Cultural Days

'Haining Dreaming' at the YES Festival

‘Haining Dreaming’ at the YES Festival

The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.

A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus

Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance

An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street

Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies

One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe

A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.

These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.

In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.

Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival  —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.

Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common.  Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events.  Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination.    Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.

'Culture Day' in Forres

‘Culture Day’ in Forres

The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts.  Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else.  And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.

But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone.  Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities.  By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema.  Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald.  Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding.  But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.

in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is,  not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them.  Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.

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