TAITMAIL. Coming soon: the wrap around arts festival

Festivals, which have been in a darkened room for the last year, are emerging with their plans for post-Covid liberation, but they have been changing during their hibernation. Get ready for the wrap around arts festival.


The paradigm for cultural festivals used to be the 1851 Great Exhibition, brainchild of the founder of the V&A, Henry Cole, but it was a thinly disguised trade fair which was the prototype for the next century, morphing into Expositions and then Expos. After the Second World War there was a new mood and a new kind of cultural event – first the Edinburgh Festival (originally just a music event) and then the 1951 austerity busting Festival of Britain, the “Britain Can Make It” jubilee that gave us a model for the next 50 years.
 
Music festivals, book festivals, opera festivals, rock festivals, antiques festivals, jazz festivals, dance festivals, art festivals, drama festivals crowded in on us. In the noughties the whole of the Southbank Centre was declared a year-round festival site by its then artistical director Jude Kelly, with a ten-metre square sign announcing to passers-by on Waterloo Bridge that, step this way, and they could find “Festivals for the World”.
 
Covid stopped all that, and festival organisers have spent the time in kitchen table seclusion scrabbling around for replacement funding, trying to maintain a public face through newly discovered possibilities online, and planning some kind of return.

They’re being as inventive as they can be, and although the Arts Council moved fast to get rescue funding to as many as it could, the money could only let them tread water. They’ve had to cut their cloth accordingly, and hope to make the result look like a splendid new suit.

This week the Leicester Comedy Festival announced its return in February combining with a kids’ comedy festival – including workshops in schools across the county - and a special event to raise funding with a Stand Up Challenge in which MPs and local business luminaries reach into their communities via the centre-stage mike. “They laughed when I said I was going to do stand-up” said local MP Jon Ashworth. “Well, they ain’t laughing now”. The London International Mime Festival will be back in January, Covid restrictions in place, with performances augmented by online workshops, specially commissioned films shown online, and a borrow of the Barbican Cinema to show rare slapstick movies.
 
Sharon Canavar, CEO of Harrogate International Festivals (HIF) - eight separate festivals centred on the North Yorkshire spa town ranging from music to crime writing - says the UK cultural landscape has changed beyond recognition in 2020. A charity, HIF has to raise 98% of its income from box office, sponsorship and donations, most of which has dried up so that her team has shrunk by half to four. Nevertheless, like many arts organisations it has perforce become a broadcaster online and launched a podcast that reached 43 in the UK arts podcast charts; it found it could run online book clubs, community arts campaigns, family music workshops. It commissioned and produced a world premiere, and created vital paid work for hundreds of authors and musicians. 
 
And there’s something else. The Institute of Art and Ideas is a philosophy and arts organisation set up by the broadcaster and philosopher Hilary Lawson in 2008 to explore belief and the concepts that will shape our future. It normally hosts the world’s largest festival of thought and music, HowTheLightGetsIn, twice a year, at Hay-on-Wye and Kenwood in Hampstead. Covid cancelled plans this year and instead HowTheLightGetsIn was transferred online. 
 
The result has been an on-screen reinvention of a physical festival campus which has quickly developed a worldwide audience in more than 50 countries, 3,000 users in four days and 300 events who were able to share discussions with guests as diverse as Joseph Stiglitz, Bianca Jagger, Anish Kapoor, Rory Stewart, George the Poet, Simon Blackburn, Colm Toibin, Nancy Fraser and Michael Sandel, and subjects including How We Became Who We AreEradicating Gender and Experimenting With Truth. It is the world’s first virtual reality festival of ideas, and while it will return to terra firma in some form when the crisis is past, its online presence is now permanent. The IAI now hosts live debate events - as  IAI Live -  every other Monday on iai.tv – using the virtual event space developed for the festival. My image here is the Ring stage at HowTheLightGetsIn’s virtual festival site.
 
When the fabulous 14-18 NOW commemorations of the First World War years – the then culture secretary Maria Miller was grudgingly allowed it by the Cameron government and the four year lonf festival was a success undreamt of even by her - ended two years ago there was a flurry of government announcements of successor fêtes – the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (rather lost in other events this year), the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, the 70thanniversary of the Queen’s reign (which seems to largely involve changing May Bank Holiday Monday to June Bank Holiday Thursday).
 
And there was also something that at first manifested as the Brexit Fair, taken up by Boris Johnson - suddenly made aware that the creative industries are worth £100bn a year to the economy - to be a showcase for our creative prowess that “can help heal the UK” after bouncing out of Europe. “The nationwide festival will give us a fantastic opportunity to champion all that is great about the UK” gushed the then culture secretary Nicky Morgan a year ago. “It will be a tremendous showcase for our creativity and innovation, which will not only celebrate our values and identities but will also help attract new inward business and investment”. Johnson flung £120m at it, and the man who made a success of Hull’s year as Capital of Culture in 2017, Martin Green, was appointed to run it.
 
Whatever Johnson’s political hopes for the project, it certainly won’t make up for the loss of the thousands of freelances the sector depends on, or the staunched free flow of talent across the Channel that is the lifeblood of the creative industries. But what Green is formulating for Festival* UK 2022, its working title, goes far beyond a commercial expo. 
 
Bedded ostensibly in the offices of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (taking place in July and August 2022), Green and his team are formulating a year round UK-wide one-off event of ten distinctly different projects for which 30 consortia have been commissioned to come up with proposals by February. The BBC is the broadcast partner.
 
The core purpose is to show how creativity is as alive in the sciences as the arts, and each group in which minnows have equal status with giants has to take on three elements of the acronym STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics – and one of the three has to be the arts. The key, says Green’s head of communications Ben McKnight, is to break down silos in creativity and show how one discipline can inform and generate with others; most of the group members, McKnight says, have never actually met, all their connections having been online. And, he adds, it will give work to hundreds, maybe thousands, of self-employed creatives.
 
Sally Potter’s film company Adventure Pictures is in a group with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Open University, Sonia Friedman Productions and the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing; Network Rail and the Institute of Engineering and Technology are with the Alexander Whitley Dance Company and the business networker Little Dipper; the New Vic Theatre is in a consortium with the School of Computing; and Manchester International Festival is with the Sonic Arts Centre and the Science Museum. 
 
And with Manchester’s £130m The Factory now due to be finished in time for the 2023 Manchester International Festival when a technically interactive building will become both home and performer in the programme, another dimension of the festival experience beckons from beyond 2022.
 
So while the much missed festivals of 2020 will be back next year, albeit in pale and interesting forms, the arts festival could be about to be the next most influential manifestation of the expo since 1851.

 

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