Summer Summary 1: Art Everywhere


August is drawing to a close and to my horror I realise that I haven’t done much blogging this summer. I have a good excuse: I was away, on a working holiday trip to Europe. So to lessen my guilt of not producing much content for Art of Festivals, here’s a summary of what I’ve seen, heard and done this past month. I’ll start here with my encounters with free music and art in unusual settings.
(All photos by @artoffestivals, click on images to view a larger version in a new tab).

Part 1: Art Everywhere

Manchester Jazz Festival

I started my trip with 10 days of live contemporary jazz at the 18th annual Manchester Jazz Festival, allowing me to reunite with old friends and discover new and unexpected gems. There were lots of free gigs on offer, at the rate of 3 or 4 a day, and the paying gigs are usually priced at no more than £15. The festival uses a variety of venues and spaces throughout the city centre, from the “Festival Teepee”, a huge tent originally commissioned by Manchester International Festival, to the 300-year-old St Ann’s Church, the recently renovated Band on the Wall (which eventful 200-year history as a pub, then cinema, then live music venue can be found here) and the Grade-II listed Midland Hotel, where Rolls is rumoured to have met Royce.

Attending the festival – and not working it, as I had done for 3 years – was a great reminder of what it’s like to be on the other side. The festival team might be solving a crisis backstage – the next band is stuck in traffic, some volunteers haven’t showed up, or the horrendous weather is threatening to ruin the show – but nothing transpires stage-side: the gig starts bang on time, the sound is perfectly balanced, the performers are highly skilled and engaging, and the only real question remaining is whether or not to have that second glass of Pimm’s.

My festival highlight: spending lots of time with the great guys from Trio Journal Intime (Sylvain Bardiau – trumpet, Matthias Mahler – trombone, Frederic Gastard – bass saxophone), rescuing said bass saxophone from airline mismanagement hell and being completely blown away by their ‘Lips on Fire’ Jimmy Hendrix-inspired gig. Here’s a live performance video for further proof:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

After my favourite festival, I went to my favourite sculpture park – not that I know that many others, but I can’t imagine that they can come any finer than this: 500 acres of landscaped park in the heart of Yorkshire, with a huge collection of works (featuring Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro, Andy Goldsworthy, James Turrell, Richard Long, Antony Gormley, Helen Escobedo – and so many more that it’s probably best to check the full list here), dotted here and there in the meadows, woods and formal gardens. The indoor galleries host infallibly exceptional temporary exhibitions: this time Yinka Shonibare MBE, on my previous visit Jaume Plensa. As for most cultural institutions in the UK, entrance is free, you only pay for parking; and there are many events, workshops and guided visits on offer for all ages.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, summer 2013

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, summer 2013

HaHa Bridge, Brian Fell

HaHa Bridge, Brian Fell

Ten Seated Figures, Magdalena Abakanowicz

Ten Seated Figures, Magdalena Abakanowicz

Buddha, Niki de Saint Phalle

Buddha, Niki de Saint Phalle

Wind Sculpture, Yinka Shonibare MBE

Wind Sculpture, Yinka Shonibare MBE


Panopticon (noun): structure, space or device providing a comprehensive or panoramic view

The following day, I set off with friends in the other direction for more outdoor sculpture fun. The Panopticons are a major public art commissioning project, meant to create new landmarks in the rural setting of East Lancashire. All four structures were designed by different architects and/or artists, working both as focal points and viewpoints and drawing from the local heritage. They were completed in 2006-2007. I have already written about the Panopticon project in my post about the research project Why Art Works, so I wanted to see them for myself.

Travelling in style in a red, white and chrome Triumph 2000, we created a public Google Map and followed the route suggested in this article by Nick Hunt, Director of Mid-Pennine Arts, the commissioning agency behind this cultural regeneration effort. We only managed to score 2 ½ out of 4, mainly because we spent so much time chatting about our impressions, taking photos, getting lost, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

The two structures we experienced close-up are Colourfields, a converted cannon battery site set in the very Victorian Corporation Park, and Atom, perched on top of the hill in Wycoller Country Park. In both instances, we walked in beautiful landscaped settings, taking in the sights, enjoying the fresh air and reflecting on the shaping of nature by culture.

While we were determined that we would make it to Singing Ringing Tree, we had to give it a miss when we realised that we were only a few miles away from Bronte Country (i.e. the likelihood of a good pub). And the remaining half Panopticon? That’s Halo, which we spotted from the motorway on the way back to Manchester.

