BOURNEMOUTH Arts by the Sea Festival is now in its fourth year and with funding secured for the next two years at least, the future looks bright. The Festival, advertised as being for the culturally curious (and I hope I can be counted as being amongst that number) takes place in venues both familiar and unusual across the town with dance, film, art, music, theatre … you name it. Friday’s performance, Absolute Elsewhere, was just one of the many events to be staged; a Black Mirror Experiential Production curated by Dominic Shepherd and Matt Shaw, that brought together artists, performers, film makers and musicians. The advance publicity described it as an event to electrify and enchant the soul, and, indeed for the most part it did just that.
Central to the evening’s success was the venue itself, the Shelley Theatre, part of Shelley Manor, built in 1865 by the son of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, the authoress Mary Shelley. As a building, it has suffered years of neglect, but, as a consequence, provided a liberating space for both performers and audience, and it was this as much as anything else that electrified and enchanted me. Currently undergoing restoration, the whole place is very much work-in-progress, I would urge anyone with any interest in the arts to go and take a look, and with pop-up performances everywhere there was always something to absorb and fascinate.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the evening was the frequent uncertainty over whether someone or something was part of an act or installation or merely an onlooker or a storage space. (Such was the nature of the event that many people in the refreshingly youthful audience were pretty eccentric looking which added to the intrigue.) In fact I am still not at all sure about the girl on the staircase, the three guys sat on the high-backed dining chairs or the bearded figure with the plastic owl in the armchair. But such ambiguity was all part and parcel of the experience and I wasn’t seeking clarification. As it was almost certainly an exploration into conceptual art, where the idea is the most important aspect of the work and the execution a more perfunctory affair, it would have been interesting to know quite what brief, if any, was given to the artists and performers and also to have been given a little bit of background about them.
In the end, inevitably I suppose, some events were more successful than others. Some appeared finished whilst others, like the building itself, appeared to be in the process of development. Some were highly sophisticated, and well researched, requiring considerable artistry and expertise, others needed only limited skills in their execution. I was particularly impressed by an extraordinarily beautiful film sequence involving a horse and water that was on show in one of the upstairs rooms. Not only were the images themselves projected onto the crumbling wall of the room, in itself creating a lovely and unusual effect, but it appeared as though the projections themselves had been re-filmed having first been projected onto the dust-sheets that covered the furniture that was stacked up against the side walls.
If one or two of the events were perhaps longer than they might have been, it is almost certainly the case that the hypnotic, dreamlike state some of them evoked was quite intentional. Indeed, wandering into the main theatre on one occasion (one was encouraged to wander by the way) I was struck by how still everyone was and how the sea of faces I was gazing into seemed almost part of the performance itself. This particular event made considerable use of distortion and reverberating sound. Sat in front of her curious electronic musical instrument (I’m not at all sure what it was – certainly not a theramin or an ondes Martenot) was she perhaps the Siren tempting a sailor, and were those strange electronic pulses something to do with whales? And what had Jimi Hendrix got to do with it? Letting our imaginations wander, finding our own meaning in what was being presented, and chatting with other members of the audience over a drink afterwards, were all part of the experience.
There was more than a touch of witchcraft, madness and degeneration in much of what was being presented, and the whole was certainly more Frankenstein inspired than it was Ozymandias – indeed, parts of it were quite scary at times. But it was unfailingly interesting, certainly the first time I had attended a show where, in the case of Dead Meadow for example, my sense of smell was a significant part of the experience or where one of the rooms was (presumably) deliberately heated to an uncomfortably high degree in marked contrast to the rest of the building which was decidedly chilly. I have no idea why, but it was certainly a talking point.
Events continue until Sunday 12th October.