Abandon Normal Devices Festival 2017
21-24th September 2017
Following the low-key success of AND festival 2015 at Grizedale Forest, Louder Than War’s Lee Ashworth went underground, overground and sailing high over the canopy at this year’s Abandon Normal Devices.
Described as a ‘roving biennial of new cinema, digital culture and art’, AND showcases site-specific art that is both digitally, artistically and conceptually experimental in form and content.
This year, we abandon our devices in the tiny Peak District town of Castleton, perhaps best known for its Blue John mines and showcaves. The town bevokes a living canvas divided into five inter-related strands: Strata, Dis-location, Listening to the Dark, Deep Time and Freefall. Against this fluid rubric, the audience is presented with artistic objects such as newly composed soundscapes, sonic installations, artefacts, simulated environments and film. Few of the events fit neatly into any of those descriptions, instead they are so bursting with ideas that they overflow and merge.
You find yourself wondering, double-checking your schedule to see if you’re in Peak Cavern, Treak Cliff or Speedwell, trying to remember which is which. When someone asks you what you’ve been doing, you think hard to distinguish between the Digital Dark Ages Tour and Listening In The Dark. Shortly after arrival on Friday night, as we wend along the river to reach the Devil’s Arsehole in the dusk, it becomes apparent that many different journeys are possible in what seems, on the surface, one of the smallest of small towns.
We wait for the gates to open and are among the first to wander, awe-struck, into the huge expanse of Peak Cavern entrance. A large screen has been constructed at the front of a fenced off, two tier, natural theatre space. We grab drinks from the pop-up bar and watch the stony interior swallowing punters as the crowd swells and darkness falls. With one-off, site specific events such as this, there is a real buzz amongst the audience, interspersed with an eclectic mixture of representatives from the cultural commentariat.
We are here for the Listening to the Dark event starting with the mesmerising Nkisi and her Dark Orchestra. Billed as a sonic exploration of the unconscious mind, shadows and dreamscapes, the crowd is under within moments, lost in the beats, the echoes, the trance-like electronica. Nkisi is the shaman and she is performing the rites to this ceremony where the curves of the subterranean interior merge with the folds of the human brain.
According to the beguiling but perplexing AND programme notes, Dark Orchestra is ‘inspired by W.E.B. Dubois’ question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”’. If you were to listen to this music out of context, it would remain a compelling listen. But inside the cave, something else happens. Although the gaping entrance is visible, Nkisi’s music takes us deep into the interior. Into the interior of the human.
Amidst the ambience and the shuffle and sway of people around me, I discover that being in the moment is hard in a cave. Like basking in starlight, we are presented with a past that wanders in to the present. The beats meld it together. The visuals are our contemporary scratch marks, cave art which will leave no residue for posterity beyond memories and our carbon footprints. This is a fleeting, primitive futurism. The seams of rock swirl above our heads like constellations in the earthy firmament. Such contradictions seem right for these chaotic times. Ours is a world of windows. Disappearing, appearing, held in between. I find myself looking through the screen of someone’s phone video of the screen behind the artist in front of us. In the cave. This is exactly how it feels to ‘be a problem’. This is what it feels like to be a shadow, a reflection, an image, a projection.
I think I’m still real as James Ferraro takes the stage but the AI inspired visuals that accompany these sections of his dystopian opera, The Deluge, leads to reflections on our peculiar evolution. The quasi-simian figure prowls the surface, raising the can to his mouth, before climbing behind the wheel of the car. Eventually, after much repetition, these images are replaced by the burn out joy-ridden explosion of urban hell, a Piper Alpha scenario and wires from the rear of a computerised face. The music is composed of strata of electronica, slab upon prefabricated, precision tooled slab. Now we have new stories told in caves, the very place where stories were born. Where the darkness found us. Where the possibility of intimacy still awaits. Look how far we’ve come. So shiny, high-tech and new. Still showing pictures in caves. It’s not either or: it’s AND.
The Digital Dark Ages Tour at Treak Cliff Cavern was our first event of Saturday morning. Inspired by concerns over how our contemporary array of digital materials will be preserved and accessed by generations to come, several artists were asked to present new works exploring ways in which meaning is transferred in the long term.
