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The Festival of Lying

Read 'The Festival of Lying' - an essay by Neil Chapman

Site specificity in art is usually constructed with reference to historical resonances, or in relation to topographical or architectural features. In contrast to this, The Festival Of Lying is a piece of work which uses the character of various local communities as its map. The Festival Of Lying has been produced by Anna Best, Karen Guthrie, Nina Pope and Simon Poulter. It is the result of a collaborative artists residency at Grizedale.

Grizedale, which describes itself as an 'art in the environment' centre, displays a permanent collection of works commissioned over a period of 25 years. It is tempting to see The Festival of Lying as having been developed, in part, in relation to the legacy of the Sculpture park. The way in which the work focuses on the concept of 'local community' in order to find its place, seems to make a point about the kind of processes which shape our environment and social milieu; the structures which we identify in geological matter, the forces which produce the landscape, are there also in the dynamics of communities. The spans of time in question may be different but communities are layered like sediment. We are familiar with this kind of metaphor which is present also in the idea of 'social strata', but the artists' work in this instance, when seen in the context of conventionally site specific work, seems to suggest a more literal comparison. And just as an objective study in science may focus on the phenomenon which cannot quickly be understood within the common terms, so The Festival of Lying describes the artists' interest in those irregular features of Cumbrian culture which might contradict our general idea of rural life.

The work uses the form of a particular traditional event as its starting point. On one evening each year, a gathering at The Bridge Inn, Santon Bridge, awards someone with the title of 'Biggest Liar in the World'. This tradition in enacted, apparently, after one Will Ritson (born 1808), erstwhile resident of Wasdale Valley and notorious teller of stories.

The adoption of the subject of public lying by the artists here, serves a number of purposes. To begin with, it is a way of ameliorating the imposition which can be read into the arrival and commissioning of artists to make work in a place which is not their home. In incorporating the form of a local event, the artists place themselves in the background for a moment. Or the structure of the work which they are making, with its local familiarity, provides cover while the politics of the relations between locals and outsiders is negotiated. From these cautious beginnings, something quite different emerges. A number of the usual performers at the Biggest Liar in the World Competition become an integral part of the process of make The Festival Of Lying, but the competition, transmutated into a festival, is an unfolding of the theme as well. It is the making of an arena in which a diversity of ideas around the subject of truth and lies can collide.

The way in which The Festival Of Lying functions as a nexus for different groups and individuals is achieved by its design as a conference. Contributions are made by Peter Lamont, lecturer at Edinburgh University, on Conjuring; its psychology and its mechanics. Jon Ronson, writer and journalist, reads from his book on extremism and American conspiracy theory. Researcher into the paranormal, Maurice Gross, is interviewed on his knowledge of the notorious Enfield Poltergeist affair. In line with the artists' fascination with the anomalies of local life, the job of compering the event is given to Ralph Spours, a local estate agent whose particular brand of humour, tested in the slots between contributors during the day comes, one suspects, in part from his own bewilderment as to just what kind of thing this event actually is. Other local contributors testify to the same difficulty in grasping what is intended by the event. But some level of trust between the artists and those involved seems to be sufficient for the suspension of doubt.

What the various contributions to The Festival Of Lying have in common is that they each present a different entry point into the subject of truth and untruth, encouraging us to see these two as a labyrinth, the negotiation of which we are all more familiar with than we tend to be aware on a day to day basis.

But of interest to the artists, perhaps primarily, is the special relationship which truth and lies shares with art. Chosen to open up this subject at the festival is Rob Irvine, an artist who has been instrumental in the establishing of crop circle making almost as a new category in contemporary English folk art. As he describes his activities in relation to an apparently, 'real' occurrence, one gets the impression of a profound ambivalence - even for him as maker of these ephemeral works - around what constitutes authenticity and fakery. His own crop circles are every bit as much 'the real thing' in so far as they are experienced by the hundreds of people who travel to see them when they appear in the fields of Wiltshire during the summer months. This viewing public would seem to comprise of different communities; from the downright skeptical to the passionately believing.. The (presumable successful) use of the crop circles' powers as remedies for various ailments by this latter group, can only lead us to see the categories of truth and falsity once more insinuate themselves within one another.

The manufacture of crop circles on the model of some supposedly authentic phenomenon may also give us a way of thinking about The Festival of Lying as a new work, and its genesis in the culture of a local community. The act may appear on some level as one of replication. But if this is so, the effects of the replication proliferate, escaping the control of the original model. The web cast of sections of the Festival Of Lying finds another audience. The discussion of the event by those who attended establishes yet another network of communities. The transforming of the video footage made on the day, into a piece of work which operates as an installation in a different kind of exhibition space, is one further unfolding. Each time this growing set of ideas is sent out, like a piece of gossip it finds a new local audience in which to be nurtured, repeated and embellished upon.

Neil Chapman 2001