Eight years after the Cambridge Festival of Ideas was set up in response to the city’s well-established Science Festival, the two-week celebration of arts and humanities has evolved into a large-scale collision of debate, discussion, music and visual and performance art.
Themed around “power and resistance”, the 2015 festival promises to be more experimental, challenging and far-reaching than ever before, inspired by events like Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis and the social media boom to tackle controversial topics like censorship, free speech and democracy. In addition to their subject matter, the formats of scheduled events are more varied than in previous years.
“The festival was born out of a need to showcase arts, humanities and social science research at the university, and was originally mostly in the form of talks,” explained Festival Co-ordinator Malavika Anderson. “This year, we wanted to explore different forms and genres. We’ve also been encouraging more people to join those conversations than ever before, and getting artists and academics together in a way that we haven’t in the past.”
Creative productions – particularly music and poetry – feature prominently on this year’s programme, ranging from #TORYCORE, a heavy metal concert incorporating the text of the 2015 budget speech, to In the Sky, an intimate duet in three parts, combining Karlheinz Stockhausen’s In the Sky I Am Walking with an extract from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning and an original composition by Daniel Lewis-Fardon.
“It’s inspired by the work of a Cambridge criminology researcher called Sarah Fallon, who theorises that the phenomenon of alien abduction is a coping mechanism for childhood trauma,” Lewis-Fardon explained. “What people see is an alien and a human, but there’s quite a sinister undertone and a kind of power struggle between them.”
“I think the intimacy between the singers is really important” he added. “Because it’s just for two singers, and there are no instruments or anything like that, the whole concert has a lot to do with how they connect with each other on stage. It’s almost quite operatic. There are a lot of directions in the music about how they should look at and interact with each other.”
There’s also spoken word poetry about a personal journey to faith through hip hop from Tommy Evans in Rapping our Way to Islam, as well as an audio performance of Between Worlds, the debut contemporary opera by Tansy Davis and Nick Drake written in response to the events of 9/11. In addition, Asian Dub Foundation will perform their score for George Lucas’s first film THX 1138, a dystopian sci-fi where a totalitarian regime uses chemical brainwashing, android police and CCTV for control.
Anderson hopes that this new direction for the festival will help to attract bigger and more varied audiences, providing new routes into addressing its often weighty themes.
“What I’m hoping to do with this programme is to make it a little bit more accessible without compromising on the artistic and intellectual integrity of what is being said. Artists and performers can provide so many more avenues of interpretation.”
“Obviously it’s good to have all of the discussions and debates and in-depth written material about these things, but I think to do artistic representations are a good way for some people to understand things differently, and you can learn a lot from them, so I think it’s great that the festival has mixed things up a bit more.”
Perhaps thanks in part to this new focus on openness and accessibility, fringe events have proliferated around the festival, contributing to eclectic nature of the programme.
“It’s part of the whole festival structure that we have that strand of things,” said Anderson. “The core programming is easy for us because we know what we’re doing and we programme it in a certain way for a reason, but with the fringe, we can’t always control it. That’s partly why having a theme helps – it gets people thinking in certain directions.”
Inspiring thought in “certain directions” is precisely what the organisational team hopes to achieve: rather than having a distinct message, the aim, as the name suggests, is to support people in developing their own ideas.
“There’s a sort of initial resistance because these ideas can seem difficult or feel like they’re far away from us,” she said. “It’s very much about getting people to engage and giving them the confidence to ask questions and come up with their own answers. Hopefully hearing a balance of opinions will allow them to think in a more nuanced fashion and not just take things at face value.”
The Cambridge Festival of Ideas takes place between 19 October and 1 November. To book tickets or for more information, visit the festival website.