Postcard from...

Postcard from... Od Arts Festival: The Art of Rivalry

Image: Melville Mitchell, Duet (still)

Od Arts Festival: The Art of Rivalry took place in East and West Coker from 11 – 13th May 2018. Trevor H. Smith reports...


The Forester’s Arms, East Coker: having toured his one-man-one-puppet show around East and West Coker throughout the inaugural Od Arts Festival, Wassail Theatre’s Nick White takes to the stage for one final performance. Sadie Hennessy who, under the guise of Jolene & the Jealous Guys, has hosted bus stop karaoke all weekend, has brought her karaoke machine along for the party and White is treating everyone to a West-country rendition of Dolly Parton’s Jolene.

As he brings the third verse to a close with ‘My happiness depends on you, and whatever you decide to do, Jolene,’ it strikes me that rivalry is less about competition than it is about power and notions of success. Travel down Halves Lane from West Coker and just before you reach East Coker you’ll find Andy Parker’s A New Voyage (2016), a neon-style sign displaying the word ‘SUCCESS’. Beacon-like, it sits on the hilltop shouting about itself.

The residents of Coker Court have opened the doors to their fifteenth century manor house for Od Arts Festival, to host work by three contrasting artists. Isobel Adderley’s series of performances gave form to the feelings one experiences when comfort edges towards suffocation. Inside a membranous fabric, Adderley writhed and fought her way through an exhausting fifteen-minute performance of balletic precision. Also in the main hall at Coker Court, Tim Bromage took visitors on a curated tour of his Museum of Divergent Realities titled, Us vs Them (2018). Through a show that was part performance art, part stage show, and part formal presentation, Bromage held his audience in the palm of his hand for almost an hour as he used sleight of hand, comedy and historical fact to take us on a journey through the ages, and into the dark past of the very bricks used to build Coker Court. For the rest of the weekend the hall was occupied by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich’s Friendly Frontier, a two-metre-tall inflatable mountain range. The most politically charged of Od Arts Festival’s exhibits, Friendly Frontier invites a comparison between manmade international borders and natural land boundaries and wraps it all up in a comedy inflatable with escape chutes on either side for anyone that can’t stand the absurdity of it all. Now thirteen years old, this piece is as relevant as ever, given the yet unfinished Brexit negotiations and unfolding Trump saga in the US.

Anyone taking in the air on the higher ground of Hardington Moor on Sunday morning will have come across Phil Owen who, after overcoming a sore throat that threatened his entire weekend of scheduled events, performed the first of his local folksongs on the theme of love and loss. Owen took his songs from collections gathered by Edwardian folklorists around East and West Coker a century ago, and they blended seamlessly into the tranquil springtime meadows of south Somerset, where bumbling bees and birdsong accompanied him throughout his roaming. Upstairs at Inn The Square, the singing was far from serene. Here, Melville Mitchell’s recorded performance, Duet (2009), was screened. Duet takes the rivalry of a pair of opposing rugby fans – Welsh and English – and brings them face to face, as each attempts to out-sing the other until they are both screaming, their noses inches apart. Just as it looks like things are about to get physical, the film loops back to the beginning, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Bread of Heaven begin again.

Some rivalries are perceived, rather than evidenced, as Od co-curator Simon Lee Dicker says, “West Cokerites think that East Cokerites are snobs, and East Cokerites don’t care.” Dicker should know, having lived in East Coker and directed OSR Projects in West Coker for over ten years now.

I asked a number of locals and festival-goers what they felt might be the source of the so-called rivalry between the Cokers. A common suggestion was envy, springing from the fact that TS Eliot chose to write about East Coker and not West Coker and that, on discovering his ancestry, had his ashes scattered in St Michael’s Church, East Coker. Another was connectedness. Do West Cokerites feel more connected to ‘civilisation’ due to their location on the main road between Yeovil and Crewkerne? Maybe the East Cokerite’s perceived remoteness is overstated. Either way, neither is more than two miles from an A-road.

On Saturday a public discussion took place between curators Bob Gelsthorpe and Simon Lee Dicker, and artist Kevin Hunt, champion of the artist-led approach, and compiler of a-n’s 2013 and 2017 reference lists of 100 artist-led projects around the UK. Debate centred around the tendency for events such this, and their larger counterparts, biennials, to occupy sprawling mega-cities, and whether the artworlds of London and other major cities were necessarily a universal standard (SPOILER ALERT: they aren’t). The big take-home from this session was that it is okay for organisations to end, or as Hunt put it, ‘conclude’. Indeed, this concluding – which he suggested may even be factored into an organisation’s life cycle – is crucial in order that other organisations can spring up in their place.

Other festival events included letterpress workshops at Dawe’s Twineworks in West Coker, run by Double Elephant Print and Cyanotype workshops by Rachael Allain, whose sensitive approach to printmaking was accompanied by an audio installation that took the local flora as its inspiration. Meanwhile, artistic collaborators Megan Calver and Gabrielle Hoad premised their contribution, Lean (2018), on a leaning shed they spotted in an undisclosed Coker location. The pair wandered the two villages, documenting and labelling anything that leaned, including people leaning against each other, demonstrating that some rivalries can be beneficial to both parties. Essential, even.

Perhaps that’s the crux of the rivalry between the Cokers. There is an absence of any real enmity, on the surface at least, and more a desire to be – or a secret knowledge that each is – simply ‘better’ than the other. Perhaps the relationship is closer to that of a binary star system, where each rotates around an intangible centre of gravity, in this case, that centre being more akin to sibling rivalry than any real bone of contention. Where might either be without the other? Drifting off into space, wondering what to do now its rivalry has gone.

The tone for the festival was established on Friday night, when it opened with a screening of Ridley Scott’s first feature film, The Duellists, in which a pair of French soldiers spend fifteen years of the Napoleonic Wars locked in a cycle perpetual duelling, the origins of which have long been forgotten. After a time, a rivalry can take on a life of its own, and in the words of Laura, lover of d’Hubert, one of the titular characters, ‘Nothing cures a duellist’.

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Trevor H. Smith is an artist and freelance writer.

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