Merchant City Festival
- Kirstin Innes
- 20 September 2007
We’re not short of festivals in Scotland. The months between April and November have begun to feel like one of those Strip the Willows that happen at particularly drunken céilidhs, where you’re buffeted relentlessly between cultural events and celebrations of everything from science and sexuality to cheese. Don’t catch your breath just yet, though – late September means it’s the turn of the Merchant City Festival, which crams more than 200 events into 50 venues, over four days in a compact area of the city.
Artistic director Neil Butler, who also runs the annual performance art rammy Big in Falkirk, is responsible for at least a small part of this dizzying over-saturation. ‘When I took over the festival four years ago, I really wanted it to represent everything that’s most exciting and vibrant about Scottish culture, and when you think about it, there isn’t really another big festival that takes in the sheer breadth of our artistic and cultural activity,’ he says. ‘There’s Edinburgh, of course, but that’s an international festival, and the Fringe isn’t curated. Celtic Connections is another big one, but it’s entirely focused on music.’
I suggest the West End Festival, another celebration of a Glasgow district, but Butler doesn’t see the similarities. ‘The West End Festival is a brilliant expression of the cultural life of that area. There’s a very strong community feel to their programme, and they tend to pull acts with strong local appeal, because it’s fundamentally a residential area. Our ambitions are different.’
Although the term ‘Merchant City’ is fast becoming Glasgow shorthand for the glossy, costly shops and style bars just off Ingram Street, and for a certain type of well-heeled living, the area itself takes in the sweep of roads from George Square and Queen Street, the frayed ends of Argyle Street around the Tron, and all the scuzzy and exciting galleries and music venues round Candleriggs and King Street. Trying to encapsulate all of that in a four-day festival that also aims for national and international relevance might seem a daunting task, but Butler found his inspiration within that mottled patchwork.
‘Historically, this area used to be the centre of Glasgow. I suppose the axis of the city has moved towards the West in recent times, but now it’s tipping back again. You look round all the old buildings, all these merchant’s warehouses that used to stand for the economic wealth of the city. These days, in many ways, the wealth of a city can be measured in its art and culture – the great exports of this city are the very strong visual art community and the rising talent of our musicians. The centres of Scotland’s cultural industries – visual art, film, TV, fashion – are very much based in Glasgow, and they’ve got their core in those same old warehouses. If you were starting from scratch, creating a festival to represent all of these diverse aspects, everything Glasgow and Scotland are so successful at, the Merchant City would be the obvious location.’
‘Diverse’ feels like rather a small word for the breadth of the Merchant City Festival’s programme. In four days and one area, you can visit art exhibitions, catch top Scottish comedy, attend a celebrity-studded fashion show, battle your way out of a gigantic maze erected in George Square, watch the cream of our current cinematic output, stuff yourself at a street market, hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in full flight, and Asian fusion Bhangra beats. There’s a special club laden with Scotland’s freestyling fusion DJs for those who prefer to do their celebrating at night. There’s outdoor performance, outdoor music stages and dancing in the streets. And – breathe.
‘This sort of cultural activity is happening in the Merchant City all the time,’ says Butler. ‘So, if we can kind of concentrate that during the festival, we can give people a sense of what they can experience throughout the year just in those few days. However, we want to take that further, too. It’s important for us to be able to showcase the work of national companies – Scottish Opera and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for example, are both playing very big concerts during the festival. So what we want to do is invite people in, from Glasgow, from all of Scotland, and internationally, and say that this is the state of Scottish art and culture right now: this is what you can come and see and enjoy.’
The Merchant City Festival runs from Thu 20–Sun 23 September. For full listings, see www.list.co.uk or www.merchantcityfestival.com
Theatre: Get Lost!
The most obvious signal that something is happening in the Merchant City is the erection of a gigantic maze in the middle of George Square. Anyone brave enough to venture inside will come across a variety of characters, surreal situations and ‘creatures of the topiary’.
‘We quite like the idea that people really have to come into our world in order to experience this show,’ says Stompy, the director of theatre company Dotcomedy, who perform inside the maze. ‘It’s a world of it’s own, and you have to challenge yourself to find a way out of it; or maybe just stay in it and enjoy it. The whole experience will take about half an hour, but we find that people really do stay in there longer, or keep coming back to it. People have screamed, you know – I suppose there are bits of it that are like a ghost train or a rollercoaster ride. It’s going to take us a day to put the whole thing up, but once it’s complete it’s really beautiful. The archetype, I suppose, is one of those classic country house mazes, but with something a little bit twisted happening inside.’
Do watch out for any glam rock icons in snugly-fitting Lycra, though, won’t you?
George Square, Thursday– Sunday. Other ones to watch: Stiff, Tron Theatre, Thursday– Sunday; Just Passing Thru, Parnie St, Saturday & Sunday.
Film: Bafta Scotland Winners’ Night
‘One of the great things for any young filmmaker is to get their films seen,’ says Alison Forsyth, ‘but you don’t really get many chances to show short films outwith festivals.’
