Nick Garnett (Whitley Flamboyance Festival)

Last year I got a text from a mate who lives in the flats opposite the John Madejski Academy (JMA). He said that there was some sort of uprising going on and the gates of the JMA had been flung open to unleash an alien entourage, who were now parading through Whitley looking like an escaped troupe of space-age circus performers or an absurdist dream made flesh with dancing, klaxons and odd machinery.

This was Flamboyance, the Annual Daydream Harvest‘s contribution to Whitfest, the Whitley Arts Festival, which has been growing for the past few years. It is curated and dis-organised by creative Nick Garnett, whose business is the Annual Daydream Harvest which he describes as a loose collective of artists and story-tellers. Tall, thin, restless and funny, Nick has imaginative sparks coming off him. I tried to calm him down with a carafe of loose leaf tea outside C.U.P, but he was already on the double espressos when I got there and the conversation flowed rather well despite the cold.

[Matthew] What have you achieved in Whitley so far?
[Nick] When we started this project four years ago, I found young people in Whitley to have a fairly low opinion of themselves in general; it’s a place where people lack a certain amount of confidence, or think that good things won’t happen there, or even that they don’t deserve it somehow. I think that we have helped turn the tide and we have really achieved some surprising things.

The two and a half days I spent at Reading Girls School with a group of shy 14 year-olds was the seed project behind the whole Flamboyance project. I go to work in character as Doctor Brian Squabbles who runs the Annual Daydream Harvest and I arrived with a van load of junk to use as part of the story. It culminated in building this strange machine and the pupils ended up creating characters for themselves. We took a strange walk around Whitley on a Tuesday morning looking for this oracle’s missing pet; some of us were ninjas or had two heads and the girls were really brave.

What is this year’s Flamboyance do about?
Over the past two years Flamboyance have opened a portal into a parallel Whitley – this is an optimistic and upbeat place. There will be a similar creative uprising on 21 April this year called the Spire and we are going to build the tallest tower we can out of reclaimed materials, junk and cardboard. We are going to need the talents and skills of local people and I want it to be beautiful. I want a park of totems, towers and fire sculptures with food, music and performance. A real bubble of delicious beautifulness that is created by the people of Whitley and I want it to be gorgeous.

How do you motivate people to take part?
Through play at first – I don’t tend to talk about art. My starting point is just going in as an unhinged person who needs help and build from there. A sort of infectious collective lunacy can create some amazing energy and pretending you are someone else with a pseudonym and a disguise maybe even a daft hat can be a very liberating experience for youngsters and adults alike.

What was the feedback for your Whitley event?
Generally positive – the year before it was in Long Barn Lane which was very much a fiery event. The whole piece of work called Flamboyance it is an unfolding story that is being developed and discovered through interactions that occur as we go along. We were all quite elated and high after the event last year; it was an incredible feeling.

Who are you and what are the origins of your business?
I am originally from Leeds and I am an artist primarily who started as a sculptor. I started working on Creative Partnerships that was a bit of a gravy train in the Blair years which put artists into schools. Through that I ended up working for with a guy called Tim Goodwin at the Thrift Theatre in Newbury who is an inspirational actor with a big personality. This started me on a bit of a journey then as I was quite shy beforehand.

Video ‘Re-vault.’ Alex Genn-Bash 2017.

We did projects that were about impossible journeys so we said to schools “challenge us to take you somewhere where you can never possibly go,” so we went to the moon and the centre of the earth and across the arctic in a hot air balloon which we brought to life through mechanical installations, film projection, sounds, music, song writing and story-telling. It was beautiful and expansive; it pushed me creatively and it’s the origins of my work today. I want to take people on a journey where they find parts of themselves they didn’t know they had.

What are you doing now?
Last year was hard as an artist as some of the funding wasn’t there. It’s starting to creep back at the moment and I am primarily doing outdoor art installations working for 101 Creation Space in Newbury and a company called Festive Road from Milton Keynes building large travelling outdoor installation type work. Although, with those companies it’s a bit more like audience and performers whereas I prefer doing in work in unexpected places that put people in the middle of what we are doing who are not artists that is very much like a conversation.

What are your aims?
I am actually trying to find the child in everyone; as Picasso said: “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I want Whitley to have the same status as other parts of town. Whitley is actually a vibrant and close community with great energy and creativity.

Can art set people free?
No, of course it can’t – but it can help. It can allow and enable us to realise what we are capable of.

Do you revel in the extraordinary?
I am quite non-conformist, but in order to create chaotic moments you need a background of conformity.

Is art all quite useless?
There should be an element of frivolity in everything you do, if possible.

What do you say to folk who say you are courting insanity or at least the Lord of Misrule?
No, I believe we are living in an insane world anyway. Save us from the sane, is what I say.

Can your actions help young folk overcome shyness and gain confidence?
Not all of them, and some of them maybe not for long, but it can certainly help.

Do the participants thank you?
Some turn up every time by choice and it’s so touching when certain youngsters get it and are always there and getting something out of it.

Do you like lardy cake?
Yes, I do like lardy cake; it’s delicious and I get mine from Warings in Tilehurst.

Are you trying to create culture?
You don’t need to invent it; there is tons of it in Whitley.

What are your ambitions?
I would like there to be an extraordinary and unusual annual event in perpetuity which includes non-artists and people doing quality work. I would like Whitley to be represented at the Reading-on-Thames Festival. Reading has a new cultural development officer which I’m quite excited about.

I’ve known people with exceptional talent – and some have wasted it. Ambition spurs a person on.

Geoffrey Boycott

The next Annual Daydream Harvest will take place in Whitley on 21 April 2018.

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. The Annual Daydream Harvest website, on Facebook and Readipop
  2. The John Madejski Academy
  3. Aspire2