Photo: Ezra and the Boyfriends performing at Bluedot Festival, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre.
It may only be two years old, but Bluedot is fast establishing itself as one of the most unique and rounded festival experiences of the UK. A novel fusion of science, music and art, the festival is as inspiring and intellectually stimulating as it is entertaining. This year, it not only played host to headliners Alt-J, Pixies and Orbital; Bluedot also sported expert talks on artificial intelligence, the Dark Web, big data and “fake news”, alongside immersive art installations that employed fire, sound and light. Set on the hills of Jodrell Bank Observatory (the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world), this selection of events couldn’t have been more apt in engendering a truly out-of-this-world experience.
As three-day-three-night camping festival, Bluedot started off each day with a series of science and arts talks running in parallel with short sets by lesser known artists on the smaller Roots stage, set a distance away in the woods. The talks explored a range of topics, from that of Transhumanism (a movement that aims to transcend the current limits of the human condition through science and technology) to the art of sci-fi writing, the question of whether animals enjoy music to the history of the Dark Web, and the concept of creativity within artificial intelligence. Guest speakers included Tony Walsh, Channel 4’s Geoff White, Labour MP for Newcastle and engineer Chi Onwurah, Dr Robert E Smith and Professor Philip Howard.
Vying for the attention of the afternoon crowd, the artists at the Roots stage put up a good competition, from which Shadowlark, Ardyn, Francis Lung and Diving Station – a harp-strumming rock band, no less – particularly stood out. The Orbit stage was also lively during the day, featuring heavier acts such as Anna Meredith, whose amalgamation of techno with classical string instruments and drums produced a series of “maximalist” stompers. Alt-rock band Plastic Mermaids also had the stage jiving and stomping their feet, especially at the end of crowd favourite ‘Alaska’, when lead singer Douglas Richards belted the chorus into a megaphone pointed at the mic over a flurry of heavy bass.
The main Lovell stage lit up each day when evening arrived. Opening the stage on Friday were Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends, with Furman appearing in red lipstick, a black dress and pearls, thanking the “queers for coming”, and after a pregnant pause, the “straight people too”, amid raucous laughter. Indie rockers Pixies followed, playing a mix of vintage tracks and newer material from Head Carrier to a dancing crowd, unfazed by the rain. Saturday evening saw Orbital’s thunderous techno/acid house set blasting into a sea of raving fans, backlit by pink sunset. Perhaps the highest point for many Bluedotters, though, was the moment Alt-J mounted the Lovell stage. Opening with ‘Bloodflood pt.II’, the band immediately had the audience swaying to a simultaneous welling up of brass-driven tension and piano-effectuated release. The most devout of fans kept up with all of the band’s notoriously cryptic lyrics, but the rest of the crowd had their singalong moment too during the chorus of old favourite ‘Matilda’: “…this is from Matilda”. Their deliverance of their latest album Relaxer was likewise spot on, although significantly fewer audience members sang along and most of the crowd can safely be said to have missed the uncharacteristic lyrical crassness of tracks like ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, in which Newman drawls verses such as “we are dangerous teenagers/fuck you, I’ll do what I want to do” and “family matters, I couldn’t agree more/ this is my family fisting me on the floor”.
The main stage closed an hour to midnight, and gave way to heavier electronica acts that included Nightmares On Wax, Andrew Weatherall and DJ Yoda, who in particular played remixes of ‘90s video game soundtracks to a tent of stomping, nostalgic millennials. Yoda’s tracks included a chill trap mix of the Tetris theme, and mash-ups of soundtracks from Super Mario, Mario Kart, Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog and Legend of Zelda, all played against a backdrop of video snippets of the games themselves. Even more exciting was the Algorave (algorithmic-rave), an art-technology intersection where DJs coded live on stage to produce experimental beats that were coarse, lo-fi, erratic, and vaguely reminiscent of a sort of minimal techno. Late Night Tales DJs closed each night with expertly curated mixes by Bonobo, Jon Hopkins, Groove Armada and Metronomy, among others.
True to its aim of “cultivating a unifying celebration for citizens of the world…in an era of political divisiveness and environmental uncertainty”, Bluedot was a festival that welcomed everybody, from the average alternative festival-goer in their mid-20s to ageing Manc ravers, both with and without their children in tow. Not only was the music sensational – the festival successfully explored the intersections of science, art and technology, while critically interrogating the frontiers of human advancement. There is no other festival quite like Bluedot – and as a wildly unique addition to the UK’s festival scene, it could well be an astronomical success in the years to come.By Lydia Shu