The neon sign on the white-washed wall of the Centrespace gallery burns bright with the question: ‘What am I doing here?’
It is a good question.
What am I doing here?
It’s rare nowadays that I summon enough energy to leave my sofa after dinner, let alone venture out into the big depressing world with its multitude of problems. The lethargy bought on by digestion and the drudgery of my day-to-day existence is usually sufficient to see my evenings play out in Netflix and unadulterated apathy.
It looked like this was how it was going to be for me – Kimmy Schmidt and Tesco Value Peanuts, always and forever. But then I stumbled across the International Festival of Apathy Bristol 2016 and, ironically, everything changed. I found myself motivated to get up off my sofa and head out, not once, but several times, to the Centrespace Gallery.
The brainchild of Richard King, Nick Hand and Stanley Donwood along with associated Bristol luminaries, the Apathy Festival featured art via an accompanying print exhibition (open if and when the organisers could be “arsed”), live music with the likes of BEAK> and Three Cane Whale, debate around contemporary issues and comedy.
As well as contributing to the art exhibition, Stanley Donwood screened his collaboration with Mat Consume – Broadmead the Movie – a two-tone tone poem to the death of hope, the slow crumbling of a belief in the future. The beautifully framed concrete crowns capture the Bristol shopping centre in its demise, a king of commerce on his deathbed. These stark images are accompanied by Donwood’s own existential musings and Silver Mt Zion-esque soundscapes that exert a suitably tidal pull. When the film is over, it is hard to shake the image of the slowly ascending faceless shoppers on the Debenhams’ escalators and the bleached flutterings of sea-gulls in the white spaces above Broadmead.
Friday night’s billing of introverted psychedelic songsmith Gruff Rhys and Guardian journo John Harris is an interesting one. The two men attempt to untangle the neo-liberal mess of the EU by looking for compelling metaphors in strange places including the final of the European Championship 2004 between Greece and Portugal, the edited highlights of which play behind the two men, and in the Welsh-language autobiography of a footballer who once stamped on the foot of Jurgen Klinnsman.
Harris shares his points coherently if not always convincingly, while Gruff battles to summon up his preferred words before his arguments evaporate. He seems more comfortable with guitar in hand for the half-time entertainment where he performs his paean to the EU:
The nearly-metaphors, the nearly-sentences, the near-misses are a good illustration of just how hard it is to propose a solution to the EU’s problems and re-frame the debacle of the mainstream Referendum debate into more meaningful terms.
‘How do you solve the housing crisis?’ pits a formidable line-up of intellects to tackle the issue with Guardian journalists and writers Owen Hatherley and Dawn Foster, and Goldsmiths’ lecturer and former Kenickie bassist Emma Jackson. Between them they provide historical context, statistical insight and data from relevant studies as well as anecdotal evidence around the housing crisis and its origins.
Although no solutions are arrived upon, or even feel close, by tracing out the issues, mapping the contours of the problem, it becomes a more tangible thing. Perhaps now we are better placed to start our journey towards an end to the crisis.
Leaving that night, it is once again an image that lingers. This time of a single horse grazing alongside an abandoned mill on a few solitary metres of scrubland – the so-called Green Belt – another posited solution to the crisis falling apart in Hatherley’s bleak vision.
The festival’s closing billing of comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris is an altogether lighter affair. They discuss the motivations and challenges around their series of new Ladybird books that include the likes of the Hipster, the Hangover and How It Works: The Wife. It was nice to discover how Jason and Joel approached the revamps by imagining that the original authors of the series had grown-up at the same time as their readers – us – and were still here, holding our hands in a world now inhabited almost exclusively with existential despair. No-one grew up to be spacemen or racing car drivers, even the 1950s constructs of masculinity remain intact and painfully unattainable – we all fell well short of our childhood dreams and we need our Ladybird books more than ever.
The pair are warm and very funny, sharing stories about hangovers – jazz mags and scotch eggs – and hipster restaurants – plates of sick served in a laundrette. The highlight though is watching the pair dissolve into laughter as they read the Jilly Goolden Food & Drunk column from Viz.
Throughout the festival, writer and Bristol music stalwart, Richard King, proves a fantastic compare – with humour, intelligence and tact he steers the talks in meaningful ways, seeming to give a shit even though he would claim otherwise.
With a programme that aimed to both inform and entertain around the contemporary condition, the festival was a genuine treat. With more events like this, apathy would become a whole lot harder and far less appealing. Now, back to the sofa.