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Coniston Water Festival

Various venues, Coniston

‘Cumbriana Proof’ is a series of events co-ordinated by Grizedale Arts that reflects on tourism-motivated regeneration of the Lake District in north-west England. Its main draw is the revival of the Coniston Water Festival – a 19th-century boat-dressing pageant that was abandoned in 1998 owing to lack of participation. The resuscitated week-long festival brought visitors and locals into uneasy proximity, with art works by individuals and groups, from floating sculptures to a radio station, as well as entertainments organized by villagers, from soapbox racing to a newspaper with the stand-first ‘Making Coniston More Complicated’.

Olivia Plender’s project was a brew of local references, historical plundering and end-of-the-pier tomfoolery. A small band dressed in the ceremonial garb of the Kibbo Kift paraded through Coniston village singing about Robin Hood and ended up in the 16th-century Old Hall, where an incongruous Power Point lecture on the history of the radical movement was given by Harry White. The Kibbo Kift were a group of idealists who believed in the educational value of outdoor pursuits, arts and crafts and ‘recapitulation theory’ (which requires that an individual return to primitivism before progressing to a truly civilized state). Rather like Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, the movement sprang from a magpie’s mash of references and influences, including Fabian socialism, pacifism, neo-Hellenism, co-education, the writings of H.G. Wells, social credit and the open-air movement, and was a workable rejuvenating scheme with thousands of members during the 1920s and ’30s.

Following White’s illustrated lecture the film director Ken Russell gave a short talk about Millican Dalton, a local eccentric who held similar notions about activity and landscape. Dalton was an exponent of romance, simplicity and the open air, offering holidays comprising ‘camping, tramping and hair’s-breadth escapes’, although his legacy is more that of a colourful oddity than social reformer, a fact reflected in Russell’s own ramshackle and ironic delivery. As Dalton had claimed to invent shorts, the audience were asked to participate in a lovely legs competition, which Russell himself won, by awarding the prize to himself. The afternoon wound up after a tug-of-war.

The dubious practice of garnering scraps from the past and presenting them unmediated in the present is symptomatic of an era purportedly bereft of ideologies; simply to point at something does not necessarily generate an understanding of original intent or subsequent relevance. Artists have a habit of appropriating ethical structures as if they are styles, flattening them into anecdotal or aesthetic tropes. There was, however, a poignant moment of elision when, as White spoke, with his velvet cloak and nerdy enthusiasm, the photographers from the broadsheet newspapers were intent on snapping Russell in the audience. Bearing in mind that the intention of ‘Cumbriana Proof’ was to test the impact of tourism on local culture, it was a revealing, analogous gesture that shunted celebrity to the centre of a project that revisited a movement of the masses.

Sally O'Reilly is a writer, critic, teacher and editor. 

Issue 95

First published in Issue 95

Nov - Dec 2005
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