Interview with Where Are We Now? Curator Michael Pedersen. Words: Adam Ward
Of all the festivals being held throughout Hull 2017, few will be of quite so much interest to fans of counter culture as Where Are We Now? The event, hosted from Friday 2nd – Sunday 4th of June is curated by Edinburgh-based collective Neu! Reekie! and is set to bring artists as wide ranging as the Mercury Prize winning band Young Fathers, Northern Irish film-maker Mark Cousins and even former childhood star Charlotte Church to the city. Founded in 2010 by writer and political activist Kevin Williamson and poet Michael Pedersen, Neu! Reekie! bring together artists from various of mediums to ask big questions and challenge conventional notions of what a festival line-up should look like. Browse spoke to Michael to discuss the festival and how it fit’s into Hull’s year of culture;
How did Neu! Reekie! come about?
We started as a sort of banging of heads of different generations of people involved in literature in Edinburgh deciding that we wanted something to happen of a more multi-disciplinary and accessible nature than was currently happening. There’s this whole city steeped in literature from Robert Burns to Irvine Welsh. It was seen as this bastion of what was going on in cutting-edge literature, but me and Kevin were kind of thrown off kilter by what was happening so what we decided was to try and make a spoken word film club with a musical element, try to make short films that were accessible and try to reach out to working class audiences in the way that Kevin and Irvine had done with Rebel Inc. So it came out of frustration that this type of event that we wanted to go to wasn’t already happening.
There’s a considerable age difference between yourself and Kevin, why did you gel creatively?
Well, there was two different things. I think I was kind of pissed off from the one perspective that I had missed what Kevin had done with Rebel Inc, the fact that this small publishing house had come along and published Irvine Welsh pre-Trainspotting and had turned a punk publisher into one of the most interesting international publishers in the world. At the same time, Kevin was starting to get pretty interested in what was going on with a lot of the younger writers and Kevin and I got billed in an event together in Glasgow. He wanted to be a part of what was going on again and I wanted a little part of what he’d created in the past, the way for us to do that was to smoosh it together. I think that’s what’s kept both the audiences and the line up so varied and tumultuous and fertile is the fact that all of Kevin’s Rebel Ink aficionados have come piling into Neu! Reekie! on the one hand. Then, on the other hand, I’ve grown up as a writer with my first book out surrounded by bands with their first albums out and film-makers with their first short films out. They were all sort of coming through and fighting for it at the same time as the old guard were looking to re-engage with it and aye it was just this sort carnal, fertile breeding ground for us to throw everything back into the mixing pot to get these two generations to clash again.
You’re both established and respected artists in your own field’s, especially in Scotland. What has your experience been of taking your show to places like Hull which are not part of the literary circuit?
Any time we’ve done a show we’ve started in Scotland but over time we’ve taken them all over the world from Tokyo to Osaka to Kyoto to New Zealand to Malawi, and our starting point is always where we are. Who is the audience? Who do we want to engage with? So in any show, we’ve got a sort of basic formula in terms of the audiences and the venues and the expectations and who we’d like to engage with. I think that through doing shows internationally and UK wide and building this from the outset, a big ambition of ours in Scotland was to get performers into Scotland that weren’t commonly down here. So with that sort of outlook as our starting point, putting on shows on a national scale that travel around the country shouldn’t be circumstantial. This isn’t a representation of Scottish culture at this point in time, this is a representation of UK and international culture that we were making happen in Scotland, so to put wheels on it take it on the road is something we enjoy doing and something that was completely part of our raison d’etre from the outset was about making this a sort of international mixing pot.
Without a doubt, the most high profile name on the line-up for Where Are We Now? Is Charlotte Church. Some might think that such a household name is an odd choice for an event like this. Where does she fit into the event?
That was about breaking expectations as well. When you say counter-culture there are lots of names that fall off the lips and Charlotte Church isn’t one of them. She was a pop prodigy, she was a kind of child superstar, but a lot of this is about people being able to reinvent themselves. Charlotte came onto our radar a couple of years ago when she was doing a contemporary re-contextualisation of The Little Mermaid. She was trying to turn this old story which had been Disneyfied into a positive and terrifying and engaging story for young women. Charlotte was expressing an interest in wanting to do not only doing large scale musical engagements, she was wanting to start this series called pub politics which was an acknowledgement of the fact that a lot of people were making their minds up about where they wanted to vote and where they wanted to head politically, in pubs, in what they felt was safe company, and we were just super impressed with the whole thing. Not long after we booked her for Where Are We Now in Hull I think one of the next gig offers that came in was president-elect Donald Trump to see if she would perform at his inauguration which she rejected in fantastic style with a whole row of poo emojis on the back of calling him a “fucking tyrant”. At that point in time we thought “yes, we’ve made the right decision.” Counterculture is going to come from the ground up but at the same time can people regress back into it?…and we’re not trying to provide a definite answer to it, but we think that Charlotte as a spokesperson for that is one of the most interesting case studies that this country has to offer.
The second season of Hull City of Culture is called Roots and Routes, where do you see that Where Are We Now fits in with that theme?
There are different perspectives, there’s us trying to utilise all of the talents that are in Hull. There’s us trying to bring performers who are Hull based like Sean Johnson the DJ back to perform in Hull and there’s us trying to plant roots in Hull as a curator as well. A big decision before we even booked anyone was to try to explore the venues in Hull and meet as many people putting on shows and events as possible and not just temporarily move in there but actually leave a lasting impression. We’ve put a lot of resources and time into this and we don’t see this is a transient relationship. There’s no point building up this degree of knowledge and relationships and erudition and seeing it as a stand-alone thing. There are a lot of Hull performers who have come onto our radar off the back of it and now we’re getting to the level that we’re a sort of international production house, for us to engage with some of Hull’s best performers and bring them up to Scotland and further afield in the future is something we’re super keen to do.
Hull City of Culture is about bringing new cultural experiences to the city, in short, what do you hope to bring to the people of Hull?
We’d like to ask as many questions as we provide answers. We hope to light fuses all over the city. We hope to break down boundaries between poetry and animation and provocation…and more than anything we want to engage audiences. We want for them to feel as electrified and proud of these performances as we do and we want to plant roots, we want to grow something here that expands beyond the dates of the 2nd to the 4th of June, that actually has a retrospective as well as a futuristic impact so yeah we want to challenge ourselves as much as the city.
Neu! Reekie! will be hosting the first ever Where Are We Now? across Hull city centre from 2 – 4 June. For tickets and full schedule of events, visit: https://www.hull2017.co.uk/whatson/events/where-are-we-now/