ArtBomb Festival 2021: an experimental and political debut

Kylie Noble looks at the sociopolitical ramifications of Doncaster’s 2021 ArtBomb Festival...

During the pandemic, art took on new depths of meaning and value for many of us. In our solitude, isolation and grief, it was art that gave us the most joy. Art gave us the ability to escape when confined to our houses. For myself, it was discovering many new singers, becoming a Trekkie and getting back into video games for the first time since childhood. I also took part in a couple of online arts and crafts sessions and had poetry published for the first time. 

Yet art cannot reach its greatest potential without other people, without connection or community. It was brilliant to see art in this way return to our town this summer. ArtBomb, which took place from 5th to 8th August, was a free arts festival. Organised by Doncaster Creates, The New Fringe and True Tone – with involvement from Right Up Our Street and Doncopolitan – the festival was original and daring. Most of the festival was hosted by Doncaster Unitarian Church. Not everything worked well but the stand-out art and performances, combined with the collective and pioneering spirit resulted in a fresh and intriguing festival.

At its core what I found captivating about Artbomb was the willingness to disrupt ideas of time and geography. The three-day festival did not simply seek to showcase art but also envision a new way of existing. This thread was most noticeable in the Parallel State sessions held on Friday 6th August. Described as “a breakaway state – a space to collectively imagine alternative solutions to life on earth – free from the oppositional constraints of the failed states in which we live”, a public discussion and shared performance took place. With speakers, audiences, performers and a polling station as part of this “parallel state”, the traditional distinctions of the artist and the viewer were broken. The viewer becomes the artist and the artist is a citizen, and the possibilities are many. Contributors included Sarah Smizz, Bipolar Abdul, Clare Devaney, Olivia Jones, JJ Chan, Natasha Clarke and the crochet group Mother Hookers. 

The transformation of a rundown, empty shop in the town centre into an art gallery and a place of gathering for the festival, was another way in which aspirations for the future were created within the here and now. With the most captivating performance of the festival, Children of the Night enabled time travel. With a “club” created at the back of the Wool Market, an intimidating bouncer excellently played by actor Sam Dunstan checked revellers over before admission. In ways, the 10-minute immersive play was like a silent disco but it was much more than this. The narrative – a young Donny girl talking with excitement about going out in the 90s, at the height of rave culture – mixed with the music, was unlike anything I have experienced. I danced in the “club” with its disco ball and lights. Although I grew up in Northern Ireland and was a young child during the 1990s, the event transported me back to my late teens and early 20s. The time in my life when getting extremely drunk at a grimy nightclub was so thrilling, so new and fun. The time of my life before I really knew who I was and before any real mistakes had been made. Again, Artbomb broke down the division of artist and viewer. In my awful dancing, I became part of the performance. 

Another highlight of the festival was artist Ryan Harston’s exhibition, I give you my heART. Held in an upstairs room of the Unitarian Church, Ryan’s striking collection of self-portraits combined with atmospheric lighting, and a 10-minute audio guide from Ryan himself, resulted in an outstanding event. Although Ryan’s self-portraits were about his own life, they were also about each listener and viewer’s life. Infused throughout his photos and poems – which he read in the audio guide – was the articulation of huge aspects of our shared humanity. Race, power and gender. I found Ryan’s exhibition to be a particularly powerful presentation of vulnerability within masculinity. 

ArtBomb asked us to step back from ourselves and our town – to realise the huge potential within what we already are, and what we already have. Using space and place in new ways, a more collaborative idea of the arts came into being. What will become of us if we take our future into our own hands? If we shift away from the old ideas of the state and politics, and power. ArtBomb left me feeling more hopeful for humanity, as we begin to emerge from a brutal pandemic in which the old ideas have largely failed us. 

Hello it’s Doncopolitan! 

Doncopolitan is currently being funded by Arts Council England Emergency Covid-19 fund, which is enabling us to develop our print magazine and festival into an online format and pay local artists and writers to feature on our site. We want to continue to develop this once the funding has ended. We want to create paid opportunities for artists to write and create on their own terms. We are reaching out to you as a regular reader to ask if you could become a patron of our work. Becoming a Patreon is really simple; you can pay as little as £3 per month which will allow us to continue to be an independent voice for our town.

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