How the £120mn ‘Festival of Brexit’ became something much weirder

Nelly Ben Hayoun sits in a repurposed Tube carriage in east London, preparing to send music to the Moon. No, wait. Preparing to collaborate with the Moon. “It’s not like a penetration,” she clarifies. Even by the creative standards of Shoreditch, her plan is far out.

An artist who has worked with Nasa and Pussy Riot, Ben Hayoun is organising a convoy of garishly coloured, alien-themed vehicles across England this summer. Her team has experimented with sending a saxophone track, via transmitters in Italy and Ghana, to the Moon, where it resonated three metres into the rock before bouncing back to Earth. I can reveal that the returning sound is like a car radio losing signal. It is . . . not pleasant.

But perhaps the strangest thing is that none of this would be happening without Theresa May. In October 2018 the then prime minister, famously strait-laced, danced on to the stage at the Conservative party conference and promised a “year-long festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Her audience of activists politely applauded. Did they know what they were signing up for? Did any of them guess that their grab at flag-waving patriotism would end up in the hands of artists such as Ben Hayoun, whose mantras include “Decolonise”?

May’s festival was political in motivation: a good news story for a besieged leader to offer after years of Brexit turmoil. Months earlier, the arch-Brexiter MP Jacob Rees-Mogg had proposed: “We should drink lots of champagne to say that though we may be leaving the European Union, we don’t dislike Europe.” The assumption was that May’s festival would be jingoistic propaganda, a festival of Brexit.

Nelly Ben Hayoun in her London studio
Nelly Ben Hayoun in her London studio © Siqi Li

Except Britain’s creatives didn’t want to celebrate Brexit. (Ahead of the referendum, one arts trade body reported that 96 per cent of its members backed Remain.) Some vowed to boycott May’s festival, despite the £120mn public funding on offer. Some commentators wrote cynical, mocking articles. “Anyone attending the ‘Festival of Brexit’ will immediately want to leave,” ran a headline in Scotland’s Daily Record. Even Leavers were sceptical. Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn managed to complain both that the festival had too little money and that it would end up going over budget.

Three and a half years later, quite a lot has changed. May is no longer prime minister. And her festival is no longer the festival of Brexit. Instead, with projects such as Ben Hayoun’s, it may be the festival of un-Brexit. “It’s almost swung 180 degrees,” says Sunder Katwala, director of the think-tank British Future.

The festival is now known as Unboxed; its website contains zero Union flags. It comprises 10 projects around the UK, the first of which launched on March 1. Among them are: a “harvest festival for the 21st century” in Scotland; a 10km sculpture map of the solar system starting in Northern Ireland; and a decommissioned North Sea oil platform relocated to Weston-super-Mare. Each has received several millions of pounds.

In 2022, after two years sheltering from the pandemic, Britons have the chance to celebrate being together. There is the Platinum Jubilee, marking the Queen’s 70 years on the throne, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. How does May’s festival fit in? A festival of Brexit would have celebrated the victory of the 52 per cent of Britons who voted over the remainder. Instead Unboxed aims to showcase the diversity of the whole. Britain may not be a military or economic superpower, but it clings to the belief that its creativity — the BBC, Harry Potter, Adele — is world-beating. As May put it in 2018, “Our soft power [is] unrivalled.”

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At the same time, perhaps no country is so willing to laugh at its own dreams. Brits mocked the Millennium Dome, New Labour’s attempt to celebrate the year 2000. Last year efforts to convert London’s Marble Arch into a tourist attraction were labelled “Shit Hill”. Unboxed has already been nicknamed Unbrexited, Unbummed, Unbolloxed. Critics whisper that the creatives have run away with the show. “The political antennae have been lost,” says one arts funder. “There has been very little attempt to engage the public.” Stuart Barr, an arts entrepreneur, says: “£120mn is a lot of money. Are people in five years going to be saying, ‘I remember the Unboxed festival, that was amazing’? Not convinced yet.”

In Shoreditch, Ben Hayoun is not worried about the critics. She’s more interested in seeing things from the perspective of the Moon. Her project, Tour de Moon, has received £7.5mn in public funding. It is aiming to bring “the smell of the Moon” to live events in Leicester, Newcastle and Southampton. It will expose moths to sound from the Moon “to see how they react”. It is giving £1mn in grants to hundreds of young artists and musicians to contribute to the Moon convoy, to spearhead conversations around nightlife. “Everything we’re doing is high-level risk. There is no back-up plan! You can put this as a headline.”

Ben Hayoun, who was born in France to an Armenian mother and an Algerian father, does not believe in Brexit. She barely believes in Britain. “I’m post-nation-state . . . If you want to hear me say, ‘Oh my god, the UK is the most groundbreaking nation state to come up with such a brilliant idea [as Unboxed]’, I don’t believe that for a second.”

How did the festival of Brexit go so left field? And how will the British public react?

If the festival of Brexit owes its existence to May, it owes its form to Martin Green. “We had a classic blank canvas,” Unboxed’s chief creative officer tells me over coffee in Birmingham, where the festival is headquartered. Like Brexit itself, the festival was approved before it was thought through. “There was one line in the speech and that really was it.”

