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Afterthoughts: No Bounds Festival 2020

2020 has been a year of huge happenings and change across the world. In the live music sector, operations ground to an absolute hault in most places. Yet, many still found ways to share and appreciate music. The advent of the live stream meant people were able to hear DJ sets and performances from their favourite DJ or popstar through as much as a mobile phone screen. Taking the rough with smooth, this year has surely offered up opportunity for alternative thinking and the rise of new formats.

For the Sheffield-based festival No Boundss, their 2020 edition taking place was particularly poignant. They always set a high bar, year upon year. Their innovative visual curation alone is always an element we look forward to seeing, alongside their continously forward thinking line-ups and fringe events, such as panel discussions, poetry recitals and artists exhibitions. This year, they looked at the landscape of live streamed festivals and events and immediately turned their hands to presenting No Bounds in a completely new ways.

Our Afterthoughts section in previous times has documented festivals and events in a live review format. However, in the current situation and given the lack of resources it seemed less fitting to ‘review’ No Bounds in a traditonal sense. With that in mind, we decided to have a chat with the founder, director and curator of No Bounds, Liam O’Shea. Looking at pivotal moments, prior, during and after the festival taking place, this edition of Afterthoughts offers an alternative yet critical view of No Bounds 2020. How it even came to be in this year of all years, and how certain events have shaped the festival for editions to come.

Pre-thoughts

What were your initial thoughts about how No Bounds 2020 would take shape when the first UK lockdown happened back in March? How did you come to a decision to have the festival take place in the way it did? 

Ultimately, I had to assess the viability of the festival and quickly realised its original shape wouldn’t be. Then I spoke to other festival directors and contacts in the NHS to ascertain the reality of it all going ahead. 

From the start I saw it all through the lease of social distancing so we planned for there to be hardly any audience. 

It was a long evolving process. We had discussions with authorities, other curators, artists, agents etc, looking at various risk models. We managed to devise a way of doing it safely with minimal resources.

What were the motivations to make sure No Bounds still went ahead? 

I saw actually doing the festival this year as an artistic statement in itself. I suppose a big part of this is refusing to be silenced by life. To take it as a challenge and learn about my own limitations. To test new methods, models and maybe a certain amount of bloody mindedness.

Then there’s wanting to be there for my community. Wanting to provide a platform and opportunity for people to come together, perform and appreciate work. To have discussions and feel connected in such a time of isolation. I think I wanted to still be of service to the community around No Bounds and also reach out to the world and share our stories and experiences. As a festival, I wanted us to still live up to our ideals as much as we can, even when things feel impossible. In the case of debate and discussion, this was a year where so many topics needed to be discussed too.

What were the main challenges you faced in curating the festival and how did you overcome them?

Many…many. Finance. PR mechanisms being slow to non existent. Confusion and fear. Apathy. The constant changing of Government guidance plagued me right until the opening week, when tier restrictions made household mixing not permitted. People were so unsure by the end which affected how the sales went in the last week of physical tickets. However, we made it deliberately flexible and most of the performances were well turned. We only allowed for 24 people at once at Kelham Island and 100 people on tables at Hope Works. The timescales were stretched. There was also furlough, people shielding or catching COVID and isolating last minute and difficulties in committing. The list was endless.

Curation 

No Bounds has always been a festival with very interesting curation outside of their musical offerings. How important was it for you to continue this in the online and socially distanced formats? 

Very. We also saw this as a chance to ask questions. The team around me especially showed me it was a big chance to be curious, to be innovative and create work; even if it felt like all the structures that normally supported artists were broken.

Is it any less valid to perform for one person than a room of 1000? As far as an artistic concept or expression is concerned, No Bounds is always looking at ways to explore things in new ways. This year presented us with some great opportunities to do this online and physically. 

It would have been very easy to just do a standard ‘Weekend of live streams’. But we asked ourselves, How do we keep things interesting, especially in the current global situation? Using an 800 capacity hall for only 24 people, broadcasting in virtual 3D, a sonic VR exploration along with Mark Fell and Rian Treanor’s work on finding new ways for audiences to collaborate with the performance. In Rian’s case it was expanded to work with 10-11 year old children remotely participating to create a live performance at Kelham Island that was then streamed globally. There were so many opportunities we took with so little time and resources. 

In exploring non-standard practices, creating new spaces and collaborations, some of the most unexpected delights emerged. Doing things in a hybrid fashion also blurred boundaries and kept things more varied in the ways our audience could interact with us. 

Can you tell us about where the idea came from to broadcast the festival online in the way you did?

