Impossible Lecture Tent: Beacons Festival 2014

I’m not an avid festival goer. I’ve had amazing experiences at festivals like Green Man in 2012 and Roskilde way back in 2006, but you won’t find me at the Pyramid Stage every year going bug-eyed and dripping head-to-toe in mud, sweat and the splash-back of people’s urine bottle bombs. I love listening to and playing music, but my gig-going habits dropped off around the time I saw my disposable income at university shrink like the vests I left in the drier accidentally on Monday night.

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Festivals are much more than the music of course. I saw brilliant sets from Animal Collective, Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid (RIP), and Funkadelic at Roskilde, but the story I tell most people about is about the time I got dog-piled by a man in a banana suit chased by three of his friends at 3am in the eerie, Nordic twilight, just as the sun began to rise. It’s the bacchanalian freedom that festivals give you to dress and do whatever you want; to “Go crazy, go nuts, ALLLLLLL the weekend!” in the words of my beloved Murray Saul.

That’s what happened to me at Beacons, encouraged by the Indivisible team’s programming of anarchic and unpredictable acts at the Impossible Lecture Tent: acts like Tracey Emin Sound System, Steakhouse Live, Laura Dee Milne’s ‘Klassic Klub Karaoke Klub’, and Collective Unconscious, not to mention their own performances and ‘sexy ass’ Balloon Party on the Friday. Buoyed by a commitment to spectacle and splendour in the face of herculean workloads, insufficient sleep and unreliable weather, normal inhibitions melted away. It was a tent of naked stage invasions, naked dancing and naked crowd-surfing; gold face paint and torn wedding dresses; balloon fights; gleeful expletives; screaming; cynical Yorkshiremen; Bob Ross; Bob Ross; Bob Ross.

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The ‘sexy ass’ Balloon Party

There were plenty of artists I knew and / or admired on the bill, but I’d like to write about the discoveries; discoveries like Top Joe, the Welsh enigma, wandering the festival site hither and tither like a Happy Shopper bag blown on the breeze, imparting sound, spiritual advice and dispensing ‘Berroco’ to those who needed it. He became something of a meme over the course of the weekend, with roars of ‘TOP JOE!’ welcoming his every appearance, to the general confusion of many, possibly even himself.

Saturday night saw the aforementioned Tracey Emin Soundsystem take to the stage, dragged-up comically badly and playing naff 90s music – think Elastica, Chumbawumba, Fatboy Slim, Catatonia – whilst berating the audience with abandon (“Put your hands in the air if you’re a benefit scrounger.”) As Tracey sniffed poppers, did forward rolls and got very excited at the imminent prospect of David Cameron popping round for a visit, Yoko Ono mixed the tracks badly and footage of iconic 90s moments played in the background, reminding us all how dreadfully beige that decade was.

I think the performance that left me most mesmerised was from F/K/Alexander, who alighted as part of the Steakhouse Live ‘Divine Intervention’ queer takeover. Striding on to the stage embodying every cliche of Scottish visual identity (tartan, ginger hair, St. Andrew’s Cross face-paint, kilt) and glowering at the audience sat before her, F/K drank, regurgitated and spat fountains of water to the bombastic In A Big Country. The atmosphere was electric: people scrambled back and F/K beat her chest in time to the song, intoning the words in a menacing monotone before declaring, “I don’t think I’m making my point loud enough.” She marched through the audience with a megaphone as the song played for a third time, parting the crowds and getting up close and personal with those brave enough to face her onslaught.

No surprise that I left the festival on Monday morning feeling dazed, then. I think I left the tent a couple of times over the weekend to buy crepes. But with food, drink, entertainment, art and friends in good supply at the Impossible Lecture tent, I felt I could do all my exploring in one just place. Long live the Impossible Lecture tent!

Impossible Lecture Retreat: Beacons Festival

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RETREAT! Go backwards, turn around, turn tail, flee. It sounds like the coward’s way out but in the face of WiFi, mobile signal, mattresses and other such distractions, it can be hard to make work as an artist. In exchange for running from these things you get blue skies, itchy eyes, the satisfying squelch of mud underfoot and the bleating of hysterical sheep.

The Impossible Lecture Tent returned to Beacons Festival for the fourth time this year, run by the superlative Indivisible team and a cast of volunteers. In addition to programming over 100 artists (!), it ran a retreat for me and five other lucky sods. So on a sunny Tuesday morning in the West Yorkshire Playhouse car park, we crammed our stuff into car boots, drove to Skipton and pitched our tents on the festival site as it transformed around us.

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I arrived with a few ideas of what I wanted to do, all of which either revolved around pushing the capabilities of my own voice and body by doing something more energetic, or exploring my own compulsion to be seen as anything other than ‘boring’. But half the fun was stumbling upon new ideas with my new-found collaborators and watching them grow as interests in visual art, contemporary music, sculpture and theatre came together in the fields, guided and teased into shape by the enthusiastic and reassuring hands of Pauline Mayers.

We played games; ate together; sat in stillness and quiet; went off and did our own things for a bit; came back and showed the group what we’d come up with; and then went off and worked on them some more. With nary a phone charger in site, I was free to roam around and concentrate on being an artist again, and to suggest outlandish things like ‘Where have all the sheep gone? Bet they f*cked them and cooked them. That’s what they’ll be selling at the festival”

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It was a liberating, rejuvenating but challenging process. I’m quite comfortable working as a solo artist but being part of a group demands flexibility, generosity and a degree of compromise. These are wonderful traits to have, of course; I would totally sleep with someone who was like that. But these admirable OK Cupid box-tickers can sometimes go out of the window when there’s the slightest hint of pressure and expectation involved.

There was no need to worry: I was part of an incredibly capable group. Between us we presented 16 pieces of work, some of it performed individually and the rest presented in groups of varying sizes. We had orgiastic sessions of health & safety; games involving hot wax and red wine; maniacal office workers driven to murder by snotty emails; experimental orchestras; and a man who just really, really loved the fact it was Friday.

I really do love Fridays.

And I love the Impossible Lecture tent. Thank you!