Led by the insightful and comprehensive commentary of tour guide Dani Admiss, we trekked through the stony interior, stopping in the various caverns to see the exhibits. Here we are presented with Al-Badri and Nelles’ Not A Single Bone, a recreation of a dinosaur bone made from plastic but to an authentic specification from leaked data, scanning and 3D printing. In Martha McGuinn’s Everything In Slices Part V, the calcification process, ongoing in the cave all around us over millennia, is accelerated as contemporary domestic objects are crushed beneath a hydraulic ram in a compression chamber. Just a couple of days into the process and the teddy bears and other familiar artefacts are already calcified collateral in this race towards preservation. Time is the prevalent theme here, and the transience of the human.
Every generation of Homo sapiens, just an eye-blink on the time scale represented in the stretching stalagmites and stalactites of Treak Cliff, tries mostly in vain, to leave something tangible behind, from the cave art of Lascaux to Gaz Was Here and beyond to the human 3D modelling of Simone Niquille’s ROOT 0082. At Grizedale’s AND 2015, drone workshops and virtual reality headsets courtesy of Oculus Rift were novel and exciting glimpses of the near future. Now such items are advertised on TV and fill the pages of Argos catalogues. Maybe we’ll say the same of 3D printing in the before AND 2019. It feels like a technology that has been talked about for so long whilst remaining beyond the reach of the average consumer. Technologies as this, showcased by AND, offer a tantalising glimpse into how such devices may insinuate themselves into our lives.
In Thomas Thwaites’ Chromobytes, sculptures are polluted by the metal ions from decaying hard drives that once held terabytes of information, now rendered in the vivid greens and yellows of column chromatography. Visually stunning, the rainbow tanks are a feast for the eyes in the darkness. However, it became clear, when several of our party had arrived on the tour by mistake, thinking they were partaking of the conventional Treak Cliff Cavern tour, that there is an extra challenge for every artist exhibiting at AND: the threat of being upstaged by the environment itself.
The way back to Castleton is a path through fields that have been colonised by My Wall Is Your Filter Bubble, a series of exhibits rendered through augmented reality as viewed via an app activated on the iPads given out at the start of the trail. Flag poles mark out each station at intervals along the mile long pathway. The iPad is raised, QR codes are scanned and then other dimensions are revealed. Curated by Doreen A. Rios and Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, all commissions are site-specifically created by Mexican artists and offer reflections on notions of borders that operate both geographically and psychologically. Whereas the initial circle exhibit (or final exhibit depending on where you begin) and the border wall work well, they do so because the audience is engaged in the idea through virtual immersion. Others fared less well, bold and interesting ideas such as the hovering warriors and erupting volcano of cash promised much but felt incomplete, perhaps due to the experimental nature of the technology itself. Ultimately though, this is not as disappointing as it sounds because experimentalism and ambition are at the heart of AND festival. Experiments cannot always succeed, the point is that when you visit AND you become part of the experiment, you take the risk with the artists and there are few other platforms on this scale where that can happen.
Saturday afternoon brought a pilgrimage to the village hall to see a screening of Herzog’s White Diamond, his documentary from 2004 about Dr Graham Dorrington’s quest to build an airship capable of flying behind the gigantic Kaietuer Falls in Guyana. The dramatic hook in Herzog’s compelling film, lies in the fact that some twelve years earlier tragedy struck as a prototype crashed in the forest canopy killing the cinematographer Dieter Plage. While waiting for the balloon to ascend it’s tensions that rise between the aviation engineer, his crew and a confrontational Werner Herzog, destined to assume the role of the fateful cinematographer. What emerges is spectacle of contemplative beauty and another Herzogian insight into the human condition and its interface with the rest of the natural world. A shame perhaps, that AND could not screen his incredible chthonic meditation, Cave of Forgotten Dreams – what more perfect a film could there be for this setting? The lesser known White Diamond, however, was an inspired choice and a rare chance to see it on the big screen.
Late afternoon brought a trip to Speedwell Cavern to experience Undercurrency Vault: 53.3414° N, 1.7921° W by Audint, a collective exploring the weaponisation of vibration, amongst other aspects of sound and frequency. Undercurrency promised oh so much. Even for AND festival pass holders, separate booking was required and paid for whereas many of the AND events are free. Furthermore, the involvement of Stockport’s culinary geniuses, Where The Light Gets In, ensured expectations were high. Donning helmets and fitted with SUBPACs strapped to our backs, a small party of us descended the steep steps to the inky waters of the cavern where we crowded aboard a small open-topped boat. Our tour guide led us through the increasingly claustrophobic tunnels. I found myself on one side of a row of three fellow explorers and consequently, as a tall person, found myself contorting my neck into uncanny angles in order to reduce the possibility of scraping my face against the bulging folds of rock coming at me out of the darkness.
