Just like the briar wood in “Sleeping Beauty”, for many years the Gwyltt Woods in Portmeirion grew so thickly that its paths were swallowed beneath the undergrowth and its branches were knitted together so tightly that even the sun struggled to pass through. Starved of light, the many Himalayan rhododendron bushes that grew in the woods wilted and died, leaving behind a tunnel of twisted dried branches with the appearance of bone.
The wildness of woods seems to have turned those who passed through it wild, also. In the 1800’s people came looking for gold in the wood’s sunken ponds, only to leave with delusion and clay. The last man in the county to be hung took refuge in the woods. Such was one Victorian botanist’s arborial obsession, that he deliberately allowed the woodland’s paths to become impassable in order to stop tourists visiting the remains of the 14thcentury castle deep inside. Not to mention the untold tales of madness incurred during long medieval winters inside the castle’s stone towers…
It was here that Don’t Tell Stories curated an interactive arts trail for Festival Number 6. Visiting the woods to plan the trail, I had a very palpable feeling among the gingkos and firs that all was not what as it first seemed, as if far away from the city, the boundaries between shade and light, real and dreamt, familiar and strange – just as in all the best fairy tale woods – had become less solid and more permeable than anywhere else. And it was this idea that you could come to the woods and somehow be transformed by it, that seemed such a powerful force for creating a space to write something, make something or simply think, dream and imagine.
Artist & photographer Vinca Petersen brought a vast bag of wool blankets to the woods alongside crocheted patches her sister had made with her geriatric patients. Vinca spent ten years living with travellers and her art is about reclaiming under-used or over-looked public spaces and re-purposing them to create community. Her charity, Future Youth Project, like Don’t Tell Stories, is founded on the belief that every human being is creative. Throughout the festival, Vinca, who has a very special mischievous energy, had dozens of people stitching the blanket as it grew and grew into a giant picnic blanket. People came to sit down on her blanket and didn’t seem to want to leave. At one point she had twenty five family groups all merrily stitching away. Another time, Vinca was to be found holding court to a stag do.
Poet Lucy Lepchani created a word installation with poems conjured from her audience. This is what Lucy said: “While some children wrote their poems, I spoke to their parents who did not want to participate because they were ‘no good’ at poems. During this time, I also spoke with two other people who came by, about ‘stream of consciousness’ poems – how these are done, how they open up the unconscious creative mind. The woman I had previously been conversing with took interest, and then decided she would like to try one. What she wrote, I read back aloud to her (she wouldn’t read aloud) and she had tears of pride in her eyes. I hung her poem alongside her children’s.”
Artist Rose Pomeroy and her team created an interactive visual installation inspired by the early work of Japanese artist Yoyoi Kusama. Said Rose; “As a group of 4, we set out to create a site specific interaction with festival participants and our woodland environment, using a variety of visual materials based around the ‘circle’, spot or dot. The emphasis was on everyone involved to have the freedom to actively get involved and be part of an artwork.The audience response was overwhelmingly positive. People enjoyed it, were happy to have us stick stickers on them and generally get involved. People asked questions, and stayed for conversation. Participants also took photographs, talked about their own experiences with art, community art and art education, positive and negative experiences they had had. It was a good opportunity to talk to lots of different people, who all had their own take on it and I think people in general felt comfortable getting involved even on a basic level of having a coloured sticker stuck on them. Some people spent up to half an hour with us. One nice moment was when a Mum asked if we could paint her child in their clothes. She didn’t mind that her jumper would get covered in paint. Another instance was people asking for random things, like hair bands. Also people who volunteered to wear the paper suits and get painted and seeing them at the festival later on.
Daniel Weaver’s zylophone made from spanners echoed around the Chinese Lake and created a mysterious landscape filled with strange, arcane sounds and invited the audience to perform with a series of hand-made instruments created from re-cycled objects inspired by early African percussion. Said Daniel; “The curiousness of the instruments drew people in alongside the physical accessibility. Because there was no stage people could completely surround me and felt very comfortable to just ask me questions about the music. Several people said it was the best thing in the festival. For me personally, it was an opportunity to discover new sounds and new ways of playing. I found a willingness in the audience to engage with the sounds which iwas incredibly rewarding.”
Troubadours We Make Hay performed songs about the woods co-written with the audience with a boundless enthusiasm that infected everyone. As the weekend wore on, they began to invite people from the audience to be their “guest” drummer or guitarist. One man asked if he could join in and promptly drew a trumpet from his bag. Later, the same trumpeter was spotted on the main stage playing with Gruff Rhys and his band.
This is what troubadour leader Hugh Nankivell said: “Whenever we met someone who had been making a song with us later in the festival, we were able to smile at them as if we shared a secret together (which I suppose we did). The practice is changing all the time. It was great to experiment with setting up a soundcloud account for instantly putting up songs and we are thinking further about how to both make ourselves more visually interesting so the opportunity to try this was great.”
Artist Ian Thompson created a carnivalesque sonic installation of haunting fairground and circus sounds which changed into response to the movement of people in the space, evoking an invisible double world amidst the fir and oak. Said Ian; “The audience had to proactively engage with piece to work out what was going on. Some were more confident than others. Under 25s got it immediately as soon as they saw the kinect sensor. Intrigue drew people in. Once the interactivity had been worked out, audiences were dancing and engaging with altering audio effects in real time with the Kinect.”
Legendary DJ, producer and Faber artist-in-residence Andrew Weatherall read a phantasmagorical story about an actor who plays the devil by the bohemian French novelist Theophile Gautier. The stage was art directed with a riot of over grown plaits by stylist Jade Neale.
Author John-Paul Pryor read from his Baudelaire-esque novel “Spectacles”, while I read a disturbing tale about a glamorous party and a dark secret.
This is what the audience said about the trail:
“The readings were great.The setting made it completely different to a conventional reading; along with the art direction of the stage. The whole experience of the trail is brilliantly interactive -with members of the audience getting involved in the writing of songs with the musicians, for example.”
“There was something particularly well thought out in the curation of the space.The people with the dots came and stuck stuff on you, whether or not individuals were looking to participate it made me feel part of it from the off.The poetry was good because it/she encouraged me to share a real story. I guess I was already preceptive to being open in that setting.Having shared on that activity I felt more (not sure whether it’s emotionally or sentimentally engaged).It helped with breaking the ice so to speak.As for the band it was more the spectacle of participation in writing the song, playing an instrument and then listening to it back. I enjoyed the whole creative process spelt out to children, which made it fun because it took away the burden of having to do it by ones self.”
“The trail really was great; inspiring and thoughtful.”
This is what Luke Bainbridge, Head of Art & Culture at Festival Number 6 said about the Don’t Tell Stories trail: “The Don’t Tell Stories trail was a huge success with the audience and we have received lots of feedback from people saying it was their favourite thing about the festival. People enjoyed the opportunity to be actively creative in a non-threatening environment, sometimes discovering a latent creativity they didn’t realise was there. The trail has helped solidify the reputation of Festival Number 6 as an innovative arts & culture festival for its imaginative scope, originality and innovation and we are looking forward to having it back in 2014.”
There was a part of me that struggled to believe how much people seemed to enjoy participating in the trail – especially when the great British public, as a whole, does not tend to go in for audience participation. But the energy and expertise and sense of enchantment that each artist brought to the experience, in the end, turned out to be such a gentle but powerful force that people seemed unusually and unexpectedly open. But most of all, I think everyone was affected by being in the woods, as if all of us – artists & audience – had been ever so slightly touched by its wildness
photography thanks to Becky Maynard & Tim Newsome.