INTERVIEW: Supernormal festival 2014 1

INTERVIEW: Supernormal festival 2014

Supernormal festival
8-10 August 2014
Braziers Park, Oxfordshire

It’s not exactly news that the festival market has exploded over the last 10 years, with anything up to 1000 festival events taking place in the UK alone. Nowadays the issue for most festival punters is not the lack of choice but the abundance.
In a grimly predictable fashion, the biggest events get the most coverage. Predictable formats and repetitive line ups are inescapable but finding out about an event that is defiantly different is often a tricky enterprise.
Which is why Supernormal is very special to us. It describes itself as ‘the alternative’s alternative’. It’s radical, challenging, collaborative and inclusive. It fosters creativity and aims to break the barriers between audiences and performers.
Set in the grounds of the majestic Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, its music line up includes Teeth of the Sea, Esben and the Witch, Gnod, Joanna Gruesome, Thought Forms and Part Chimp. And then you get the terrifyingly awesome Bass Cleff and the uber cool London promoters Baba Yaga’s Hut throwing in DJ sets. And that’s before we start going on about the unique and pleasingly wierd activity sessions like Feral Choir, Tape Bakery and Crazy Comic Club.
Needless to say, we had a few burning questions about art, money and the challenges of running a DIY festival. And here’s what they had to say…


Your website is very clear on what you’re about but can you elaborate on what prompted you to start Supernormal? Was there a single catalyst to the whole project?

In 1995, Braziers International Artists Workshop (BIAW) was founded. The 2 week residencies were annual events for multi-disciplinary and international artists to collaborate, create work, exchange dialogue and experiment. The idea for Supernormal as an evolution from BIAW came about in 2010 with the original organisers being keen for a new format for work to be presented in. The (final) workshop would produce work that had the potential to be informed by, and exhibited at the festival alongside a music programme which aimed to engage a wider audience and attract more visitors.

I understand after watching your short film that you had a vision of the format and a clear mission. Did you also have a clear set of objectives? Do you feel you’re succeeding in what you set out to achieve? What worked/didn’t work?

a) To challenge and reinterpret the festival format.
The first year, I think Supernormal really did reinterpret the festival format. Largely because no one involved had much idea about how a festival was supposed to be formatted. As the years have gone on, we’ve ironed out a lot of the kinks in production, and arguably it’s become more conventional in that regard. It’s something we’re very conscious of, and we remain focussed on providing something different for festival audiences. That said, what we got away with for 300 people, just wouldn’t wash with 1,500. We survived the production issues of the early editions largely
because the audience was so small and supportive.

b) To present a diverse programme that explores the areas where different artistic disciplines meet.
The challenge with diversity is that you have to balance it with cohesion. I think we’re fairly successful here but others would disagree (and have). Personally, I’d say a bill that has room on it for Bass Clef, Mary Hampton, Bong and Phil Minton is pretty diverse, but there still exists a thread and that either chimes with people, or it doesn’t. I think it has to be that way, else you end up with a programme that
doesn’t make sense to anyone.

c) To give visual and performance art the same priority as musical art.
Due to the commercial requirements we have to fulfil in order to actually put on this event, we can’t ignore the fact that the bands sell the majority of the tickets. I think we’ve made our peace with that. Now our goal is to make sure that the people that come for the music engage with as much of the other stuff that’s going on as possible. They might have bought their ticket to see Part Chimp, but they’re stuck with us for the weekend. They’re going to experience something new whether they
like it or not. Primarily, though Supernormal will always remain an arts-focussed event that echoes the workshop from which it originated.


How do you see the festival developing? Do you feel it’s essential for you to remain small? Why?

Absolutely essential that it stays small, yes. It’s amazing that our audience has
grown over the years, but bigger numbers necessitate more infrastructure and red tape. We’re extremely conscious that the more time and resources we put into that stuff, the less is available to concentrate on the programme itself. Obviously it’s important that it’s safe, that there’s enough food stalls and the loos have paper, but these things aren’t what makes the weekend fulfilling, either for the audience, or for us. We’re well on track to sell out this year. Last year we were very close to capacity so we’re prepared for those numbers. We’ve absolutely no interest in further growth.

