Geology sounds an unlikely starting point for an arts festival. But it provided a rich seam for north-east England’s sixth AV Festival, connecting everything from limpets crunching on algae in rock pools, striking miners battling police, and music made with the help of an electric harp and a domestic fan.
With “Extraction” as its umbrella title, the month-long contemporary arts biennial, which finished yesterday, aimed to explore “the raw materials that create our experience of the world, from their origins deep inside the earth, to their extraction, transformation and global exploitation”. There can be few better places to do that than the historically charged landscapes of the north-east, and the remnants of its once globally important coal and lead mining industries, the ancient black dolerite stones of the Whin Sill and Neolithic rock art, were all starting points for the commissioned artists.
Susan Stenger’s haunting “Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland”, at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, was based on an 1830 cross-section diagram of coastal geological formations from the River Tyne to the Scottish border. An hour-long soundtrack, rooted in local folk music, cleverly echoed the 12m chart’s northern progress, the sound of Northumbrian pipes giving way around Berwick-upon-Tweed to the more strident sound of the Scottish bagpipes.
More challenging was “Hi zu mi”, Akio Suzuki’s installation at the Globe Gallery, also in Newcastle. The sound art pioneer slowly struck fragments of a nearby limestone stack against a flexible steel plate, inviting visitors to listen as the reverberations died away. “They say every substance holds its own unique vibrations,” explained the artist, who also marked nearby locations with an oto-date logo – a stylised pair of ears suggesting that passers-by should stop and listen.
Far removed from these gentle invitations were more overtly political works. An exhibition at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art included An Italian Film (Africa Addio) by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, re-enacting in a Yorkshire foundry the melting down of Congolese copper crosses, once looted by Belgian entrepreneurs. Elsewhere during AV, documentaries detailed greed and corruption in the Ghanaian oilfields, the labours of Bolivian silver miners, nuclear contamination and colonial repression; for the truly fearless, there was even a screening of Wang Bing’s nine-hour portrait of industrial decline in China, West of the Tracks, and his 14-hour Crude Oil. But there was beauty too: Connemara, inspired by the work of the cartographer and writer Tim Robinson, combined stunning filming by Pat Collins and a Susan Stenger soundtrack with musings about the interplay between landscape, language and place names.
Some of the festival’s most evocative events were purely sound-based. Listening in the dark at the Sage Gateshead Music Centre to “Orefield”, by Lee Patterson, an acoustic evocation of abandoned lead mines, it was difficult not to imagine being drenched by water at any moment. The same venue hosted a similarly absorbing audio portrait by Chris Watson, sound recordist for David Attenborough, of the Northumberland coast, complete with howling seals, oo-ering eider ducks – and hungry limpets.
The festival’s closing event, atmospherically assisted by fog over the Tyne, was the austerely titled “DS30”, an “intervention” by Test Dept, industrial music veterans who toured in support of Britain’s miners in the 1984-5 strike. Audiences were carried by boat up the river to the now redundant Dunston Staiths, a wooden Victorian structure from which, for a century, Durham coal was shipped out. Film and soundtrack evoked the energy, violence and destruction of the coal mines’ death throes. The Staiths, illuminated but ghostly, bore silent witness, another landscape feature with a long story to tell.