After being introduced to Prof Rupert Till earlier in 2020, I was already planning on having a 3D element at the festival before it’s original shape was redesigned after lockdown in March. After the lockdown, all my usual ways of raising funds and financing the festival were annihilated. In my discussions with Algorave’s Alex McLean he wanted to use binaural streaming and we combined our ideas in a really symbiotic way. 

As time went on it became clear that this exploration of VR would be one of the calling cards for No Bounds 2020. Not visual VR but Sonic VR. Physical immersive experiences with online virtual immersive experiences. Binaural meant people watching at home received a virtual approximation of the sonics live in the room. Not perfect, but it definitely felt more immersive. It was an example of my team and I working well together to generate an end product. People really loved it. We were communicating with people live as it was streaming and it was great feedback all weekend.

Some of the artists who broadcast from the Sheffield Industrial Museum provided work as an artistic response. Was this a defining idea of the festival or were there different approaches used?

There was a mix of responses to COVID, the space and other social issues happening this year as well as some pieces which were purely abstract experiments of 3D sound and reimagining existing work for a new context. Mark Fell and Rian Treanor set out to do this in a very specific way in their work. Others such as Space Afrika submitted work that was adapted for the 3D system but also pertinent to a year where BLM and COVID 19 were the two most dominating narratives. Same for Electric Indigo whose work was so appropriate for the cavernous space of the Industrial Museum. 96 Back created an entirely new 1hr live set which was incredible and Luca Lozano Premiere’d a brand new piece of work with his Sunrise Sound Machine project with Dj Steve which was great too. It was all amazing though. So much love for each and every artist who worked with us on this voyage into the void.

Part of the festival also saw a huge collaboration with Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, how did this work? 

Again this was going to be a huge collaboration for No Bounds 2020 before everything imploded. We both wanted to create something together and this will to work together carried us over to this point. They sent us parts that we mixed and in some cases we shared software to help them do their own mixing in 3D. There were many conversations before the festival about which artists to include and then we all spoke over Zoom, keeping in communication in the months prior. It was a really great experience working with them and it has definitely led to more work and collaboration with them.

You worked with a lot of visual artists and designers who provided accompanying work to the musical performances at the Industrial Museum. Were there any pieces that matched particularly well with certain music performances? 

Zaron Mizmeras (our resident visual artist) did a lot of the work live over the festival weekend but Space Afrika, The Black Dog, Luca Lozano and Anna Zaradny all provided their own visual content which was brilliant. We also put out a call for new work to accompany some of the Nyege Nyege stuff from the festival which recently re-broadcasted for Nyege Nyege 2020 along with newly commissioned 3D VR work by Dyllan Zain.

Movements

No Bounds has always given a platform to people from marginalised groups. How heavily did you feel a responsibility to have this edition of the festival reflecting and responding to the Black Lives Matter movement? 

It is always there in our DNA. The programming of the festival and the artists we support year round in our residency programme attempts to live up to our ideals of diversity and platforming. It is always important for us to try our best to listen, learn, develop and grow. This year presented many more challenges than usual but we still managed to respond to issues raised in 2020. 

Through the showing of films such as Bring Down The Walls and our deep collaboration with Nyege Nyege Festival that included two new black female artists, Makossiri and Turakana. We also worked with Space Afrika to help them create a new 3D interpretation of their incredible album which felt like a huge piece of social commentary for 2020. 

The Talk with our resident SHERELLE was very important to platform and give voice to this amazing emergent artist as she discussed finding community through music culture. The discussion with Magid Magid, Sharna Jackson and Auriel Majumdar also provided a multi-ethnic look at the concept of real change. This was hugely inspiring for me. Magid is a Somalian refugee and our ex-Lord Major, Sharna is a black female curator, director and writer and Auriel an incredible creative business coach. We covered the ground we wanted to this year taking in some of the prevailing questions that we felt needed considering in the above ways.

The Future

How have the events of this year affected No Bounds more generally, moving into the future? 

This year has made No Bounds believe more than ever that we can achieve anything with enough passion and determination. Our experiments with online performance and audience participation have already seeded new work, which will be emergent in 2021. We are really glad we did it all as we learned such a lot, both about ourselves and about the technical and logistical considerations of working under such constraints. Adversity breeds innovation.

As you mentioned, this time has inevitably offered up opportunities for new learning and new ways of seeing. What are the main things you have learned from the curation of the festival this year?

Don’t give up at the first or even third hurdle. Stay open and flexible. Work with what you have in creative ways as that can be all you need to make valid work happen, even if it seems on a small scale. When you think you’re going a bit crazy…that’s probably because you’re doing something interesting and worthwhile.

No Bounds 2020 took place 12th – 18th October. 

Check out the premiere of their newly commissioned film above, in collaboration with Nyege Nyege Festvial. 

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Photo Credit: Eddy Maynard 

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