EXIT York Mediale, the biennial festival launched in 2018. Re-enter York Mediale, recalibrated as a charity to create and deliver a year-round programme of digital arts events across the city.
What’s more, in response to the reaction to the debut programme two years ago, the international new media arts organisation will place a greater emphasis on working closely with York artists, young people and neighbourhoods.
In keeping with the wider arts industry, Covid-19 has had its killjoy impact on York Mediale 2020, although the festival retains its opening date of Wednesday, October 21.
“Prior to Covid, we were planning around 23 projects, but then the world changed,” says creative director Tom Higham. “We’ve had to re-structure our organisation and pivot how we go forward. We lost some funding and suddenly things that we had confirmed and things that were nearly over the line were off.
“We lost £70,000 straightaway, sponsor conversations were dead in the water and venues closed in the lockdown. But we did some speculating and reflecting, and we’ve managed to continue pursuing the small number of projects that would work for now.”
York Mediale 2.0 comprises six new commissions in the form of five world premieres and one UK premiere, in a festival now running from Wednesday into the New Year, whether in York neighbourhoods, online or at two cultural landmarks, York Minster and York Art Gallery.
By comparison, the first Mediale in 2018 was “the largest media arts festival in the UK”, drawing 65,000 people to cutting-edge events over ten days in celebration of York’s status as Britain’s first and only UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts.
Festival number one, being new, attracted the support of City of York Council, Make It York, Science City and both York universities. This time, the key funding has come from Arts Council England in a rise from £100,00 to £284,000.
“That is a vote of confidence, backing the second festival where we’ve had to create a new model to succeed in this new world,” says Tom, defining a festival that will feature artists’ installations and interactive performances, engaging audiences both in person and digitally.
“Initially, as the new kid on the block, it takes a while to build trust and make connections and to get under the skin of the city, but the projects that sought to connect with the communities, like the Inspired Youth film-making project, went very well.”
Tom continues: “The projects where we engage with parts of the city are much more honest and not forced, so this time it will be a festival focusing on how we connect with our loved ones, our community, nature and culture: themes that are prevalent and poignant in society now after months of lockdown and isolation.
“We looked closely at the works already submitted and worked to develop the pieces that would most closely examine these extraordinary times, picking out the ones that were safe to do and that people would engage with.
“All of these projects resonated with us at the start of 2020 but we could never have imagined how they could develop to so beautifully reflect our worries, hopes and relationships to our communities.”
The possibilities may have narrowed for York Mediale 2020, but that has not dampened Tom’s enthusiasm for festival number two. “The way we can do it amid the pandemic is to develop projects that are outdoors or online…not in dark places with electronic music, like last time,” he says.
“The positive spin is that maybe the dramatic shutdown that has affected the arts allows for a re-set in terms of who makes it, who it’s for and what is possible. It’s a jolt of DIY-ness that’s good for creativity. It strips the ‘bull’ out of what you’re doing and why.
“I think people are looking to build on the possibilities of Zoom to do something more creative with what is possible, and York Mediale can do that.”
Among those taking part in the festival will be Marshmallow Laser Feast, fresh from their show at the Saatchi Gallery in London; composer, musician and producer Elizabeth Bernholz, better known as Gazelle Twin, and Kit Monkman’s York arts collective, KMA, whose installations have transformed public spaces, from London’s Trafalgar Square to Shanghai’s Bund.
York Mediale 2020 audiences can discover how the human body is hardwired, synchronised and inextricably linked to nature; experiment with a new form of performance; and explore the invisible transaction between a person and a piece of art and how WhatsApp has shaped communities for the Covid generation at this year’s “diverse, digitally engaged and mentally stimulating” event.
Full details on Absent Sitters (October 21 to 25, online), Good Neighbours, in Layerthorpe, York (October 21 to 25), Human Nature’s triptych of installations at York Art Gallery (October 21 to January 24, York Art Gallery) and KMA’s People We Love, at York Minster (November 2 to 29) can be found at yorkmediale.com.
