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SURVEILLANCE VS PRIVACY: INTERVIEW WITH LATITUDE'S ARTS CURATOR TANIA HARRISON

Make sure your wellies are intact - another festival season is upon us. Of course these days festivals offer more than a chance to hear your favourite bands live, with art programmes flourishing in the sunny and muddy meadows of the British countryside.

Latitude was the pioneer of making art essential to music festivals, and now boasts a programme so rich its Arts Curator Tania Harrison works on it all year round, devoting ‘most evenings to seeing new acts and shows’. But Latitude doesn’t just go for quantity and Harrison puts forward a different, often politically charged concept each year. This summer the tagline is Secrets and Lies: it’s inspired by the Edward Snowden events and sees the festival responding to issues surrounding both state surveillance and personal secrets. Run Riot got a chance to untangle the many aspects of this theme with Harrison and in the progress we also got a blurb-free introduction to an abundance of acts. Still not sure which festival to go for this year? Spoiled for choice? Then read on and make your life easier!

Run Riot: It seems superfluous to ask why you thought it necessary to address this year’s theme, so instead I'll ask what the significance is of a major festival dedicating such a vast programme to a topic that's still in the centre of a stark debate?

Tania Harrison: I was thinking about this the other day when I read an article by the writer and activist Cory Doctorow about the ‘digital native’ experience of privacy that crystallised some of the major points I wanted to explore. He wrote: -

“Privacy” doesn’t mean that no one in the world knows about your business. It means that you get to choose who knows about your business.

The point of that quote is that privacy feels like it is something we should be able to choose ourselves and not something that is chosen for us by a large corporation or taken from us unwittingly. The cases of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks have all put the topic of secrecy under the microscope, but I think this is a perpetual question. Issues like surveillance, spying and how far the state can peer into the lives of private citizens aren't in the papers, but it doesn't mean it's not happening. The question of what should be secret and what public is one of the great dialectical debates of civilisation. I think it's right that a festival like Latitude, which is all about exploring important ideas in a way that's accessible to a wide audience, should address it. 

The other thing I'd say about this theme is what while it might have started with Edward Snowden, the notion of what is a secret, what is a lie and what it means to keep and tell them goes much deeper than that. The ability to communicate complex ideas to one another is a key part of what makes us human, but I'd also argue that our ability to conceal ideas and feelings from one another is just as important. If you think about it, we're just as much defined as humans by what we don't tell our friends or our families: the things we have to keep to ourselves. I wanted to explore secrets and lies from a public perspective, but also from a very private perspective, and how those two spheres interrelate. Indeed you can often see them collide in the same person and issue. There are plenty of events and performances that give life to theoretical and political debates.

I think it's important to say here that it's possible to learn just as much about a thorny topic from a piece of good theatre as it is from a lecture, so I'm relaxed about using a variety of art forms to communicate ideas. For example, Theatre Ad Infinitum will elucidate the concept of metadata, which was the basis of the NSA's snooping on the US public, with a piece called Light. Meanwhile we have a cybersecurity officer from CERN coming to participate in a discussion in the Film & Music Arena alongside Teeth of the Sea scoring clips from Orwell’s 1984 and discussing the similarities between our 'surveillance' state and 1984. Also in the Theatre Arena Mark Thomas will present a thoughtful and exciting piece based on his own experience of a fellow activist and close friend of his who was exposed as a spy for arms company BAE Systems. This is a personal and timely story that tries to unearth what it means to be spied on by a corporation under the sanction of the state.

Run Riot: Do you think we've seen a strong artistic response to the Snowden events over the last 12 months? How challenging is it to address a still on-going debate in a way that's both critical and self-aware?

Tania Harrison: The middle of a debate is exactly the right time to respond artistically. This is the time when the arguments are vital: when they're felt as much as thought, and as such act as the wellspring for performance pieces, debates, installations and other interpretations of the issue. There is always the temptation to wait until there's a general feeling that the fuss has died down or one side has categorically 'won', but I'd argue that this makes the resulting art feel a bit sterile. The beauty of art that explores such a timeless dialectic is that it's never finished. It can be opened up to different interpretations. The same two people sitting side by side in the same space watching the same piece might have different responses to it. That feels exciting, and that's why I got so excited when I first started considering this topic. It's just so rich, and the fact there can never be a definitive answer makes it more so.  

Run Riot: There's an interesting overlap between private and public once secrets and state surveillance come together - if privacy is obliterated then surely so are the carefully guarded secrets. How do the notions of negotiating private and public resonate through the programme? 

Tania Harrison: It interests me that we are exploring these ideas in a country which has historically congratulated itself on creating the idea of individual liberty (remember, Magna Carta) but also has the most CCTV cameras in the world. One of the moments that first inspired Secrets and Lies was reading John Lanchester write about CCTV in the Guardian. He likened our society to the panopticon: the nightmare prison where every prisoner’s action was observable. It was an image of a place where wrongdoing and independent action were simultaneously impossible. The panopticon was an image I came back to time and again when planning the programme. It was a profound shock for me to find that I have less freedom and privacy than I thought, and it was up to me to make deliberate and conscious action to protect myself. And that made me think how hard so many people have fought over the centuries for their individual rights and for privacy. I thought of the Chartists, the fight for the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, the Peasants' revolt and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

From here I fast-forwarded right into the now: into the world where the internet is indivisible from life and we live within the duality and duplicity of ourselves and our digital selves. For digital natives, will privacy and the right to a private (online) life become an outmoded ideal anyway, as this generation grows up, their entire lives back-catalogued on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter? As masses of the population happily embrace the blurring of private and public "self", those who seek to commodify information must surely rub their hands together with glee. And as our lives are increasingly reduced to entries in databases in the control rooms of the world, it begs the question "who controls the controls?"

