How Abandon Normal Devices festival are navigating through the pandemic

Festival organisers across the UK must have watched this year’s launch of Abandon Normal Devices (AND) with a great deal of envy a fortnight ago. Despite the planned easing of Covid restrictions, many festivals have announced a second year of cancellations.

Boomtown sold out in February but have now had to call the music festival off, citing the lack of a government-backed insurance scheme. It joins Glastonbury, Download and British Summer Time in a stream of high-profile festivals delayed for another year.

Sissel Marie Tonn, ‘Plastic Hypersea (the spill)’, 2021, commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices

AND is a biennial, roaming digital culture and art festival which is based this year around the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey. It was founded in 2009 as a collaboration between FACT in Liverpool, the Cornerhouse in Manchester and folly in Lancaster. This year, some events and installations will take place online and others on docklands and waterways in the North West.

I spoke to creative director Luke Moody about how the festival is reacting to the pandemic and how you might measure success in such unusual circumstances. He joined AND in January as maternity cover, after previously founding FRAMES of REPRESENTATION in London.

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“My background is in film, I worked in commissioning films and then at Sheffield DocFest which is another big Northern cross-arts festival”, he says. It’s this ‘cross-arts’ approach that Moody wants to bring to AND: “things that are between music and art […] or between installation and experience”.

He’s softly spoken and has a calm, confident demeanour. Something I imagine is useful when public health announcements made with little warning could destroy months of work. The issue Moody faces isn’t so much attracting audiences – something he is confident about – but rather the impact on how the artists AND commissions interact with the sites in the North West.

Tulapop Saenjaroen, ‘Notes from the Periphery’, 2021, commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices

“Something that is maybe missing this year, unlike previous editions of AND, is [the ability of artists] to have a continued connection to a place”, Moody says. Many artists who were commissioned to do in-situ artworks had been able to visit the sites in Liverpool in 2019 or early 2020, but haven’t been able to see their work evolve since then.

“I think, for them, that creates distance from experiencing it and seeing it manifest, but there are ways through it”, he says. Moody points to the benefit of being able to send a WhatsApp picture of a waterway to an artist, rather than flying them out from Australia which is both financially and ecologically damaging.

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As a digitally hybrid festival, AND is better suited to adapting to the pandemic than more traditional events which rely on getting as many punters as possible into one enclosed spaces. It also receives funding from Arts Council England and other organisations which means it doesn’t have to rely on selling enough tickets.

Some exhibitions are better suited to a virtual environment than others. Toxicity’s Reach, which traces how contaminants in water affect our lives, works well as an interactive, online-only artwork. The festival has created a virtual platform, recognisable to those with an interest in digital art, to showcase the events in a more interesting way than just a gallery of images.

Central Hydraulic Tower from ‘Does Spring Hide Its Joy’, commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices

Other events like Kali Malone’s ‘Does Spring Hide Its Joy’ are much more suited to a physical installation. “There’s no way you can translate an eight-channel sound installation to be online”, Moody says. “It’s something that vibrates your body in a way that can’t be replicated through the internet”.  

Kate Davies’s ‘By the Sound of Things’ is an immersive audio-visual event onboard the Daniel Adamson, a Mersey-built steam-powered boat. It focuses on the idea of sound as a form of pollution and explores the sounds of the cargo shipping network on the Manchester Ship Canal. Festival-goers can book their slot on the cruise in advance, something that wouldn’t have been possible a couple of months ago.

The Daniel Adamson, used with permission from Abandon Normal Devices

The amount of people that can safely participate in the cruise are limited for obvious reasons, but for Moody this isn’t a problem. “It’s not about numbers […] if we have ten people visiting a radical piece of art and that inspired those ten people to become artists or think about the world differently, that’s what we’re here for”, he says.

“The constant culture of festivals is often growth, growth and growth”, Moody says. “I’ve experienced that at other festivals – every year needs to be bigger and better”. His advice to festival organisers would be to “acknowledge your ambitions and limitations […] people in the UK are hungry for unique experiences, so if you can offer one thing, and make that something inspirational, then it’s enough”.

Cover artwork: Ahmet Odabas for Toxicity’s Reach, commissioned and produced by Abandon Normal Devices, curated by Dani Admiss.

All of the AND’s online events are free and can be accessed through their website. You can also book tickets to the in-person events. Find the full schedule here.