Adam Pugh, Director of Aurora Festival
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Adam Pugh, Director of Aurora Festival
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Adam Pugh, Director of the Aurora Festival, talks to us about this year’s event, and why it’s the last.

Aurora has always explored intriguing themes – this year it’s Common Ground – what the thinking behind that?

I usually start with a core idea – it might be quite insignificant or fleeting at first – and work from there, ‘gathering’ the programme throughout the first few months of the year, as opposed to establishing a definitive title early on and trying to make work fit.

I guess it’s an inductive model, rather than a deductive one. I wouldn’t be much good as a scientist with this working method, but it feels comfortable as far as programming is concerned.

This year, although the core itself hasn’t changed much, I went through several working titles, none of which seemed right. ‘Common Ground’ is in fact Gareth Evans’ title and it immediately felt right. The theme developed in tandem with the new format of the festival – the idea of an alternative to the established ‘film festival’ model – and I found that the programme side of things complemented the practical infrastructure well.

In brief, the theme set out to look in a sidelong fashion at anthropological and ethnographic studies. I’d intended to include quite a bit of material which was manifestly ‘anthropological’, but ended up selecting work which dealt with anthropological themes in a more oblique way, explorations of myth and ritual. We describe it as “an entirely literal reading” in which ecology collides with social history and direct action. Social history aside (a long, frustrating story, which is dealt with in part in the ‘Common Ground’ book), it’s direct action which has most directly coloured the theme, with several events, including Ultra-red’s show at Outpost, a talk by the great John Jordan, and discussion events as part of the Festival Weekend.

I wish we could have taken the theme further, especially the political aspect. The notion of ‘camps’ and the increasing importance of activities which, in one sense or another, disrupt or subvert the status quo, have great currency at the moment. It’s becoming harder and harder to have a voice, and to ensure that that voice is heard. This applies to protest, of course, in a specific way (the climate camp in London during the G20 summit the most lucid example in recent years), in which that voice is actively suppressed; but in an entirely different way to the type of activity we’re trying to present. It’s difficult to maintain the importance of the particular, of the marginal, of the outspoken, and it’s this which is most pernicious, perhaps, because it’s self-policing. People willingly engage in activity which erodes their own liberty without even realising it. So it’s political from the start, regardless of the theme.

So, the idea of ‘common ground’ is, I hope, not only a programmatic conceit but something active and physical which informs the very structure of the event: we hope to establish a ‘common ground’ of some sort in which people can show, watch and discuss work in a uniquely intimate and focused manner.

It’s a shorter festival than usual – there’s a week of workshops and screenings, but the ‘main’ event is a packed long weekend…

I guess the Festival Weekend is the ‘main’ event as far as our core audience is concerned, but the Festival Week is much more than just a preamble, or an addition – it does interact with the Festival Weekend, and the workshops and performances add to or contextualise some of the activity within it too. But yes, it is shorter than before. And that’s no accident.

After last year’s event, which took place across a number of screens over four and a half days in a commercial cinema (with all the accompanying issues come with that), we were keen to try something different. We felt strongly that, in growing bigger, we had traded something of the soul of the event. There was more ‘content’ – to borrow from the terminology of fundraising… what an awful thing, to reduce all artistic activity to this bald word! But it meant that people had to make more choices – they had to see x instead of y – and, most importantly, that it was becoming harder to enable people to find time to meet up and maintain conversations with one another throughout the event (or to ‘facilitate networking’ if you prefer!). The other factor related to the practical issues, which led us to think that we’d be better off doing it all ourselves and kitting out a cinema space from scratch… then at least we’d be answerable only to ourselves in terms of quality control.

So we’re creating a space – a zone – where people can meet – old friends, new acquaintances – and experience screenings, music and discussions. A sense of human interaction is primary, rather than secondary to ‘volume of content’, or in thrall to the usual machismo of number-crunching that seems to have gripped most film festivals. The decision to make the event purposefully smaller – in time and space – followed from this.

I’ve realised that it’s a heresy of sorts… whoever heard of a festival retracting, diminishing in size? It goes against everything we’re told to do: make money! Climb the property ladder! Further your career! And it’s not without a sense of perverse humour that I’m enjoying spending the money, descending the ladder, forgetting the career.

I’m very happy with the way the Festival Weekend programme has come together – it just remains to be seen whether it works, in terms of whether or not people buy into the fact that they need to come for the whole thing in order for it to work. We’ve only 100 seats to sell and we’ve tried to create the event in such a way that it’s easy enough to join us for the whole thing. And all meals are included in the price of the ticket which is key to creating an environment in which people do meet one another, talk over dinner, have a drink together. Norwich Arts Centre is the Festival Weekend venue and that’s ideal for the event – based in a mediaeval church and suitably relaxed.

What’s in the programme?

