INTERVIEW: Middlesbrough Art Weekender | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974) Photo (c) Centre Canadien d’Architecture

The largest contemporary art festival in the North East returns this year in its most-loved real-life form. Middlesbrough Art Weekender takes over venues across the town from Thursday 30th September-Sunday 3rd October, and brings with it exclusive exhibitions, immersive experiences and eye-opening installations.

Artists are recruited for the festival through an open call; Liam Slevin, co-founder of MAW and curator of The Auxiliary Project Space, explains that it’s one of the most exciting parts of the process for him. “We had over 110 applications this year and it really shows the level that artists are operating at in the North East, despite the challenge of the last 18 months. We selected 10 artists and that exhibition will be happening at The Auxiliary Project Space, it’s a mix of painting, drawing, installation, video and performance.”

Liam explains that this year’s festival had to cope with unprecedented challenges. “Outside of the North East Open Call it has actually been a tricky year for selecting artists; bringing in artists from abroad is a real challenge due to the unfortunate mix of Brexit and Covid. This also meant programming large touring international installations was a no go. But like everything, limitations can be very exciting and lead to more creative responses!”

The theme around this year’s event is Infrastructure, which artists have responded to in various ways. The successes of the festival are numerous, including a North East exclusive of work by American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose films Splitting (1974) and Day’s End will be shown at 32 Albert Road. Splitting documents the artist’s use of a chainsaw to bisect a New Jersey house scheduled for demolition, transforming the house into a temporary sculptural environment; while Day’s End documents his ambitious and controversial deconstruction project at Pier 52 on the Hudson River. Also of note is an immersive experience from revered artist and musician Jimmy Cauty. “We are delighted to be working with Jimmy Cauty, of KLF and Banksy’s Dismaland fame.” Liam says. “His project Municipal Disaster Zone Estate is an immersive architectural experience housed in a 40ft shipping container. The craft and skill of the work is unbelievable.” The dystopian model village features abandoned concrete tower blocks containing satirical scenes of mass social, economic and environmental devastation, from the residential ‘Live-Work-Die’ Units to a high-security children’s prison, a care home for the elderly and a centre for neo-pagan misbehaviour. Located in Centre Square during the Weekender, it’ll then move to The Auxiliary for four weeks.

MAW and Middlesbrough have a lot to offer and I think when an area is underestimated there is a real chance of changing people’s perceptions

Elsewhere in the programme, an iteration of Fiona Crisp’s installation Material Sight engages with the presence of places such as underground mines and the immaterial nature of science being pursued in them; Bristol-based artist Jo Lathwood’s Is It Magma? features large-scale installations and sculpture that respond to a particular site – using Middlesbrough’s industrial heritage as her inspiration she will perform live smelting experiences to create lava sculptures by experimenting with historic foundry techniques; Narbi Price’s Lockdown paintings, featuring images of benches covered in red tape during the beginning of the pandemic are emotionally affecting; while David Shrigley’s photography and Ben Long’s spirit level sculptures take an alternative look at temporary structures.

Digital infrastructure is also at the forefront of the weekend, demonstrated in Stephanie Dinkins’ video work of an AI robot conversation which explores dynamics of bias in its formulation; while Anna Ridler’s work involves machine learning and bitcoin prices in the form of tulips, a 21st Century echo of the tulip bulb market bubble of the 1600s. On Friday 1st October, Gordon Dalton and S Mark Gubb’s film Route 666: Northern Valhalla gets its world premiere at Pineapple Blacka visual and aural assault, the film documents a road trip along the A66, filmed in early 2021 and featuring a cacophony of emotions and opinions which commemorate the present for an unknown future.

Liam explains why Middlesbrough offers the perfect environment for such creativity to thrive. “There is a long history of artist support in the area, Navigator North have been going over 10 years now, and through their relationship with East Street Arts have occupied a large number of spaces. This use of space as well as council-led initiatives over the years has bred a culture of support from the private sector toward grassroots and artist-led activity. Nothing exists in a vacuum and it’s important to acknowledge all the work that has come before.”

It’s clear that MAW isn’t just about showing off great artworks, it’s also about building a legacy for the future. “Through the Middlesbrough Art Weekender we’ve helped artists find their feet and open their own spaces. We’re a community and treat each other as such. We’ve expanded the wrap around support that the North East Open Call artists receive and really have tried to make that part of the programme really supportive and nurturing. Trying to position the festival not only as an audience-driven event but a valuable form of infrastructure for artists across the North East.”

With much more to be announced, Liam is emphatic about why Middlesbrough is the best place to be an independent artist right now. “MAW and Middlesbrough have a lot to offer and I think when an area is underestimated there is a real chance of changing people’s perceptions.” Liam says. “There is a collective drive among cultural organisation in Middlesbrough to make it the most creative town in England. People might have a chuckle or scoff at that, but during the Middlesbrough Art Weekender, that collective ambition looks very real and can be experienced first-hand.”

Middlesbrough Art Weekender takes place across various venues from Thursday 30th September-Sunday 3rd October

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