words // Wesley Freeman-Smith
Wysing’s esteemed Art Centre, located just outside of Bourn, is one of the worst-kept secrets in all of South Cambs.
Despite hiding themselves in the middle of nowhere, plagued by such first-world problems as poor public transport and lots of overgrown stingy nettles, the whole place is a thriving hub of innovation that most people will have at least heard of, if not had the requisite level of curiosity to visit. A whole bus full of Londoners came to town on Saturday, as well as Cantabridgians, Newmarketeers (completely just made that word up – Ed.), and others from as far as Lowestoft.
It’s a pretty ludicrous failure if by placing themselves somewhere woefully inconvenient they were hoping for a quiet life. But then, hosting a yearly arts and music festival such as Space-Time was hardly going to help was it?
The grounds of Wysing are spacious, green and sunny, with stages in studios, galleries, and in the curiously adventurous confines of the Amphis building; an ampitheatre built by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser using only found materials.
Today everything in between was threaded with people, clustering together sharing cigarettes, alcohol, conversation and food – a brief reprise of summer for a country that never seems to have one. The stages are all a short walk from each other, making channel changing easy for those of us intent on seeing as much as possible, and the facilities (including bar, tech, installations and such) are abundant. It’s an admirable set up here, and Lord knows how much energy goes into curating something like this… On it’s 5th year now (FIFTH!), Wysing continue the tradition of having a central focus to unite the wide range of acts involved. This year, everything on the bill adheres to the concept of ‘women in electronic and experimental music’. And the results are quite lovely too.
We kick off with Silver Fox, brimming with the kind of lo-fi indie rock’n’roll that by all rights should be making them a lot more bigger than they currently are. The songs are definitely there – just listen to their Soundcloud. Perhaps being the first on was a bit of dampener, but the only negative thing I’d say would be that they’re incredibly static on stage. The first few numbers were played flawlessly, but I don’t think I’ve seen a group so still in awhile; enough to remark upon, at any rate.
However, the songs’ energy is enough to propel them through the first half, and following some light banter the group seem to visibly relax into their set. The audience seems to swell in tandem, and somewhere someone in charge is probably breathing a big sigh of relief about both of these developments. With touches of Sleater-Kinney, The Pixies and a ton of alt-pop acts in between, these ladies have some great songwriting skills backing them up – and once that feeling of woodenness retreated, they were pretty great a bringing them alive too.
Second up, the slowly growing mob amble over to the iconic Amphis Stage (if architecture is frozen music, this was clearly avant garde jazz in a previous life). Seeds & Bones perform, or at least one third of them. Frontwoman Fiona Allison braves it alone, and with the help of a bank of modular synths and all kinds of gadgets is clearly trying to put Xav and Rachel out of a job.
If you’re into your vintage electronics, this was pretty much porn. Every dial tweaked and button tapped was part of a lovingly prepared sequence; melody and noise having a battle to the death, with Fiona’s voice soothing the disagreement into a light scuffle. Despite the occasionally alienating nature of live electronic music, something about using analog rather than digital makes the whole performance very human and tangible. Taken as a whole the songs reach a lot further than the territories covered by their debut single, and for anyone basing their assumptions on ‘Lay It Down’ alone we’d recommend checking the group out live. It certainly makes the prospect of a future LP appealing – and who needs bandmates, anyway?
Dressed all in silver and backed by metronomic bass and stabs of piano, Ravioli Me Away boast a possessed frontwoman in their line-up, standing behind the drums as she sings and yelps disconcertingly. Behind the band a Real Estate Home Tour video loops, which somehow seems to make a lot of sense despite making no sense at all. Completing the experience, the smell of pasta pervades the room – a touch I assumed was deliberate performance art, until I noticed the guy beside me eating his lunch from a paper plate.
Visually and sonically, the band present something which feels genuinely new and exciting, silly costumes and all. Gang of Four re-imagined as post-modern, all-female art pop. If you have the chance to catch them at some point, we’d highly recommend taking it.
I missed the rush for Manuela Barczewski, and consequently elected to stay outside for a bit – laying in the sun within hearing distance of the Amphis Stage and letting the ambient tones and loops wash over me. Despite not physically seeing her perform, Manuela’s presence helped create one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had in recent memory. What is a festival except that which detaches itself from the norm, and creates a space of otherness? Everyday concerns are suspended in favour of freedom, and today is a beautiful day. This was the perfect soundtrack to that realization; that I am here, it is now, and nothing outside of that need be my concern for the moment.
WE are another group that passed me by, in favour of wine and good company. It’s a sacrifice I’m sad to have made, as through the walls of the Gallery Stage I hear the propulsive throb of bass, and dayglow synths set the stage for a fight between twee and sinister that one can only guess the outcome of… As people wander in and out, surf-rock riffs float out across the site. It’s clear that whatever’s happening in there, it’s producing a sound you can have a good time to.
However, free wine is also something you can have a good time with, and as I foolishly came with no money, you gotta take it where you can get it. I was literally going to have to be sober otherwise, and it’s doubtful that would have been conducive to a good time for anyone. It was pretty much philanthropy. My GQ Award is in the post.
Things start getting arty with Lucy Woodhouse; the Amphis is turned into a theatre of sorts, a large projector screen hosting a barrage of grainy Super-8-esque images layering over each other in loops. The word ‘REPRODUCE’ is visible at all times. Sonic textures whisper from the speakers, with thunderous bass looming in the margins of audible sound – a slowly evolving tapestry that suits the amorphously threatening imagery perfectly. The closest I can invoke is the propulsive menace of someone like The Haxan Cloak; soundscapes designed to unsettle and compel in equal measures.
