I thought I would write a little review of all the things I have been to in this year’s brilliant Festival of the Mind, organised by the University of Sheffield.
Sounds of the Cosmos. This event, like other events organised by Stewart Campbell, was creative, inspired, with unusual collaborations and innovative formats. In fact, it was a fabulous opening to my Festival of the Mind, as it really did totally blow my mind. Holst’s Planets Suite, played by the Sheffield Rep Orchestra, was interspersed with talks by Professor Paul Crowther from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the most fabulous visuals provided by all sorts of incredibly clever telescopes and other gadgets at NASA and other organisations. Accessible, but impossible to grasp (that’s a compliment), it did leave me feeling very perplexed. About the insignificance of it all. Not just that we are so ridiculously tiny, but also that the task of astrophysics is doomed as well. I wonder why a physicist doesn’t accept that we will never know (like I think a theologian does – or certainly like the sort of theologian I admire might do) and live happily with this unknowing, rather than keeping on developing a failed and impossible sort of knowing… What really is the point of it all?
So I suppose I couldn’t have had a better start to a festival which celebrates wondering and interdisciplinary thinking and engagement with the public. The matinee, a later add on after the evening sold out, was geared towards schoolchildren – which although a brilliant thing to do – did mean that it was quite a noisy and disruptive environment. I hope it blew some of their minds: we’ll never know…
The next thing I went to (on Tuesday afternoon) was a series of exhibitions at the amazing almost derelict Castle House, home to the former Coop which was still in existence when I first moved to Sheffield in 2005. There were many things in here that I loved. I found the exhibition about the history of the building fascinating. I loved Shaun Bloodworth’s ‘Save the Birds’ collaboration with Tim Birkhead to create films and soundtracks of the dawn chorus, sadly now much changed due to bird numbers decreasing.
I loved learning about the many languages spoken in Sheffield, the strange gaze-shift installation which shows what the brain does when it looks at shapes, some imagined castles created by school children, and a weird illuminous nerve tent. A real highlight for me as someone interested in sensory engagements with things, was the Tactile Image exhibition by Clive Egginton, a film-maker who lost his sight earlier this year on being diagnosed with brain cancer. Photographs of Sheffield people, and Sheffield things by both him and a few others, were fabulous and thought-provoking in their own right, but when paired with tactile versions, the effect was wonderful. Raised images also incorporating descriptive text in Braille tied in so well with an excellent event I had been to the day before at Kelham Island Museum, celebrating their ‘Access all Areas’ project, in which Patricia Dieng’s TacMaps were particularly exciting to discover. And also reminded me of a project I did at Kettle’s Yard back in 2001, making ‘In To Touch’ packs for visually impaired people which were raised heated polystyrene precursors to all these things. Everything is interconnected.
Other projects I found fascinating were the immersive soundscapes for people with dementia by composers ‘In the Nursery’, some of which were really soothing. It was also fascinating to see the thermal images of some of Sheffield’s iconic buildings.
I absolutely love love love the Letters to Sheffield project, and although I was sad not to see mine when I first went to Castle House, this has since been sorted out by way of a few tweets to the lovely people at Our Favourite Places and at Site who found my missing letter and have now installed it into the exhibition. I spent ages when I went back the second time reading these: funny, sad, poignant, apart from the one which declares Sheffield to be ‘crap, crap, crap’ (!), they almost all reveal a deep love of the city and a real sense of pride of place. We are so lucky to live here. The accompanying book is beautiful and something that every Sheffield person will love.
Phlegm’s marketplace piece in the Sheffield Bazaar artists’ interventions section downstairs was fantastic – especially amusing to have the old haberdashery sign showing through. In fact I loved this about the whole building, which even though only closed for less than 10 years, seemed so much more ancient, forlorn and forgotten.
On the final Saturday, I went to the Turner Museum of Glass for the first time ever. What a hidden gem! Hard to get find, it’s a real reward to see the amazing collections, and, rather than to just appreciate the glass for its aesthetic quality, which is what I’d normally do, it is a whole new dimension to have it exhibited in the department of engineering (I think) where the focus is on the properties of the materials and how glass is made. There are some stunning objects – a bit of Lalique (a moth), a rock crystal Buddha, and glass mainly from various European countries, as well as some ancient Egyptian pieces. Fabulous collection. While there, I chatted to Lynne Fox, the university’s Heritage Officer, and Professor John Parker who is the curator, and hopefully there are plans to do more events, and even have a handling collection one day.
Later in the day, I returned to a lab in the same building (Robert Hadfield), for a fantastic glass-making demonstration in a seriously high-tech lab full of all sorts of amazing gadgets. It was very exciting, and the second time this year when I have been in a lab doing dangerous experiments! I had no idea what molten glass looked like. It really did remind me of the Mervyn Peake painting at Manchester Art Gallery.
It was amazing to hold a glass blob (a bit like a wiggly tadpole shape), for the ‘Prince Rupert’s Tear Drop’ experiment which shattered in my hand, and even though I knew it was going to do it, was still quite a shock!
The final highlight of this year’s Festival were several bird-related events and exhibitions. Firstly, hearing the brilliant Tim Birkhead speaking about the decline of the dawn chorus in the Spiegeltent. As always, his talk was a source of all sorts of bits of new and fascinating information. Such as: bullfinches were as recently as the early C20th, trained to sing German folk songs, and can actually learn them but singing up a semitone(!); there are two particular notes sung as part of nightingale (I think) mating rituals, which can be recorded and replayed to make the birds breed; in the winter, Stoney Middleton is the place to see starlings in their millions. But also that the dawn chorus has fewer birds even than in the 1980s when I was growing up, as more and more of the insects eaten by birds are in decline due to intensive farming and use of land to grow food – all over the world. A massive problem. Made me think that not procreating is definitely a positive step for the planet.
After hearing some tweeting birds in the Milennium Gallery avenue, I then headed to Sheffield cathedral. As well as seeing the lovely new interpretation there, an exhibition entitled ‘Loomery Scrolls’ by Chris Wallbank, who was artist in residence with Tim Birkhead on Skomer, was absolutely fabulous – and worked beautifully in the cathedral. Vast scrolls of paper documented the birds on the cliffs, recording their numbers in many instances, and with different ‘experiments’ to record their habits. I loved it.
So, that’s my little Festival of the Mind. Thank you everyone involved. Sheffield is brilliant.