b-side at the seaside

b-side runs until 14th September, do go to Portland and see it, it’s the best year ever.

Going to the b-side Festival in Portland, Dorset, was a real treat. It was launched by the peal of the bells in the lovely old St. George Church next to Tout Quarry, followed by a soundwork by Duncan Whitley. As the soundwork crescendoes from quiet birdsong to the loud hammering sounds of rock being shaped, the audience became grounded as to why they had come – b-side Festival is all about Portland and the people that live there.

A brief stroll down to the local community hall and there was a real sense of gathering. The artists, the curatorial team, local people, volunteers and those who had travelled especially all enjoyed what was on offer. There was Talkaoki (film clip) for those who wished to voice their thoughts loudly on art – which went down very well – and an Arts Confessional for those that had more intimate words to share. As the sun went down, families began to gather outside to have themselves and their bikes dressed with LED lights and soundboxes. As they moved off together as a group, led by Luke Jerram and his team, Lullaby (film clip) floated out into the street and up to children’s bedroom windows. People waved, watched and even cried – a simple idea turns into a moving experience when it is shared. I caught a little movie on my iPhone as they returned, one of those unexpected events that was more magical because it was a surprise.

Alex Hartley @ b-side

Portland Erratic by Alex Hartley

Saturday morning I went on a tour with other b-side supporters to view some of the works. There simply wasn’t time to see them all, so when you go, do make sure you plan things well. We began with Alex Hartley’s work Portland Erratic near Portland Castle. Sited on the harbourside looking out to sea, the work emerged from a sea-mist and seemed to be part of the place already. With it’s window frames painted as white as the fog and the stones it displayed seemingly the material of Portland, it was a surprise to hear that these objects were alien to Portland – had arrived as ballast, or were dumped during industrial works. In the distance, on the headland behind the sculpture, my eye kept travelling to view the dome at the Verne Prison. Another place that will be soon be processing unwanted arrivals on the shores of the UK, when it becomes a holding centre for asylum seekers, following the closure of the prison. The domestic scale and the use of up-cycled window frames made the experience of viewing the works through the windows, and beyond to the sea, a melancholic experience. A longing for a lost home.

A drive up to the Verne followed, where we were welcomed by Simon Ryder and shown his various works, which make up Passage, within the prison walls. Simon weaves stories with objects and histories and creates previously unconsidered links between seemingly disparate behaviours. Struck by a Pathe film he saw online of prisoners wearing masks to conceal their identity while they talked about keeping birds in the prison, Simons mind saw a relationship between the hoods that birds of prey wear and those donned by the men in the film. Another parallel discovery was that the game of squash was invented in prisons and was once a lowly game made by men locked-up and surrounded by high walls. It is now a game played by people with higher social status and is no longer allowed within the prison. The film Simon made, using infrared cameras, re-enacts men inside the prison playing squash, with resounding echoes of the balls as they thrashed against the walls. Confinement and freedom, leisure and echoes of history are all captured by a series of works installed within the rocks of the island.

Later the same day I witnessed an underground movie collaged from a historical collection of films that have featured rabbits. One must not mention the word rabbit on the Isle of Portland, because of its implications. Artist Alistair Gentry has been wandering around dressed as one – this snippet of a serious discussion observed by the underground dweller shows him infiltrating the Talkaoke. The films, powered by bicyclists behind the seasons due to the lack of electricity, revealed spoke peculiarities about rabbits in films – especially that they attack people, wear bow ties and are rather fond of white glove and time.

Talking was a key feature in two other works. Ellie Harrison shared a beautiful and moving set of personal stories from The Grief Series. Presented in a local home these works allow the viewer/listener to empathise with the storytellers as they responded to a number of questions written on cue cards. They got to choose which questions they would answer and the outcome was very emotional for as visitors sat in a chair opposite a photo of the speakers and listened carefully and privately on headphones.

Inside the cinema performance artist Tom Marshman presented a heartwarming set of stories in Everbody’s Auditiorium. Tom enacted charming conversations with local residents that told stories of their lives, with minimal props and subtle lighting and sound Tom warmed the cockles of anyone visiting this seaside cinema. Not to be missed.

I also heard and experienced the sound installation, Variable 4, by Jones and Bulley on Portland Bill, lovely resonance and mixing of pre-recorded and responsive sounds, melding in the mist with the deep tone of the fog-horn. Enchanting.

There is more, much more, to talk about. But I want you to read this NOW and go and see it SOON. There’s not long and you really do need to go and see for yourself. The support and engagement of the local community s absolutely fantastic – what every socially engaged organisation aims for. B-side Festival is not In Portland – it IS Portland.

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