Met my friend Shan for a look around the now-annual Shuffle Festival in East London. This is a visionary festival that takes over the most unexpected, enigmatic locations and fills them with life and creativity! Every area has some places that are ‘hidden in plain view’ – empty, overlooked, maybe derelict or overgrown or just biding their time. Perhaps there’s a shadowy history that lingers – the sort of place to which in the past you probably would rather not be heading. This was true of the old St.Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital used in previous incarnations of the Shuffle Festival (transformed into a magical artspace two years running!); and again this year in the ‘forgotten’ Tower Hamlets Cemetery, off the Mile End Road.
The people at Shuffle really know how to transform a space into a magical world – mysterious, edgy but wholeheartedly welcoming. This is quite a feat! (This is a cemetery! At night!) Like some immersive theatre (or Apocalypse Now), arc-lights lead us along shadowy pathways, bonfires flicker, different areas loom out of the darkness – there’s a sense of surprise, of making your own discoveries and maybe a hint of danger (you can wander where you like but maybe don’t stray too far from the path…). It’s definitely possible to get lost – somehow the cemetery seems to cover a much larger area than it looks on the map. The stone monuments are silhouetted in the moonlight, but nature is slowly but surely taking over – I can’t help thinking of images of Angkor Wat.
Happily there’s much more to the Festival than a magical moonlit walk through a graveyard! I’m hugely impressed by the themes of the Festival and the way it has responded to them. Film, art installations, food, science, music, talks and more were all employed in exploring the theme of Movement, Migration and Place. Obviously this is totally up Passport’s street! I can’t put it better than in the Shuffle programme: The journeys, movements, resettlements, discoveries and upheaval of communities to new places and new lands has been the abiding story of humanity. There are so many stories to be told here! Each day of the Festival considered a different aspect (Where You Belong; Stranded; The Sea; Exile/Escape etc). This is brilliant programming – I really admire the people behind all this! Film was particularly strong – as you would expect, with Danny Boyle as Festival patron (and local resident); awesome to give exposure to new film-makers by showing their short features before total classics and PP favourites such as Tropical Malady, Paris Texas, Time of the Gypsies, Lost In Translation and Aguirre, Wrath of God!
In conversation, the subject came up of how unusual it was to have a festival in a cemetery(!) – was it even right? There was, after all, (fairly) loud music and eating and drinking too. Shan told me that such a thing could never happen in China! But I like to think of it as a continuation of the story of this place – that had until recently become extremely sorry and neglected; it’s now been re-classified as a ‘cemetery park’ and anyone can come in any day to explore and relax. After years in the wilderness, would you not want people many years later to come in and read your epitaph? The gravestones themselves tell vivid stories of East End life – ‘in memory of Little Vi’, or a gentleman who ‘fell asleep’ in his old age… We found Shuffle Festival totally respectful of its surroundings, while celebrating the new life and new stories of which we’re all part.