INTERVIEW: Rebecca Shatwell – AV Festival | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Claire Fontaine, Capitalism Kills Love (Red White Blue), 2008-09

Courtesy the artist and gala T293, Rome

Lee Fisher: Perhaps the first thing one notices about this year’s AV Festival is the title, ‘Meanwhile, What About Socialism?’. After the more open-ended themes of previous years – Broadcast, Slow, Extraction, etc. – this Orwell quote feels almost like a gauntlet being thrown down.

Rebecca Shatwell: Slowness was about a different way to experiencing work amidst the accelerated capitalist commodification of culture; extraction then moved to deep time, revealing what happens below our feet and global exploitation of resources; this year we move from geological to historical time with roots in 20th century politics, the starting point being a re-reading of George Orwell’s analysis of North England in the 1930s. What also unites all the themes is a way of connecting current trends in artistic practice to wider social and political change, and in particular making this relevant to the context of North East England – whether through commissioning artists to respond to place or revealing hidden or overlooked vernacular histories.

Roee Rosen, Buried Alive Group Videos Historical Joke #3, 2013. Courtesy the artist

Roee Rosen, Buried Alive Group Videos Historical Joke #3, 2013. Courtesy the artist

LF: You previously mentioned that you’d felt that in the past each AV hadn’t built effectively on the relationships developed with the one before, and that this was something you were keen to change with this new one – hence this being the first part of a two-part programme. Again, could you expand on that? And how it relates to the two-part structure of the book – was this a ‘happy accident’ that gave you a sound conceptual reason for the two stage approach.

RS: One of the main challenges of curating a biennial festival is to provide enough time and space for artists to make new work. AV Festival has always been committed to commissioning ambitious new work, but often due to timescales this only gives artists a few months of research. I am interested in stretching the notion of what a festival can be. It is a fixed date in the calendar but beyond that, it can be anything, it is a fluid thing that can change its form and be responsive, in a way that cultural venues can’t. I always try and connect the theme and structure of the festival – so that the theme changes how the festival physically looks. In 2012 the slowness theme stretched the festival duration from 10 days to a month. This year is Part 1 of a two-part approach with a Part 2 in 2018. This reflects the two-part structure of Orwell’s book but not in a literal sense, instead in a more playful and imaginative way. So there is a lot of historical foregrounding of the theme in 2016 working with artists who create a tension between the past and present, with more new commission developing for 2018. Again, this political idea of revealing hidden, forgotten or oppressed histories was very relevant to the 2016 festival.

LF: I know it’s awful to ask anyone programming something like this to play favourites, but is there anything you’re especially excited about or that represents a coup of some kind for AV to secure?

RS: Really it’s the cohesiveness of the whole programme that excites me, how individual works reveal different aspects of the theme and the way each artist embraces the ideas and political ethos of the festival. I love these connections that create mini-narratives within the festival itself – for example the fact that the festival begins and ends with performances responding to the Jarrow Crusade (Tim Brennan and Kris Canavan). The historical framing of the Festival takes us from the 1930s with pioneering Ukrainian Soviet cinema to unedited interviews about 1930s Newcastle at The Socialist Café; moving to the radical ultra-left of the 1970s in India, Beirut and Tokyo; and the critique of Thatcherism and Blair’s New Labour in the 1980s–90s with Marc Karlin. The opening weekend has a great programme of two UK premiere events that both reveal the schizophrenic nature of politics in capitalist Russia – a music performance telling the story of the murder of an childlike avatar of Putin (Buried Alive) and a film made entirely of footage from a Russian video blog (No Place For Fools). I’m also very excited that three artist are visiting Newcastle in residence or making work in-situ in the galleries – Dan Perjovschi (Romania), Madhusudhanan (India) and Mykola Ridnyi (Ukraine).

Kris Canavan, Labour isnÔÇÖt Working, 2015. Photo Ben Ponton. Courtesy the artist

Kris Canavan, Labour Isn’t Working, 2015. Photo Ben Ponton. Courtesy the artist

LF: The closing event, Kris Canavan’s Labour Isn’t Working, sounds remarkable. How much are you able – or allowed – to say about this?

