Saturday, May 20, 2017

From this bare island

From the front page of Brighton & Hove Council's free newspaper.

That word, invariably connected to public art: accessible. What does it mean?

The Festival is held once a year across May, heralded on the first Saturday of the month by the noisy, pavement-blocking Children's Parade that disturbs my trawl of the North Laine's secondhand bookshops. Otherwise I never notice that the festival is on, so promotion of these "arts hubs" must be irreproachable in its motivation. After all, as Kate Tempest says in the flyer pushed through each resident's letterbox, art should be "no big deal – just life itself". It's central to her theme of giving people's lives back to them through art: "We are so busy being human, we can lose touch with how bright and clear life is". She recommends attending as many events as possible and treating it "like you are a pilgrim on a quest". In doing so, you might find something that connects you to "a deeper and more soulful level with the truth of lived experience". 

What strikes me in this familiar appeal to accessibility and relevance is the allusion to religious belief and practice, not only in her choice of words but also in her Pint at Emmaus pose. Isn't this what is most removed from the everyday? Of course, the choice of words might be the casual coincidence of marketing hyperbole and democracyspeak, but it does stand out.

In what might also be a coincidence, this month I began reading Eamon Duffy's monumental study of traditional religion in England between 1400 and 1580; that is, before and after the English Reformation. The Stripping of the Altars describes in detail how the Catholic liturgy gave shape to the lives of the ancestors of those to whom Kate Tempest is appealing. It outlines a religious calendar packed with candlelit ceremonies and elaborate processions, with the four main ones embracing pre-Christian festivals marking the turning-points of the seasons. We have only to imagine the transformation of modern society around Christmas multiplied throughout the year to recognise how this would not only knit a community together but give a context to individual devotion. Reading it, one becomes aware of an alien world whose ruins are all around us.

The ghost of such festivals appeared to me as I was trying to cross a road blocked by the Children's Parade or, more accurately, the parents watching from the pavement. The children were excited to be dressed up and ready to march behind a group-made float (the one I saw was a galleon made from turquoise crepe). As they banged their drums and blew their whistles, their natural urge to show off was released and legitimated by the event. Any resentment I felt about the noise drowning out the podcast in my earphones was mitigated by this brief apprehension of the world of my ancestors. For all the relevance to current social and political concerns of the festival's events – Tempest's own performance is "set against a backdrop of global crisis" while a dance event (contain your excitement) "focuses the subjective and objective gaze within private and private spaces" – this simple procession seemed more authentic and effective.

I haven't attended a main festival event since 1993 (an Elvis Costello gig), for the same reason I have never willingly attended church. The Books and Debate category I find especially repellent because of its overt lack of literature. However, last year I did enter a thousand-year-old church to see a fringe performance by Alain Louafi of Stockhausen's Inori. It was the first time I'd heard his music on such a scale.

For 73 minutes (the introduction was precise) Louafi mimed to the music, making gestures synchronised according to the instructions Stockhausen had given him. Sometimes they were prayer-like, sometimes not. Here is a review of the event. All I can say now is that it was like witnessing the religious ceremony of an alien race. Would this be considered 'inaccessible'? It wasn't a question I asked at the time but might be why a few people walked out during the performance. If so, they would have found the night sky inaccessible in the same way.

I cannot say any more about Inori, not only because I lack the vocabulary but because stopping here seems to be necessary. Which leads me to this inexplicably beautiful and moving tweet that Peter Lorimer (not the Leeds and Scotland football legend) posted from Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire after witnessing the Straw Bear procession, which might well say all there is to say about the value of accessibility:


  1. Dear Steve,

    Like you I’ve had mixed and very personal experiences of the Brighton Festival, and the revelation for me was when I chose completely to disregard the advertising, explanatory or otherwise. The Open Houses in particular appealed to me, not because of some instantly identifiable imperative in the art they exhibited, but because of a whole set of intangible things -- that these were people’s homes, and they placed their works out of necessity in particular places -- in blissful bays around large furniture and kitchen tables, or filling a vestibule, a half-lit attic or a defunct conservatory. They left me with both a sense of the fragility of art, forced to compromise with the everyday, and a sense of exhilaration that art continues to make inroads in this way. In each house, like a rampant ivy, art was conspicuous by the things it had evicted, or the empty spaces it had filled. I had gone out looking for art, and what I found was art, but not the way I wanted or expected, that neither agreed with my terms of reference nor always satisfied my demands for quality. But I wonder if art can originate in any other way? I feel instinctively that art is something that must be shared, and to witness it in its embryonic forms and strivings is akin to a moment of … grace?

    Best, Alex

  2. Thanks Alex. I have never been to an open house exhibition, mainly because it seems odd to walk into somebody's home as a stranger, and the 'arts trail' brochure on offer around here displays the familiar mix of craft (ceramics, etc.), representative aestheticism (a homemade version of professional graphic design) and derivative expressionism. It is all a response to art that conflates its own seduction with art. But I do appreciate that they do not approval from a gallery with its white walls and placards.



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