LONDON: With the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic being felt around the world, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) — which has been running annually since 1998 — has, like many other such events, shifted to a digital format for its 2020 program, which will be held from July 9-18.
“We made the decision in March to switch to a digital festival,” explains LAAF director Anne Thwaite. “We had the luxury of time to plan and prepare, which many of our peers didn’t. Our funders, including Arts Council England, Liverpool City Council, and our community and education project funders, were supportive of a digital event this year.”
The festival program was, Thwaite admits, 95 percent complete back in March. And while some of those events won’t now be held — especially those requiring gatherings — the switch to online has also created opportunities that didn’t exist before.
“As an example, we had approached (Yemen-based British writer) Tim Mackintosh-Smith about an event and he couldn’t make it to Liverpool,” says Thwaite. “When we decided to move forward with a digital festival, we approached him again and could organize a digital reading and conversation.
“We’ve been able to connect artists we might not have done,” Thwaite continues. “We’ve been able to work with artists to develop their work on a digital platform which has brought a new element of creativity. This has been a strange time for everyone in the world. There has been real comfort to be able to spend much of that time creatively, forging new partnerships and strengthening old ones.”
Rather than physically attending the festival, audiences are able to sign up for some events via LAAF’s website, and will be sent a link to film screenings, Zoom conversations or performances, while music events will take place live on Facebook.
“When we’re in physical venues, we spend a great deal of time matching artists and events to specific venues,” explains Thwaite. “We’ve very consciously done the same thing for this digital festival. It isn’t as simple as just broadcasting everything via Facebook or Instagram Live. Some events will benefit from a closed Zoom group that has a sense of intimacy. Others, it’ll feel like a kitchen disco where you crank the speakers and dance to the music. What’s been interesting is how many of our followers and friends in the Arab world have been delighted they will be able to ‘attend’ this year.”
The festival launches on July 9 with members of Moroccan musical collective N3rdistan Walead Ben Selim and Widad Brocos, kicking off a program that boasts influential thinkers and performers from across the Arab world. Highlights include performances from poet and artist-in-residence Lisa Luxx, Moroccan group Daraa Tribes (who will close the festival), Syrian electronic musician and producer Hello Psychaleppo, screenings of Arab films from across the diaspora (including “Mawlana”, “Jaddoland” and the BBC Arabic Festival, which will showcase female directors), and conversations and panels covering everything from creative writing and safeguarding national literature to the challenges facing those writing about Palestine.
LAAF will ask for donations linked to tickets, with all proceeds going to artists and commissioning new work for the festival in 2021.
“We are passionate that not only should everyone have access to the arts, but that everyone should have access to being an artist,” says Thwaite. “Creating thoughtful, heartfelt, detailed work takes time, energy and passion. (Each) of those things — especially time — takes money. Artists often don’t get paid for that valuable time just spent thinking about their work. It has never been more important for us to empower artists and to ensure that, wherever they are from and whatever their story is, they have the agency and the ability to tell it and share it.”
This digital format will, Thwaite explains, also be key to the festival’s future editions.
“We would probably struggle not to have a digital aspect from now on. There are artists and performers we physically cannot bring to Liverpool, either because of travel or resources. Digital technology enables us to join a live gig in Aleppo and broadcast it to our followers. A digital program helps those who can’t come to Liverpool connect with the festival in a new way, and feel part of it in a way they haven’t before.”