Forsyth runs the BAFTA Scotland New Talent awards, the annual celebration of emergent Scottish filmmaking talent, and will be presenting a special gala screening of the 2006 winners during the Merchant City Festival. These include Scene, which Forsyth describes as ‘a very clever wee film with an excellent central performance and a twist in the tail’ and the dark urban horror Hikikomori, by recent RSAMD graduate Paul Wright, which not only won the overall Best New Work Award at the Scottish BAFTAs, but was nominated in the Best Short Film category in the national BAFTAs.
‘It’s a joy, when something like that happens,’ says Forsyth. ‘We’re a wee country — Britain is quite small in world terms of filmmaking, let alone Scotland. So you’re talking about a very small group of people who are equipped and able ,and doing a great job. But it does happen, and when we make good films up here, they’re really good films.’
Café Flicker, GMAC, Saturday. Other ones to watch: Marcel Pagnol Under the Stars, Babbity Bowster’s, Thursday and Sunday.
Comedy: The Scottish Comedian of the Year Grand Final
This year, the MCF has scoured the length and breadth of the country to find out hottest comedy talent. This event pits eight Scottish wits against each other in a fight to the death, or at least to the punchline. At time of going to press, the contenders included Sean Grant, Scott Agnew, the snuggly named Teddy and fetid-mouthed YouTube phenomenon The Wee Man, with the winner of The Grand’s Thursday night Gong Show picking up a wild card place in the final on Sunday.
Old Fruitmarket, Sunday. Other ones to watch: 20-year-old Glasgow comic Kevin Bridges, Saturday; Stand Up Drink Up! The Merchant City Comedy Pub Crawl, Thursday.
Fashion: Ingram Street Shopping Day
The less initiated might bubble about Buchanan Street and Princes Square, but serious fashionistas know that Ingram Street is the real hub of Glasgow shopping.
Those heavy hitters will be luring in shoppers with canapés, drinks and gigs on Saturday, along with the frankly terrifying prospect of live mannequins in windows all along the street.
Ingram Street, Saturday. Other ones to watch: Glasgow Rocks Fashion Show, The Corinthian, Thursday.
Clubs: Festival Club
The Merchant City Festival has many tentacles that wrap around various genres drawing them all together to create one huge party that will resonate across the city. An integral part of that party vibe is the Festival Club taking over the Carnival Arts Centre for four nights of mayhem.
Taking up the Sri Lankan theme it's more than just DJs spinning with live sounds from the likes of Zuba and Orkestra del Sol as well as video installations, flamenco and comedy. Though, of course, the mighty fine DJ skills on display – including Trouble DJs – will keep the dancefloor thumping. With a different DJ crew manning the decks each night their sets will be shot though with world music and Asian beats. Even Subculture's Harri, who guests on the Friday night, will be dipping into his crate for a unique set of reggae, dub, Afrobeat, jazz and more.
But the most authentic sounds will be coming from Sri Lankan DJ B*Licious and her partner Furious Breaks with a mix of World beats, breaks, Bhangra and bootybass to round off the Festival’s club strand in style.
Carnival Arts Centre, Thursday to Sunday.
Dance and Performance: Trajets de Vie
‘Ex Nihilo are serious contemporary dancers,’ Butler says of the hugely accomplished French company, who are bringing the UK premiere of their new show to the festival. ‘It’s just that they choose to perform outside.’ Interwoven into the crowds around the Merchant City at specific times throughout the festival, this production presents a series of small journeys through life; on benches, up monuments and at bus stops. There’s also a strong street theatre programme, with acts from all over Europe, including Grotesque Alices in Wonderland, Siamese twins and ancient Greek heroes.
Royal Exchange Square, Brunswick Street & Wilson Street, Saturday. Other ones to watch: Mischief La Bas, Saturday and Sunday, Merchant Square; Alice and Alice, Saturday and Sunday.
Music: Salsa Celtica and Kissmet
In keeping with the festival’s theme of reaching out to other cultures, one of the most exciting onstage collaborations comes from two UK bands who bring different world music styles together in performance. The Latin/Celtic collision of our own Salsa Celtica and Asian fusionists Kissmet might well make your ears explode, in a good way.
Old Fruitmarket, Friday. Other ones to watch: Scottish Opera takes to the streets with Aria Adventure, Saturday & Sunday; Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, Ramshorn, Sunday.
Visual Art: Alasdair Gray
In testament to the variety of the programme, and the diversity of the city, the glossy fashion events are happening alongside a retrospective of the work of one of the city’s other great icons, Alasdair Gray. This exhibition traces 50 years in the life of the beloved, erudite malcontent, who is increasingly as well known for his art as his self-illustrated novels. It includes pieces he made at Glasgow Art School, book covers and murals.
Café Cossachok, from Thursday. Other ones to watch: Alex Gross: Cabbage Head, Glasgow Sculpture Studios; Dani Marti, Q Gallery, from Thursday.