A crush of smells. A roar of voices. Low, sultry light — the kind of light that encourages deep talking and kisses in corners. The Murderers is one of the city’s best pubs, and for good reason. But after just one drink I was out the door and off into the chilly dark with one thing on my mind. Just a few streets over a man was about to do some very odd things in the name of art, and I was dead set on being there. The event was Flat, and it marked the beginning of the annual Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
Not even the cold or one rude whistler could spoil the mood. The first half of Flat was spellbinding, watched in silence by an enthralled crowd. The second half was less about mesmerising leaps and more about thinking, asking its viewers questions about their perceptions of time, space, and gravity. That’s how it always is with art. You think you’re just here to watch a man jump around in a harness? Surprise! Have some deep thoughts instead. It’s a constant no matter the medium, and while it may weird out some it’s also the most important thing that art does. Art makes us think. It makes us talk. Art without conversation is meaningless.
It’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s true. Even if it’s the typical “this isn’t art!” response — which, honestly, despite being an artist myself I have said plenty of times — it’s still inciting a reaction, and in that way the artist has won. I know. It’s infuriating, isn’t it? But it’s also valuable.
Cut to Tuesday evening. A cold morning rolls into a lukewarm day and a soupy night. I jog-walk into Norwich Theatre Royal with a friend only a few minutes before the performance is due to start, and then after a bit of confusion about where to queue, we’re in. The performance is Sans Objet, and its star is an immense robotic arm from the 1970s car manufacturing industry. It’s both similar and a world away from the tense one-man-show of Flat, and we enjoy it immensely. Then I come home and sit with my laptop, and I’m a bit stumped. Sans Objet was a visual spectacle, but how to describe it without sounding a bit silly? Without people saying “that isn’t art!” with the usual eye rolls and raised eyebrows?
Art without conversation is meaningless.
Then I remember that the job of art is to make us talk. My job — the job of any audience — isn’t to try and dance around the topic, make the odd and strange any clearer than it appeared to us. The value is in the honest words that art provokes, and to that end I admit that I understood maybe ten minutes of Sans Objet’s 70 minute run, and the beginning was long and a bit weird, but I did also have a great time. My friend and I left the theatre in a chattering crowd, and Sans Objet did that. All of those conversations and opinions came from one magnificent gigantic machine, its two companion acrobats, and the hands of an excellent controller. Those conversations would never have happened without Sans Objet.
CCTV, apps that let you record phone calls, the long memory and mercurial approval of the Internet — they’ve all taught us to guard what we say outside of our own minds and rightly so. Art is there to provoke us into saying something we really mean, even if it is just, well, mean. Anonymous trolls online are one thing — art dares you to say what you really think away from the shield of that little grey avatar and/or pseudonym. I think there’s real value in that, and that’s why the annual Norfolk & Norwich Festival is such a treat.
Art is there to provoke us into saying something we really mean, even if it is just, well, mean.
First held in 1824 as a fundraiser for the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, it’s now one of the UK’s big four arts festivals and its wide variety of events are attended by over 75,000 people. From the thought-provoking Flat to the cabaret big top of White Nights right through to the downright weird, it’s all art and it’s all bound to get you talking. If you’re under 25 you can snag tickets to any event for just £7.50 (as I’ve been doing), and a number of them (like Flat) are even free. I’d really recommend going along to something — the more out your comfort zone the better. Get out there and get talking!
For more information about the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, visit their website. Festival runs 13 – 29 May 2016.
Featured image © CCZH Photography