2–4 August 2019
Supernormal Festival is an experimental arts and music festival that takes place over a weekend in the heart of Oxfordshire. It grew from an artist residency program that began in 1995 and further developed into its current incarnation. Since 2010 Supernormal has become an anomalous event in the wider British festival calendar, challenging the norms of music, art and politics, and is redefining what a festival can be. It is difficult to summarize everything that distinguishes it from so many other festivals but After View has happily accepted the challenge:
Supernormal Festival is different. First of all it is a non-profit organisation. Take some time to consider that and reflect upon how it places the festival in the ever expanding context of British summer music festivals. The 1500 visitor capacity is modest, yet it sold out within minutes of the tickets going on sale and does so year on year. Despite the evident scope for expansion, Supernormal maintains its capacity and refuses to expand; it could be bigger, it could sell more tickets and it could raise its profile but, it chooses not to. This in itself is a very different principle for a music festival to maintain and it is completely antithetical to the infinite growth paradigm which most organizations slavishly obey. In the world of Supernormal money does not matter.
Supernormal Festival is different. Secondly, it is a festival that values art. Growing as it did out of an artist-led initiative to bring artists together into a space to experiment and develop ideas, it has stayed true to its initial cause. The festival holds this ethos in its core, the site itself is populated by commissioned artworks that reflect the values of Supernormal; Video art is played throughout the entirety of the festival in a hidden away open air theater, curated by collaborators BEEF (British Experimental Expanded Film). Vortex, a Lemony Snicket style barn house showcases more video art late into the night and Braziers House provides a 17th Century backdrop for a series of artist led workshops and exhibitions. Not one piece is superficial, each has been carefully selected based on artist merit and the ideas they express, each piece of artwork feeds key principals of the Supernormal ethos back into the the festival; strengthening and reinforcing the experience.
Supernormal Festival is different. Thirdly the festival blurs the distinctions between performers, artists and audience. Many of the bands camp onsite and when their sets end, can be seen inhabiting the festival like any other guest, dancing like lunatics and championing the other acts in selfless solidarity. The exhibiting visual artists are also attendees of the festival. The presence of Young Women’s Music Project, a charity collective which provide support for you women in the arts, can be seen and felt throughout the festival. Members of YWMP produce an in-situ mural throughout the weekend and have organised a number of performance works in various spaces around the festival. Some artworks exhibited at Brazier House rely on audience participation, putting the guests at the center of works, making them more than just active participants but integral components of the work itself.
The degree to which Supernormal Festival is different can be measured in the stark contrast to peer- festivals, the likes of which are becoming emblematic of an ideological shift in the music culture of Britain and culture at large. Once an event of unity and hippy-spirited celebration the music festival has taken on an altogether different role. The de-profiting of music through Spotify and Youtube means musicians earn very little in terms of record sales and rely on live performances to sustain their careers. In turn, event organizers across Britain are rubbing their hands together in glee before setting hand to creating meadow sized arenas, which function solely for capital gain. The typical festival is a space which the public simply pour money into, and rather than curating line ups that might intrigue, challenge and surprise attendees, rosters are filled with whatever sells. Festivals once known for their hard edged music are softening, becoming blander and reflecting that faceless mass of society called popular culture.
Mass media has an aptitude for creating your desires, showing you how to desire and allowing you to satiate desires (momentarily) – through consumption. The festival experience has long become commodified, attending anyone of the major festivals is an experience that instantly feeds back to you, a preconcieved idea of what a festival should be. It explains every ‘identikit-festival-goer’, donning sunglasses and adorning their hair with flowers for one weekend a year, simply playing the part of a free spirit regardless of which band they see, what the politics of the band might be or what ideals the band represent; free spirits enslaved by the machinations of capitalism.
There are too few music festivals in Britain that exist to create something more than just money, Supernormal is one such festival – it clearly strives to introduce audiences to new experiences, it couldn’t be further away from the norms of big capital festivals as it’s ethos; progressivism in art, music and politics permeates every aspect of the festival.
Just scanning the list of bands gives you a flavor of Supernormals intentions; Horsebastard, Acid Cannibals, Basic Dicks, Cocaine Piss, Dead Neanderthals……Horsebastard……Horsebastard……HORSEBASTARD (!!!). Any one of these names act like a defibrillator, omitting an electric shock capable of stirring the most dormant of hearts, especially so when paralleled with the names of acts playing any other festival this summer; Tame Impala, George Ezra, Rudimental, Courteeners, Cardi B, The Streets……Tame Impala……Tame Impala……TAME IMPALA (???) There is an undeniable sense of banality to these names, indicative of the insipidness of their musical output.
What’s interesting (and depressing…but mainly depressing) about the state of the current British music scene is the startling lack of anything new, most band’s sound like previous bands. Without wanting to name and shame any particular musician, it is all too common to be recommended a new band that is described as having “a really authentic 80’s sound” or “is the modern day Led Zeppelin” or “sounds a bit like Mumford and Sons”. Most bands and musicians seem to create their sound and identity by drawing from the past (no matter how recent it is) without regard to the future, this ever decreasing pool of influence just simply can’t be sustained. Further more, this recycling of the old is compounded by the ubiquitous conveyor belt of reunion acts. No festival is complete without dredging up a long defunct band or musician, reanimated for one last show, frequently without any new material to offer. It’s just another instance of music selling the past back to you. Of course this does not mean there is nothing of value out there, Stormzy and IDLES both managed to create iconic experiences this summer proving there is an appetite for progressivism in music. However thinking about the British festival scene does make one wonder, when will people tire of experiencing things they have already experienced and develop a thirst for novelty?
If mainstream culture continues to borrow from itself, if artists, musicians, and writers ceaselessly feed on the corpse of past, then we will be forsaking a future with anything new to offer. It is already happening, it is evident in so many societal spheres, the contents of which are unintelligent, blindingly dull and painfully vapid. Culture is beginning more and more to appear skeletal in form as creative meat is striped from bone. We are slowly edging into a tomorrow characterized by vacuity and the more it happens the more normal it will seem, until, it is all we have left.
However, with artist like Samiir Saunders and musicians such as Jenny Moore there is hope to fight this cultural decay. It is inspiring to experience a collective that so selflessly and so fearlessly strives for more and strives for change. Experiencing Supernormal is exhilarating, it leaves one feeling optimistic for the future, it is an affirmation that we do deserve something better than this impending normal, it is an affirmation that we deserve something super.