Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival, March 9-12th, 2017.
During March, a wonderful thing happened: the Aberystwyth Storytelling Festival ran for its fifth session. The name disguises all that happened though because this wasn't just a celebration of the modern interpretation of traditional bardism, it also included a smidgen of academia and a steady thread of transmedial representation. There was live drawing, framed drawing, live painting, framed painting. There was music from all around the world, there was poetry and prose, myth and memory stones. There were tale tellers young and old - and there was Y Mabinogi. Sometimes, there were all of these things happening at once.
Two years ago Peter Stevenson curated this festival around the theme of Y Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The result was an eleven hour, bilingual, retelling of these medieval stories from a Wales' leading professional performers; it was a most unusual immersion, supported by art exhibition which focused upon Blodeuwedd and the landscape of power.
This time, the festival was led into by an exhibition looking at the old literature and the folk tales combined, the weekend itself opening via a book launch in Medini's cafe, picking up the owl thread from before on the following morning's symposium. This series of presentations began gently with the first of three short films by Jake Whittaker, which symbolically recounted the making of Blodeuwedd wine. This visual distillation led us into talks which continued throughout the day, ending with a consideration upon what The Fifth Branch may have looked like by Dr. Gwilym Morus; creating new worlds from the old.
The Saturday and Sunday saw more storytelling, more music, more discussion, more everything. The main feature most certainly being Adverse Camber's production of Dreaming the Night Field, a theatrical expression of The Fourth Branch; taking us back to Blodeuwedd via Gwydion, Gilfaiethwy and Lleu - a war between the North and South - a transformation of Kingdom, kin and physicality.
I could write reams about those four days - but I won't. The standard was exceptionally high with each performer deserving of a blog of their own. Therefore, for further details (and wonderful photographs by Felix Cadmadaman), look HERE and for my visual responses look HERE. For here though, I shall stick to my personal interest, that of geomyth - and how I saw it demonstrated throughout the festival.
Storytelling often has a bad rep within science, for being overtly fanciful and discourteous towards facts and educated accuracy. There is some justifcation for this. Likewise, science often has a bad rep within the arts community for being overly dry and unimaginative. There is some justifcation for this also. My raison d'etre (partially through geomyth) is to offer up a balance between these two facets, to show the extent of similarities and relfections. To sharpen up the intellectual rigour of storytelling and to soften the abrasive dismissiveness of science. Obviously, this binary depiction is not applicable to everybody - but it is unnecessarily common - and we are all lesser as a result.
Layers in the Landscape serves as a perfect model for directing such discussion. Thus, in the apex of the Symposium, hanging off the midday bell, the final draft (ish) of the Layers in the Landscape film was premiered.
All bar one of the team were present, mostly seeing it for the first time themselves, the audience and the actors sharing the experience together. Introduced with a twenty minute paper which contextualised the twenty years of background behind this project, the process-drama-by-documentary thus took its first breath in Abersytwyth Arts Centre's cinema, a stone's throw from where I had the initial idea at Tan y Bwlch (when filming a pilot with the BBC) over two decades ago.
For me, Layers is more than just a short project. It is an academic lifetime of exploring how different disciplines can interact. A lifetime of polymathic wonderings and wanderings. It stands firmly in the Mabinogion from undergraduate days at Lampeter in >1993, surrounded by Shanks and Pearson, Pluciennik and Fleming, Johnson and Walford. Both David and Mark passed away recently but oddly I find myself relying ever more on their influence through narrative and epistemology. It is always hard to predict how far reaching and insidious influence can be (teachers beware!) so whilst it can sometimes be a little disconcerting to feel this network extending back it is also inherently satisfying to see the interdigitation of time and embodied legends reworking themselves into new expression, to new communities and new thought.
In this way, the storytelling festival was an excellent example of how to see oneself as a single small cog in a series of larger wheels. It didn't matter how much people tried to lay claim to their 'own' piece of anything, such territories were self evidently temporal as echoes from one another rebounded inceasingly. Signposting one's route was still important though, that is in itself a story. Some people did this with dignified beauty, others skipped over it, others made up a ficitious journey. This, I thought, is why studying stories which are aeons old is so complicated - because people are! Thus just as much as I attempted to recognise who had directed my own work to its current fragile destination (a point which I consider to be ethically vital; to not reference is to dismiss heritage, which would be hypocritical in my line of work - even though it is frequently too vast to credit sufficiently), it was equally possible to see the effect that Layers has already had on others in the team (and elswhere). Even where players didn't see it immediately themselves it was still commented avidly upon by those on the periphery. At one point Jake and I sat in the midst of all the noise, somehow experiencing the documentary turned inside out. It was a most peculiar, existentially rich, feeling of humility. Perhaps that is art?
The response was (and still is) overwhelming; with questions and comments continuing beyond the weekend into emails and chance encounters, with requests to show the film elsewhere and for other purposes, such as education and tourism - internationally local.
From a deep mapper perspective, it was reassuring to see that viewers really did/do latch on to a wide variety of aspects into the palimpsest. Some were drawn by the art, others the poetry. Some by the science, others by the language. All by the music and visual wonder of the submerged forest at such full exposure. I'm not sure how many people took hold of the ethical undercurrent of ascertaining that one's facts are correct when intermingling fact/fiction in this way but I certainly encountered some who changed their phraseologies and content to be respectful of the land, the geo, the people and the language in their storytelling. To take responsibility for their own authority. Likewise I encountered others who almost put their fingers in their ears in order to maintain an allegiance to ignoring truths which disagreed with leaps of imagination. I suspect that storytelling has always been this way, although of course that is, in itself, difficult to empiricise.
Unlike many, particularly within academia, I am not worried by this. I am not interested in actively direcitng people to think in certain ways or to lay claim to a space - even copycats are as flattering as they are disengenious. Sure I prefer to confer with those who place a high value on the ethics of accuracy and will only progress with the emotionally robust, but I remain interested in offering up options nonetheless, in letting momentum take care of the flow. Details can be tidied up when and as they happen, branching naturally and it is up to other people to amend their game accordingly (or not, as the case may be). Nobody has all the questions, let alone all the answers. Maybe it's the anthropological, ethnographic, side self-editing itself. I don't know, nor, really, do I particularly care. For me it is useful (albeit wearing) when egos rub up against the edges of their own capability and legacy and find themselves wanting because at those moments breakthroughs can happen. It is informative when people cannot handle the way rivers flow, putting up walls and brushing off chips on shoulders because then one can see how far a reach that connection can make. It is encouraging when lights switch on inside minds and excitement stirs when people realise that horizons are as endless as bravery dictates. It is inspiring when echoes are louder than the whisphers that gave them life. That moment when a 21st century person holds a hazlenut that is probably 6,000 years old, when a geomyth they thought was true is proven not to be but another is offered in its place, when a Neolithic pestle is picked up and immediately the body knows what it is for. When somebody who 'hated' science is suddenly enraptured by the geological past because they heard a poem. That never tires, that is the archaeological imagination.
At some point I will no doubt waffle on more about this, about the larger project all my smaller ones such as those which form the content of my site are feeding in to - but not here, not now. Maybe not even for a few more years yet - as Cliff McLucas said; deep maps are big and slow, sumptuous and openended. Even the geomyths are still rewriting themselves in our memories. I don't own them, and neither do you. We are all just branches in somebody else's myth.