‘Meanwhile, What About Socialism?’ Is the question to keep in mind whilst exploring this year’s AV Festival, taking place across the North East for the month of March. The exhibitions, installed in interestingly different venues from libraries to contemporary gallery spaces, all have their own distinctions whilst commenting on issues relating to the broad theme of socialism, thematically framed by reference to George Orwell’s 1936 book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Most striking across the breadth of the programme is the strong sense of participation felt within a wide range of the shows, a sense very much fitting to the idea of a unified socialist ideal.
This feeling of involvement and voyeurism is apparent in visiting Pallavi Paul’s ‘Trilogy’ at Baltic 39, in which three films utilizing language of loss and mourning are contextually related to the political turbulence of 1970’s India. In one particularly memorable scene, the viewer is invited to listen to a middle-aged Indian woman speak of the loss of her husband in a non-literal sense, saying he is “as good as dead”. Despite the saddening nature of what we are being told, the commentary seems relatedly real and has the tonal quality of a casual chat. Hence, whilst referring to a time of dissatisfaction in social-political structures, the films manage to engage the viewer in a conversation that results in them feeling more of a participant than a passer-by. This element of personal conversation is also applicable to ‘The Socialist Café: Amber Films’ at the Mining Institute Library. On entering, there are six sets of headphones attached to different television sets, each playing interviews with various people - anti-war activists, labour representatives and workers in the Socialist Café of the 1920s. The Café, set up in Newcastle in the early twenties as a place of left-wing debate and culture, closed in the 1950s. This is the first time the footage has been seen and it is completely
unedited. As well as provoking debate around issues of politics, the work relaxes the viewer with its informal chatty nature and the use of headphones, which makes the listening experience more intimate. Also in the Mining Institute is Jack Common’s ‘Tyneside Story’, a propaganda film related to the reestablishment of Northern Shipyards following the Second World War. This film is intense in that it features workers speaking directly to the viewer, a sense of conversation which extends beyond the participants of the film.
There is a broad spectrum of immensely powerful film across the festival. One memorably transfixing example is Haim Sokol’s ‘Testimony’ in the Gallery at Tyneside Cinema. The film deals with memory and thus, history. A durational work (it clocks in at just under two hours), ’Testimony’ uses simple imagery yet manages to keep the viewers’ attention in a trance-like way. One scene particularly demonstrative of this focuses upon a pair of feet, whereby the individual in question is constantly changing their shoes. Although a simple task, the repetitive nature of the action renders it laborious and adds to the essence of work and ‘doing’ radiating throughout the whole film. The viewer thus, feels more of a participant, and the film more of an experience based screening.
Aside from film, materiality also plays a big part in engaging the viewer in the festival. Tim Brennan’s ‘Crusade’ at Vane gallery puts an emphasis on documentation, visualising the artist’s 25-day walk along the Jarrow crusade march route undertaken in 1996 (a homage to the well-known protest of Jarrow workers sixty years previously). Directional glass cabinets corresponding to days of Brennan’s march lead viewers around the gallery. In these cabinets are material objects ranging from newspaper clippings to envelopes and maps. The short captions that Brennan uses to summarise daily events are blunt and unemotional, impersonal and detached. Perhaps, considering his proliferant use of newspaper clippings, he is mirroring the way in which protest events are outwardly portrayed in the media. The chronological nature of the display engages the viewer directly by taking them on a choreographed journey.
Newspaper clippings also form the main body of Dan Perjovschi’s ‘No Graffiti on Barbwire Walls’ at the NewBridge Project space. Perjovschi manages to create an artwork that can be seen from both the inside and outside of the space. His instrument of choice is the humble marker pen, and he uses it to illustrate the shop-front style gallery windows with humorous doodles and text relating to everyday current events circulated in the media. The text is loud and bold, and this is also true of the notations which Perjovski has added to a gigantic spread of newspaper pages plastered across an interior wall of the gallery. The tone is similarly satirical, making fun of key political figures such as Donald Trump and David Cameron. The use of newspapers lends a sense of comfortable familiarity to the space, whilst the dark humour both relaxes the viewer into a more jovial sense of engagement and more seriously provokes their thoughts on these global issues.
Whilst all the exhibitions I have focused on deal directly with socialism in their socio-political contexts and attitudes, it is also worth noticing that, in a subtle and underlying way, each comments on a loss of information through selective media reporting and censorship. ‘Trilogy’ hints at the broadly unreported political context of India, while ‘The Socialist Café’ shares previously unseen footage. Tim Brennan’s documentation work suggests an importance for protest subjects to be re-publicised for contemporary generations, and Perjovschi’s installation also uses documentation in the form of the media as a vehicle for reflexive satirical comment.
AV Festival 2016 is ambitious and complex with many layers and subtexts – literary, political, international and close to home. However, the most admirable and rewarding aspect of the festival programme is its ethos of active inclusivity, a rhetoric extolled throughout socialism and a privilege too rarely extended in the norms of passive art viewership.