Shuffle Festival (London, July 2015)

Shuffle is right up my street; a community-led festival which bridges arts and sciences to reflect upon cohesion and integration, in the heart of one of the most diverse communities on the face of the planet. This year’s festival is held in a cemetery and reflects upon migration; what better place to do so than a graveyard, that bony departure lounge to unknown pastures?

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At the base of a staircase, experimental psychologist Charles Michel introduces me to the Feelies, an audio visual experience which takes its name from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Donning Oculus Rift headphones, I am led through doors which radically alter my perception. One is marked New York, the other Za’atari.

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Both show films directed by Chris Milk.

In New York I meet award winning artist JR. This is my first experience of Oculus Rift, and it’s breathtaking. as JR speaks, it’s as if he’s in front of me. The ten minute film sees him and a team paste one of JR’s trademark pictures in front of the Flatiron building in Manhattan. As the camera films JR leaning over the side of a helicopter, I feel like I’m with him, experiencing vertigo and adrenalin simultaneously.

Chris Milk has delivered a TED talk about the possibilities of virtual reality helping to create more empathy. The second room in the Feelies underlines this; I spend the majority of the film in tears as I am transported to a Jordanian refugee camp, through the eyes of a Syrian teenage girl who lives in it. This time, the experience is enhanced by the smells of a Syrian home; aromatic spices, baking bread. When it rains in the film, I feel water on my hands; a breeze ripples across my skin. The film underlines realities of the camp; we visit the girl’s home, her school, where she plays. I meet her family. Whilst documentaries and news reports offer us a lens on the plight and experience of others, this virtual reality film places me in her world; I am not just viewing it, I feel like I am in it. Perhaps this is why I cry throughout the film; or perhaps it is because I am a big baby, and a sucker for good storytelling.

“Welcome back to London”, my assigned technician whispers to me. My migration to other worlds is complete. I spend an hour wandering around the cemetery to process my experience. There’s no better place than a decaying English cemetery to do this, as tombstones crumble into the dust amidst overgrown tangles of bushes, wild flowers and trees in bloom, sunlight whispering gently through foliage.

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I bump into a bunch of people diagnosing a bench. This is a roving diagnostic unit, the brainchild of artist Bobby Baker; a team of doctors in white lab coats and clip boards walk around the cemetery, assessing the mental health of trees, ponds and inanimate objects around the cemetery.

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The cordial, intimate atmosphere created by Baker and her team allow participants to reflect, with humour and informality, on the ironies of the world of psychiatry, where patients can often feel dehumanised; poured over, poked, prodded, provoked and diagnosed by those responsible for their welfare.

Baker’s roving diagnostic unit and the Feelies are two of a number of events in a ten day programme spanning film, performance, storytelling, art, comedy, cooking. The festival stands in marked contrast to events like the Venice Biennale. This is a future-proofing festival; an experiment in creating the kind of world we want to live in, where the more positive aspects of human nature begin to  blossom.

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From dirt, flowers grow; from crapitalism, may empathy flourish. Have a read of this brilliant article by the celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which hints at the obvious, at least to an increasing minority; we are blindly walking our way into decimation of the human species, and we’ll probably wipe out a few hundred thousand species as we descend into a post-oil civilisation. Even the most positive scenarios – one of which Atwood paints a picture of – are pretty bleak; the sad truth is that it’s only when the shit hits the fan that we’ll wake up to our collective responsibility to change. Until then, mine’s a vodka cocktail. On a beach, far away in time.

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