Festival of Imagineers 2017

Last week marked the third Festival of Imagineers produced by Imagineer Productions. It profiled local, national and international work: a range of practices at the intersection of art-making, engineering, technology and learning. The week was about collaborative beginnings, reflecting the phoenix-like arts and engineering character of the city.

Science and Art re-framed and infused each other, for example through Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’ which topped and tailed the week. Firstly it was the setting for Balbir Singh’s dance, music and synchronised swimming rendition of ‘The Broken Tusk’, as day moved to night over Coventry’s swimming pool. At the end of the week, in the cathedral it was the site and inspiration for local composer Derek Nisbet’s ‘Moonlight Medley’, played by organist Kerry Beaumont and danced to by Tom Bright – a performer with One of a Kind and Freefall. The physical presence of a gigantic, scientifically accurate ‘moon’, almost close enough to touch, was heightened by music and movement, attuning us to the symbolism of the moon and its rhythmic journeying and enlightenment.

At the beginning of the week Artichoke’s Helen Marriage, identified Imagineer’s practice as echoing her own company’s passionate commitment to social transformation through public art – realised by people skilled in, and attuned to, the dimensions of sciences and the arts. The week also featured interactive workshops and presentations from regionally partners in the global engineering company Arup and architect and planning company IDP.  Both companies are working in the city with a range of partners, including artists like Imagineer Productions and schools. Their involvement in the festival reflects growing recognition (and vocalisation) of the mutual benefit of such partnerships: immediately motivating, skilling and extending people across the arts and business sectors; as well as for, in the longer term, the development of young people.

Saturday featured a range of interactive, new and old technologies harnessed performatively to create provocative, engaging, and always fun, outdoor events: from Wet Picnic‘s dark, physical theatre playfully exploring the tyranny of social media, to Thrill Laboratory’s VR Playground. Each profiled the skills and perspectives developed by arts practice, infused and shaped by those of science, technology or engineering. Less consciously perhaps it informed the theatrical presence of Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s performances, such as the stilt-walking, ghost-like, silent narrators of ‘The Winters Tale’ and (the highlight for me) Acrojou’s Vessel. Acrobatically performed in a small boat, in a set of constantly teaming ‘rain’, human sensibilities, resilience and ingenuity thread through elemental and circumstantial challenges. Performance skills and technology are finely crafted to simultaneously affect and amaze.

Several ‘within the week’ research and development-like collaborations are worth a mention. One featured three makers exploring how and why the crafts of hand, word and digital might converge, diverge and generate dilemmas, ethical and otherwise. Julia O’Connell’s sewing craft, Chris O’Connell’s wordsmith skills and Ashley Brown’s digital artistry provoked discomfort and debate. A second was between sound artist Kaffe Matthews and creative engineer Nick Martin who sought to combine a ‘sonic bike’ with a ‘sonic bed’ into a kind of sensory recumbent bicycle. Sound literally massages the body as it vibrates through shoulders, torso, thigh, calf, creating sensory and imagined landscapes. This is one of three planned sonic bike models, through which the public will hear a sonic bike opera, for a new kind of heritage park which begins at Charterhouse, a former Carthusian monastry. (This is also a focus for the commission for The Imagineerium Initiative, where children imagine and design ‘marvellous mechanical machines’ for the park.)

The final beginning collaboration was an exploratory conference: ‘Inspiring Curriculum Change’. A  gathering of just over 30 artists, educators, engineers and business people, mainly from the city, met to consider how Coventry, as a city with strengths in cultural and manufacturing innovation, in a region with significant skills gaps might utilise models of practice-based learning, inspired by arts practitioners, to develop a local (possibly STEAM-like) curriculum. Coventry University, the University of Warwick, UCLan, Arup, Imagineer, Highly Sprung and Dominic Wilcox presented and stimulated table debate to consider strengths, areas for immediate and longer term development. This is the first step on a journey –  an important step and an important journey.

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Traum – ShopFront Theatre

Last night I saw (the cleverly titled) Traum in Coventry’s ShopFront Theatre. It is one man’s story of his experience of migration. Whilst its current resonances may be particular and thereby more profound for some, there was also something universal in the articulation of the importance of our sense of self to drive us, of the significance of our dreams to help us live (and the trauma of the loss of dreams). Chris O Connell’s text and the soundtrack were vital structures but my attention was on the sensed aesthetic of the physical text: the voice of the piece was all in the body. Through abstracted, literal or symbolic, heightened whole body movement, the alter ego physically interwove with the protagonist. As we sat still in our seats internalising our responses to the physicality, I was particularly conscious that the directness of such physical dialogue as a relational medium of communication, is often overlooked, and particulalry in school teaching. In talking to the actors afterwards I was aware again of their heightened attunement to physical expression, in their need to move as they spoke to express themselves – albeit in more limited, socially acceptable degrees. Movement is an instinct which for them, could not be wholly suppressed. One of the actors spoke of the need to move, dance – whole body physicality – during his lunch hours whilst working temporarily in an office job in order to feel OK. Imagine how different the response and dialogue to such experiences might be if we could move and talk, or move to talk (instead perhaps) – to help us engage with others about the things that matter to us. How might this effect our understanding and sense of connection? …. Richard Hayhow (Open Theatre) and Highly Sprung Performance Company this is your medium and forte – could you start the trend in Coventry?