FESTIVALS Lincoln gets digital

Patrick Kelly visits Frequency, a digital culture festival that is helping to transform the medieval city of Lincoln

Inside an ancient church, three men and two women are wandering around in VR goggles, examining an array of strange objects with a strange intensity, while in the street outside an electronics shop, a gaggle of onlookers view a 52in plasma TV screen (price tag £1200) showing not a Disney cartoon or the latest edition of Loose Women, but readings from old schoolbooks.

[Image credit, Electric Egg]

Meanwhile, in the bowels of a famous cathedral, visitors watch woodcutters using ancient tools to create wooden beams as part of Turner Prize winning architecture collective Assemble’s latest  project, Log Book, and in Lincoln market shoppers are watching a hilarious video satirising racism, produced by artist Hain Patel, working with a local youth group.

This is Frequency, a ten day extravaganza of extraordinary art, performances and events fusing virtual and augmented realities with the medieval streets of Lincoln.

The fourth edition of the festival, which ran last month, also included a moving VR film of Empire Soldiers telling the stories of Caribbean soldiers in World War I; Duet, an ambitious collaboration connecting the text messages of people in the UK and India through a light wall; and a plethora of art exhibitions, music and dance performances. 

The festival is also linking with the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, a sister document to Magna Carta, that established the rights of access to the royal forest for common men. Lincoln is home to one of two surviving copies of the Charter of the Forest, and the historic document is currently on display alongside the Lincoln copy of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle. This is the only place on earth where they can be viewed together, and as part of the Festival these documents will be joined by a new Tree Charter, led by the Woodland Trust.

Frequency is the brainchild of Midlands-based media arts producer Threshold Studios, which ran the first edition as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. “We were keen on the idea of introducing digital art into heritage spaces as a way of reaching new audiences” says Barry Hale, Threshold’s co-director. “Lincoln was really up for it. Indeed, I have never seen a city more welcoming to the idea of the future”.

It’s clearly working. Frequency’s first three editions have successfully attracted 45,000 visitors, and over 109,000 attendances across the programme.

The total budget for Frequency is in the region of £350-400k, with the bulk of the funding coming from a £250,000 Arts Council England grant through Grants for the Arts. The rest comes from a local partnership between the University of Lincoln, and Lincoln BIG Cultural Destinations grant. Threshold have a modular approach to the festival, allowing them flexibility to add on or take away events, depending on the funding levels. Now it’s in Threshold’s NPO agreement with ACE to organise the Frequency festival, giving it extra security for the future.

Peter Knott, area director, Arts Council England, said, “Frequency plays an important part in creating opportunities for local artists, graduates and students to develop their talent

and skills” says Peter Knott, ACE’s area director.“Threshold’s work in this area has created a deep and ongoing relationship with stakeholders in the city and we want to encourage that.”

John Hogan, community engagement officer at Lincoln Castle needs no convincing about the attractions of fusing contemporary digital art with heritage. “It’s a different starting point” he says “but one that really excites audiences”,

Vice Chancellor Professor Mary Stuart says the university has a strong presence in digital arts practice and education. “As a founding partner and co-designer of the first ever Frequency Festival, we’re very proud of how the festival has taken root and grown to become such a fixture of the cultural calendar in the region” she says.

 

The University of Lincoln is very much the model of a modern cultural institution. It set up the Lincoln Cultural and Arts Partnership (LCAP) with the city and county council, Lincoln Business Improvement Group, Visit Lincoln, arts venues and arts organisations, and Prof Mary Stuart chairs the body. Alongside Frequency the partnership has secured a successful Ambitions for Excellence programme from the Arts Council until 2020 and the university has recently established a Centre for Culture and Creativity.

 

“These activities all provide great opportunities for our arts and performance school provision, giving our students work placement opportunities, possibilities to show their work, and for the graduate companies that have set up in the city more opportunities to develop work locally” says Stuart.

 

She added that the university’s role “as an anchor institution in this region is about stimulating growth, including economic growth, but by no means just that. The arts are not a luxury, they are an essential part of our society which can improve people’s quality of life and bind together communities. Universities are in a fortunate position to be able to apply their expertise, facilities and networks to bear in ways that enable the arts not just to survive but also to flourish. This can only be a good thing for our students, whether they are studying arts-based courses (we have a thriving arts school) or other programmes. It is vital to attracting great staff and helps develop the communities we serve.

“One of the key qualities of Frequency is how it encourages artists and audiences to reflect on important themes” she says. “This year’s theme of Displacement, inspired by the 800 year anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, sets a context to consider many of the complex issues we are facing in the world today. That is what art – and higher education institutions – can and should do.”

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