Hamish Fulton, <em>Slowalk</em>, 2012. Photo: Colin Davison. Courtesy of AV Festival 12

You can’t speed up a slow walk: The Festival Archive

Since Festivals are all about the temporary moment of connecting together artists, audiences and place, how do we construct an archive to capture this?  The archive can never replace the live experience of being at the Festival, but it can resurrect emotions, ideas and memories. It can also provide a great snapshot of the Festival, for those who didn't see everything, but it will only ever present an edited or partial view.

The logistics of documentation during the Festival itself are always a difficult thing to manage. How can the Festival and its artists decide how to document an event before it’s happened? How can we avoid the interfering sound of camera clicks with the audiences live experience of events? This is especially challenging for newly commissioned work, which often hasn’t had chance to exist in the world before the documentary paparazzi pounce.

Many of our Festival events will never happen again, because of their site-specific relationship to place, or the unique mix of collaborators involved. I doubt we will ever see the Japanese fluxus artist Yoshi Wada perform with the City of Newcastle Pipeband, and guitarists from The Band of Susans again. All this tells us is that there are just as many reasons for these events being documented, as there are against.

Successful documentation needs experience, insight and reflection, things that are often hard to come by when you’re immediately flung into post-Festival evaluation, reporting and finances. From the thousands of hours of footage, where does the documentation team begin to edit? What is the most useful document of the event for the artist? What might appeal to audiences whose only experience of the Festival is an edited video? How to you create edited highlights of a Festival that very deliberately challenges audience expectations of duration? You can’t speed up a Slowalk.

At the end of the day, all we can do is our best. For AV Festival 12 our photographic documentation aimed to capture exhibition installation shots, private views, artist portraits, and live performances. Our approach to video documentation for the first time included artist interviews with extracts of their work. When events had a linear narrative we aimed to document the entire event, since this is the only meaningful way for post-Festival online audiences to experience it. We also aimed to document new commissions in their entirety, when this was practically possible, as a valuable and unique future record.

Beyond AV Festival 12, we also faced the challenge of archive backlog. For years DVDs, hard drives and files have been stored in the Festival office filing cabinets, with the comforting sense that they were safe (but inaccessible). It seems very strange now that our videos of the Festival in 2008 were output on DVD, and not provided as digital files or uploaded online. So we retrieved and digitised the video footage from 2008 and included it online for the first time.

We have aimed to show each past Festival as true to the original event as possible, including staff lists and funders in addition to the artistic programme. Specific Festival strands such as launches, residencies, or special weekends have been preserved, in addition to the artform category.  We have selected highlights for each Festival based on audience / critical feedback at the time, critical reflection since, and our future aspirations.

In addition to the photographic and video documentation, we have presented additional information when available, for example programme notes, visual scores, artist biographies, website links and articles. It was important to provide an introductory text to each Festival and artform, to create an overall narrative about each edition and how the Festival as grown and developed from 2003 – 2012.  The original brochure and independent evaluation reports are also available to download for each Festival.

There are inconsistencies in the archive materials across the years, which shows the different approach, look and feel of each past Festival. Whilst no archive can be perfect, we think it provides a valuable picture of the history of the Festival for the first time. It shows the quality and scale of the Festival, audience responses, and the ideas of artists visiting the region. You can see the diversity of venues, public sites and contexts in which we have imaginatively presented work. The archive shows how each Festival temporarily transforms the region into an entirely new place.

Rebecca Shatwell, Festival Director