Creative Factory offered two writing bursaries to report on the Middlesbrough Art Weekender. Laura Rushton gives a broad context to ‘see how it might further cultivate the practice of local artists to provide an important platform for people to engage with art in Teesside.’
To outsiders, Middlesbrough is synonymous with poverty and unemployment, the ‘least resilient’ town in the UK. Devastated by austerity, attempts to attract private investment have been predominantly unsuccessful, but in the past few years that lack of investment has been met by a new, grassroots approach to arts & culture.
MIMA, originally opened in 2007, has been handed over to Teesside University who are running it as a ‘Useful Museum’, with the aim of promoting art as a tool for social and political change. Posters adorn the town advertising the free use of the recently renovated town hall to community and arts groups on weekday evenings and the council has set up ‘Creative Factory’, a publicly funded initiative that genuinely seems to be investing in local artists.
It is in this context that the second Middlesbrough Art Weekender lands, a 72 hour, multi-venue arts festival including a thematic group show, exhibitions by local artists and an exciting programme of events including performances, workshops, talks, film screenings and a sonic river cruise.
The focal point of the festival is a disused warehouse near the train station, the location of an exhibition loosely based around the theme of ‘Connectivity’ and a series of opening night performances which includes CIRCA projects’ Islanders. A complex choreography, featuring four performers, collaged texts and audio visual elements, Islanders includes a sequence in which an excerpt from Boris Johnson's speech “Uniting for a Great Brexit” is repeated over and over again until takes on an otherworldly, Ballardian quality. The result is a slightly mad and quite funny exploration of island identity, but in an area that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU it probably isn’t going to win the locals over.
At the centre of the room is Benedict Drew’s video Anti Ecstatic Machines, an esoteric video work with a strong soundtrack that sets the tone for the rest of exhibition. Upstairs WAX, a locally based photography collective, use slide projectors to mesmerising effect, flicking up a constant stream of collaged photographs that have a really strong graphic quality. Elsewhere there is a white room filled with smoke, projection maps in the musty darkness, and an enormous, psychedelic, buzzing neon sculpture. The combination of light, smoke and sound emerging from the gloom evokes memories of a warehouse party, the works slotting perfectly together in a cohesive, well curated show.
Some pieces here, as well as at MIMA and the Town Hall, are the result of an open call which offered three cash prizes in the place of fees. While the quality of some of the open call artists isn’t as strong as those invited by the curatorial team, their inclusion at the main venues is really heartening, suggesting a true inclusiveness and lack of pretence which is really rare in an arts festival.
In the next warehouse along, there is a duo show entitled Signal Loss, featuring Tim Etchell’s ubiquitous neon word sculptures and two films from Irish Artist Martin Healy. The second film Fugue takes Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward as its starting point and features a man, having woken from a 100 year sleep, wandering round a utopian garden city. It reads interestingly in relation to Middlesbrough, where I take a similar walk, reading the city’s history through its architecture and observing the lack of the endless rows of generic student halls and soulless chain restaurants that have engulfed other places in the North. I am sure it is no comfort to residents, but there is a kind of utopian potential in the absence of neo-liberal gentrification.
Up at the transporter bridge, an amazing structure built in 1911 to transport goods from one side of the Tees to the other, Australian Artist Jodi Rose has been producing field recordings using contact mics. We pile onto the transporter to cross the bridge whilst listening on an ipad, taking in the ominous views of industrial ruins across the water. The recordings are intricate and textured, but for a first time visitor to the bridge they can’t compete with the experience itself, and I think it would be nice to somehow separate the journey and the act of listening, to give the recordings the room and attention they need. In its site-specificity though, it is a really exciting work, and is an engaging way to explore the industrial heritage of the town.
South of the Town Centre, local artist Hannah Campion has created a 360° painting inside the derelict Royal British Legion, painting the entire room white and dousing it in colorful splashes of paint. Her bright, colorful painting is really lovely, but I felt it was a pity to try and turn a venue like this into a white cube, which would be fertile ground for an artist looking to explore the social history of the place. That aside, it is promising to see a local artist taking on an ambitious project.
At the Town Hall, six flags fly from the roof featuring works from local female artists. Entitled Artists Live Here Artists Work Here, the flags are a noisy tribute to the importance of artists, in a town where there are no monuments to female public figures. Inside the building on the Saturday of the festival, the public is invited to sample free cheese and discuss hopes and aspirations for future cultural activities. It is a lovely and very fun way to bring people together. Publicly funded arts activities always attract criticism, even more so in places were essential services aren’t being met, but I challenge even the most ardent philistine to criticise this event.
At the root of this festival there is an optimism and openness, completely at odds with any preconceptions people might have about Middlesbrough. The producers have hit the right note between being challenging for an art audience and accessible for others, with the most interesting moments occuring when artists deal directly or indirectly with the context of the town. Only in its second year, this festival has potential to grow and it will be really exciting to see how it might further cultivate the practice of local artists to provide an important platform for people to engage with art in Teesside.