Conrad Landin introduces the AV Festival in Newcastle.
When the AV Festival lost its funding in the latest round of Arts Council awards, there was little outcry in the national press. The fact that the festival is defiantly not London focused — connecting as it does north-east England with art projects the world over — could well point us to why. But though the festival which opened last week could well be the last, it shows no signs of abating in its boldness, vibrancy and originality.
This year's AV is the second to be titled Meanwhile, What About Socialism? The first, staged two years ago, explored the history of industry and left-wing institutions and the festival's formidable director Rebecca Shatwell says that 2018’s programme is all about presenting “new work by artists and film-makers that consider the future.”
Lucy Parker, Apologies, 2016, film still. Courtesy the artist
Its highlights include a new commission from New Delhi’s Raqs Media Collective, Provisions for Everybody, which follows the path of George Orwell from his Indian birthplace to the north of England, Catalonia and Burma. Lucy Parker’s video installation Apologies comes from extensive work with the Blacklist Support Group, a campaign well familiar to Morning Star readers. But rather than simply dwelling on the crimes of the past, it questions the worth of public apologies and examines the continued campaign for a public inquiry.
At Newcastle’s Mining Institute, Prabhakar Pachpute has connected England and India across mining landscapes, mechanics and trade unionism, while Jeamin Cha’s Twelve reimagines the work of South Korea’s clandestine minimum wage commission, bringing the limits of arbitration to the fore.
Raoul Peck, The Young Karl Marx
In its opening weekend, the festival hosted the British premiere of Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx, which charts Marx and Engels’s collaboration up to the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. It was followed by an enlightening post-screening discussion on the relevance of Marx’s writings today, which I took part in, with Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs arguing that the film’s strongest message was “the communism of everyday life” through adopting a broader perspective than the classic biopic. Instead, it examines Marx’s collaboration with Engels and the influence of other intellectuals such as the anarchist Proudhon. Equally key, with a lot of welcome creative licence taken, is the supportive role played by Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny and Engels’s working-class Irish partner Mary Burns. Both are shown to be fierce intellectual minds in their own right.
“It’s a network of people who argue, support each other, fight and fall in love,” Sengupta said. And he contended that the “lively maturity” of the film’s intellectual exchanges is something today’s left should be seeking to emulate.
I welcomed the British left’s renewed interest in ideas. Under new Labour, social democratic politics rejected debate and intellectualism while embracing the worst aspects of the academic world — technocratic management, think-tank wonkery and the fetishisation of selective aspects of the new. The new generation of left activists, freed from the shackles of cultish Trotskyite sects thanks to Labour’s transformation into a mass movement, is instead embracing political education.
In my new home town of Glasgow, Scottish Young Labour has set up a night school to train activists in the basics of theory and practice, while in Manchester the newly established Chorlton Socialist Club is attracting huge crowds for gigs and political discussions alike. At Sunday night’s screening, Newcastle city councillor Nigel Todd said that, as a veteran Labour activist, he welcomed the change in political culture. “The past 30 years have been like living in a coffin,” he said. Another audience member, a striking lecturer at Newcastle University, urged fellow viewers to join the picket lines and teach-ins this week.
Once again, the AV Festival was using the past to look to the future and using the ideas of far away to think about fault lines far closer to home. It’s a massive shame, though not surprising, that Britain’s arts establishment isn’t interested.
The AV festival runs until March 31, details: avfestival.co.uk. This article was first published in the Morning Star.