MENTION the word “experimental” in relation to art and you risk your audience turning their noses up, preferring to take comfort in what they know will offer familiar reassurance. Yet for Barry Esson, the joy of experimentation is, as he puts it, that “you don’t know what the results are going to be until you try it”.
“The most annoying thing about much experimental music is that, even though it’s called experimental, you know what it’s going to sound like beforehand,” he says. “I don’t see how that’s an experiment.”
Esson is in a good position to judge. For the past decade and more he has been a driving force behind the experimental music scene in Scotland, first with Glasgow’s annual INSTAL festival, which he started with Tiernan Kelly at the Arches in 2001, and then with Kill Your Timid Notion at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Later, he would export his skill as a curator south of the Border with the Music Lover’s Field Companion festival at Gateshead’s Sage, and a Kill Your Timid Notion tour to Bristol and London.
Yet now INSTAL and Kill Your Timid Notion are no more, and Esson and partner Bryony McIntyre are preparing to unveil an all-new sequence of festivals which will shift the focus of what they’ve been doing for the past few years.
The vinyl strip which has just gone up in the window of their nondescript office on Edinburgh’s Cowgate – a small storefront with the ambience of a design agency and an Ikea sofa for guests – announces the minimalist title of this new venture: Arika12.
“We got to the stage where we had been doing festivals for ten years,” says McIntyre of the end of Arika’s previous era. “A few other European contemporaries had reached that same mark as well, and they were going, (waves her imaginary flag), ‘Woo, birthday, here’s to another ten years!’ And we thought the last thing we wanted to do was ossify and stagnate, and for this to have been just another thing we do every year.
“It would have been easy to do that, to become like a kind of weird ATP (England-based alternative music festival and brand All Tomorrow’s Parties), but …”
“To do the same thing forever seems like death, doesn’t it?” interjects Esson. “And I don’t want to be held to an idea I had when I was 24. I was largely an idiot when I was 24.”
The final instalment of INSTAL in 2010 saw the pair turn the festival over to 60 audience members to create their own musical finale. “Some of it was amazing, some of it was f***ing awful,” says Esson, “but as an artistic process it was incredible.”
“And then the fire alarms went off,” recalls McIntyre. “So that really was the end.”
Arika12 is a different proposition, a festival held in three instalments over three months with an esoteric but compelling theme binding each together. This weekend’s first part is subtitled A Film is a Statement, which is about experimental approaches to film.
“Artists who make films don’t just think about the content and the story within them,” says Esson, “they think about the way the film’s made, the way it’s shot, the way you watch it. It’s not just about the message, it’s about the way you receive the message.”
He recalls a quote from French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard: “A tracking shot is a moral issue.” To illustrate the political point, he mentions the reaction of film critic Serge Daney to a scene from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 concentration camp drama Kapò, in which a female prisoner attempting escape is shot while entangled in an electric fence.
“The cameraman tracks in and frames her body in this beautiful shot,” says Esson, “but Daney said the man who made this image beautiful is worthy of our utmost contempt. It’s not a beautiful thing.”
The second weekend is named A Special Kind of Darkness , and is about ideas of pessimism, negativity and nihilism in art, and why these can be positive influences. March’s third episode is entitled Copying Without Copying, and will explore the exact recreation of texts or situations presented as art.
If that sounds like a high-concept proposition, Esson wonders if there’s more to be learned about, say, Guantanamo Bay from a BBC4 documentary with high production values, or the simple rereading of actual testimony from those who were there–- by which he means the group piece Combatant Status Review Tribunal pp. 002954–003064: A Public Reading.
One difference between Arika12 and Esson and McIntyre’s previous work is that the emphasis is now as much on film and live art as it is on music, although there will be more of the latter during A Special Kind of Darkness (Esson points to Tracer Trails, Glasgow’s Cry Parrot and Edinburgh’s Braw Gigs as three young promoters taking up the experimental music baton). Instead they’ve rebranded this new venture as “an experimental festival about experimental art”, where the curation is just as much of a statement as the work itself and the programming is designed to allow more informal interaction with artists and fellow festivalgoers.
“If people are into the visual arts or performance arts, they’ll find something they’ll enjoy here,” says Esson. “I mean, the Guantanamo piece I mentioned earlier was commissioned by Documenta, which is the biggest visual art event in Europe, and it’s just been at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And a million people go there every year, so there’s a big enough audience for us.”
• Arika12 will be held in three parts over the next three months. Episode 1: A Film is a Statement is at CCA, Glasgow, today until Sunday. Episode 2: A Special Form of Darkness is at Tramway, Glasgow, 24-26 February. Episode 3: Copying Without Copying is at Tramway, Glasgow, 23-25 March. arika.org.uk