If you measure culture in terms of that which is recognised as such by a mysterious, far-removed cognoscenti; or you think that culture or artistic worth can only be determined by consensus; or, perhaps, you would measure the value of a band on the amount of downloads they can shift or people they can drag into a shoebox, then, no, you wouldn't find much to shift your needle into the red in north Wales.
If, however, you don't measure culture but instead immerse yourself in it, and enjoy having your soul thrilled by poets and musicians who've never seen a bandwagon pass through town, let alone dreamed of jumping on one, then north Wales is a teeming rainforest of sounds and thoughts that have evolved uniquely due to their relative isolation.
I'm talking about places like the Anglesey Arms and the Victoria Inn on Anglesey, the Dudley Arms in Rhyl, Yales/Central Station in Wrexham, Morgan Lloyd in Caernarfon, and, in particular for this piece, TheABSURD in Mold.
TheABSURD is a free online publication that celebrates cultural and artistic expression in North Wales. It's an open and welcoming community of artists, musicians and poets begun by two residents of Mold, Andy Garside and Sophie McKeand. They host monthly nights at Y Pentan in Mold and staged the inaugural Y Ffin Festival in Mold last summer. This coming Thursday night (22 October) they will be hosting acclaimed and controversial poet Patrick Jones and sing-a-long guitar pop from the Loose Kites.
To coincide with this event, I thought I'd conduct an e-mail interview with Andy (mostly) and Sophie.
This is what they had to say:
When and why did theABSURD start?
theAbsurd.co.uk was the beginning of it all. It started as an experimental art project about two years ago. Sophie was already writing and performing poetry and I was designing - originally it was a totally obscure website with some quite random poems and artwork. We loved it but it was completely inaccessible and nobody looked at it.
We then progressed to organising theAbsurd events 18 months ago. This was for completely selfish reasons - we were going to gigs in Liverpool, Manchester and Bangor because Sophie was performing, or to see other artists, but there were no spoken-word gigs local to us in the Flintshire/Wrexham area so we decided to start our own, but combining music in with the event to broaden our audience. Then we decided to re-launched the website in January this year as a platform to promote Welsh art, music and writing.
What is your philosophy?
If you build it they will come. Also we have a philosophy of only publishing or promoting art that inspires us. Yes that means that we are totally subjective and biased and that's the way we like it, thanks.
What effect has the recession had on you and the artists you support? Have these harder times been inspirational to them?
We run the website free of charge; we don't get funding for it or sell advertising. It's free. It's our hobby; it's what we do in our spare time. We also run the events as not-for-profit; we get some funding towards poets' fees from Academi, pay the musicians with money donated from the audience and take a small amount for running costs. We are not a commercial venture in any sense of the word; this allows us total artistic freedom and means that we're not really affected by the recession.
One of the main reasons we have a 'pay what you can afford' pricing policy is even if you are skint you can still get to see incredible live performances at theAbsurd. It's worked so far, so we're sticking with it.
Being freelancers there's been plenty of gigs we've missed purely because we haven't had the ticket money.
Creativity is definitely encouraged by adversity. Like you say, focuses the mind, makes people realise what's really important in their lives.
What do you think is unique about culture in north Wales?
Ah, where do you start? North Wales especially seems to be managing to escape the homogenisation, capitalisation and globalisation of its art. Perhaps it is because the area is so fragmented. There are any number of small towns where artists are holed away creating something completely unique. There is a rich cultural history to Wales as a whole, and it certainly seems to be in the blood of the people who live here to create, to push the boundaries, to keep on producing exceptional and diverse art.
Do you get much support from local populace?
Yes we do. Yr Wyddgrug is only a small market town so we had no idea about how well our events would be received. But after 18 months we're now seeing between 50-100 people at each gig - which for a Thursday night around here is great. Also we operate 'pay what you can afford' pricing and the majority of people will happily put a few quid in the hat for an interesting evening with some great performers.
With the website we get a much wider audience; about 40% of our visitors are from Europe and America. We've also got some really talented contributors who support us by giving up their time and words for free.
Given your experience with so many talented artists from north Wales, why do you think so few go on to get wider acclaim?
Sophie: We suppose we would ask why people seek wider acclaim? More isn't better, it's just more. The way in which art, music and poetry are now sold across the globe is ludicrous. People are forgetting about their local communities and moving to the city to 'make it big' but it's just the same old stuff in a different town unless you hit the 'big time'.
That's why we work hard to promote the arts and culture of this region - why shouldn't the artists who stay here be applauded for their hard work, innovation and artistic vision? Why should they be encouraged to move elsewhere? We're all sold the capitalist dream that money=happiness='a better life' and artists succumb to that as much as anybody else. But rather than ask why people don't get the acclaim they seek, ask why we've created a system whereby artists seek acclaim from a bunch of corporate city types who'll suck every last bit of creativity out of them, treat them like nothing more than money making machines, and drop them at the first sign that they're no longer 'the next big thing' - whatever that is.
Andy: When asked by friends from outside Wales what music I'm listening to, my reply is "predominantly Welsh music". and before I can list the bands or styles they presume I'm listening to just folk. There seems to be very little knowledge of Welsh music outside of Wales, why this is I've no idea, probably just laziness. People seem very afraid to stand up and admit they like something unless it's been verified by mainstream media.
What's coming up?
We've got quite a bit in the pipeline for the rest of this year. We'll be running three or four nights in Y Pentan soon, and these are starting to build as we speak. theAbsurd cabaret will still run on the third Thursday (or thereabouts) every month.
Next week (Tuesday 3 November) we launch our new night - (SSHH!!) - an altogether quieter affair... that will run on the first Tuesday of every month. This first event is supported in part by Menter Iaith Sir Y Fflînt and Academi.
We'll also be running some more traditional 'band nights' with just one band headlining - the first of these started with Redstripe who played this week and we've got a few others planned - you'll hopefully be seeing Racehorses in Y Pentan in the new year.
Also 2010 is already proving to be really busy for us - we're organising an avant-garde anti-fest in March with Parking-Non-Stop, Pecker Shorts, Rhys Trimble, Childe Roland and a shed-load of other acts TBC.
We've been approached by a guy who owns a forest and we're running some very secret, invite only, events and workshops there over the spring/summer. We've been approached by the Royal International Pavilion in Llangollen to work with them next year on some festivals and events, and Sophie has been invited to work with them as a community poet. Finally of course there's Y Ffin 2010 to organise.