INTERVIEW: Jon Cornbill and Adam Heardman (First Bowie, Now This!) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It can be truly challenging to interview someone you’re friends with, the natural inclination for any conversation is to edge towards in-jokes and the things only you would really find funny. With Jon Cornbill and Adam Heardman (two people I know well), that task was made a lot easier, with the project First Bowie, Now This! having stemmed from an in-joke between the two. The venture has grown significantly from its first original sprouting of an idea, and now is set for five days at The Berwick Gymnasium Gallery from Saturday 11th until Wednesday 15th November.

First Bowie, Now This! is set to feature 20 artists and performers, with poet Adam Heardman and visual artist Jon Cornbill being two of those as well as the curators for the whole thing. “It’s an exhibition bringing together visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, painters, performers, physical theatre, comedy, graphic designers and academics to put on an art exhibition that acts as a socio-political diagnosis of the year 2016,” Adam explained.

The choice of 2016 is the key to all of this. As Adam further clarified, “2016 seemed notable, especially on social media, as being branded the worst year in history. When pushed as to why, the first thing people would jump to would be David Bowie dying. The outpouring of grief on social media was so open and visceral that it started to appear like people were upset about something else, and this was the only kind of way people could put any kind of words to it. People were as outraged and sad about that as they were about, for example, Jo Cox being stabbed and shot on the street in a politically aggravated murder. We thought that people’s modes of expression and their latent feelings needed sort of exposing or exploring.”

We want it to be a very discursive space. Each subjective lens whether it be an artist’s one or someone responding to the art is as important

Now is the critical time to look at this now, before 2017 takes over in the memory, with our feelings for 2016 still fresh, but with enough of a gap that we can really explore it in full detail; “people have had an entire year to process everything that happened last year and really make considered and intelligent responses to something,” is how Jon succinctly put it.

It’s the reaction to the pieces that becomes so important; for both, the role of the person taking in the art is just as vital. “We want it to be a very discursive space. Each subjective lens whether it be an artist’s one or someone responding to the art is as important,” Adam asserts.

The choice of venue becomes intrinsic to this. Adam discovered The Berwick Gymnasium Gallery then “absolutely fell in love with the space” and from there, it was a match made in heaven. With a great deal of help from James Lowther and Berwick Visual Arts, of whom the pair can’t speak highly enough, they’ve kicked on to find a real home for an exciting project. Bringing this to the people of Berwick is crucial, “it’s one of those spots that’s been completely forgotten by the sweep of urban homogenisation. Everyone there has such colourful personalities. It does have a small town vibe, it has this outsider feel. Which is why I think they’re so amenable, and they’re so willing to put forward their opinion and discuss it,” is how Adam sees it.

For Jon too, the place is everything, “That location is so perfect. Even until now, there’s this internal conflict with the populous of Berwick that still argue about whether they’re Scottish or English. That’s so relevant to 2016, the idea of empire, walls, in out, Brexit, not Brexit, that Scottish and English split between the SNP and the Tories, it’s so relevant to what’s going on.”

From there, they’ve gone out and spoke to locals, to meet and engage ahead of the exhibition arriving. They met some real characters too, Adam told me of a man who further cemented the fact that the outpouring of grief for celebrity deaths in 2016 may have been about something bigger:  “we were talking to a guy in Berwick who has a dead pool, this fantastic bearded man who ran the music shop there. Well, you have to have an obituary in the times, to be considered a celebrity. He got out his little ledger, and was like, there weren’t more in 2016, there have already been more in  2017. He was fantastic. He brought his ledger out of a drawstring bag that he got free from HMRC, this faded old bag from the ‘90s. That kind of proved at this late stage that it was a matter of public perception and it had a lot more to do with things that were happening round the world globally and socio-politically.”

Adam came up with this statement which summed up the whole feeling about the universe crumbling as if Bowie somehow stitched the fabric of it all together, and I just fell about laughing

What of the catchy title then? Where did that originate from?

“It ran for a while as a catchphrase of ours, as a tongue in cheek way of latching onto that ridiculous social media based despair. Someone would drop a glass or tripped over, and I’d be, for fuck’s sake man, first Bowie now this,” is how Adam remembered it.

“It sort of developed. I remember the moment, we were both in The Stand, discussing these ideas, and around a film I wanted to make and what it all might mean. Adam came up with this statement which summed up the whole feeling about the universe crumbling as if Bowie somehow stitched the fabric of it all together, and I just fell about laughing. I thought it was hilarious. I then remember walking up to take the bins out, and on returning to the venue thought ‘something has to happen about this’. I put it to him, ‘we need to do something about this’. The sentence is too funny and the ideas are too valid and too potent,” was Jon’s similar take.

It’s Jon’s fascination with empires too that formed a really vital part, both are excited as Adam tells me, “behind the curatorial idea was something Jon had been doing about empire cycles about how cultures have this heave and collapse pattern. This might be the last exhale of the capitalist western model. That empire might be reaching something like its end, or at least people might be feeling that.” Jon adds in that, “it centres around the interest in the life cycles of empires. I found it fascinating that Hadrian’s Wall is like the marker of a fallen that was at its absolute bloated peak. It reaches Northern England and the emperor at the time realises that the empire was completely out of control.”

It’s those concepts steeped in knowledge that they’ve kicked on from, wanting scholarship and knowledge to be important to the whole project. With a range of artists too, Jon feels “it becomes our job to make all the pieces work in harmony with each other, and have a conversation with each other.”

With opening night featuring live performances, and a chance to see Adam’s performance poetry piece and Jon’s film centred around a gluttonous meal between flatmates on the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall, they’ve even laid on a bus so that people from Newcastle can attend (more info here). This is important too, as the length of time it’s on, and the opening night event, according to Jon, “forces you to spend proper time with it.”

With a line-up including AAZZBB, Bielecki&Bielecka, James Bridle, Deividas Buivydas, Josh Cadman, Jayne Dent, Ollie Doe, David Foggo, Aaron Guy, John Harrison, Nick Jeyarajah, Toby Lloyd, Andrew Maughan, We Are our Media, MothPhlegm, Rosa Postlethwaite, Joe Preston, Josh Raz, Robert Stuart, Jade Sweeting and John Whale alongside Jon and Adam themselves, it’s a truly special collection of multi-disciplinary, multi-talented creatives on show.

First Bowie, Now This! may be one of the most exciting projects to come out of the North East in a while, the sheer scope is so exciting, as is the attitudes of this pair. The way they view art and what they hope to achieve is infectious, and it was hard not to be inspired from just talking to them both about what this means to them.

Jon’s attitude that “art doesn’t have to be totally alienating and confusing, it does have to make you answer big questions globally and just within yourself,” is refreshing in its simplicity, and the shared passions and ideals of both are clear to see.

“We’re building bridges rather than walls,” is how Adam views it, “we hope to inspire in people a feeling that their voice still matters, that they’re not just throwing words down a black hole. If you say a true enough thing, in a true enough way there’s still hope and meaning.”

First Bowie, Now This! is at The Berwick Gymnasium Gallery from Saturday 11th until Wednesday 15th November.

Image Josh Raz’s Supernumeraries & Cartoon Violence 2017

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