Socialism was the most looked-for word in 2015, but how often do you get an arts festival focused on it? Mike Quille previews the International AV Festival in North East England.
In 1936 George Orwell was commissioned by the Left Book Club to write about the class divisions, poverty, unemployment and social injustice caused by the collapse of financial capitalism in 1929, and the subsequent economic depression in the North of England. The resulting book, The Road to Wigan Pier, is a classic of committed writing, a sympathetic account of working class life in the North and a vivid analysis of the state of socialism in England. Exactly 80 years later, and a few years after another major failure in the capitalist system, the biennial International AV Festival of visual art, film and music, based in North East England, takes a similarly committed stance towards socialism. The Festival mirrors the structure of the book with Part One this year, followed by Part Two in 2018.
Part One features works by established and emerging artists and film-makers who like Orwell situate themselves in direct relation to political argument, struggle and propaganda. Presented in partnership with 14 venues across the North East, the programme, curated by Festival director Rebecca Shatwell, includes a grouped exhibition of 12 installations, 48 film screenings and special events, including 17 UK premieres and one world premiere.
The programme is wide-ranging and ambitious. Uniquely for an arts festival, it has been curated to address the challenges of global capitalism by deploying events, exhibitions and artworks with regional, national and international relevance. Thus there are several exhibitions with strong local historical roots, such as exhibitions about Thomas Spence, local arts collective Amber Films, and the Jarrow Crusade. There are several films by British film-maker Marc Karlin, who made influential radical films in the 80s and 90s, an exhibition and re-creation of Orwell's commissioners, the Left Book Club, and some fine documentaries from the 30s, 40s and 50s by film-makers sympathetic to the socialist project.
There is a tremendous range of international themes and artists, diverse but interlinked. One weekend of the month-long festival is focused on events, discussions and films from left wing Japanese artists, with themes of political hi-jacking, terrorism, and support for Palestinian resistance.
Another weekend focuses on Ukrainian documentary movements, and features the world premiere of a newly rediscovered early Soviet film masterpiece by Mikhail Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov, the famous Soviet film director who made ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. The film has a live soundtrack by Test Dept. and is one of several potential highlights of the festival.
In addition to 1936, the other main historical reference point for the festival is 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and artists' response to this moment and to the subsequent rise of capitalism. There are exhibitions by Ukrainian, Indian, Romanian, and Russian artists on this theme, including a Romanian cartoonist who will be making new drawings on a gallery wall, responding to national and international news.
The Road to Wigan Pier has some faults, but it persuasively argues that the basis of democratic socialism is equality and fairness, and that people of all classes need to understand about oppression and inequality in order to make socialism work. The festival is focused on achieving the same end. Dig out and re-read Orwell's book, then come along for an updated, globalised, multimedia – and potentially more progressive – version of it.
AV 2016 Part One: Meanwhile, What About Socialism? is on from 27 February to 27 March. The full programme is at www.avfestival.co.uk