Thoughts on producing art and sound installations at festivals…

I went to Green Man festival recently with Antonio Roberts, who had been commissioned to create an outdoor art installation for the festival site. It’s part of a rolling commissioning programme at the festival funded by Arts Council England and Arts Council Wales, so he attended the festival last year to get the lay of the land and this year made a piece. The site is a lush green area set between the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons – it’s truly a stunner, and a great place to put music and art.

Through helping Antonio and gate-crashing a bit I was lucky to get some really valuable insights into the trials of producing outdoor installations. Why am I interested in this? Well although Green Man’s group was visual artists, lots of what they experienced is transferable to my Boom fellowship which focuses on putting music and sound art outside, and to the the programme at #cheltjazzfest where we are increasingly creating weird and wonderful things outdoors. Some of the artists at Green Man had never worked outside before and some were very experienced. Unsurprisingly things didn’t always go to plan, both with the build and during the festival, so it was fascinating seeing what happened.

Mirrored by Antonio Roberts

Practical stuff
The most obvious thing I observed at both Bluedot (with Colony) and Green Man with Antonio’s work was that drunk festival goers will not always approach it in the way you want. Despite being supervised 24/7, Antonio’s work got touched, shoved (accidentally by excited kids), and in one case pushed over which caused damage.  The main thing I took away was that people will do the worst things you can imagine, so it’s sensible to bring spares of anything that might break and to budget for repairs if you’re planning to use the piece again. Also, make things as watertight as possible. Especially if you’re in Wales.

Something which I’ve experienced with our indoor sound installations in Cheltenham also seemed to happen at Green Man. When you’re relying on volunteers to steward and look after the pieces, you can’t assume that they will have been briefed or will pass on information when they change shifts. I’ve made countless laminated information sheets and handed out clickers for headcounts, all of which seem to disappear on Day One. During the festival I don’t have time to keep briefing each new set of stewards, so I’m now thinking about how I can delegate that responsibility to a nearby duty manager or even our volunteer coordinator. Also, as volunteers they only have so much agency to fix things and solve problems. Good ones will ask for help, but those with less initiative might not even notice a problem so you can’t expect too much.

Lumen by David Ogle

Context is important

Three of the four visual art commissions at Green Man were in a secluded corner of the site amongst a little pine forest. It was a lovely, contemplative space and all the pieces there were light-based so it looked really exciting at night (which I later learned was one of the festival’s priorities when commissioning). The fourth piece was out in the centre of the festival but it was visually striking by day and night. It was really nice to have this in the milieu rather than tucking all the art away into a special corner, but it meant that piece really had to stand out amongst all the clutter of tents, lights, noise, people and food stalls. The artist totally nailed that; the structure he made looked like it had been dropped there by aliens or had been borrowed from the set of Star Trek. It was sleek, shiny, sharp-edged and totally unlike anything else on site. (Although background noise bleeding in from the festival did affect the experience a little.) What all four pieces had in common was that they were big, visible from a distance and totally Instagram-able, which is ideal for festival audiences.

Picking up on that last point, it was interesting thinking about how the festival site works in Cheltenham; unlike a greenfield festival we don’t have big vistas or open spaces. The path people take through the festival is fairly prescriptive because of the layout of the site. Although we do have quieter areas and more buzzy ones the noise levels are pretty uniform everywhere due to the proximity to the main venues. So we can’t really lead people across the site in the same way Green Man could, but it also means we probably don’t need work to be quite so visible. Which leads me to…

Eclipse by Lumen (hard to tell, but it’s hanging between the trees about 10ft up)

Size matters

The main dilemma I witnessed in relation to these commissions was whether they were the right size. The artists were in the fortunate position of having seen the space beforehand – many artists creating work for festivals don’t have that privilege because the festival site is there for just a few days each year. The cubes Antonio made seemed absolutely huge at home, but as soon as they were outside next to 30ft pine trees they seemingly shrank. They also presented various transport challenges in the course of building them, so I guess the lesson is to make it as big as you possibly can, but not so big that you can’t move it around or get it to the festival! And if you’re going really big, bring some help. I know from experience that festival build periods are very tightly scheduled so an artist coming into the world of outdoor construction sites really needs to work in a self-contained way and be ready on time.

The weekend gave me lots to think about and plenty of learning that I can definitely refer back to. I also met lots of lovely people including a couple of producers and artists who work with sound, which could come in handy… and I haven’t even mentioned the music, the site decor, the friendly people or the crazy weather!


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