I realised then that I wanted to explore the theme in various permutations. There would be events that explored the Secrets and Lies from a technological point of view, but which looked at both the Snowden effect and the wider results of a culture where notions of private and public were becoming slippery. There would be performances and artworks that looked at the issue from a psychological point of view, examining how we create and communicate Secrets and Lies to each other. Another part of the programme would look at concealed histories, conspiracies criminal or otherwise and the ethical implications of keeping secrets. There is a talk from Historic Royal Palaces on Royal Secrets hidden from the public in the Georgian era plus Kate Williams will be talking about Josephine Bonaparte’s secrets (bet she has a few stories to tell!), the Mentalist Luke Jermay who has worked with Derren Brown and Dynamo will be entertaining the audience in the Theatre Arena on Friday evening and we also have the serious side with a debate with Shami Chakrabarti, Rob Evans (author of Undercover) and Elizabeth Pisani on secrets, freedom and data sharing and whether we should encourage it or worry that it is being used for the wrong purpose?

Run Riot: The New Statesman is doing a series of talks during the festival - what can you tell us about these particular events? Will there be other chances to approach the theme from a more theoretical or 'strictly' political angle?

Tania Harrison: I'm delighted that The New Statesman is coming to Latitude this year. They are presenting three events and not all are political, but that's to be expected of a magazine whose coverage is incredibly wide-ranging. For example, we'll have Laurie Penny, who's one of the magazine's most exciting voices in conversation with Toby Litt and Meg Rosoff about dystopias, which are a defining theme in contemporary fiction. NS will also be exploring fantasy within video games with speakers from Eurogamer, Media Molecule, Fireproof Games and BAFTA.

Run Riot:  Latitude was a pioneer of making arts essential to a music festival; almost a decade later everyone's at it. What do you do to keep at the forefront?

Tania Harrison: One of the things of which I'm most proud about Latitude is that we've become a festival that commissions great work as well as providing a showcase for existing art. Our unique set-up means we can commission site-specific pieces in places like The Faraway Forest, and this is typically the area that pushes most boundaries from year-to-year. I suppose the other part of the programming in which this comes across strongly is theatre, where we co-commission and collaborate with companies to bring acts and ideas to the festival.

I really love all the new comedy acts and we have an incredible line up this year from the very newest acts like Massive Dad, Sarah Callaghan and Jonny Pelham (I go see over 100 acts when I’m up in Edinburgh each year and get out to shows every week over the course of the year to see who is giving the greatest laughs), to huge acts like Dara O’Briain and Kevin Bridges.

Another way we keep things fresh is actually through our long-standing partnerships. The closeness of our relationship with Sadler’s Wells, for example, means we can work together to bring their more interesting and risk-taking projects into the festival, confident there will be an audience for them. We also find that like attracts like, so that our reputation as one of the few festivals who can host and showcase serious dance has extended our reach into musical theatre which is great fun. I’m immensely excited that this year we’ll see highlights from major West End shows, Once and Dirty Dancing, as well as bringing in Ballet Revolucion from Cuba for the weekend.

Run Riot: The festival line-up is full of household names, with Forced Entertainment, Almeida, and Sadler's Wells, to name but a few, all heading to Suffolk. Can you introduce our readers to some of the up and coming artists for whom this might be their first major event?

Tania Harrison: This year I have taken away the Outdoor Theatre and created many new spaces in the Faraway Forest. The Little House and the Live Art Tent were built especially for emerging artists and new ideas and spaces for interactive theatre. Look Left Look Right and Made In China although established companies, will be developing new work at the festival and Wishbone, Lucy Hutson and Papercut Theatre will be challenging the notions of traditional theatre in fascinatingly different ways!

Run Riot: The Film & Music tent's popularity has been growing steadily over the years - what can we expect this year?

Tania Harrison: It’s a very exciting tent housing some superb creative geniuses, notably David Bailey, a man whose vision has captured icons across several decades. He’s a legend and I expect Tim Marlow will draw some fabulous anecdotes from him. BAFTA award winning Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield will also be there talking about his work including Tales of the Grim Sleeper, his new documentary film which examines apartheid and class in the U.S. There will be an opera based on Neil Gaiman’s love letters to his soon to be wife Amanda Palmer and some of his unpublished poetry that Lance Horne has set to music. The work has been developed thus far through a residency at the Orchard Project and LA Opera, and the show at Latitude will be a special preview of the full forthcoming show later this autumn. On Friday eve in the Film & Music Mark Lamarr will host his now legendary God’s Jukebox plus on Sunday night Summercamp are scoring the film Beyond Clueless a journey into the mind, body and soul of the teen movie as seen through over 200 coming of age classics.

Latitude

17th-20th July

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