Coinciding with the centenary of John Cage’s birth (and the 20th anniversary of his death), the fourth edition of AV Festival was proof that it’s possible to develop a thoughtful, large-scale programme on a miniscule budget. This month-long constellation of exhibitions, film screenings, performances and concerts stretched across the northeast of England throughout March, billing itself as a ‘biennial in slow motion’. Venues ranged from the established (and erratically capitalized) contemporary art spaces like BALTIC in Gateshead and mima in Middlesbrough to near-impossible-to-locate turrets in crumbling city walls, but most gave the impression of actual dialogue between organizers and the venues, with well-balanced combinations of new commissions and the little-seen. Why this should be a surprise is partly testament to the carious state of contemporary biennials, but no matter – future biennial directors should take note.
This year the theme of the festival was ‘As Slow as Possible’, borrowed from the title of a notorious 1987 composition by Cage. One performance of this organ piece, currently underway in Halberstadt, Germany, is scheduled to end – all things going to plan – in the year 2640. While there wasn’t anything so taxing here, AV’s main success was the way in which it set several different rhythms in motion for the duration of the month. For example, at BALTIC was a marathon reading of On Kawara’s 20-volume One Million Years (1993) while, one Sunday on the other side of town, poet and Ubu initiator Kenneth Goldsmith could be found reading entries from a mysterious weather diary that was kept by one Thomas Appletree for the whole of 1703. With their deadpan insistence on repetition and duration, Cage would no doubt have approved of both, but more notable was the way in which different speeds and enumerations of time passing were folded and overlaid between the different elements of the festival.
Many of the exhibitions – including shows by Torsten Lauschman, Benedict Drew and Cyprien Gaillard (the latter’s exhibition, at mima, is his biggest to date) – shared a common emphasis on moving-image work. The film programme was well-selected, and included presentations by veteran filmmaker James Benning (who also showed a new version of his 1977 film One Way Boogie at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland), his sometime collaborator Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide (2009), as well as a weekend of films by the Filipino director Lav Diaz, organized by curator George Clark. The performance strand was particularly fertile, with a solid selection of Fluxus- and Downtown-affiliated luminaries. A performance at the Sage Gateshead of Phill Niblock’s The Movement of People Working (1973–91), a vast archive of footage of manual labour which is projected alongside the New York-based filmmaker and composer’s drone pieces, generated complex polyrhythms between clusters of microtones and the continuous motion of the workers. Niblock has said that he came to produce this industrial minimalism by noting the ‘harmonic coincidences’ of motorcycle and truck engines while driving through the Carolinas. Yoshi Wada, an approximate contemporary of Niblock’s, also generates tones from heavy industry. At a sound installation and one-off performance at Discovery Museum in Newcastle, the US-based Japanese artist coaxed chimes and whirrs from an assemblage of ship vents, piping and sheet metal.
For me, the festival’s highlight was the rare performance – and UK premiere – of Hanne Darboven’s Requiem (2001). Darboven, who died in 2009, started to produce her date pieces in 1968, though it wasn’t until 12 years later that she began to conceive of these notations as musical scores. Her method for transposition is somewhat opaque (to me at least), but, roughly speaking, involves the lines and spaces of the musical stave being made to represent the digits one to nine, a grid of sorts onto which calendrical numerals are then developed. Darboven herself claimed Brahms and Ligeti as influences, though Requiem’s dizzying loops also conjure the early phasing repetitions of Steve Reich and the second-generation Minimalists. It was Darboven’s first major composition for the organ, and represents permutations based on the dates 1.1.00 to 31.12.00, so, in its way, Requiem is like listening to the 20th century.