Circa Projects & Giles Bailey: Festival of the Not Art Monthly #424, March 2019

Eschewing the headed notepaper, marketing department and regular funding invariably associated with successful arts organisations in favour of what might be described as a studio-based curatorial practice founded on peer-led dialogue, Circa Projects doesn’t suffer the relative precarity of its situation as survivor but rather wills it as an essential condition for activity which is inquisitive and porous. For the past two years, this has assumed form via a relationship with artist Giles Bailey in which the terms of each other’s practice have encircled one another; a relationship for which the three-day ‘Festival of the Not,’ its curious title pointing as much to a resistance as to a celebration, stands as coda.  

The festival, taking in performance, screenings, talks and workshops, was hosted by the Star and Shadow Cinema, a co-operative cinema and music venue which reopened in new self-built form in 2018. Truly an exemplar for equable, non-hierarchical models of organising and programming, and a spirited riposte to fatter, lazier institutions, the Star and Shadow is proof of the viability of those models in the face of the ‘no alternative’ imposed by dominant structures; the ‘not’ here rather an ‘or’.

Kim Coleman’s performance OHMMG opened the festival. A lone computer-controlled stage lamp rotated slowly, lighthouse-like, a greenish light casting a narrow beam across the space and illuminating a portion of the audience – seated in a circle – at a time. Faces, many familiar, some not, appeared briefly: eyes blinded and shut, heads inclined; or else a confrontation, lids narrowed into the light; preparing a face to meet the faces that you meet, as Eliot had it. Here was a masquerade; a reflexive introduction which set up an exchange between viewer and apparatus, revelation and obscuration, framing its audience not as observers but protagonists – and indeed, as it played out, the lamps themselves as agents; lonely dancing robots high on digital affect. And in many ways, though the weekend was rich and nourishing, it never transcended this moment, which depended as much on its position in the programme as on a certain brilliance in Coleman’s schema. 

An affective current also charged Deborah Bower and Janina Sabaliauskaite’s 16mm film Your Body is a Wave, though in an entirely different register. A quietly transcendental achievement in its treatment of both subject and material, the film stood as an affirmation, via the particular qualities of its regard, of the possibilities presented by a union between two different artistic backgrounds. Sensual, oneiric, it summoned a rich chiaroscuro from its black and white ground, abstracting form and tone in a manner not unlike the work of Imogen Cunningham or Edward Weston. 

Then, in a feat of choreography which came to be a leitmotif for the thoughtfulness with which the weekend as a whole was structured, the audience were rounded up by Christo Wallers, here a shamanic figure incanting a elusive, syncretic narrative fusing Bertolt Brecht and Fluxus artist George Brecht – and followed promenade-style as he led them to the sanctum of the cinema room, where five projectors clattered, for Film Bee’s performance Light Angles Right Angles

While in form it had antecedents in Expanded Cinema, it shrugged off what might elsewhere have felt canonical to claim as its own a sense of anarchy and carnival, and indeed to push the multiple-projection format beyond its usual terms. Letraset characters, appearing at random via each projector, at points graciously formed words, and learning afterwards that the performance was entirely unrehearsed lent these aleatory moments a sense of magic which, as with much of the events, suffused the rest of the festival to the extent that its temporary community became a living archive of the sum of its activities.

A shift of key again, set against an ever-mounting typology of images of furniture, and involving a brief but beautifully precise partita for performer and chair, Katy Bentham’s Song for Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or The Secrets of Swedish Contentment, was taut, determined and meticulously choreographed. As with Anti-Muse, Bentham’s performance at Newcastle University’s Fine Art degree show, the success of the piece stemmed from employing an internal logic which enjoins the viewer to trust it to make associative leaps, its sense of form and poise balanced by a wryness that saw off any would-be descent into the austere. 

Among the films which screened, Morgan Quaintance’s Letter From Tokyo, 2018, a reflective essay on forms of resistance, was particularly resonant in the Star and Shadow, formed as it was from interviews with countercultural groups in Tokyo in the descent towards the 2020 Olympic Games. It is no leap to move from the foreclosure of alternative culture, gentrification and the proscription of public space in Japan to the same in the UK, given identical global forces, but Quaintance’s generosity of approach guarantees the integrity of his original enquiry; that metaphor is secondary to source material and not the reason for it.

The presentations given by Dutch writer and artist Louwrien Wijers, while thematically perfect for the Fluxus-inspired programme, in practice felt at odds with the festival as a whole. If there were a central message to Wijers’ career as she recounted it, it was that to enjoy a senior position in the art world as a woman, one must hang on the coat-tails of prominent men, which as note-taker and interviewer for Beuys, Warhol and others she did, going on to organise the colloquium Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, in which important men talked to other important men about the destiny of the planet: not so very different to the political structures Fluxus argued that it was in defiance of.

However, Festival of the Not was big-hearted enough to contain histories and presents alike, with the gentle framework afforded by the legacies of Fluxus in most instances only enhancing the experience, not to mention underlining the diversity of, the many exemplary performances that unfolded over its course. Where Circa Projects travels to next; the means it might employ to counter, supplement or dissolve institutional structures; and how and with whom it aligns itself, is a trajectory worth watching.