From the windows of the Star and Shadow Cinema a welcoming glow radiates out into the January night. We are gathered in the chilly entrance for the launch of Festival of the Not. As a gesture of foresight, a festival pass comes in the form of a stylish black and white scarf. Stitched into the pattern at one end is the ‘shifty eyes’ emoji, the recurring motif of Giles Bailey & CIRCA Projects; at the other is Joseph Beuys’ iconic hat.
Through four days of performances, music, poetry, workshops, discussions and film screenings, Festival of the Not celebrates both the 10th anniversary of CIRCA Projects and the completion of their two year collaboration with artist Giles Bailey. CIRCA is an independent organisation experimenting with exhibition formats and collaboration within its regional context of the Northeast. In 2016 they invited Bailey to spend two years exploring co-authored making and research. This has since manifested as public programming, workshops, open studios, and commissioned works. Tonight, as Bailey serves drinks from the Star and Shadow café, we are paying tribute to ‘Art’s Birthday’, which Fluxus artist Robert Filliou proclaimed fell on January 17th every year. On the edge of the mingling crowd waiting to be let into an opening performance by Kim Coleman, a birthday candle powers a tape recording of Filliou’s ‘Whispered Art History’ (recorded in 1977).
Rather than presenting a polished product of Bailey’s two years with CIRCA, Festival of the Not is an experiment in collaborative programming between GBC and Star and Shadow co-founder Christo Wallers, who devised part of the screening programme. Its focus is on breaking down hierarchies between artists, organisers and audience. This is largely achieved through the inclusivity of its programme. In a line-up which comprises many of GBC’s past collaborators, they have provided platforms for both established and early-career artists, local and international (including French performer Anne-James Chaton and Afro-Asian artist, DJ and producer Chooc Ly Tan). Free daytime events include a movement workshop with Glasgow Open Dance School, whose motto declares: “Everyone is a dancer! And everyone is a teacher!”. The festival instates the value of learning from one another and that to participate as an audience is to engage in open discourses. This is encapsulated by Wallers’ project ‘The Ignorant Curator’ which presents films previously unseen by the curator—an approach which guided much of the screening programme. This simple setup dismantles knowledge hierarchies and draws upon the ‘hive mind’ of the audience in post-screening discussions rather than the limited perspective of an individual. Given these generous, inclusive principles, the Star and Shadow, Newcastle’s cooperative volunteer-run cinema, provides the ideal venue for GBC. Both are the culmination of the often-undervalued labours of discussion, collaboration and care—contrary to the quantitative pressures of cultural capital.
Embedded nondescriptly in the festival’s packed programme is ‘Islanders’, the most recent CIRCA commission and a multimedia collaboration between Bailey and his former students: artists Sophie Soobramanien, Jamie Hammill and Nellie Saunby. Through collaged fragments of video and live performance the work explores constructs of island identity at a pivotal point in the UK’s changing relationship to other landmasses. A strength of the piece is its seamless blending of disparate source material—including Shakespeare, video games and Boris Johnson’s Brexit speech—into a unique visual and performative vocabulary. As the festival coincides with ongoing stalemate over the Brexit deal, the political relevance of ‘Islanders’ is potent and echoed by a screening of Peter Greenaway’s film The Sea in Their Blood (1983), an irreverent analysis of our national relationship to the sea. Both underline that ‘autonomy’ is unsustainable. This message is in keeping with CIRCA’s operations in the Northeast. Though the region’s artist-led scene is extensive it is also economically precarious. The Star and Shadow opened its new venue only last June since being served notice from its original building in 2015, a story repeated through the relocation of many cultural organisations in recent years. CIRCA’s collaborative approach responds to this need for sustainability by forging relationships with local artists and those further afield.
Artist Louwrien Wijers leads public discussions across two days of the festival. Through her approach of ‘conversation as sculpture’, we discuss the pressing need to create a more compassionate economy. Wijers worked closely with Beuys throughout the 1970s and 80s and in 1990 organised the conference Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, bringing together notable speakers including Robert Rauschenberg, David Bohm and the Dalai Lama. Wijers’ bottom line, taking her lead from Beuys, is complete economic reform and instating the value of creativity. Though discussion is lively, there is a desire among participants to both move away from the reverence for singular male figures and its tendency to fortify received wisdoms. Contrary to Beuys’ declaration “everyone is an artist”, festivals and cinemas offer a different possibility: an accessible meeting place for sharing in collective discourse and experience. Everyone is an audience.
Festival of the Not is a quiet crucible of exchange and serendipity. One drifts freely between the warmth of the event space and the cinema, encountering films, performances, participating in workshops, engaging with discussions or simply socialising over food and drink. But after the final night of DJ sets, rolling into the languid film screenings of the following day, questions persist.What constitutes valuable action towards societal change? What is the role of culture in this? First one must appreciate how GBC have demonstrated alternative approaches to public programming and utilised the context of a festival to bring people together and facilitate discussion.
The final question of “what next?” has always been and remains an open one for Bailey and CIRCA. The immediate future: a new installation of ‘Islanders’ for the NGCA in Sunderland which will be shown there from February. In the long-term, though Giles Bailey & CIRCA Projects has formally come to an end, its labours point to the value of collaboration and learning through others, not simply in public programming, but in how we relate to one another.
Festival of the Not, Giles Bailey & CIRCA Projects, Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, 17-20 January.
Katy Bentham is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2018 she co-edited ‘Eros in Blue’, a collection of new writing from the Northeast on the subject of the ‘expanded erotic’ and love as art practice.