Holly Rumble, last seen at this year’s monomania festival, performs a more educational set that seems to combine both this festival’s theme and that of monomania. It’s a heavy undertaking, literally, with her set hinging around her compulsion to hoard rocks from everywhere she’s visited. In contemplating the future, she wonders what she’ll do with this abundant and fairly useless collection of objects – for now, the answer appears to be to turn it to art for fun and profit. Each pile of stones is accompanied by a picture of where it was located, an explanation of how the rock was formed and what that means, and a soundtrack created from the objects themselves using contact mics and a loop pedal.
Despite hinging upon an idea one imagines could only appeal to geologists, the whole thing is incredibly grounding – abandoning pretension for straightforward, practically demonstrated history. The performance is offered freely, delivered with conversational ease, and soundtracked by the naturally sourced sounds of the objects themselves. It’s a welcome respite from the foreboding darkness or energetic abandon of previous acts – and what’s more, I only made very occasional puns while writing this. Which is something I’m quite proud of. You can find out more about Holly’s work as a sound artist here.
Next up in the darkened Studio Stage, following on from Holly’s installation, is the film programme. Now, I was skeptical about this – I have to be honest. The artist’s website and work looks like the kind of world that only exists in the minds of the ironically kitsch or the unironically infantile, and it would be fair to say that I would not be the best person to present something like that to. Whimsy is still whimsy whether you have an art degree or not, and irony for the sake of irony is loathsome. However. There was clearly a point here, even if the results do look like this:
Despite looking like an acid trip in a Hello Kitty factory (who, by the way, is a fucking cat and not an English schoolgirl), Rachel Maclean manages to hold up a mirror of sorts. Though the mirror probably has sparkly things superglued to its frame, what it shows is a hyperreal version of our own culture… what archaeologists of some future species would conclude if the only remnants they found of our society were Starbucks cups and YouTube videos.
There’ll be a tipping point, I’m sure, at which the internet will buckle under the weight of inanity occupying it, and all the memes will come to life. All of them. Every. Fucking. One. That’s the kind of world Rachel Maclean evokes with her films. It takes some skill to be this willfully camp; and although afterwards you may feel like you’ve swallowed a TV that only plays Made In Chelsea and never turns off, chances are you’ll thank her for it.
Next up Nik Colk Void performs, of London electronic trio Factory Floor. Her music is hypnotically repetitive, build from vacillating frequencies of which the majority are completely atonal. Despite being ostensibly a continual barrage of static, it was not without rhythm, and flailing about in the strobe-lit darkness my mind found said rhythm and enjoyed it immensely.
There’s something almost meditative in noise that compares with silence, especially that which has a beat. Though I couldn’t help thinking of Ginsberg, via Pigface; “I saw the best minds of my generation caught up in the virtual reality of living / Swaying robotically to non-existent rhythms / Flashing memberships to clubs so exclusive nobody belongs”. The constant strobes were cool, and wildly disorientating – everyone looked like they’d been captured on film at an incredibly slow frame rate. Luckily, the programmers had thought to warn those of us with epilepsy in advance, and I was not without medication. Making my excuses to the people around me (whose movements I could only see sporadically), I left quietly and without incident.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a ditch several miles outside of Caxton with some Outsider Art carved into my chest, but I don’t think it’s related. I fashioned myself some clothes out of dry leaves and began the long walk back, and was helpfully stopped by a friendly woman with Baba Yaga tattooed on her leg. After repeatedly reassuring her that I wasn’t an axe murderer, she agreed to accompany me back to the festival.
When we arrived, Ashley Paul was performing at the now very familiar Amphis Stage. Her wonderful music created the second truly beautiful experience of the day, soundtracking my life like the indie film it never was and never will be.
If there’s such a thing as headliners here, it’s understandable why Ashley was on towards the end of the night. Her music explodes the concept of the festival into a reality, one that seems to truly explore the potential inherent in experimental music.
Juxtaposing simple musical forms with more challenging expeditions, her music is a journey and a triumph. Using a wide range of acoustic instruments, the Brooklyn-based artist manages to fashion a space between comfort and unease, harmony and discord, that it’s almost impossible to listen to passively. Wholly captivating and genuinely compelling – it’s no surprise she’s gained accolades from the likes of The Wire and The Quietus.
It was time to go home, unfortunately. My apologies to the acts who were not heard, and consequentially not written about. Overall, as a first visit to Wysing this was a pretty special one. I’d heard good things regarding their Annual Music Festival, and anyone looking to deny that it has currency in all the right places is a fool.
By proxy, any musician or artist associated also benefits from that currency, and I’d be hard pushed to highlight anyone on the bill that didn’t deserve that. Despite it’s overt tendency towards experimentalism, no artist violated me in a way I didn’t want them to (or didn’t secretly enjoy). The premise for this year could potentially have led to quite disjointed results – creating as it did a finite pool of artists to draw from, all defined largely by their gender rather than any aesthetic considerations. The results held together remarkably well, and despite the sheer diversity of acts on the bill, all were programmed in at the right place and the right time.
In summary, I had a great time. Thank you for the opportunity. I will be attending again next year, and look forward avidly to hearing what ideas are to come next.
To find out more about Wysing Arts Centre, visit their website here.