Mid-Pennine Arts’ website states that the Panopticons “were designed to attract visitors into the countryside to enjoy the stunning landscapes that this delightful area has to offer”. This cunning plan clearly worked, as there are very few other reasons that could have influenced us to head to Blackburn and Burnley, and I’m immensely glad that we did!

Atom, Panopticon, Wycoller Country Park

Atom, Panopticon, Wycoller Country Park
Design by Peter Meacock with Katarina Novomestska and Architecture Central Workshop.

View from inside Atom

View from inside Atom

View outside Atom

Art Everywhere

I was lucky to be in England just in time for Art Everywhere – self-described as “A Very Big, Big Art show”. It’s a nationwide initiative swapping billboard ads for art posters, using the collections of the Tate (Modern and Britain) and other museums and galleries.

The exhibition ran from 12 to 25 August, featuring 57 different British works of art across 22,000 poster sites. I spotted quite a few in train stations in Sheffield and Manchester and all over London.

It’s public art in more than one way: it was part-funded by the public, through a crowdfunding campaign raising over £30,000, with rewards such as badges, bags, T-shirts and framed prints; the works were chosen by public voting, out of a longlist of over 100 artworks; and interaction was encouraged via a photography competition. It is estimated that 90% of the UK population will see at least one of these billboards during the course of the campaign.

The interactive map helps getting a sense of the huge scale of this project, and this video shows a few works in their newly found context.

The Art of Food


Food & Drink Festivals are popular fixtures of the social calendar, and in the course of my travels, I have partaken in events such as La Fête du vin (Bordeaux), Vijazz (Vilafranca del Penèdes), Manchester Food and Drink Festival, Toronto’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious – and possibly a few more that I don’t remember.

These are mostly business-led festivities, offering opportunities to sample wine, beer or food at reduced prices. Food (and drink) being the quintessential social binder, this type of festival is likely to be pleasant and convivial, as well as leaning towards the commercial and touristy side.

Food can also get eventful in large-scale gatherings, such as le Dîner en Blanc™ or celebrations organised by the French “fooding” movement. The convivial factor is also high up there, and the crowd is as much a part of the spectacle as what they consume.

If the art of food can be the subjet of a festival, what can an arts festival do with food? I’m not going to foray into Food Art for now, although for some interesting examples, I recommend a visit to La Milk Factory, a French dairy industry-sponsored creative lab run by a distant cousin of mine, or the work of Polish artist Milena Korolczuk, who carves out of bread small heads in the image of Marina Abramovic, Lenin, Jay-Z or Sartre, or else the dreamy Edible Vistas of Canadian-Hungarian artist Eszter Burghardt.

Instead, I want to feature three very different projects that have in common a playful yet experimental attitude to food. Two of them were recently presented by multidisciplinary arts festivals, and the third one is prime material to be expanded to a wider scope.

1. Future Chefs

Toronto-based Luminato Festival has offered a food-focused weekend for several years now, creating a street food market atmosphere by inviting local chefs to set up stalls and offer $5 portions to visitors. In 2013, they partnered with Mammalian Diving Reflex to revamp this traditional model and throw a few kids into the mix.

Mammalian Diving Reflex is self-described as “a culture production workshop that creates site and social-specific performance events, theatre-based productions, gallery-based participatory installations, video products, art objects and theoretical texts”.  They often work with children – such as in previous projects Haircuts by Children and These are the People in your Neighbourhood – to reverse social hierarchies and disrupt stereotypes.

Future Tastes of Toronto – At the Kids’ Table involved over 20 Toronto chefs and six classes of grades 4-6 students, meeting for workshops in the weeks leading up to the Festival. During the 2-day ‘performance’, kids promoted “their” chef to the public in attendance and animated the Kids’ Table, a large communal eating space.

2. Future Communities

In 2011, Manchester International Festival started Alpha Farm, an experiment to transform a disused 1960s office building into a vertical farm, with the help and for the benefit of the local community. This project was located in Wythenshawe,  Manchester, ironically one of the original “garden city” planned housing estates which would now probably qualify as a food desert. Hopes for a forthcoming urban harvest were high, and this 2011 video produced by ethical communications agency Creative Concern features experts from different fields drumming up the excitement about the project.

