A review of Brighton’s White Night festival, October 29th 2011
The living don’t yet outnumber the dead. Even at the start of this month, when the world’s human population hit the seven billion mark, the number of people who have ever walked the Earth was over eighty-one billion.
These numbers are hard to imagine- unless, that is, you’ve spent the last two weeks in Brighton. If that’s the case then the heaving masses out on the city centre streets for both last week’s Beach of The Dead zombie walk and this week’s White Night festival will have left you in little doubt of the population figures, and the costumed Halloween hoards will probably have convinced you that the dead not only outnumber the breathing minority, they have a lot more fun than them. The living, it would seem, have some catching up to do. But what brings the dead to Brighton?
The dead are more cultured than you may have been led to believe… possibly. White Night, billed as a cultural festival, is held on the last Saturday of October to coincide with the clocks being put back an hour, therefore extending the party potential of the night. The streets and parks are packed with things to see and do, music and projections fill the autumn air, and venues- both the regular Saturday haunts and some less prosaic spaces- fling their doors open to the night, transforming themselves into myriad dens of culture and creativity. The theme this year was ‘Utopia’.
I packed a picnic, purchased some beers, met some friends, and then together we stepped out into the Nuit Blanche.
In the city centre, streets were rammed. Jubilee square had been transformed into the Metahub, its air-filled with music, its walls, and the multifarious surfaces of the sculpture in its centre, animated by projections of videos provided by members of the crowd. All this was controlled by an array of Apple products in the Library which, open past midnight, was also hosting a number of performances. Not that I got to see the Library’s interior first-hand; I refused to wait in the dense queue that filled the usually sedate foyer. I resorted instead to peering through the windows. Likewise, the Sea-Life Centre was an unobtainable dream to someone as impatient as me. Usually charging the best part of £20 for entry, it kindly waived its fees, letting revellers loose amongst the fish and Cephalopods. It sounded great, but the line for entry stretched out onto the promenade and away to the black horizons of the night. A theme was emerging.
Welcome to Queuetopia!
Queuetopia is vast, a colossal recapitulation of the daytime geography of Brighton, a boundlessly ambitious re-imagining of the City’s regular night-time economy, designed with the intention of bringing the creative undercurrent, that so defines the city, to the forefront. In Queuetopia it is not unusual to see a Dolly Parton-a-like on a theatre balcony, singing to a street full of the drunk, drugged and generally bewildered public about the suddenly abstract concept of a nine-to-five workaday world. In Queuetopia it is the norm for large groups of drunk sixteen-year-old girls to gather outside public toilets at midnight, while a shuffling queue of Bat-mans, Satans and Draculas dangles, limp and impatient, from the door of the Gents- metres away, on the edge of the Pavilion gardens, security personnel and police sweep the bushes with booted feet, searching diligently for some loosely defined perversion. This is a cultural festival.
We float south, to where the crowd gathers along a beach on which sea-weed is sculpted from crepe-paper and light.
“I heard there’s something going on under the pier,” someone says. So, although keen to set eyes on the tentacled, tank-dwelling Cephalopods, we leave the aquarium queue behind and walk West to where Brighton Pier intersects the tides. Beneath the pier we find nothing but a gloomy concrete wall, straddled by the tourist attraction’s rusty, ribbed undercarriage, bathed in the scent of urine. This is a cultural festival.
Back through the streets, through the drunken throng, past the clubs and taxi ranks of Queuetopia we shuffle. The Dolly clone smiles down on us from her balcony, singing words she is reading from a lyric sheet: “I cannot compete with you Jolene!” Two men stand on a wall shouting “whoooaaaaa!” at passing girls, dropping a glass bottle onto the park’s concrete pathway. Two girls push past me and climb up onto a flower bed, on which they urinate. This is a cultural festival.
I suddenly remember the Urban Golf, and wonder exactly what that has to do with Utopia. I wonder too at the logistics of the superlatively Brightonian QR code treasure hunt I vaguely recall seeing mentioned in a leaflet somewhere.
We pass the library again. A queue still snakes from the sliding doors, but the Metahub is all but abandoned. We move on, pausing momentarily to take in the dubious spectacle of a rather innocuous rave taking place within the chain-linked confines of a graffiti-scribbled car-park, then we continue to the church.
The church is St Bartholomew’s, a stylish red-brick building of impressive proportions trying, unsuccessfully, to hide somewhere between a recently constructed Sainsbury’s and a building site. According to the programme it is hosting Dance meets Utopia; all I can foresee is psy-trance. Shudder. My friend is dressed as Satan, skin painted red from head to toe, clothed in a sharp suit. Satan and I, opened beer can stashed in my coat pocket, enter God’s house, but neither of us catch fire.
The interior of the church is dimly lit, the candle-like light just enough to hi-lite the dark metal ornamentation on the walls around the altar. Apart from a few people sat on the shadowy benches along each side of the enormous room, the crowd is congregated at the far end, watching an ethereal blonde waif dance to the sound of a baroque ensemble, apparently performing an arrangement of something by Purcell. The girl, clad in a floating white dress, dances and leaps to the piece, eventually laying down to die, prompting the musicians to down instruments and sing in a sublimely human harmony.
Despite the subtle amplification provided by clip-on mics and an array of blinking boxes tucked to our right, the ensemble is so delicately quiet that every whisper, cough and footstep from the dumbfounded crowd sounds like the thunder of the gods. The cavernous red-brick interior lends its sense of space to the sound, giving it a quality of airiness that few other venues could manage. The voices sing through their final diminuendo, and the lights dim to black.
By some happy accident we end up at the Sallis Benney Theatre, co-located with the University of Brighton Art Gallery. To my impatient mind the queue to the main gallery seems insurmountable, so I look around at the outlying works, which are fascinating enough. We gather in the cool courtyard of the Student Union, until we are distracted by a man dressed as a rabbit grating carrots alone at a long dinner table.
We sit in the Sallis Benney Theatre, drinking smuggled beers, eating crisps, watching the cinema screen. It shows a live feed of West Street, Brighton’s clubbing centre. Girls pose in front of the camera, arms round each other, smiling faces pressed together as in a thousand Facebook profile pictures. The queues queue for the clubs and taxis of Queuetopia’s club-land, the camera operators deftly depicting the mini dramas of women turned away from the doors of clubs all their friends had got into just fine, and men trying to concentrate on typing a text-message while struggling to even stand up. A swarm of 118s attempts some kind of athletic display for the benefit of the camera. A girl at the taxi rank fights a losing battle with the wind, trying in vain to smooth her frilled skirt over her knickers.
Ambient music- apparently also being pumped into West Street itself- accompanies the images with often poignant, but sometimes comic effect. A gigantic girl pushes her way through the crowd, directly towards a camera, unaware she is being watched by a critical audience in a comfortable theatre, or that her crashing entrance onto the screen is accompanied by a sudden coincidental crashing of drums and general swelling of the music. Everyone laughs. Someone points out that there is perhaps something morally dubious about all this- but I just think of it as a David Attenborough documentary, probably named Drunken Planet. It’s fascinating. For one paranoid moment I wonder if we too are being filmed, and if somewhere in the white night of Queuetopia, possibly in West Street, people are queueing patiently for the chance to watch me and my friends, half in fancy dress and inexcusably drunk, laughing mercilessly at a fat girl on a screen. This is a cultural festival.