Getintothis‘ Sinéad Nunes spent 3 days soaking up digital culture, cinema and art in the Peak District for the fourth iteration of Abandon Normal Devices.
Abandon Normal Devices (AND) Festival is a biennial celebration of arts and technology, run by a core team of enthusiasts who bring something new to the festival circuit.
Where other arts festivals focus solely on contemporary art (Liverpool Biennial) or large scale commissions (Manchester International Festival), AND offers a range of interactive activities, free public art and unique ticketed experiences which appeal to all ages, and more importantly, abilities.
Often, events that pitch themselves as beacons of the latest and greatest innovations in technology (or any other field) can alienate vast scores of potential audience by using pretentious language or out-pricing normal folks.
What was great about this year’s event was seeing audiences young and old, many who were visiting the village of Castleton for a camping trip or hiking weekend stumble across the festival only to discover it had a lot to offer to the average visitor, who maybe had no prior knowledge of what VR means.
Then there’s the location. Historically, AND has moved site every two years, starting life out in city environments (Liverpool, Manchester) before decamping to Griezedale Forest in 2015, and this year, the Peak District.
Setting manmade lasers, sound systems and wearables against this awe-inspiring natural backdrop is a stroke of genius; the juxtaposition of the two works wonderfully, pitting mother nature against 21st century normality in a way that redefines the internet acronym IRL.
Volunteering is by far one of the best ways to see a festival. Working short(ish) shifts doing something totally new and often very interesting – from installing artworks to running workshops – in exchange for a free pass to see some great newly commissioned artwork in some of the coolest spaces they could be presented? Sign us up now.
Not only does the setting invite visitors to explore nature in a new way (lets face it, you were already picturing a geeky gaggle of guys wandering around with headsets and consoles), it demonstrates how technology and nature can coexist in synergy, by offering a space where the visitor doesn’t have to choose between staring at a screen and taking a stroll – you can do both.
As well as all the art, music, talks and cinema on hand, visitors could enjoy existing local attractions, from historical ours to caving expeditions.
This year’s festival, in collaboration with Peak District National Park and the National Trust centred on the theme of above and below ground, using the peaks and caverns of the area to house a variety of site-specific works.
Amongst the highlights included Ooni Studio’s ‘We Dwell Below’, a virtual reality experience inside a tipi inviting visitors to journey to the centre of the earth.
The multi-user experience asked participants to eat their way to the earth’s core, with comic interactions throughout the journey and fun costumes housing the VR headsets (ostensibly for the enjoyment of spectators).
Another fun, free activity was Heavy Metal Detector by artist Steve Maher. Part of Site Gallery (Sheffield)’s pop up gallery, this playful tour saw punters explore the village with custom metal detectors and headphones, encountering a local heavy metal band whenever they happened upon a metal object. Silly, educational, and a surprising way to showcase the local music scene, this promenade piece was a unique part of the programme.
Whilst ‘y Wall is Your Filter Bubble, another walking tour, invited audiences to hike through the peaks in search of scannable QR codes which activated augmented reality animations on the iPads provided, Listening in the Dark took audiences underground, for a truly sensory experience.
In the subterranean bunker of Peak Cavern, visitors could discover three sonic installations, whilst learning about the history of the cave (which, for those who enjoy trivia is thirteen miles long, and at its deepest point fit St. Paul’s on top of itself three times like a totem pole).
The Hive, by Indonesian artists Ikbal Simamora Lubys and Tony Maryana in collaboration with The Kazimier’s own Laurie Crombie, a sculptural instrument created in response to the mouth of the cave is made up of Gamelan bars and chimes, which visitors could play to create percussive tunes.
Deeper still, Beatrice Dillon’s sound installation in inspired by the late experimental composer Pauline Oliveros played with the theory of ‘deep listening’.
Set in one of the grandest caverns within, the piece felt synaesthetic; as you moved about the space, the gentle pulsing and droning notes reflected off the hollows and walls, creating unique soundscapes depending on your interction with the sonic environment.
Although the guide recommended a “sweet spot”, it was obvious that members of the tour group found their own preferred aural hangouts. Finally, Mark Fell’s sound and light work Extensionless Thought Points used strobes and club music beats to produce an unnerving trip to the darkest part of the cave.
Friday night’s gig in Peak Cavern was tipped to be one of the festival’s main draws, with support from Producer, DJ and Co-founder of NON WORLDWIDE, Nkisi. Creating music which seeks to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power, her AV set went down well in the mouth of the cave, with a party vibe to open the festival.
Headliner James Ferraro however, was disappointing, failing to ignite energy in the room, and ultimately playing half his allocated set time to a room keen for a heavier, faster pace after the thrill of Nkisi.
The true headliner of the festival though was Daan Roosegaarde’s ‘Waterlicht’, a stunning, large-scale installation featuring billowing smoke and roving laser beams, which captured the imagination of over 20,000 visitors over the course of three evenings illuminating Winnats Pass.
Using the dramatic beauty of the valley as his canvas, the Dutch designer flooded the area with smoke and LED light, to highlight the geological formations once submerged deep under water, during the time of the Ice Age. For a more immersive experience, visitors were invited to download a newly commissioned, educational soundscape to explore the work.
For us, silence was beautiful and created the perfect viewing experience, as you delved deeper into the pass to witness the grandeur from every angle.
We’re already looking forward to the 10th anniversary edition returning in 2019 (location TBC).