The UK-wide festival known as Unboxed: Creativity in the UKfirst announced by former Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018, was launched in Scotland with About Usa spectacular free outdoor event using historic Paisley Abbey, near Glasgow, as the backdrop for an immersive dramatic screening of history (until March 6).
Residents of Paisley watched the 25-minute live show exploring 13.8 billion years of history, combining poems, animations and an original new score by musician Nitin Sawhney. The work will also be presented in Derry-Londonderry (March 15-21), Caernarfon (March 30-April 5), Luton (April 14-20) and Hull (April 30-May 6).
About Us is the first of ten “multi-site, digital creative projects” taking place across the country. The free program of events brings together key figures in science, technology, engineering, math and the arts “on TV, radio and online,” a statement said. “It was the first opportunity to treat the whole of the UK as one place, not just the big cities,” said Martin Green, the festival’s creative director.
Upcoming events include SEE MONSTER, a public art installation set on a disused North Sea oil rig which will be unveiled in the coastal town of Weston-super-Mare this summer (launch July 7). At the same time, the “living history” project StoryTrailsa “breathtaking dive into our collective histories”, will unfold across 15 towns and cities and culminate in a new film by historian David Olusoga premiering at the London Film Festival in October.
When the project was first announced in 2018, it was dubbed the Brexit Festival and met with waves of scepticism. At the end of 2020, applicants were invited to form creative teams and apply for a £3.6 million funded research and development program for the initiative previously known as Festival*UK 2022. Thirty teams have were then shortlisted and awarded £100,000 each to pitch ideas. During the last phase, ten large-scale projects were commissioned, forming part of the final program of the festival.
Launching a national festival in the wake of a pandemic is risky, but Green says ‘because we had a blank sheet of paper and weren’t tied to a birthday or sporting event, we could physically go in as many places as possible and rolling in tech, digital and broadcast. We loved how it unleashed creativity, unboxing different ideas, that it felt like a gift, a mystery.
He adds: “The whole project was designed before the Covid; we wanted to do [it] broadcast, digital, live – all those different elements together, so there was something safe even in those dark times. Green says that Unpacked is on budget, having received £120m of government funding. “We decided very early on not to go for corporate partnerships; sticking to that probably gives you the most freedom you’ll ever have.”
Responding to criticism that money should instead be spent supporting cash-strapped UK museums and galleries after Covid, he says: “There must be room for everything. If you use this opportunity to take this work in places where great work doesn’t work often go, doesn’t this trigger people’s journey to museums, libraries and theaters The conservative estimate of our learning program is [reaching] 2.5 million young people. In the long run, we all benefit,” says Green.
Basically, the festival is supported by all four UK governments. “The fact that we have a Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish team is a product of the decentralized nature of the UK commissioning culture. When we pitched the idea, we got a universal yes from all four governments, which is magic,” says Green.
In her financial statements to March 2021, Vikki Heywood, chair of the festival board, writes that “the festival is run in partnership across the UK with funding and support from the four governments. the [festival] The company is responsible for ensuring that the program is delivered at arm’s length from the agreed strategic objectives and that the content is politically neutral.
Other Unpacked scheduled events include Moon Tower—a traveling “constellation” of performances and installations stopping in Leicester, Newcastle and Southampton (May-June)—while Galwad in Wales (September) promises to be a “new kind of cross-platform, multilingual story” across digital platforms and in three locations: Blaenau Ffestiniog, Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea.
SEE MONSTER in Weston-super-Mare will nevertheless be a talking point. “The ambition of SEE MONSTER is huge,” says Patrick O’Mahony of NewSubstance, the Leeds-based studio behind the project. “Turning a disused North Sea platform into an art installation is a world first. This comes with many logistical challenges, to put it lightly! The project is all about reuse, involving a number of processes to acquire, move and install the structure before the creative transformation can even begin… by fostering cooperation between the art, design, engineering and oil and gas industries, we come together at a time that makes history as we mutually embrace the global energy shift to renewables.”