Gary Raymond delves into Cardiff’s internationally renowned photographic festival and looks at the European première of Liminality Live, part of Diffusion 2019.
The Cardiff International Festival of Photography – or Diffusion, to give it its more punchy title – is set to dominate the cultural landscape of Wales’ capital city for the month of April, and the opening week, including guest appearances by the likes of Gruff Rhys and Gwenno has gone some way to being a powerful statement of intent from the festival organisers. David Drake, the director of Ffotogallery and one of the main figures behind it all, has never been shy in extolling the ambitions of the venture, and his enthusiasm has transferred into the vitality of what must now be one of the premier biennial arts festivals in the UK. One marker in the measurement of success of any young festival is when comparing it to the previous iteration – the names attached, the international reach, the scope, and yes the ambition. Diffusion, year on year, has been stepping up, but so far it looks as though 2019 could be the defining leap.
And perhaps, besides the big names and general buzz around the events, 4Pi’s multimedia dome (built by CULTVR), erected inside the RR3 space of the Wales Millennium Centre for a few days of live performance, stands as the most well-defined symbol of this step up. Liminality Live is a bold statement not just for Diffusion, but, as David Drake says in a short speech after the event this evening, could be one for Wales – if Wales wants it. And there is something about the entire immersive experience of the 4Pi/CULTVR model that is as tantalising as it is impressive. The technological achievement, the international collaboration, the vibe surrounding it, is something that should not be rare to Wales. 4Pi’s work in India has been admirably supported by Wales Arts International (the international department of the Arts Council), the British Council, and Coreo Cymru, but work of this type comes at a relatively significant financial cost, and it seems here the same old story applies – when it comes to arts and culture, practitioners have to beg, steal and borrow to get things made.
Liminality Live has just proved a big hit in Montreal at the International Festival of Films on Art where it has served to showcase that Wales is not just the land of drunk poets, but works at the cutting edge of collaborative expression. Matt Wright, co-producer, and along with Janire Najera, half of 4Pi, makes the point this evening that there is no reason why Wales cannot have something like the CULTVR dome as a permanent space for shows like this. Of course, there is a reason, and that is political willpower, the willpower to which all the money is attached.
Liminality Live has everything going for it, even in those moments when it falls slightly short as an immersive experience. Building upon the India-Wales Year of Culture 2017 360 degree film project, Liminality, Liminality Live synchronises film dance and live electronic music inside the CULTVR dome. The dome itself amounts to over 225 square meters of screen that stretches overhead, along with ambisonic sound and immersive lighting. There is more than a touch of the Planetarium-experience from the reclining seats, and there is something of the awe-inspiring in this too, previously reserved for the sprawl of galaxies. It is remarkable what a change in perspective can do to the system. The live dance offers a vibrant synchronicity to the action on the film over head. The filming is split between landscapes of Wales, infused with mysticism – mist-permeated forests and hillsides – and the Technicolor chaos of New Delhi with its overcrowded streets, careworn orchestras, and eerie pockets of peace and quiet. The technical achievements of 4Pi are conspicuously non-showy, with each new effect dazzling but unobtrusive to the whole. And somehow the live dancers also become part of the fabric rather than an addendum to the central premise, that of the physical experience of seeing the filmic tricks played out on the vast ceiling.
Wales’ Kim Noble, suitably intense, and sometimes eye-wateringly contortional, offers a powerful central performance, and an important one in an atmosphere that could easily become overwhelming. Her partnership with India’s Manas Sharma is a winding exploration of contemporary dance and traditional Indian forms such as Kathak and Bharatanatyam, as well as wonderful splashes of Kalaripayattu, India’s oldest martial art. Throughout there is a striking effort to bring us, the audience, to a time traveller’s banquet of the ancient and the new, and all wrapped up in the possibilities of the technology on display. There is a magical quality to it, the mystical mixed with sci-fi, and references (albeit inadvertent) to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision of the urban realm, to the folk horror of British cinema, even to the “internet of nature” ideas of the new second series of Brit Marling’s OA Netflix series.
It is the dance that roots all of this technology into something real, something narrative, and puts flesh on the chrome. It is however, not an easy experience to have your gaze pulled between the stunning visuals above the horizon line and the powerful performances of Noble and Sharma happening in the subterranean sphere. For all of the presumptions that a 360 immersive experience is employed to create something authentic is quickly washed away – we do not experience the world in 360, and rarely is it possible to see everything at once here. But the moments when Noble or Manas on stage synchronise with the Noble or Manas on camera, it is elating rather than familiar. A bit more might have been made of this language. It can be a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the moment of realisation, that we as an audience are beneath the “earthline” in a kind of uber-cool Berlin-esque nightclub, trapped in a neon box looking up at the light of the world like an earthworm, is matched with the intensity of the soundscape. The dancers look down at us from the film, untouched by the rabble around them, like ghosts, like gods, dancing their ways across the many surfaces of the Earth. It is technology that has brought us together.
Liminality Live has that rare potential to wow people of all persuasions, backgrounds, and ages. A permanent version of it in Wales could grow to be a real crowd pleaser.
Diffusion is on at various venues around Cardiff for the month of April. More info can be found here on their website.