Wilderness festival - Cornbury Park - UK - 12-14 August 2011

Festival review by Aline Giordano

Wilderness 2011The organisers behind the Wilderness festival certainly went the extra mile to try and create a festival with a difference. The website proudly boasts ‘a celebration of the arts and outdoors in the wilds of England’.

Set in Cornbury Park, in the beautiful Cotswolds (Oxfordshire), a few miles north of Witney (David Cameron’s constituency), the organisers set out to create a cultural and intellectual hub, that would, they claim, ‘enrich the mind’. The festival would be a promising feast for all the senses, as one could enjoy theatre, arts, outdoors and well-being, spa, massage and fine-dining at a banquet, and, let’s not forget (I nearly forgot) music! Children too would certainly enjoy their stay with many workshops promising to ‘enchant, entertain and excite children across the weekend’.

While the banquet may have delighted those who could afford it (tickets were priced at £27), others with less money in their purse or those who, simply, did not want to eat pork belly, wild sea-bass, scallops or deer, had to endure long queues to be served the usual festival fast-food: chips, pies, burgers, wraps, soups and salads. The choice for those with a different diet was limited. I struggled to find a raw vegan salad, and had to buy it from a very commercially successful restaurant chain. The salad was very nice (lovely actually!), but I would have preferred not to step into a self-proclaimed gourmet restaurant chain, as I usually try and avoid those if I can.

It felt that the magic of being outdoors, in the ‘wilderness’ never really happened. Indeed, Wilderness may be a festival with a difference, but the difference felt a little manufactured, and for me Wilderness was more about USP than true experience of the senses. Indeed, a spa would cost you £10 and a seat at the banquet could be booked online in advance of the festival. You could also go ‘wild’ and opt for the ‘boutique camping’ with its VIP luxury toilets and luxury hot showers. Wilderness: A festival that reminds you that some are considerably richer than others and are proud to show their wealth, and what better place to do it in than in David Cameron’s constituency?! Wilderness is to festivals what CenterParcs is for short breaks and holidays. Perhaps, that’s what the organisers finally settled for: a Centreparcs business-like model festival, with ‘superb’ surroundings, ‘boutique’ accommodations, and activities at extra premium, but where the corporate world is disguised in bohemian attire, and cashing in on ‘arts and craft’.

For me festivals are a place where, no matter the path of life you’ve chosen or ended up with, you all gather to enjoy a common interest. And if fine-dining rocks your boat, then why do it in a tent in the middle of a field surrounded by fast-food stalls? If cricket is your sporting passion, then why exhibit your batting talents in the middle of a field at a cross-road between a music stage and the ‘boutique’ baby-sitting area? Why? To have a jolly good weekend for sure. But, somehow, something felt wrong deep-down. I was wandering Cornbury Park feeling uneasy and it’s only when I got home the following day that I could make sense of my own intellectual experience.

I remembered a book which I had read years ago entitled ‘Eloge du luxe: de l’utilite de l’inutile’ by Thierry Paquot. Paquot (2007; p36-37) argues that luxury is no longer rare or unique as it can be easily reproduced. It therefore becomes accessible to the majority of the population. Luxury is not the privilege of the aristocracy any longer and has now become a symbol of social recognition. Wilderness, with its ‘boutique’ festival concept, epytomises this. It gratifies the nouveau riches’ thirst for the ultimate sign of social recognition, and in doing so, arts are perceived as a commodity (sadly, nothing new here!).

Hats off Wilderness. You really got me thinking here. And somehow I feel that I have severely compromised my chances of ever getting a photo-pass there in the future!

Shall we talk music now, as this was the reason why I bought my ticket (incidentally unaware of the intellectual hub and the optional luxury bundles at time of purchase)?

The line-up for Sunday was appealing: The Low Anthem - although I had seen them at the EOTR festival, I fancied seeing them again; Daniel Johnston - definitely wanted to see him!; Laura Marling - again, saw her at EOTR and very much enjoyed her Portsmouth gig during her 2011 spring tour and wanted to see her again; Mercury Rev - thought it’d be interesting to hear Deserter’s songs live in its entirety; and Anthony and the Johnsons - I wanted to experience for myself what the craze was about.

I’ll be brief… Laura Marling was excellent. She arrived on stage, humbly confessed that her depressing songs may not fit a summer festival mood and went on to masterly deliver a 45-minute delightful acoustic set. I look forward to seeing her again at the 2011 EOTR festival in September.

Daniel Johnston made his entrance onstage twice for some unknown reason, then played a 15-minute solo set, and a further 30 minute with a band. Johnston has become over-weight, and suffers with bad trembling of the hands and the tongue (most probably side-effects from heavy medication). He is struggling to change from chord to chord on the guitar, but his wit and banter win the crowd over. ‘Where am I? Which country is this?’ he asks half-joking, half-serious.

The way he delivers his crude, fragile and moving lyrics, read from a music stand, complement them. His voice is raw and his guitar playing approximate, and yet he is mesmerizing. Let me re-phrase: He is mesmerising because his voice and guitar style are raw, genuine, and unpretentious, just like his lyrics. Ephemeral or imaginary relationships, death, suicide, hope and despair are classic themes in the Daniel Johnston repertoire:

‘I feel I could lay down and cry’, ‘I love you all but I hate myself’, ‘to understand and be understood is to be free’, ‘someone once said that life is like a cow but I don't know how that applies’.

I felt my heart skip a beat when Daniel Johnston sang ‘Go’, which had been covered by Johnston’s friend, the now deceased Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse. I remembered interviewing Mark some years ago. We were talking about Daniel, and it was obvious that he cared a lot about him and was worried about his well-being, and yet perhaps we should have all worried about Mark too. Anyway, that’s another story in itself.

Johnston declares that he dreamed he was sentenced to death because he wanted to commit suicide and was in the dock trying to prove his innocence. Some chuckle at the comical aspect of the impossible situation, me included. But reflecting upon it now, I find it to be a rather thought provoking and powerful dream. This is it; Johnston was in the dock but it could just as well have been me, fighting to be heard, fighting for justice, fighting to be freed of my crippling emotions, but in the end, you know what? I feel as powerless and restless as Johnston may have felt in his dream. A sour reminder that life is ruled by others and by the authority (whichever shape or form it disguises itself in: the death judges, the authoritarian parental figure, the demanding manager, the loving mother, or supporting friend). A reminder that we live through others, that we have little control over our life, not in the living of it, not in the ultimate act of wanting to end it.

Johnston’s apparent banter was more thought provoking than Anthony’s long tirade on feminine governance and how the world would be a more humane place if political leaders were more in tune with their feminine side when ruling the world. The preaching went on and on… it was surely time to go home. So I did, and I still don’t know what the craze about Anthony is all about.

Paquot, T., 2007. Eloge du luxe: de l’utilite de l’inutile’. Paris: Marabout.

To view more photos of the festival, visit… Aline Giordano's photo website

For more details on Wilderness, visit… Wilderness festival website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2011