Bringing an interactive video installation to Papay: A review of Papay Gyro Nights 2012 festival

This last week we presented Nautilus, an interactive video installation, on Papay a remote Orkney island. This was part of an artist residency for Papay Gyro Nights 2012 – an independent video and art festival. The entire population of the island is under 100 people, many of which attend the screenings, music nights and other festival events. Given that much of the art shown consists of complex short art films from around the world, and the temperature of the venues regularily dips below zero, the dedication to pursue a more unconventional festival presence is clear for all to see. The screenings included seminal works and UK premieres, and the work is of an extremely high quality sometimes demanding concentration but generally rewards perserverence. This reflects the curators’ desire to give this festival a unique and perhaps ‘northern’ sensibility. The richness of the festival content reflects the depth of history and myth on this island, which happens to host the oldest and best preserved neolithic standing building in Europe – the Knap of Howar.

This year the theme of the festival was repetition, transformation and myth and the opening event reimagined the Gyro night procession which was celebrated 100 years ago where the youth of the island went out with flaming torches in search of the Gyro (as represented by the older males dressed as hags ready with their seaweed whips). Post march, the islanders threw their torches into a fire by the pier as resident artist Armando Seijo managed to capture the revelries though in a forceful gale. This was followed by a short film from the Faroe islands of a traditional 14 hour dance marathon, documentation of a French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan who smears himself into a series of hysterical clay and paint contortions, accompanied with free Bloody Marys, Korean pickles and Banana yoghurts. And so the festival went on – each day bringing new screenings, feastings and discussion.

This was all made possible by the superhuman efforts of Ivanov and Chan (above top middle in Armando’s painting), two islanders who have set up an art centre on the south of the 4 mile island. Originally from Central Asia and Hong Kong they seem at home in such a remote place where up until the 1970s all houses had their own generator to deal with the vagaries of the electricity supply. The artists at the festival were put up at the art centre where the free wheeling atmosphere and open kitchen made for some intense interactions. Each morning open seminars were run discussing last nights events and looking at back up material with free home made bread and coffee and mythical comparisons made by Stuart McLean the resident anthropologist. For the festival visitors the Beltane hostel turned out some hearty evening meals and a full house of 12 residents, included visitors from France and America. The local pub usually open only on Saturday was open for the whole week and almost ran out of beer and formed a vital meeting point for discussion of what exactly the days films meant. Several festival visitors, perhaps more accustomed to viewing art films, could share their ideas with the locals. The community of Papay is very tight knit and is used to being left to sort out its own affairs but many of the residents greeted the chance to see their local buildings, including the medieval Kirk, the grain loft and the Kelp store, brought to new life with multiple projections, surreal folk music, storytelling and interactive installations. Workshops run by the artists throughout the festival gave a chance for the children, and others, of Papay to try out new skills.

Sunday, the last night of the festival saw everyone come together for a fish and chip supper and closing party at the art centre which was exhibiting prints and slides of architectural works and Armando’s ‘still wet’ oil paintings of the week’s activities.

Highlights of the festival included a multiple projection ‘Madrigal of the Exploding Wise Whale’ by Spanish video artist Filippos Tsitsopoulos, fighting against the freezing conditions Ivanov and Chan managed to get one, then two, then three and finally four projections simultaneously running in the kelp store. As each one is a talking head shot covered in protuberances, e.g. crustacea, the gradual synchronisation gave the impression of a magical conversation building in multiple languages between monstrous beings.

Bokanowski’s 70 minute masterpiece L’Ange was projected in its original 16mm format and left a lasting impression on the many that saw it. Its simple tableux of tiny curious figures seemingly struggling in time against their surroundings, struck a chord with even the most reticent islanders.

Bird Radio, an up and coming electronic folk musician, wowed the saturday crowd with his powerful performance. Starting with traditional poetry and folk singing, he gradually introduced modulated flute music and then a digital loop effect. All hell broke loose by song four as his electronic sound loops piled on top of each other creating a maelstrom of folk rock that sounded as if it was produced by four or more people. By the end, with the bizarre and wild rendition of ‘who killed cock robin’ the audience was fully entertained.

Our own contribution to the festival was an interactive video installation called Nautilus which was presented in the splendid grain loft above an Aberdeen Angus bull. We must thank the farmer and his wife for the use of the space. The piece projected on a 6m wide screen, consisted of a triptych – on the right a webcam displayed the users, whose coloured clothing triggered a cascade of ‘sand’ pixels across the screen to the left to form strata of activity in the middle. Each day the strata would compress down giving an indication of the interaction over the week. By the end several different layers had formed of eroded fractal textures and shapes. These were strangely familiar, to an island community battered by both the North sea and Atlantic oceans. On the left and seemingly oblivious to the action, lived the mutated human version of the ‘living fossil’ Nautilus, which builds up its shell over the course of its lifespan. The themes of deep time and an eroded sea monster tied into the festivals concerns and it was gratifying to see people come back day after day in different coloured outfits to add their contribution to the evolving form. The work also documented itself by taking and saving screen grabs every minute and at the end of the festival party we were able to immediately show a short film of the weeks build up of activity as a stop motion film. The considerable feedback from the festival goers was much appreciated and encouragement to expand the piece further.

We thoroughly enjoyed the festival and the hospitality of Ivanov and Chan and the island of Papay. The festival is only in its second year but already it is providing an interesting space to try out new ideas and present old works in new contexts. Given the conditions the festival is both easy going, and improvisational, with everyone helping out, and we can’t begin to estimate the amount of extension cable we have wound in and wound out, but it also has a hardcore element with Ivanov and Chan determined to present the best possible video (and other art) to the community. If some of the art is challenging to comprehend this is made up for by the willingness of people to try out new visions. We would recommend the experience to any artist excited by working in such a remote and tricky place and to tackle the themes suggested by this unique island festival.

Genetic Moo reporting from Papay Gyro Nights 2012

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