Green is the mirror image of May: charismatic, freethinking and wholly unsold on the benefits of Brexit. His opinion — only a personal opinion, of course — is that “nothing is ever solved by leaving things.”

He was chosen to lead Unboxed largely because of his role as director of ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics. Those games, and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony in particular, were arguably Britain’s biggest moment of national unity for generations. They also created a precedent for the experience of thinking big and sidelining politicians. “We essentially ignored them,” says Paul Deighton, chief executive of the organising committee. “It was simple game theory: if the ceremony’s a success, they won’t care. If the ceremony’s a failure, we’re fucked anyway.”

At the Olympics, Green designed the brief for Boyle and helped liberate him from logistical constraints. “What you learn working with Danny is that the word ‘no’ disappears.” Afterwards, he spent three years in Hull, the post-industrial port in north-east England, after it was designated city of culture. Moving north gave Green an insight into Brexit. “If I had been those years in London, I simply wouldn’t have been able to understand why this was happening. [By 2016] I had lived two years in Hull and you could absolutely understand.”

When his work hit difficulties, Green would remind his colleagues of his Essex childhood: “I grew up 6ft 6”, ginger and gay in Billericay. That was quite hard.” A memory of being the outsider still drives him. “For me, there will always be a little bit of ‘fuck you’ going on. I think I’m a little bit over it now, but it takes a long time to get that out of your system.”

Martin Green
Martin Green, Unboxed’s chief creative: ‘There is a temptation to try and repeat successful formulas. I commend [the government] for saying let’s do something new’ © Lee Allen

The government’s brief for Unboxed was simply that the festival should bring people together, celebrate UK creativity and span both the traditional arts and technology. “What is totally absent from this is any sense of design by committee,” says Green. “The Millennium Dome taught us — politicians, creatives, everybody — that design by committee doesn’t work.” He judged that Unboxed did not have to be ostentatiously patriotic, because the Commonwealth Games, of which he is also chief creative officer, and the Jubilee, would tick that box.

Still, his budget is bigger than the £80mn allocated for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies. Why not do another spectacular that millions could watch? “The Olympics was ultimately an event that happened in the capital city. We don’t live like that any more. Caernarfon has a population of 10,000 but why shouldn’t it get quality work? We understand all our identities in much more refined ways, even 10 years later . . . We’re not pickled in aspic, are we? There is a temptation to try and do safe stuff and to try and repeat successful formulas. I absolutely commend [the government] for saying let’s do something new.”

Green’s approach was to call for teams, not specific ideas. The teams had to come from across the UK and at least one member could not have worked with the others before. In October 2020, nearly 300 applied, including major institutions such as the Design Museum and Tate Liverpool. A month later, 30 shortlisted teams were given £100,000 each to develop their ideas.

By now, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments had all signed up to the festival. Green’s approach had won over some sceptics. Pat Kane, a musician and supporter of Scottish independence who had called the festival “a fête worse than death”, joined as a creative adviser. The festival, conceived as a way to bring the UK together, was to him compatible with Scottish independence: “I was thinking of Britishness as a Scandinavian-ness or a Nordic-ness. It felt like a new Britishness.” And he was enthused that it wouldn’t just be “the usual suspects — the National Theatre and so on.”

Not everyone was convinced. “I felt there was this fake sense of optimism,” says Kasia Molga, an artist who withdrew from one of the initial teams. Her concerns included Brexit — “A lot of my friends after Brexit can’t tour [internationally] and can’t exhibit” — but stretched to broader financing of the arts. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a celebration of British creativity because it doesn’t solve the big problems.”

The 30 teams were offered weeks of online workshops, with lectures from cultural luminaries. The musician Nile Rodgers talked about the rise of disco. The scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock talked about space. The psychologist Dacher Keltner talked about awe and the social and psychological benefits the emotion provides.

“There’s no point in kidding about it: it was a utopian process,” says Kane. “Imagine that you were paid to dream as massively as you want to. We were inventing a virtual, temporary, ad hoc Bauhaus.” A panel, mainly comprised of Green’s team, narrowed the 30 teams down to 10. Neither politicians nor civil servants overruled them. “We had a slight worry that someone might say, we want to see the other 20. No one even went there,” says Green.

CGI visualisation of See Monster, 2021
A CGI visualisation of the ‘See Monster’ project © NewSubstance

Two projects are explicitly about space exploration. Two more are nature-focused: See Monster, where a decommissioned oil platform is being made into a hub of creativity, and Green Space Dark Skies, where attendees will be taken into the countryside at dusk with low-impact lights. Others explore identity: one, PoliNations, emphasises Britain’s debt to immigration, by looking at how much of the UK’s plantlife, including the “English” rose, came from elsewhere.

The projects are scattered around the UK, mostly not in the big cities. The opening event, a light show called About Us, takes place in the old Scottish mill town of Paisley, population 80,000. But by touring throughout the UK, it hopes to reach hundreds of thousands of people. “I said [to Unboxed], how much artistic involvement should we be expecting?” says Leo Warner, one of About Us’s team. “The answer came back, immediately: ‘We are commissioning you as artists.’ That’s the gold standard for us.”