As the building proved too challenging to convert, MIF has taken the lessons learned to start the Biospheric Project in a derelict mill in Salford, right next to Manchester. The focus has now switched from vertical farm to agricultural lab, and the community engagement is even deeper, with many school visits, workshops, talks and open tours to introduce local residents to the innovative growing systems developed by the research team. The project is described as “part farm, part laboratory and part research centre, all embedded in the heart of an existing community”. According to this 2013 Guardian article, it is also intended to be a “legacy commission that will continue its work for at least ten years.” Salford’s Mayor describes the socio-agricultural experiment as a “flagship project” for the city, which is hoping to lead the way in new food growing systems.

The project is supported by Urban Splash, a developer that has led the urban regeneration in Manchester with its iconic warehouse conversions, and is meant to be a resource for the local community, with a wholefood shop that will eventually sell the Biosphere produce. Outside the mill, 70 fruit trees have already been planted, and a worm farm provides another bond to the local community, as worms are sold to fishermen at a low price in exchange for their compost. Inside, diverse growing experiments are ongoing, such as aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics), and the roof top features beehives and chicken.

Project Director Vincent Walsh introduces the Biospheric Project (as part of an interview series):

And here is a quick rooftop tour by local journalist and tour guide Jonathan Schofield, with city views:

3. Future Tastes

It is anticipated that in 2050 the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people. The expansion of the world’s foodprint that is expected to accompany this population increase may exceed the tolerances of our planet’s ecosystems, activating unknown environmental and economic tipping points, and result in extreme food shortages. HOW WILL WE FEED EVERYONE WHEN THE TIME COMES?

By eating bugs, of course.

In 2011, Mammalian Diving Reflex and a host of collaborators presented a Toronto Nuit Blanche installation entitled Farmers’ Market 2050 offering the food of the future: micro-crops and micro-livestock, or, in plain English, algae and bugs. This vision of the future is based on the work of Third Millenium Farming, who are conducting research into cricket farming.

3MF has now partnered with Alimentary Initiatives to disseminate this research in a series of events called Future Food Salon, featuring live music and art installations, cricket-based food (such as burgers made out of chick pea and cricket flours) and a lively presentation by lead researcher Jakub Dzamba exploring urban and home-based cricket farming as a future alternative to current intensive agricultural practices.

This 3-minute video introduction does a good job of presenting problems and potential solutions:

And here is a video trailer for Future Food Salon, presented by Alimentary Initiatives’ founder Aruna Handa:

Finally, here are 5 reasons to eat crickets taken from Alimentary Initiatives’ blog:

  1. Nutrition. Crickets are nutritious. Cooked weight protein rates, gram for gram, are comparable to chicken and beef. They are also rich in omega-3 fats and high in iron.
  2. Sustainability. Cricket farming is more sustainable than 20th-century-style livestock rearing. Cricket rearing is less taxing on water resources, land resources, and produces less methane. Because insects do not produce fur, bones or hair, their ratio of feed to protein produced is excellent.
  3. Distribution. Cricket farming can be managed in a decentralized way. With Dzamba’s farms, which sit on a single square metre of land, and with his new counter-top prototypes, every household could become a producer, feeding their crickets kitchen scraps.
  4. Environment. Crickets are found throughout the planet, so the risk of an environmental disaster through the escape of crickets represents little threat to existing eco-systems.
  5. Ethics. Crickets can be euthanized in a humane manner by freezing them, which causes their metabolism to slow down, so that when they are cooked, they are asleep.
Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Steve Mead, Artistic Director

5 questions to...

For the first installment of my ‘5 Questions‘ to festival folks, I have the pleasure to share insights from my good friend Steve Mead, a veteran Artistic Director who’s been involved with Manchester Jazz Festival from the very first 1-day showcase, in 1996 (which, for the anecdote, was rescheduled at the last minute because of the IRA bomb that exploded in Manchester city centre that very same day).

1. Hi Steve! Your next festival is in July 2013. What’s a typical day right now?

You’ve caught me at my busiest time of year – I’m at the tail end of programming our festival (75 bands in 10 days) and just starting to write the copy for our brochure and website. So recently I’ve been having lots of phone calls and emails with artists about everything, ranging from whether a repertoire of Swedish folk songs is appropriate for a jazz festival (I think it is!) to whether a vibraphone, drum kit and sousaphone will all fit in one car… Putting together the copy – apart from the challenge of trying to find 75 different ways to describe music – really helps bring into focus the intense audience experience that a festival creates. Seeing the full schedule unfold before your eyes, one wonderful event after another, makes me feel enormously privileged to be just a small part of making it all happen.