Throughout the journey, as the boat slowed and stopped in various caverns, crashing sounds could be heard, becoming louder, from some unknown direction. The SUBPAC began to vibrate, rippling across my back, pulsating. Eventually we reached our destination, disembarked and stood on the edge of a place referred to as the bottomless pit while the guide told somber tales of the many miners who had perished in this very place due to poor conditions and a naive business plan. We returned to the boat and soon found ourselves back at the steps to the entrance. As my SUBPAC was removed by an AND steward, I produced the carefully wrapped sweet she had given me before my descent and asked if I should eat it now. She looked at me despairingly. “You mean they didn’t mention it? They didn’t tell you when to eat it?” Both her and her colleagues dismayed. When we were given the sweets, specifically designed to emulate the metallic taste of fear, we were also given instructions not to consume them until told.
In the daylight, on the surface, I unwrapped the toffee and tasted… toffee. But with so much of AND being site specific, context based, it’s not surprising that the taste in my mouth after Undercurrency was disappointment. I found the SUBPACs irritating, too subtle; the tales and narrative unconvincing and an experience, which like the idea of Speedwell as a profit making mine, went nowhere at all.
We holed up at the Nag’s Head for food, a few drinks and some respite from all this cultural pioneering. The pub was packed. We were prudent. Knowing Castleton for the size it is, we booked in advance. We spent several hours more than intended talking about the festival, its perceived pros and cons, with the landlady, a warm, hospitable soul, as amazed as we were by the gridlock on the road right outside the window. Panicked updates reached us that the police had now closed the only substantial road from the Sheffield side as the village had reached capacity and traffic chaos ensued. Channel 4 news coverage was blamed. But the real culprit was Daan Roosegarde.
Waterlicht was arguably the highlight of the whole festival. Roosegarde had taken over a substantial section of the Winnats Pass, that steep and dramatic gorge where the main road runs into Castleton from up near the Blue John and Mam Tor. After reports that people were “being held in pens” because the narrow thoroughfare was at Peak capacity, we held back and ventured from our Nag’s Head retreat at about 10pm. The Pass was still busy, but most of the crowd had now dissipated. We made the ascent in a darkness illuminated by lasers and wreathed in spectral plumes of dry ice. Such is the dramatic incline either side of the road that our perspective was that of walking beneath waves of laser, electric blue and green, washing over our heads like a luminous ocean. Hushed, eager voices clamoured around us as people marvelled at the beauty of it. There was reverence, awe and transcendence in the air, people of every age and reason, conspiring in silhouette, descending the long ramp back down to the valley.
Our final visit was a return to the Devil’s Arsehole, otherwise known as Peak Cavern, for the Listening To The Dark Tour. This featured three sit specific works by different artists beginning with The Hive by Ikbal Simamora Lubys and Tony Maryana. Inspired by the hum of a bee hive in an Indonesian cave, The Hive is an interactive installation made up of Gamelan bars, which we the audience were invited to beat using remote activation via a series of sensors. Despite the artists’ run of bad luck in bringing The Hive to the UK, they introduced and showcased their art with a real sincerity, discussing their journey with the audience. I found myself stood beside a stranger, both of us activating the chimes via the sensors. Each of our own independent rhythms interlocked to produce something organic yet measured with repetition in the human way and fleetingly, I thought of all the rhythms that might have echoed through the aeons in caves such as this.
Deeper into the cavern, we listened to Beatrice Dillon’s compelling soundscapes. At one point, during the final piece, all of the lights were switched off and Dillon’s sonic invocations became the only sensible thing in existence. As intense as AND was, there were enough gaps between and within the art on offer for some serious reflection to occur, despite the opacity of the Speedwell waters.
Driving up and out of the Winnats Pass later that afternoon, it was hard to believe Waterlicht had taken place and ground the whole village to a standstill hours earlier. I found myself in that prized state of wondering what of the last 48 hours had been real and what was a dream. Thoughts of deep time, of strata and folds, rocks and minerals cluttered my brain. This was a new kind of cave art. And the oldest kind of all – stories of ourselves told within those old and stony walls.
You can find AND Festival online here. They’re also on Facebook and Twitter, as @ANDfestival.