For four days, a rural hiker’s village in the Peak District went digital. Abandon Normal Devices, a biennial festival, filled every space in Castleton with emerging audiovisual art; in its churches, its village hall, its ruined castle, in the deep surrounding cave networks and, most spectacularly, in the Tolkien-esque valley leading down into the village.
Over three nights, Waterlicht, AND’s enchanting (and completely free) mass-immersive centrepiece filled the steep-sided Winnat’s Pass with dry ice and high-power lasers, intersecting and simulating where tropical sea levels existed millennia ago in relation to the surrounding geology. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle each night, and walking out of town to the valley held that bonfire-night sense of collective experience, of moving towards something big together.
Within the valley, thousands of people wandered under the liquid light, spellbound. An accompanying soundscape could be downloaded (from a public wi-fi network installed into the entire valley) to accompany the lights. Narrated by artist Daan Roosegaarde, the audio file delved further into the geological context of the piece – a nice addition, but by no means necessary. This element may have worked better had the soundscape been played out across the valley, with Roosegarde’s narration saved to listen to later, especially as the wi-fi network unfortunately crashed (although even a wireless network built like the Death Star would have struggled to accommodate the unprecedented popularity of the installation, to which thousands travelled each night).
The colossal installation did an excellent job of smashing the ‘spectacular/substantial’ dichotomy which often plagues approaches to contemporary visual art: that annoying tendency towards categorising things as either enjoyable/moving or intelligent/conceptual, which is enormously debilitating, and hardly enters into discussion of other art forms. All this attitude does is to distance art from audience, and invalidate people’s responses to it.
Waterlicht, on the other hand, was immediate and visceral and totally wonderful whilst also being reflective and thoughtful and legitimately interesting – something for academics and kids alike. Standing underneath the aurora overhead, you could look up at where the sea once lapped for millions of years and think about time in epochs, or just enjoy an hour with your friends.
Other visual highlights included Ooni / Laura Juo-Hsin Chen’s We Dwell Below, a totally immersive group VR trip through the underground, in which four people at a time chew through the floor with a prosthetic jaw and break through layers of virtually simulated caverns. Not to be outdone, 360-degree VR trip A Walk In Fukushima took participants on an expedition through the exclusion zone in Japan, featuring tours of ghostly art projects taking place beyond the border.
Although it went down a treat with arts pros and academics, something excellent about the whole AND Festival experience was the elation radiating from older people and kids – especially those who had just chanced upon the event.
Much of the tech deployed in Waterlicht (and elsewhere throughout the festival, for that matter) is the stuff of nightclubs: smoke machines, high-power choreographed lasers, supercharged projectors. Visually that’s all pretty incredible stuff, yet usually it’s primary use is as a sensory backdrop to the social space of a club.
Bringing the visual elements of that experience into a rugged valley does some interesting things: firstly making everything look all the more sharp and intergalactically impressive, heightening its otherness. Second, it foregrounds these elements, making them the centre of attention rather than a peripheral moodsetter. Finally, this presentation opens up such experiences to audiences that don’t or can’t frequent clubs and therefore miss the opportunity to see the entire spectrum of such visual experiences.
Abandon Normal Devices is recontextualising the aesthetic of superclubs into something that feels more like bonfire night, and that’s special.
Abandon Normal Devices will return to the North of England in 2019.
Jacob Bolton is a writer, designer and music producer based in Liverpool. T/I @bacobjolton.
Part 1 of 2. ‘AND 2017 2/2: Audio’ will be live next week.