March 22, 2019

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Ten years in, Cluster Festival still mixing it up

Integrated arts and music celebration provides a space for creators to break down boundaries

Since its inception in 2010, the Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival has featured more than 200 experimental artists from around the world. (Leif Norman photo)

Since its inception in 2010, the Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival has featured more than 200 experimental artists from around the world. (Leif Norman photo)

Ten years ago, a pair of music students from the University of Manitoba saw a gap in the local festival landscape when it came to work such as theirs: experimental compositions created by young up-and-comers.

So, they did something about it.

Luke Nickel and Heidi Ouellette developed the Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival, which had its inaugural run in 2010. The festival is built on a foundation of providing the space for artists of their generation, who were often making work that didn’t fall into traditional categories, to showcase their creations to the public.

“We were really going to a lot of art openings and dance shows, and both of us thought, ‘Let’s start something and let’s draw on the collective artistic community of Winnipeg.’ And at the same time, I think art was, at least in our world and in our eyes, art was changing from people doing one thing, like making music, into a place where at least people of our generation were making art that didn’t really fall into any boundaries,” Nickel says.

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Ten years ago, a pair of music students from the University of Manitoba saw a gap in the local festival landscape when it came to work such as theirs: experimental compositions created by young up-and-comers.

So, they did something about it.

Luke Nickel and Heidi Ouellette developed the Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival, which had its inaugural run in 2010. The festival is built on a foundation of providing the space for artists of their generation, who were often making work that didn’t fall into traditional categories, to showcase their creations to the public.

"We were really going to a lot of art openings and dance shows, and both of us thought, ‘Let’s start something and let’s draw on the collective artistic community of Winnipeg.’ And at the same time, I think art was, at least in our world and in our eyes, art was changing from people doing one thing, like making music, into a place where at least people of our generation were making art that didn’t really fall into any boundaries," Nickel says.

"We started it for all these reasons, but I think we really just saw a gap for something that was coming from our generation and from our voice, and addressing the kinds of concerns we were seeing around us."

In the almost 10 years since, the festival has presented more than 200 experimental artists from all over the world.

And while Nickel says all three co-directors still tend to skew towards the young and emerging when curating the festival lineup, they also try to curate intergenerationally as much as they can.

Perhaps the best example of that is one of the flagship events of this year’s festival, Up Down Strange, which features work by media artist Susan Britton in collaboration with her nephew and festival co-director, musician Eliot Britton.

Co-directors from left: Luke Nickel, Heidi Ouellette and Eliot Britton. (Leif Norman photo)

Co-directors from left: Luke Nickel, Heidi Ouellette and Eliot Britton. (Leif Norman photo)

Susan, a former Winnipegger who now calls Toronto home, was active in the local arts scene in the 1970s and ’80s, but the piece she is premièring at Cluster, titled The Shiny Things, is her first piece of video art in 30 years.

The Shiny Things is a six-channel video installation that tries to "depict a state of consciousness."

"The state of consciousness that so many of us are in now with social media, kind of the way our thinking is colonized. It was really fun to think about this and get into it and what I really thought a lot about was how emotional our devices are, because they hold all these personal artifacts, they hold all the messages and photographs (of) our family and our friends and our pets and our favourite songs and all of the things that sort of define our fleeting thoughts. But they’re all wrapped up with a sales pitch," Susan explains.

"So it’s really interesting how the media has developed. I worked on (the piece) for about a year and my nephew, Eliot Britton, did the music, so it was a collaboration and I’m really happy with it, I’m so thrilled, I love it."

After three decades focusing on other kinds of work, the purchase of a small Sony camera, $80 worth of editing software and a few old TVs inspired Susan to look at video art in a much different way than she had at the beginning of her career.

"In the ’70s and ’80s there was always this sense of impending changes, these massive impending changes... I’m very comfortable with the internet, but I also remember when people were talking really idealistically and a lot of my work was about that. Like, ‘Oh my God, there could be this little constellation of people communicating!’ It was so idealistic," Susan says.

"Now it’s happened and it’s owned, it’s a corporate monolith. So it’ll be interesting to see how people respond."

With any type of anniversary celebration, a certain amount of retrospection is bound to occur. Nickel says he and his co-directors have had a few chats about the early years and what an exciting, albeit messy, time that was for the now 30-somethings as they found their feet in the festival-planning industry.

"We had ambitious ideas for a really young festival. We look back, and in a way, we try to preserve some of that energy and try to learn from our younger selves and keep that going as we get older and as we get more... we’re never going to be institutional, I don’t think, but as we get more stable and we grow into the thing that we’re becoming," Nickel says.

"Even though it’s our 10th year, I think the most amazing thing is that it’s still going and still thriving. In terms of all the celebrations possible, that actually feels like the most celebratory thing, just that it exists. In the world and climate we live in, to have this experimental arts festival still going and have this community of people still coming together, that feels like a celebration."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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