What, in your opinion, is the most difficult aspect of running a DIY festival (booking bands, security, getting local authorities on board, raising money)?

All of those things are problems, and they all stem from (a lack of) money. We do everything on a shoestring. Our resources are stretched extremely thin. We’ve always tried to be transparent about our limitations and 99% of the field understands and supports us… but not everyone. Occasionally visitors (artists, musicians, traders and punters alike) have expectations or demands that we simply cannot meet. That’s always difficult and often genuinely upsetting. In those situations, you can’t help but think: “Look around. The whole festival is held together by gaffer tape and goodwill. How is it not obvious that no one here is in a position to fulfil that request?” A horrendous amount of our time over the festival weekend is tied up with a tiny number of people that don’t understand what they’ve come to.

What is the most enjoyable element?

The build is great fun. People gradually arrive over the week. There’s a real sense of camaraderie. That all goes out the window the minute the public start arriving. Trouble makers, the lot of ‘em. Seriously though, we’re lucky that the event attracts such inspiring, engaging, creative people. We’ve built many amazing relationships that extend well beyond the festival and that in essence is what it’s all about.


Who are your target audiences?

The people that we’d most like to target are people with no interest in art or experimental music, and they don’t want to come. I know that sounds facetious but I really mean it. The most rewarding feedback we get comes from people that are complete outsiders to the culture that have, for one reason or another, found themselves stranded with us for the weekend. When those people engage with the event, and get something meaningful out of it, I feel like we’re doing something right. Other than that, an audience that ‘doesn’t like festivals’ – we’ve heard so
many people say that followed by ‘but Supernormal is awesome’. That’s good enough.

Do you find that you get most of your audiences from Oxfordshire or wider afield?

As a team we’re spread between London, Bristol and Brighton so those 3 cities in particular are hot spots. People come from all over the U.K and beyond though – we’ve started getting people coming from Europe and The USA just for Supernormal.


What’s your booking policy?

When Supernormal first started bands and artists would approach us asking to
perform, we’d check them out, and if we liked what they were doing we’d put them on the bill. Unfortunately, this year we finally reached tipping point – we can’t possibly give a fair appraisal to the 1,000+ performers that have emailed us. It’s a shame because I’m certain we’re missing out on some absolutely amazing stuff. If anyone reading this has been in touch asking to perform, we’re really, really sorry that we haven’t gotten back to you – we would if we could. These days we get together as a team to battle out the who, why and if’s. We’ve all got our own ideas but we whittle it down somehow.
Bottom line though: No divas. Must accept derisory fee.

I understand that you’re not-for-profit but how are you funding Supernormal (sponsors, remortgaging your house, etc)?

We make annual funding applications which we’ve had mixed success with.
Beyond that, we cross our fingers and hope we sell enough tickets not to have to bail ourselves out. There’s no contingency. If we lose money, we essentially have pay out our pockets (and our pockets aren’t deep). If we were ever to make money, it’d get ploughed back into the festival. None of us earn a penny out of the event. We’re idiots.

Are you looking to diversity your income streams (e.g. Trust grants, crowdfunding)?

The first few events we secured some additional funding from The Arts Council and PRSF (Performance Rights Society Foundation) that stopped us from
a) cancelling the festival, and
b) bankrupting ourselves.
Last year we had no external funding at all and we just broke even. I can’t tell you how close it was. In July we were having some pretty sobering discussions.
It’s a great source of frustration that although we are non-profit, we still have to take a commercial approach in order to cover our costs. If people don’t buy tickets, and spend money at the bar, and go home with merch, we’ve got big problems. So yes, new income streams that would take off some of the pressure would be a real blessing. We’ve got some ideas… but you’ll have to wait and see.

Do you think it’s essential for a DIY event to be not-for-profit?

I don’t think a DIY event has to be be non-profit by definition. So long as whoever has their hand on the tiller is able to make profit their secondary motivation then good luck to them. They’ll definitely need it.

How many people are involved in Supernormal full time? Is your team a flexible collective?

No one works on it full time (although it feels increasingly like that as August looms). There are about 10 of us that form the core. It’s very flexible – there have been personnel shifts every year, people come and people go and our roles are all pretty fluid and loosely defined. It’s all happened pretty organically.

For more information and tickets –

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