Published 20 March 2018
I’m sat at an imposing table in Newcastle’s Civic Centre with around 20 people discussing what provisions we’d take on an imaginary raft. From seeds to books, the group offers up a diverse range of things to take on our journey. Convened by Raqs Media Collective, the discussion touches upon the crisis of capital, the lack of public space in cities and the merits of a universal living wage. At a time of ongoing budget cuts for local councils in the UK, the aspirational modernism of the Civic Centre takes on a wistful air, framed by our anxious conversation.
This year’s AV Festival, held across ten venues in Newcastle and Gateshead, follows on from the 2016 edition by responding to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), in which the author mapped the poverty of depression era Northern England as well as his own political awakening and turn to socialist ideals. ‘Meanwhile, What About Socialism (Part Two)’ brings together an international group of 21 artists and collectives to invigorate a debate around the possibilities of socialism now. With years of austerity galvanizing right wing popularism on both sides of the Atlantic, Orwell’s writing feels increasingly pertinent. Read against a backdrop of nascent fascism the writer’s concerns echo through much of the work in the festival.
Raqs Media Collective’s new commission on the ground floor of Assembly House in Newcastle visually expands the book’s thematics in an installation encompassing films, banners and digital print. Central to the work is an episodic film, Provisions for Everybody (2018), exploring Orwell’s writing, tracing his journey from his birth place in India through to his journalistic travels across England. The film combines hand held footage with aphorisms from Orwell’s writing such as ‘The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody.’ It’s a typically vivid image, and one that begs the question; how can we translate that potential into something achievable?
The film is pervaded by a forlorn quality. The mining collieries of Northumberland are now museums that translate the region’s industrial heritage into one of its new economies: tourism. In one slow motion scene, a group of woman dance together in an old community hall, articulating a social bond forged through everyday encounter. The dream-like sequence suggests a nostalgia for a community that has become increasingly atomized and precarious.
Upstairs at Assembly House, Bianca Baldi presents Classic Scent, 2018, a photographic installation re-imagining a fire that engulfed the opulent Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland in 1822. Baldi’s four free standing images, made with CGI and manually printed using silver gelatin, depict the hall re-emerging as high-rise block of modernist flats. The hall was built on the profits of coal mining and is returned to carbon and resurrected as social housing. The references to Grenfell Tower in London are palpable with the two buildings becoming a type of psychic wound to two distinct epochs.
Lucy Parker’s Apologies, 2016, and Jeamin Cha’s Twelve, 2016, exhibited at Workplace Gallery in Gateshead, explore worker’s rights from different geographic perspectives. Parker’s film depicts political theorist Michaela Mihai asking a law class about the implications of the legal apology. Coming out of Parker’s research into the secret blacklisting of unionized construction workers, the film explores the sacrifices made by people for speaking out. Cha’s film presents a fictional conversation inspired by transcripts from the South Korean Minimum Wage Commission. The heated conversation between employees and employers present some of the complexities in attempts to negotiate a minimum wage. Whether in Seoul or South London, the strategies of those in power and the possibilities of the powerless are much the same, with the collective demand for greater transparency and accountability fraught with personal risk.
Back in Newcastle, at the Mining Institute, Prabhakar Pachpute has created a sprawling installation encompassing sculpture, wall drawings and a film made with the U-ra-mi-li collective that explores the legacies of Indian miners in the Sasti Colliery, located in the artist’s home town in central India. Pachpute draws influence from North-East union banners in England, merging political satire with absurdism and mysticism. One drawing recasts a mechanical digger as a dragon slain by a miner. An image of Tommy Ramsey, a trade unionist who was formative in setting up the Durham Miner’s Union, is ripped from a magazine and attached to a nearby wall. Like much of the work in this year’s AV Festival, Pachpute draws parallels between different generations and geographies, bringing personal narratives into collective focus.
Exhibited at BALTIC 39 across town, Pallavi Paul’s three channel video The Dreams of Cynthia, 2017, focuses on the lives of an executioner and trans artist who live in the same town in India. The hangman talks of his civic duty and his limited career choices open to him as the local factory closed down. Interspersed with a Hindi poem of the same name by Anish Ahluwalia, the elliptical film shifts from a polemic to poetic tone, suggesting different forms of state violence and personal defiance.
‘Meanwhile, What about Socialism? (Part Two)’ feels like an austerity-era festival. Having recently lost their regular arts council funding, its future looks precarious. This is a real shame because the internationalism and urgency of the programme would be greatly missed. Orwell called for an intersectionality that transcended class politics and the international and intergenerational concerns of this year’s festival suggest different ways forward. Taken collectively, the festival seems to suggest that communities, often on a modest scale, can build new narratives and affinities that rehabilitate socialist agendas. In the UK at least, with Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist driven policies finding new voters, there is a glimmer of hope.