For people who’ve been to Aurora before, there are many familiar elements – artist programmes, in this case two programmes each by Jem Cohen and Milena Gierke, and one by Jon Bang Carlsen – who are each joining us to present their work. Discussion sessions with Shezad Dawood, Mark Wilsher, Beatrice Gibson, Gareth Evans, Graeme Hogg, Andrew Kotting and others.

There are three thematic programmes with work by Ben Rivers, Lucy Parker, Nick Collins, Peter Todd and others (who are also joining us). Music with Emma Pettit & Nick Luscombe (Roots & Shoots) and, finally, the brilliant Alasdair Roberts – whose work I’m crazy about – in a special double-performance with Jarman Award winner Luke Fowler.

And there’s an Open Projector event, where Festival Weekend ticket holders can elect to show their own work and discuss it without any form of pre-selection. Power to the people!

It’s very different from the standard model – along with other events like AND in Liverpool and Flatback in Birmingham. It’s a different approach, and ‘philosophy’ to showing films – would you say?

Yes, certainly when compared to ‘regular’ film festivals, and deliberately so -  although some, whilst outwardly ‘regular’, are sources of great inspiration and admiration, such as Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. It’s been difficult at times over the past few years to deflect the calls (by funders, onlookers, curtain-twitchers) to join a ‘club’… whether, in the early years of the festival, the ‘animation’ club, or the artists’ film fraternity, or the digital meeja futurists. They all have good points, and good people, but the point of Auora has been to retain the freedom to present work from as interdisciplinary a perspective as possible. The point is not that there is no point, but that there are all points. It’s pure Zen! We’ve only partially achieved that… I mean, we haven’t presented a great many Henry Moore originals, Viennese blood-letters or beat poetry recitals – we have stuck to the moving image, by and large – but as you say, it’s more about the philosophy, about trying to move about with open eyes, than something pedantically interdisciplinary. And although it’s a bit circular, it’s also about the fact that philosophy shouldn’t be a dirty word, in the sense that a thoughtful programme and a selection of work and activities which, I’d hope, inspire thinking and the exchange of ideas, should be valuable.

Importantly, my amendment to this ‘philosophical’ take on things – which it’s taken a while to grasp – is that there’s no rule, as far as I’m aware, that dictates that thinking should preclude having fun.

I was part of a panel discussion session about the ‘future of film festivals’ (ironically enough) last year and had been saying that we shouldn’t let the word ‘festival’ be divorced too completely from its original meaning – a festival should be a celebration, an extraordinary occasion, whatever it’s about – when someone at the back of the room pleaded in a small and tired voice that we “please get away from this awful idea of ‘celebration’” – the implication being that we should return to doing ‘serious’ things. What a load of horseshit.

Aurora had developed remarkably in just three years, so it’s incredible that you’ve announced it as ‘the last ever edition’. How can that be?

I’m still trying to figure out how it can be myself, to be honest. The complete story is pretty convoluted and quite dull to repeat here. I should be tactful and say something about ‘adjusted priorities’ and ‘unforeseen fiscal shortfall scenarios’ but the short and tactless version is this: we’ve been stuffed and stitched up by a group of patsy middle-managers who know next to nothing about the festival, or festivals.

The slightly longer version is that we heard from the institution where we’re based (Norwich University College of the Arts) last December that one of our core funders, whose funds the college managed and which paid for our salaries, was due to be wound up at the end of 2009, so we’d need to find another source of core funding. I started to research it, and it became clear that a likely source of funding was available, and that other funders would open up sources of funding in response, too. Then there was a change of management at the college, and the ‘economic crisis’ began to bite, and they changed their mind within a month to tell us that we could no longer apply for funding.

So we’re in the strange position that we could have found the money but have been prevented from doing so, because we’re tied to the organisation – who also control the independent company and charity which is the festival’s legal entity. A bit murky, really, and most frustrating – because our hands have been tied, to the extent that we weren’t even allowed to announce the festival’s end properly – and above all, because AURORA had so far to go. It’s only three years old, as you say: I’d have liked to see it grow a bit older and manage to do more, but alas, it looks as though that’s impossible. The college have trademarked the name, too: I’m not sure quite why, or how – but that’s that. I’m tempted to start ORORA in Northwich but I fear the solicitors too much.

There are some ways in which it’s positive. Festivals need fresh ideas every so often – so whilst there’ll be no fresh ideas (or any ideas, for that matter) the festival at least won’t ossify or turn into an ego-trip; and being forced to re-think personal direction, whilst scary, is quite cathartic. It forces you to think about what’s really necessary; what’s really important — and if anything similar to AURORA did emerge again in future, it’ll call the shots itself and not be prey to an executive leather-chair power fantasy. So there!

Aurora runs from 5-15 November at various venues across Norwich.

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