Since 2008, the biennial b-side festival has sought to cast a different light on the Weymouth and Portland area, provoking double takes and scratched heads from locals and visitors alike with what festival producer Sandy Kirkby describes as its ‘quirky interventions’ on sometimes overlooked sites.
Previously these have included lines of overheard speech flashed on a solar traffic sign, films projected outside a pub, an installation in a launderette, Weymouth Town Bridge lifting to music and a portrait in a bus shelter. A blend of live art, sound, installation, visual art, text and film, b-side commissions new works for unexpected spaces in an effort to take the arts to a wider audience.
The continued success of b-side can be seen as a measure of the burgeoning arts activity in the wider community – Dorset now boasts several contemporary art events of international significance, including Arts By the Sea in Bournemouth and this month’s Inside Out festival, which will see a series of major art installations placed in locations across the county from Poole Park to the South Dorset Ridgeway.
There is a great deal going on in Dorset, but because it is such a vast geographical area it has been quite difficult to see it as an overall picture. What is happening now
with events like b-side and Inside Out is that the wider arts world is starting to notice Dorset. So for instance people from Bristol, which has an amazing contemporary art scene, are starting to come to see things in Dorset, which provides a boost to tourism and the local economy in general.
‘In the past arts organisations haven’t been very good at shouting about the economic benefits of the arts, but we did in 2012 and found that b-side accounted for more than £500,000 of economic activity with a direct impact of £200,000 in Weymouth and Portland,’ says Sandy.
That b-side has calculated its cost benefit to Dorset’s economy is very much in line with the mood of the times. As their funding is increasingly linked to quantifiable outcomes, arts organisations are rethinking the way they go about their business and b-side is no exception.
‘We have to be very business-like and the festival is like the tip of the iceberg, there’s much more to b-side. Increasingly, the arts are being used as a tool to deliver results in other areas such as well being – people feel better when they are exposed to art and it’s proving a very cost effective way of delivering positive health outcomes.’
b-side is also working with partners including Jobcentre Plus and Synergy Housing to provide creative opportunities, internships and individual mentoring for people aged 18-25 in Weymouth and Portland who are not in education, training or employment. The aim is to help young people towards qualifications and into work by developing their communication skills, practical abilities and general outlook.
‘It means we have to work to very specific outputs,’ Sandy explains. ‘We’re looking at helping people set up social enterprises in projects such as the pedal powered cinema, which was brought to the 2012 festival by eco-artists Magnificent Revolution. It uses energy generated from cycling to power generators that can be used to power projectors, amplifiers, even mobile phone chargers.
‘Equally though, if someone comes through b-roads and wants to be a graphic designer we might be able to employ them to work on flyers for specific events
‘So there are benefits to the community and knock-on effects that can be measured because we’re able to track people on a journey through this. It’s a very different way of working for us, but one that has been incredibly positive because it makes us more focussed. It’s useful for arts organisations to be able to demonstrate they can deliver on very specific outcomes such as this.’
b-roads is a continuing project, open to applications both from potential mentors and those in need of help, until the end of the year and is exactly the kind of community-based initiative that the festival helps brings into focus. The idea of putting high quality, accessible, sometimes touching, frequently eccentric artworks in front of people often when they least expect it is something that could translate to other towns and sites, according to Sandy.
‘I like the idea of the work being temporary, it gives it a real energy and an impetus knowing that you have to hit a deadline and something as unpredictable as the weather could kill it in a moment.’
There re practical benefits too, as Sandy explains: ‘ It also means you don’t have to deal with the practicalities of installing permanent public art. Temporary pieces that are here one minute and gone the next often bring the everyday into sharp focus and prompt people to notice their environment even more.
‘There’s no reason why b-side couldn’t be staged elsewhere, but we have established a reputation for the unpredictable, for quirky interventions, and that suits Weymouth and Portland very well.’
This year’s festival will hopes to attract visitors to the region, across the causeway from Weymouth.
‘Portland has such a rich and diverse history and this year our artists are making work in response to its unique geography, climate, maritime history and culture,’ says Sandy. ‘It’s such a beguiling place, full of intrigue – a real gem in the Jurassic coastline.’
Delighted to be exploring his long-held fascination with Portland’s mythical rabbit taboo, writer-artist Alistair Gentry is a focal point for b-side 2014, not least because he’ll spend most of it dressed as a white, er, bunny.
His project, R*****, explores the origins of Portland’s relationship with so-called underground mutton and how it manifests itself in the 21st century.
‘This isn’t about poking fun, we should be respectful of these myths as they’re all part of how we define ourselves and our communities,’ he explains. ‘So I want to encourage people to share their stories with me – whether it’s Portlanders talking about the taboo, or visitors telling me about the folklore of where they
Historically, rabbits are considered a bad omen on Portland because they were thought to undermine the quarry workings and bring death and injury to quarry workers. Today most of the folklore revolves around the word itself, which should never be spoken on the isle.
‘There’s a kind of folkloric logic to it, but I’m not sure it’s based in any kind of geological fact,’ says Alistair.
‘However, I’ve been told some fantastic stories, such as the one about a student from Portland who wrote an A-level Biology paper and used the term bunny throughout. The examining board was convinced to accept it as a genuine cultural quirk and she passed with flying colours!’
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.