between institutions and independents and of having wild cards amongst safe bets in a programme of work. As a result, the AND audience was broad and diverse, mixing specialists and generalists, uniting small scale communities into a bigger AND community – an audience defined by its interest in going to things that happen in the city and in different and diverse disciplines, modern ideas and topical mind bending art and debates.

In the Northwest the cultural programme for London 2012 has a focus on experimentation, participation and collaboration and the AND festival courtesy of funding from Legacy Trust UK is one of its gems. It seeks to engage people in the best art, exciting topical debates and in experience that is beyond the usual, normal and every day. In every way AND was ‘Olympian’ and a credit to the ingenuity of the North West and the imagination and vision of artists everywhere. As a platform for experimentation in both art and the festival format, AND has, in its 3rd year, found its feet and proves that it is possible to combine innovation with excellence and deliver a diverse programme that is coherent to a broad audience. AND is a hybrid product for the 21st century – a community connected spectacle for the mind of international standard and significance. I imagine there will be more than a few complaints if there is no AND 2013 in Liverpool.

Pics courtesy of Dr Andy Miah – thank you, my camera is bust – and a couple of web sites!

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~ by Debbi Lander on October 5, 2011.

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