Various sites

Weymouth was a curious mixture of chilled buzziness on my visit towards the end of July. A popular Jurassic Coast holiday destination, it’s usually a charming old-style seaside town with a magnificent beach and plenty of fish and chip cafes and ice-cream vendors. But this year it’s also where the Olympic sailing events are taking place, cueing the arrival in town of the international Olympic circus. This has descended with a turbo-fuelled confection of culture, sport and cosmopolitanism. Not just one but two public Big Screens are installed on the beach for watching Olympic action while sunbathing, and a pop-up media village has been installed nearby, housing representatives of the national broadcast media. Weymouth has never received so much attention. Along with the new rather groovy ICCI360 temporary venue, even the most casual disinterested-in-sports visitor couldn’t fail to be aware that Something Is Going On.

Accompanying the Olympic imperative – and I would like to think integral to it – is a diverse multi-event interdisciplinary arts and cultural programme, the Maritime Mix. I missed the magnificent-sounding Battle of the Winds, which took place on the broad sweep of beach that makes up Weymouth Bay, and involved 2012 people taking to the sea with 2012 flaming torches, but I was in town for the launch of the third b-side multimedia art festival.

b-side has a distinctive artist-led aesthetic, making a virtue out of the flipside of life – unexpected interventions that re-frame the familiar, highlight the quirky and the little noticed, and experiment with new mobile technologies positioned in non-traditional locations. Despite being able to experience only part of the total programme, it was clear there were a number of very sparkly perfectly formed interventions, cohering around a central theme of voyaging.

The raising of the town’s working swing bridge in order to let boats through, an event that usually takes place without fanfare six times a day, was serenaded by the blue-blazered Weymouth Concert Brass Band playing a newly-commissioned six movement piece composed by Hywel Davies. Performed with perfect timing and seriousness by the band, with repeat performances over three days, this was an idiosyncratic, delightful and perfectly pitched work for those lucky enough to catch it.

Quieter but also satisfying were Niels Posts’ reproductions of selected spam business proposals, transmogrified into text on now-defunct shop windows. Initially amusing when read as failed business speak jargon – “we hope we can build long-term stable and good business relationship with you” – they also reflect on economic desperation and ‘austerity Britain’. In a town bursting with po-faced extra signage warning of closed roads and speed limits, the digital traffic sign at the far end of Weymouth Esplanade provided an unexpected and surreal experience to passers-by. Text artist Tony Lopez had selected non-sequiturs with a strong vernacular voice, creating an archetypal b-side encounter. Displaying only fragmented pieces of overheard conversation, decontextualised and relating to nothing in particular, each phrase offered a tantalising window into a different world. My favourite was “I don’t know if they will let us off the island”.

On the whole, b-side leaves the large-scale mass spectacle to others, with the film offerings in this year’s festival providing the exception to the rule. “Promised Land” by Nikolaj Larsen, first shown in the Folkestone Triennial 2011, is ambitious in scope and execution, providing personal narratives of migration to the promised land of the west, highlighting the issues and difficulties without preaching or suggesting resolution. “Closer to the Wind” by b-side associate artist Ivon Oates, juxtaposes straight documentary of The Pelican tall ship with a soundtrack that prioritises aurally rich sounds. Gloops, creaks, sloshes trickles, bangs and diesel engine all over-ride the verbal narrative to viscerally evoke the sailing experience. This along with the use of a visual ripple motif lifts her film above the ordinary.

A foundation principle for b-side is that of commissioning new works from artists, enabling those artists to explore a theme and realise a vision, experimentally if not always entirely successfully. An example of opportunity successfully realised was American graphic designer Paul Soulellis, who has assembled an astonishing archive of visual and textual material relating to Weymouth in Britain, and the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, in the US. Organising his material, much self-generated via photographs, twitter, email and other devices, into twelve full size and themed paperback books, is an extraordinary feat in itself. Having published a limited edition of 30 boxed sets, he is giving away twenty sets to random members of the public in a performative and extended act of participatory generosity over the life of the festival. It’s a beautiful project that has gifted an alternative view of Weymouth to history and archives.

Less successfully, Steve McPherson’s sound-piece Array near Nothe Fort was solid in concept but disappointing in execution. Having made sound recordings of various local maritime activity, the public were invited to generate their own listening experience of the recordings via manual “winding” of tape spools attached to three sound boxes. Unfortunately, the squeak of the manual working added to what was already a high-pitched and not distinct enough sound coming from the recordings. On Sound Cloud, the four minute pieces have texture and interest, but the short bursts generated by the human interaction with the mechanism lacked nuance and aural quality within this public context.

The station was a focal point of the town for the duration, expecting heavy passenger loads and circulation. The project to display collaged landscape paintings by Day Bowman around the outside of the station was designed to animate what is otherwise a large, dull, logistical area. They did this to an extent, but collage pieces rely on texture, prominent juxtaposition and a certain amount of visual violence for their impact. These works must be striking in the original but in this instance, reproduction and weather-proof laminating lessened that impact and didn’t show the works to their best advantage.

This year’s festival has had a lot of competition for audience time and attention, and despite a general aesthetic that privileges audience discovery over the hard-sell, the quality of the artworks and accumulated art experience deserved more visibility and attention than I saw them getting.