The Milton Keynes International Festival, run by local music venue The Stables, runs every two years for 10 days in July. We discovered it almost accidentally in 2012 – its second iteration – and found several things in the programme that seemed to have been put on especially for us. As a result we anticipated the 2014 event very keenly and were determined to get the most out of visiting, timing our summer holiday to coincide with it. Here are a few thoughts on the first day:
Architects of Air: Pentalum ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ Held in Middleton Hall, the site of 2012’s inland beach, and right in the middle of the shopping centre. The Pentalum is a giant inflatable sculpture made from translucent PVC that you can walk through. It is composed of pods, chambers and corridors and is collectively known as a luminarium. Daylight filtering through the plastic turns it into a kind of cathedral of colour and there’s soothing piped music too. You can feel its bouncy castle heritage in the seams, zips and air outlets and, as other people interact with it, the thing shifts about and adjusts to all the people moving around inside it The design is a homage to the pentagon, based on Gothic cathedrals and Islamic architecture, and the idea is to have a unique sensory experience. On its opening day in MK, the Pentalum came very close to pulling that off for us, with a stunning combination of colour, sound and tactility and the potential for a intense yet relaxed atmosphere.
However, the actual atmosphere inside was closer to a giant adventure playground for toddlers and boisterous tweens than a chill zone and as a result I came out feeling tense and grumpy rather than relaxed or closer to enlightenment (not helped by the fact that the volunteer charged with letting people out managed to hit me on the head as I passed through the door.) The artists’ purpose is to create something close to sensory overload and, with lots of yelling and the sound of relentless pounding feet added in, the luminarium ceases to be fun or to provoke wonder and becomes close to unbearable. Clearly children are going to love this, and they will get lots out of it, but the whole thing would have worked so much better for me if the boisterous families and the chill-seekers had been separated out and given (different) designated visiting times so that everyone could enjoy it to the maximum in their own way. On Friday afternoon the artists’ notion that this was a place of respite and recharging was completely off-beam. It is a difficult balancing act – at the time we visited it was out of balance and the sensory experience was compromised.
In summary, a wonderful idea, and a truly beautiful thing, which nevertheless is just slightly less than wonderful in its MK execution, perhaps inevitably given its central location – still, we remain very glad to have visited and to have had the experience. The volunteers not practising head-hitting deserve praise too, most were enthusiastic and engaged, and we were truly grateful to the kind man on the door who welcomed us despite bad traffic having made us a couple of minutes late for our timeslot.
You can see the Luminaria in action for yourself on the Architects of Air website or watch a video about their work here.
Kaffe Matthews: The Lock Shift Songs ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ This audio installation is in a shop unit not far away from the Pentalum and it was something that we had doubts about from the moment we spotted it in the programme. We should have listened to those doubts as they turned out to be spot-on accurate. But, as gongoozlers and occasional boaters in good standing, with a passion for all things inland waterway, we allowed hope to override expectation and gave it a go regardless.
That was a mistake. The installation consists of three ‘sonic beds’ for listeners to lie in and experience the 40-minute soundscape. The difficulty is that, in order to experience this artwork, you have to become part of the exhibit – literally making a spectacle of yourself. We were not terribly up for this and so, when we found that the listening experience was in a darkened room behind a shop door and not in the middle of the shopping centre, we felt relieved and decided that it was not going to make us the centre of too much unwelcome attention after all. So we gave it a go – and managed all of five minutes before the door opened and around 40 people flooded in, all wearing festival passes round their necks, and clearly on some kind of guided tour. When they started leaning into the beds to peer down at us, we decided we’d had more than enough, got up and fled out of the door as fast as we damn well could.
This was an almost comical realisation of the thing that had worried us about this whole project, or it would have been, had it not left us so disconcerted and uncomfortable. Sadly, we didn’t hear enough of the audio to find a way in, to get any sense of narrative, or to locate any site-specific qualities to the work whatsoever. And the moral of this tale is? Listen to your instincts.
You can read more about this project from funders The Canal and River Trust here.
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So, at this point, the festival was not going as well as we had hoped, or anything like as well as our visits to the 2012 event. That was all about discovery and glorious serendipity and this was stressful and uncomfortable. We decided it was time to get out of central MK and recharge for an hour or two in the surrounding countryside in order to have the resolve to get through the two ticketed events in the evening.
The Stables Sessions ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ When we returned, and made our way to the festival site at Willen Lake, we happened across the acoustic sessions in the Arabian Bar Tent – this is a thing of wonder with a hessian floor, a fabric roof and filigree lanterns, also low couches to lounge on with tables for drinks. We caught half an hour of the opening band before it was time for us to make our way across to the Spiegeltent – recapturing a bit of the serendipity of the 2012 festival and improving our mood no end. This would probably not be nearly so much fun if very crowded, but luckily we caught it at a reasonably quiet time. And the band? OK and well worth a listen, with an interesting sound, although they needed to bring quite a lot more discipline and polish to their performance.
