I had high hopes for the second AV Festival (International Festival of Art, Technology, Music and Film) in north-east England. In homage to the American composer John Cage, it was entitled As Slow as Possible. But the festival kicked off in inauspicious style with a symposium full of hot air, featuring a sort of Monty Python French philosopher, who always seemed on the point of saying something but never actually did, and a moderator who name-dropped philosophers like the pretentious theatre critic in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.

All this was happening at Mima, the rather splendid new modern art museum in the depressed city of Middlesbrough, a white cube of possibility in a postindustrial landscape voided not just of hope but, you might think as you walk around its empty streets, of life itself. Mima is a place I want to like, as I want to applaud the cultural regeneration that seems to be running ahead of economic regeneration in these parts with splendid new venues such as the Sage and Baltic in Gateshead, across the Tyne from Newcastle. But this festival left me asking questions about, first, the treacherous relationship between art and ideas; and, second, the risks and rewards of “cutting-edge” technology for artists.

Contemporary artists play with ideas, I get the impression, rather like bored children in the bath, playing with their toy submarine. Ideas matter far more in contemporary art than they have at most periods in the past. This process starts before artists are fully fledged, at art schools where they are now expected to write extensive rationales and explanations of artworks. These can take precedence over the artworks themselves.

At Vane gallery in the centre of Newcastle, the artist Sneha Solanki is showing “Super-natural”, an artwork “integrating the practice of witchcraft with the emergent science of synthetic biology”. It consists of shelves stacked with twisted and half-melted test tubes and an enlarged projection of synthetic microbes. I felt this was undercooked both at the level of ideas – what, really, was the connection with witchcraft? – and art: it simply didn’t hold the attention for very long.

“No ideas but in things,” is the rallying cry of the great American poet William Carlos Williams in his epic poem “Paterson”. He insists that ideas for poets and artists, wrestling with the concrete and the contingent, must always be embodied.

I have a hunch that the exaggerated interest in ideas is connected with the nature of some new digital technology and media, which seems to offer so little in the way of physical resistance (if you can’t wrestle with the material, then you have to wrestle with ideas?). The art I found most interesting at the north-east festival, at least, was the art that questioned and subverted new technologies or took them in a distinctly retro direction.

At the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, the Canadian artist Catherine Richards has a work entitled “I was scared to death/ I could have died of joy”, consisting of half-brains made of glass, encased in glass tubes. The half-brains are not inert things but interact with the viewer. The effect seems to be not to objectify or reify the brain but rather the opposite. In another interactive work entitled “Shroud/Chrysalis 1”, not shown at the festival, Richards invites participants to don a suit of copper fabric, which could be either a body bag or a chrysalis (or both), suggesting a technology that may be “the death of ‘us’, or a kind of rebirth of ‘post-human.’ ”

Jem Finer is interested not so much in cutting-edge technology as in technology that might have the resilience to survive into a future that could resemble a distant past. His “Slow Player” is a turntable on which discs revolve at about 3rpm and relay strange whale-like grumblings through vast old-fashioned speakers evoking monoliths.

In the main space at Mima, John Gerrard is showing two monumental “virtual portraits” of decaying modernist Cuban schools. Here, I find, there is a fascinating tension between the complexity and tricksiness of the technical means and the sense of stillness and mystery that emanates from the works. The schools (which are, in fact, still used) come to seem like ruined temples.

Torsten Lauschmann’s installations are delicate and playful; a swirl of numbers forms and reforms like a flock of starlings, or a dream of an eye test; a candle is lit and then blown out, only the wavering of the flame reminding you this is a film. Somehow the show (at the Laing Art Gallery) is suffused with wistfulness, a sort of nostalgia for the real, or for a time when a candle was just a candle, not a simulacrum.

At this point I did something very uncontemporary and wandered into the Barbour Watercolour Gallery at the Laing. There I contemplated Thomas Girtin’s Morpeth Bridge, a quiet, serene, masterpiece in which “ideas” (about, you might say, permanence and impermanence, weathering, the relationship of human community to natural environment) are so utterly absorbed in things as to seem, ultimately, like gross violations of an enigma.


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