So far, 2016 has been a year of events with earth-shattering proportions, the kind of things that send you scurrying from your breakfast cereal and Louise Minchin’s solemn face in the BBC studios to the colossal global natter of the World Wide Web. With the sad news of Prince’s death, or Victoria Wood’s passing ringing in your ears, you plan to send messages to everyone you know, only to find that everyone you know has gotten there first: your inbox is flooded as people become social commentators en masse on Facebook and Twitter.
Prince’s recent demise was just the latest in a string of celebrity deaths to rock the music and showbiz worlds. Personally – and I’m sure I’m not alone here – the news that hit me hardest this year was the untimely loss of David Bowie (“to be honest Lyndsey”, my Mam said at 7am on the day that the news broke, without a hint of irony, “it’ll be far worse for music when Rod Stewart dies”).
The loss of Bowie in January of this year was one strand of the inspiration behind Ground Control to Major Tim, the space-themed interactive art party being thrown by the folks at Ampersand Inventions in Commercial Union House on Pilgrim Street in Newcastle on May 14. If there’s one thing that can be safely said of Ampersand Inventions – and there are many, many wonderful things to mention when we talk about this collection of artists, creatives and academics working slap bang in the city centre – it’s surely that they know how to throw a good party. So I was intrigued and excited to learn of their plans for this year’s Late Shows – the 10th anniversary of the fantastic annual culture crawl across Newcastle and Gateshead. For two nights a year, a wide range of Newcastle’s galleries, studios, museums and libraries throw their doors wide open, with a range of exhibitions, performances and generally wonderful stuff happening across the city from 7-11pm.
“Last year’s event [The Grand Ampersand Hotel – a themed event based around Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel] was such a massive success,” says Melanie Kyles, a luxury fashion accessories designer working within Ampersand. “With around 1,300 visitors to the floor, this year we were trying to think of ways to really push the boat out and give our visitors something even more special, and even more exciting. We were all affected by the death of David Bowie and wanted to do something in tribute to him. At the same time we were really inspired by Tim Peake’s amazing experiences up on the International Space Station (ISS), the ‘Super Blood Moon’ and the discovery of water on Mars last September. With Bowie’s obvious link with space, it seemed like a great idea, to merge those two interests together.”
Space fascinates and intrigues me, from an aborted attempt to attend a series of physics lectures at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil a few years ago (there are HOW MANY superclusters? And how many galaxies in a supercluster??) to a recent obsession with Doctor Who and a copy of Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace largely unread on the bookshelves in my teenage bedroom. If there’s any testament to the wondrous capabilities of the internet, it has to be Tim Peake’s Twitter feed. The former British Army Air Corps officer became the first British person ever to walk in space in January of this year, and he keeps his Twitter account constantly updated with pictures and video clips from the ISS.
Sitting in my dressing gown in Newcastle, idly flicking through yet another Buzzfeed list and browsing my Spotify account, up pops a tweet: “Good weather in the toon today”, accompanied by a picture of Newcastle. FROM SPACE. There’s a video of a man running the London marathon on a treadmill. IN SPACE. A time-lapse video of a jaw-droppingly gorgeous sunrise. FROM SPACE. Seriously, this Twitter account is being updated by a person not currently residing on planet Earth. That’s all kinds of crazy, and when you think about it, it’s pretty glorious. After all, people used to think the moon was made of cheese. Now I can tweet a man who’s flying around it, without leaving my bedroom. It’s CRAZY, right?
Returning to topic, Ampersand’s space theme and tribute to Bowie is getting a big thumbs up from me. But what can visitors expect to see on the night?
“We’ve so many exciting parts of this event planned,” says Kyles. “We’ve drawn on everyone’s diverse skills and strengths to pull together an event with loads of different aspects to it. We’re going to have our own ‘Ground Control’, made by the guys at Maker Space. There’s an exhibition at Praxis gallery with works by local artists Nick Christie, Mani Kambo and Paul Jex, the chance to contribute to a UV constellation board, psychedelic space projections and even a room of space-themed ‘mini-lectures’ from the guys at Explore. It’s a chance, too, for studio members to hold open studios so that visitors can get a sense of the work local artists are doing and get to buy work directly from artists, taxidermists and more.”
I’m pleased to learn, too, that there’s a bar serving ‘moonshine’ cocktails.
And if that wasn’t enough, this is also the first public preview of the brand new Fashion Lab, Newcastle’s first independent cutting edge fashion department run by Kyles and Helen McClafferty. Details of The Fashion Lab are currently under wraps, but Kyles tells me that they are planning something extra special for this event, with a ‘space dress’ installation comprising projected constellations and lights. I’ve seen a preview, and as someone whose fashion tastes rarely extend beyond a Breton jumper and a tweed jacket, I can confidently say this is not just fashion – it’s a work of art.
In all, Ground Control to Major Tim promises to be a highlight of The Late Shows programme, and it’s a must-visit stop on your route around the city. The Late Shows is, once again, doing a fantastic job at putting Newcastle on the map for arts and culture. This year promises to be even better than before. You’d be a fool to miss it.
Ground Control to Major Tim at Ampersand Inventions, May 14, 2016, 7-11pm
The Late Shows, Newcastle-Gateshead, 13-14 May, 2016
Ampersand website: ampersandinventions.com
Late Shows: thelateshows.org.uk
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