Casus: Knee Deep ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Last time around we found out about the festival too late to book for any of the events in the Spiegeltent. I was totally fascinated by the Spiegeltent, to the extent that I asked a volunteer in 2012 to let me stick my head in (which she did, grudgingly). I was determined to see something there this time but, inevitably, was worried about crowds and seating. Well, I need not have been. There was lots of space and no problems – although the event was not sold to capacity and this may have helped. The show was amazing, a real discovery – absolutely everything you hope for in an arts festival. Casus are an Australian contemporary circus company comprising one woman and three men, and their signature performance is walking on eggshells – literally, and without breaking them. However, the show has incredible depth and honesty, and allows all the performers to showcase their individual skills as well as demonstrating their capacity for creating great spectacles together. I’m not sure I’d otherwise get many other chances to see this company, and this is why the Milton Keynes Festival truly does get to describe itself as international. The time flew by, and the show was immersive, beguiling and very satisfying to watch with lots of oohs and aahs of childish wonder (and a few points where people winced, but I won’t spoil the surprise). The performers project great humanity and build powerful audience rapport, so this is one I would unhesitatingly recommend, and I think I would definitely try to see this company perform again if it returns to the UK.
You can learn more about Casus and their work here. Or read this insightful Guardian review of their 2012 Edinburgh Festival performance.
Ilotopie: Les Fous de Bassin (Waterfools) ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ Our final event of the day was very disappointing, and a fairly unpleasant experience to boot. We had, foolishly, booked on the basis of being absolutely blown away with Compagnie Carabosse and the fire gardens the previous year – that was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The publicity for this event played up all the similarities – a French company, pyrotechnics, transforming a public space into something magical – but Les Fous de Bassin had none of the visceral appeal or the intimacy and intense sensory immersiveness (light/dark, sounds/music, smells, heat) of the earlier event. In fact, I felt quite silly for having fallen into the comparison trap and for trying to recreate an experience that I should have understood was a one-off.
We arrived early and spent a horrible hour waiting for the show to start as the viewing area became more and more crowded and people’s behaviour got more and more inconsiderate – despite some very good and sympathetic stewarding. (The lake was also ringed with people who wanted to view it but didn’t want to pay for a ticket – we were assured the show had a ‘narrow focus’ but I’m not convinced.) When the performance started it was far too slow off the mark, it was badly-paced and it was too far away for us to really appreciate the undoubted quirkiness and strangeness of the different elements – and we were in a relatively good viewing position. Half an hour went by and it still felt as if it had barely got going – it had left me completely cold and unengaged. By the time the pyrotechnics eventually started we realised we didn’t really give a damn how it ended and, once the thunderstorm broke 35 minutes in, we had the perfect excuse to make our way back to the car feeling very, very relieved to finally be out of Dodge.
This could well have been more successful if the performance had taken up a smaller area of the lake and had therefore offered a more intimate experience for the viewer, or if the timings had been tightened up. But, basically, it simply wasn’t anything like as good as the previous year’s showpiece public event – and a large amount of hype and a few fireworks will not make it so.
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So, what lessons learned from a really mixed bag of events? Firstly, there was no point in us expecting IFMK 2014 to be like IFMK 2012. We went to three events last time: the fire gardens, the Lone Twin Project talk/boat demonstration and the library text/sound performance. All of these were excellent but only one was a ticketed large-scale event and, in that one, we were able to move around and escape the densest crowds rather than be pinned in one place watchng a static performance. In 2012 everything seemed new and magical and particularly serendipitous – and that can’t be recreated, you have to forge a new relationship. Where we did that – at Pentalum and the Spiegeltent event, and by visiting the Arabian tent, we had good experiences. Where we tried to look backwards we had bad experiences. We know certain things cause us problems but we didn’t heed the warnings strongly enough and so we visited two things that perhaps we shouldn’t have. We are always going to find crowds difficult so we need to take that into account in future and simply consider not going to large-scale outdoor events.
We’ll be visiting the festival twice more, once to look around all the free events and finally towards the end to take part in the Vintage Day. Hopefully we will have learned some lessons that will help us enjoy the remaining time more. The thing with visiting lots of arts events is that you are absolutely guaranteed to score some misses occasionally as well as some hits. We are generally very, very good at scouting out the stuff we like and don’t very often run into stuff that we don’t enjoy – which is why it can be a shock when it happens. But you also have to consider that, if you like everything you see, you’re not challenging yourself or stepping outside your comfort zone. So the odd “I really didn’t like that…” is not only inevitable, but also actually a positive sign.