“Taking on fewer projects but with a longer shelf-life is the way forward for York Mediale, picking the right project, doing them rigorously, and then they can go on to other cities,” says Tom.
“Trying to develop projects like that is surely the longer-term vision for York Mediale, not being a receiving festival, not just inviting artists into the city, but doing something that’s in-depth, engaging with what’s already here and then taking it elsewhere too with the stamp of Made In York.
“Our responsibility as a comparatively small, new festival structurally is to find ways to push boundaries of technology and art.
“Like it has for all of us, this year has been grim, but to be able to focus on what we think we’re good at, fitting in with pushing our vision of the city, has been positive. The opportunity to be a bit more truthful with ourselves, to go where the energy and projects are in the city, to do that with artists from York that share our belief, that is progress.”
York Mediale 2020 highlights
Absent Sitters, online, October 21 to 25
GAZELLE Twin, a vital contemporary voice in the UK electronic music scene, collaborates with York artist and filmmaker Kit Monkman and Ben Eyes and Jez Wells from the University of York music department to experiment with a new form of performance in Absent Sitters.
In this intimate, shared event, you will be guided by a “performer medium” to investigate what is live performance in 2020? The audience, participating via video call, will become part of an online audio-visual experience that examines the power of “collective imagination” and the importance of “presence/absence” in a live event. “Are we live? Can we connect? Who are you?” it asks.
“The culmination of Absent Sitters will take place on London’s South Bank in Summer 2021 at the Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra,” reveals Tom Higham.
Good Neighbours, in Layerthorpe, York, October 21 to 25
GOOD Neighbours, from Amsterdam’s Affect Lab – interactive artist Klasien van de Zandschulp and researcher Natalie Dixon – is based on research into the micro-politics of communities and the increase in WhatsApp neighbourhood watch groups through lockdown.
Individual audience members will use their own mobile devices as they immerse themselves in a weirdly familiar fictional documentary walk alongside live performance, co-ordinated by Lydia Cottrell, in the Layerthorpe area of York.
“In this time of Black Lives Matter, living under lockdown and communities delivering to the vulnerable, Good Neighbours is a long-term study of how communities work,” says Tom. “It’s gone from village halls and pubs to WhatsApp neighbourhood watch groups.”
Human Nature, at York Art Gallery, October 21 to January 24 2021
THIS triptych of installations under the banner of Human Nature is jointly curated by York Mediale and York Museums Trust, uniting for an ambitious show at York Art Gallery as a centrepiece of York Mediale 2020.
Embers And The Giants, a short film by Canadian media artist Kelly Richardson, makes its UK premiere, exploring human intervention through thousands of tiny drones mimicking a natural spectacle, suggesting a time when we will need to amplify nature in order to convince the public of its worth.
The Tides Within Us is a new commission from immersive art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast that looks at the journey of oxygen from lungs to the heart and body in a series of installations that echo the ecosystem within nature.
Fine artist Rachel Goodyear continues her exploration of animation-based work with Limina, a series of animations supported by her intricate drawings, each responding to an untitled sculpture from York Art Gallery’s collection; all offering a glimpse into the psyche and fragments of the unconscious.
People We Love, at York Minster, November 2 to 29
THIS new commission from Kit Monkman’s York creative collective KMA will be positioned in the York Minster Nave, where a new temporary “congregation” will be made up of a collection of five large high-definition screens, showing video portraits focused on people that have been filmed looking at a photograph of someone they love.
The viewer will not know who is being looked at but will experience the emotion on the face projected on screen before them, interpreting each unspoken story in People We Love.
Visitors can add their story to the installation as a pop-up booth will be on-site, ready to capture the love stories of the city without the need for words.
“People We Love is a passion project for Kit that he’s been talking about for ten years,” says Tom. “It’s a love letter to the citizens of York by the best media artist in the city. It’s for the people of York, by the people of York, but I think it’s a project that will continue to travel the world after York.
“I’ve been talking to Kit since 2016 about the seeds of what he’d like to do next, as KMA had not done a project for a few years and this was the one he wanted to do and then take to the world.”