RS: Labour Isn’t Working is a new commission by Kris Canavan, an artist who see the use of his body as political ownership. The artist describes the work as “an exploration into futility – the proletariat pounds the pavement in a pathetic and onerous process, reflecting on the period that led to the procession known as the Crusade and the ever-present contemporary echoes.” The work is sited on derelict industrial ground in Jarrow, and over an approximate 24-hour period the artist will move and crush 200 concrete blocks (there were 200 marchers on the 1936 Jarrow Crusade) as an act of solidarity, respect and defiance.

LF: The weekend focussing on the Japanese Red Army is a fascinating inclusion – perhaps I haven’t been paying attention but that period seems generally overlooked when people consider Marxist struggles and history. Was it something you already had a fascination with or is it something that you became more aware of when you began the programming?

RS: There are several starting points for the weekend titled Tracing The Anabasis Of The Japanese Red Army. One of my main interests is the strategies used by contemporary artists to explore radical historical events, which have been overlooked or distorted through official versions of history; and specifically how artists have worked with the original protagonists of such events to not simply ‘re-tell’ a history, but re-position it for contemporary society and the current revolutionary moment and ‘global terror’ of today. So the weekend explores not just the history of the Japanese Red Army and the 1970s ultra-left, but how three artists have linked together to recount personal and historic events – the cult Japanese director Masao Adachi who was a member of the Japanese Red Army and supporter of the liberation of Palestine, and contemporary artists Eric Baudelaire and Naeem Mohaiemen. One of the festival highlights is the first public conversation between hostage negotiator Air Vice-Marshal (retd.) A.G. Mahmud and actress Carole Wells, one of the hostages on Japan Airlines 472 to Dhaka which was hijacked by the Japanese Red Army.

LF: You mentioned earlier that although there was very little music content in this part of the programme, this didn’t represent any kind of shift in emphasis or policy, is that correct? And is the Test Dept live score to An Unprecedented Campaign the sole new musical content?

RS: AV Festival is focused on presenting a coherent thematic programme so we’re less interested in falling into a pattern or formula of presenting a certain ‘quota’ of specific events, artforms or working with specific geographical areas – and more interested in working with artists in relation to a strong thematic enquiry and ideas that may also as a result change the form and structure of the Festival too. So in 2016 there is more historical work and artists in residence and less new commissions, since the Festival will develop further new work in Part 2 in 2018.

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Mikhail Kaufman, An Unprecedented Campaign, 1931. Courtesy Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kyiv

LF: And related to that, since Test Dept’s contribution to the 2014 programme, you’ve been working closely with them, both in Newcastle and further afield. Could you tell me something about that relationship and perhaps how / if it informed the 2016 / 2018 AV?

RS: It is important for the festival to develop strong relationships with artists over a long time period. So in 2015 we toured work by two of our commissions from the 2014 festival by Test Dept and Susan Stenger. The closing event of AV Festival 2014 – Test Dept’s DS30 at Dunston Staiths – began a more direct and committed way of the festival curating within a political context, which has been supported through the UK tour of DS30 and the conversations we’ve had with the artists, audiences, activists and historians over the year. A screening and discussion around DS30 in Kyiv, Ukraine also enabled Test Dept to continue their interest in the early avant-garde of the first decade of the Russian revolution, and uncovered a lost masterpiece from the Ukrainian national film archives which has never been seen before – Mikhail Kaufman’s 1931 film An Unprecedented Campaign.

Meanwhile, What About Socialism Pt 1 will run from Saturday 27th February until Sunday 27th March in a number of venues across Tyneside.


For more detail on forthcoming events, check the NARC. website over the coming weeks.

27.02.16-27.03.16 @ NewBridge Project, Newcastle – Dan Perjovschi
Part of the Festival Exhibition, Perjovschi’s installations take the form of satirical newspaper cartoons or graffiti.

27.02.16 @ BALTIC, Gateshead – Roee Rosen: Buried Alive
Performance concert. An elaborate satire, at once an absurd fable, political allegory and an artefact of paranoia

28.02.16 @ Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle – Ranu Ghosh: Quarter Number 4/11
Film about human displacement and resilience amidst accelerated capitalism in India.

04.03.16-06.03.16 @ Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle – Marc Karlin Weekend
The influential filmmaker’s work journeys through socialism, political change and cinema itself.

19.03.16 @ Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle – Test Dept
The group present a live soundtrack to Mikhail Kaufman’s 1931 silent film An Unprecedented Campaign.

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