2. You’ve been organising mjf for 18 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

Yes, it’s our 18th this year, and I wouldn’t say things get easier with time, the problems just become more familiar! One thing I do hear more of is how relaxed and well-organised the staff & volunteer team looks during the festival itself. Planning ahead and being able to anticipate potential problems (equipment or people not turning up on time, flight delays etc), and making allowances for tricky situations that may not actually happen, gives us more breathing space during the event if everything does go smoothly – so we’ve clearly got better at planning. The constant challenges are almost invariably financial: in the current economic climate, there can be unforeseen disappointments in any one of our income streams, which impact right across the organisation.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Seeing a band give an inspiring performance – especially if it’s an artist you weren’t sure about and were taking a bit of a risk on, or the premiere of new project that really delivers and connects with the audience. During many of the gigs I’m positioned alone at the side of the stage and often revel in some beautiful spine-tingling musical moments.

4. What other festival do you or would you love to attend as an audience member?

I love to see how other festivals work so can rarely attend just as an audience member. There are many jazz festivals like Molde in Norway that I can never get to because of our timing clash. I love going to other small festivals like One Taste in London – not jazz but a curious mixture of styles and settings that makes for a special festival experience.

5. Over to you – Steve Radio Presenter*, what question would you ask Steve Festival Organiser?

If you were to hand over the reins to your successor, what one piece of advice would you give them? I’d say: be yourself, be memorable and don’t just copy what I’ve done – make your own mark and take it in new directions.

* Steve’s other dream job – listen to him introducing each gig and occasionally on ALL FM and BBC Radio 3!

– – –

Manchester Jazz Festival has just announced its new commission for mjf 2013 – I wrote a few words about it in a previous post, and you can read more about it here.

The art of commissioning


I’m just back from a wonderful evening of new music courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and their long-running New Creations Festival, which has just concluded its 9th edition tonight with its grand finale, Tod Machover‘s A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City. To create the musical portrait of the city, the composer turned over to its people, and not only listened to them, but invited them to participate in the writing of the piece. The festival’s theme was the celebration of the partnership between technology and music, and the technology in this case was provided by none less than MIT, in the form of a graphic notation software that could be used by schoolchildren and anyone else who wanted to contribute.

What was especially interesting about it was how visible the creative process itself was left to observe, and how intensely collaborative it had been. From MIT Media Lab, who provided their technological expertise and tools, to teachers learning to use the software to in turn guide their students through it, via the TSO Youth Orchestra who helped to transcribe city sounds recorded by Torontonians into musical notation, right up to the CN Tower, Toronto’s freestanding structure, that offered a special light show synchronized to the performance, there were many hands and minds at play, and Tod Machover did an extraordinary job of turning all these contributions into one piece of playable – and listenable – music

Of course the event was duly noted as a ‘World Premiere’ and ‘TSO Commission’ in the brochure, and this brings me to a common trait of many festivals: presenting new and recent works or instigating their creation.  Some festivals have made it into a distinctive feature – such as Manchester International Festival, self-described as “the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events”. In the same city, the Manchester Jazz Festival formalised their commissioning scheme a few years ago, making it an open application with clear criteria and naming the scheme mjf originals (I have some claim to the name, and produced the first two official selections in 2008, Matt Owens’ Ten and Olivia Moore’s Mask).

The next mjf originals commission will be premiered this coming July, and here’s a taster from the website: “a collaboration between Mike Hall and Deborah Rogers, a new and quite unique ensemble that will fuse early renaissance music and contemporary jazz, with a mixture of modern and replica 16th century instruments”, such as “crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornets, sackbuts, lute, gemshorns and recorders”. Pretty original indeed.

Right from the start, mjf originals has been an open application scheme, whereby artists can submit their project and be selected on clearly stated criteria (one of them being the connection of either the composer, the performers or the concept itself to Manchester and its region). Selected applicants are then invited for an informal interview to present their project in more details, and the fees and production budget and timeline are jointly decided with the mjf team. It’s an artist-led commissioning process, probably as transparent and collaborative as it gets, and following the creative process from first draft to performance was a huge perk of the job.

And as a post-scriptum, Tod Machover’s new commission has just been announced: he will be bringing his crowd-sourced symphony to Edinburgh International Festival, this time inviting contributions from all over the world, alongside 10 other premieres revealed here.