Fate had conspired to make me miss all three LiveFriday events at the Ashmolean museum so far, so I was determined not to let another pass by without my presence. I also knew that being able to go with the Oxford Arts groupies would make the night all that more enjoyable: ‘no man is an island’, and all that. However, I was left a bit underwhelmed by this month’s title– Wilderness in the City. Previous nights had been far more self-explanatory – An Evening with the Gods, China Night – but what could the ‘wilderness’ refer to? Unless I’d overlooked a natural history wing of the museum, perhaps?
A preparatory visit to the museum’s website informed me that Wilderness is ‘a multi-award winning’ festival, no less, that combines music, contemporary arts, theatre and posh food. In other words, one of those boutique festivals for people too softened by their flat screen surround-sound home entertainment system, power showers and SUVs to be able to cope with the mud of Glastonbury, but still want to be able to believe that they are hipsters with their fingers on the pulse of the current music culture
Wilderness in the City intended to bring performers from the festival to the museum and allow them to bounce their creative talents off the exhibits…without breaking anything, hopefully. There would be a Philosophy Slam, Baroque theatre, an exploration of pre-Renaissance British festive culture, and a chance to delve into Shamanism by ‘reaching a state of altered consciousness’. This may explain the large hordes of students at the event, though the shamanism seemed to refer to merely dressing up as animals, so the students may have been disappointed. However, it gave them an opportunity to sneer as they marveled at their own displays of wit while standing in self-congratulatory circles blocking the way for losers cheekily attempting to inhabit the same space as them.
It was to the basement the Arts Group wended our way first. For me, this and the alcohol therein helped set up the bohemian mood for the night – the space was wreathed in purple, mauve and pink light, there was a constant babble of chat and the first band, Empty White Circles, were using their melodic indie tunes to wash away the audience’s leftover troubles from the week. Some groupies went for the bottled beer, some had a nice cup of tea, and others tried out the fruit and rum punch, quite refreshing, especially at only £2.50 a glass, though I thought the rum became less evident in samples I tried later.
We attempted to plan our night, drawing up a timetable with colouring pencils left by the museum to inspire hidden artists. However, coming up with a plan was to prove difficult not because of inadequacies in the information provided but because of the sheer choice. Kids in sweetshops had it easy compared to us. We had all been given a brochure on our entry to the museum, with the events outlined, along with times, and maps showing where they would take place. The problem was trying to decide how to squeeze in as many as possible.
The night as a whole was very well coordinated – not many events clashed or, if they did, one or the other were likely to be repeated later on. in the atrium, George Chopping, host of Oxford’s monthly ‘George’s jamboree of Music, Poetry & Comedy… Possibly’, was entertaining the crowds. People were wandering around, chatting, getting lost. But this did not seem to put George off. It also added to the atmosphere as you made your way between floors, making you think a disembodied voice was attempting to impart nuggets of wisdom, if only you could distinguish what it was saying above the hubbub of the crowd.
Our first port of call turned out to be the Classical Mystery Tour in the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery. Here Dr Quis (who?) explained the phenomenon of ‘mythory’ – when myth and history become intrinsically linked, the wooden horse of Troy for example. Ruins excavated in Turkey had been identified as the most likely location for the city, which it seemed had been devastated by an earthquake. Poseidon is best known as god of the seas, but multitasks as the god of earthquakes and is often represented symbolically as a horse, so experts conjectured that perhaps the story of the wooden horse of Troy was inspired by the destruction of the city in an earthquake, hence creating mythory. This does not explain Achilles, Odysseus or ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, but all that may be poetic license.
Upstairs in the Music and Tapestry room, Matthew Faulk was beguiling the crowd with the lute, his playing delicate and refined, though perhaps a little too much so to compete with the background noise from the rest of the event. I’m not sure if lutes by nature are quiet instruments: they were after all designed for entertaining people with nothing to do in the afternoon except sit around in drawing rooms, conforming to societal conventions. However I believe staff began closing doors to this room at later performances in an attempt to drown this noise.
Next came a descent on the Cast Gallery for the Philosophy Slam. I was expecting a kind of face-off between sages of yore, as if Socrates and Plato had a run-in at the local pub, but Robert Rowland Smith from the School of Life was the sole performer. Audience members were asked to shout out words or questions and Robert would then discuss the suggestions from a philosophical viewpoint. A variety of topics were covered, including love, vanity, and morality, I found his discussion of narcissism quite interesting – Robert said narcissists had spent a lot of time looking at their reflection because it was the only way to recognize who they were, rather than because they admired their own reflection as vain people do. But perhaps his discussion of human rights gave me even greater food for thought. Robert said if a human right was universal, it would be so obvious it wouldn’t need discussion. Instead, when most people talk about human rights they tend to mean human preferences. “It’s what I want, so it must be right.” Hence the debate over issues like the burqa, communism/capitalism/socialism, censorship etc.
While the Philosophy Slam was taking place, the audience could also hear the Oyster Opera in full swing. It wasn’t intrusive, as the background noise had been with the lute performance, but the beauty and power of the singer’s voice did pique many people’s interest. And I heard it on good authority later on that not only were people impressed with the lady’s singing, some were terrified when they found themselves being whisked into a dance with her. Or perhaps they were just in fear of getting lost in her voluminous skirts.
Up until this point, the group had tackled the event together, but we now scattered in all directions to see what other wild experiences we could encounter. I fully intended to go Merry-making with the Idler, which promised a musical lecture on the festive culture of pre-Reformation Britain, but unfortunately I went to the wrong room, and by the time I found the right one, I only got to hear the applause. Iit sounded enthusiastic however, so I gathered that some merry-making did occur.
Instead I returned to the basement, where remnants of the OAG were to be found. The Ralfe Band was on stage, and some people even started dancing, one young man enthusiastically so. The noise levels did not allow for much coherent conversation, though people continued to gamely try. However, many were content to sit and listen to the music that was on offer, having exhausted their senses during the previous three hours, not to mention their feet.
All in all, it was a truly enjoyable night, and everyone I have spoken to has expressed their intention to attend next month’s event or, at least, another future LiveFriday. When I tried describing it to non-OAG members, as soon as I said I went to an event in the museum, the inevitable response was ‘That’s very cultured!’ But you don’t have to be a culture vulture to enjoy it; even if all you did was sit in the basement all night sucking down the rum punch, you would have had a good time. One event in Oxford well worth noting on your calendar.
– Orlaith Delaney