HEIDI OUELLETTE & LUKE NICKEL
Co-Directors // Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival
Words: Renée Girard / Photos: Joseph Visser
This past Saturday may have been the coldest night of the year. As I stepped off the bus, I quickly made my way to 290 McDermot, where the opening night of this year's Cluster Festival was being held. Thankful for the warmth and friendly faces once inside, I was eager to experience the festival for the first time. There were sounds I've never heard before, tools I've never seen used before. These artists took imaginative ideas and turned them into something wildly beautiful. From the moment the first act started, I was captivated.
Muddy Water: What an incredible experience the opening night of Cluster Festival was. Can you tell me how the theme "Amplification" for this year came about?
Heidi & Luke: That's a tough one! Our themes evolve pretty organically -- there isn't a really memorable point where they suddenly came into play. Usually we know them almost two years in advance -- a combination of knowing a few of the performers we want to work with and also thinking about how we want to stretch the festival and take risks. The themes are kind of where the team magic happens... we somehow both have the same brainwave at the same time and it turns into something that really affects our programming.
Amplification might have started when we were planning Mira Benjamin's recital-- she's performing a solo violin concert on Thursday, March 6 at RAW Gallery (290 McDermot). Ironically, her concert is the only one without amplification. We wanted to explore the idea of amplification by inversion-- a very sophisticated process of drawing the listeners' ear close to very subtle sounds in the violin and causing people to really focus on small variants and noises. We put a lot of work into thinking about that recital, and afterward we realized how many aspects of the amplification theme there were.
MW: We are in the midst of Cluster Festival's fifth year. Have you been involved for all five years, and how has your involvement evolved?
H&L: Luke and I are both the co-founders and the co-Directors -- we've been involved since day one! Before day one, actually. Our first meetings were at the Fyxx and Mondragon well before the first festival in 2010, musing about Winnipeg's art scene. We met with a lot of local composers, performers, artists (everyone who was willing to chat!) to try and assess what would be most beneficial to the greater community. That dialogue is an essential part of the festival-planning process, and has now expanded to a national and even international level.
In terms of evolution, both of us find each year that we refine our team-dynamic as well as general leadership skills. We operate as a true partnership, which feels very special, and I think this is intrinsic to Cluster's identity. We know more and more our strengths and are able to combine these to get better at curating and operating the festival. The other side of this is knowing when we both have a weakness and finding a solution that often means bringing someone else on board (such as our Technical Directors).
MW: Providing provocative artistic exploration seems to be the heart of the festival. You guys (yourself and Luke Nickel) have curated a festival with what seems to be hopes of reaching all the senses, a challenging task to say the least. How did you go about choosing the artists/performances with keeping that uniform theme, amplification?
H&L: We do this in two ways: the first is our regular programming activities, which mostly involve us keeping our ears to the ground and choosing acts that we personally want to present to Winnipeg (including artist/performers from Winnipeg). While we do this we start to get a good idea of through-lines in the artists and common themes. The second way is our Call for Submissions. This is a little easier to keep the theme because we are able to express it overtly to everyone submitting. The combination of the two means that at once the festival is very focused and also still contains some wildcard acts.
Creating full experiences that aren't just concerts is a very important part of how we approach programming. We understand that the most enjoyable way to experience something is to be consumed by all aspects of an event. In a sense, the moment someone walks through are door we want them to be fully involved with our artists and engaged with something different than their everyday experience. This year we finally broke the fifth sense -- taste -- by adding amplified-pop up dinners in collaboration with local chef collective Table Manners.
MW: What have been some of the challenges yet rewards in preparation for this year's festival?
H&L: We keep ourselves challenged by constantly expanding what constitutes the festival. This year, in addition to more guest artists and people involved, we also added two extra nights to the festival. That makes six nights in total (not including a significant amount of outreach) -- a number we hadn't ever dreamt of before.
The reward of having more events is immediately obvious: more depth in programming, a larger variety of experiences, more sense of community, and a real impact on the Winnipeg arts scene.
MW: We (Muddy Water Mag) have a huge soft spot for Winnipeg and the support its people gives. How has your experience been working with Winnipeg and its artistic community, with a project I'm sure you've been pouring your heart and soul into?
H&L: Honestly nothing but positive. We both love Winnipeg with our hearts and souls, and we are constantly amazed at the talent, generosity, and spirited nature of Winnipeg artists and audiences. It was -50 C outside on this year's opening night (March 1) and we had a great crowd of people who not only braved the cold, but were also so enthusiastic and fully engaged in the concert. It was a real Winnipeg feel-good moment, knowing that people will come and support things they believe in, and task a risk on the unknown.
Cluster is definitely a Winnipeg festival (over the years, so many of our artists have remarked on this). We constantly strive to find new ways to be involved with the local arts community and the city as a whole. The word spreads a little bit more each year and we hope to continue programming even more local content -- we're truly excited to be presenting Manitoban artists to Manitoban audiences.
MW: All that being said, what can we expect from the rest of Cluster Festival 2014?
You can expect a rich week full of incredible, unique work and performances result in experiences you truly won't find anywhere else: from Mira Benjamin's hyper focused, almost transcendental solo violin concert on Thursday; to the dark, visceral exploration of the natural world amplified through performance, film, music and visual art on Friday;to the frenetic, raw energy of Saturday's finale (followed by a raucous dance party) it's going to be an amazing few days.