‘About Us’ at Paisley Abbey
‘About Us’ at Paisley Abbey © Justin Sutcliffe/Courtesy of 59 Productions

In late 2021, Green unveiled the projects and the name Unboxed. If the festival of Brexit was an unloved moniker, Unboxed has not been much better. The chair of the House of Commons’ culture committee, Julian Knight, said it sounded like “a packaging company”. Damian Green, another Conservative MP, worries the name lacks resonance. “This is our coming-out-of-pandemic festival. If the country is in the mood to celebrate anything, it’ll be that: the Festival of Getting Back to Normal.”

Shortly before Unboxed begins, almost no one has heard of it. Its social media accounts have fewer than 10,000 followers. When we spoke in February, Martin Green was serene. “We’re four weeks away from the first iteration of one of the projects. It would be pretty bad if I was sitting here worrying.” He knows the sound of music being bounced back from the Moon is not pleasant, but Ben Hayoun’s project is “absolutely gunning for those 14- to 24-year-olds. You’ve got to keep grown-ups out of it.” His real headaches have been shortages of materials and workers: “Plywood has doubled in price!” he says. “We’ve had three people call us the day before they were going to start work and tell us they’ve decided to be a yoga instructor. I’m not joking!”

CGI visualisation of PoliNations, 2021
A CGI visualisation of ‘PoliNations’

When he opened the 1951 Festival of Britain, King George VI told the British people: “This is no time for despondency . . . We have not proved unworthy to our past.” The 1951 festival, together with the Great Exhibition a century earlier, was May’s initial reference. Like Unboxed, it came after a time of hardship and almost unimaginable restrictions on citizens’ personal lives. Rationing of food and petrol was still in place. Its budget was £12mn, or about £400mn in today’s terms. It was centred around the South Bank, in particular the Royal Festival Hall, Britain’s first new public building since the war. There was also a funfair and the world’s largest dome. Inside were escalators, which, according to the historian David Kynaston, Winston Churchill kept going up and down in excitement.

As in 1951, the national mood is weary. But it is not hopeless. Most Britons think Brexit has gone badly; a slim majority would like to rejoin the EU. But it’s a side issue: Brexit now barely comes up in political focus groups. On those issues that do come up there is less polarisation. Unlike in the US, where voters often split down the middle on party lines, more than 60 per cent of British voters think Boris Johnson should resign as prime minister. About 70 per cent say immigration brings economic and cultural benefits. More than 80 per cent are worried about climate change. More than 90 per cent of those eligible have had at least one vaccine dose. It is unlikely that Johnson could lead anything resembling a nationwide party with a straight face, but the public would probably be willing to have one without him.

Polling in 2019 found that the public supported the concept of the festival by a huge margin: 62 per cent to 10 per cent. Even when the festival was described as the festival of Brexit, most Remainers were in favour. “People basically feel it would be nice if we had more moments that bring us together,” says Katwala. “But they’ve got to jump the suspension of disbelief . . . Unboxed hasn’t yet made its case as to what it wants to be.”

Unboxed’s mantra is “open, original, optimistic.” That optimism must contend with a country strained by Covid and spiralling inflation, the shadow of an unprovoked war in Europe, and the grim reality of climate change. One Unboxed project, Galwad, envisages life in Wales in 2052. With Alex McDowell, who worked on the film Minority Report, it has created a vision of the future — filled with multilingualism, climate migrants and shifting identities. “It wouldn’t be interesting for the audiences or the participants to create a utopia, but neither is it a dystopia,” says Claire Doherty, who is leading the project.

Seven decades after the Festival of Britain, the Royal Festival Hall remains in operation. Unboxed will leave no concert hall, no Millennium Dome, no Olympic Park. Its legacy will be less tangible and more diffuse. “Does it leave buildings behind? No, it doesn’t. We’re getting better at legacy each time we do something. Years ago, it was just: are you building a building, and how much money will come back in?” says Green.

He references a forecast that in the next 10 years, jobs where creativity is the core skill required will increase by 30 to 40 per cent. “I was quite struck by that.” Part of the festival’s legacy will be the young people trained. “Remember, not many people knew who Thomas Heatherwick was when that cauldron popped up,” says Green, referring to the architect who lit up the Olympic ceremony. “Now he’s a superstar.”

StoryTrails, an Unboxed project that uses augmented reality to map history on to local streets, is training 50 people in digital skills. I saw the technology being trialled in Brixton, where it brought into 3D the story of Jamaica-born activist Olive Morris. “We know Olive Morris House [the old town hall] because it’s where we go to pay our council tax. But very few people know she was a real person!” said one trialist. But she was frustrated by the technology. “Will it be ready?” Another couple’s phone battery had run out halfway around the tour.

The run-up to the 2012 Olympics was marred by cynicism. The public warmed to the event as they were brought into it: first, in the torch relay, then by the opening ceremony, which featured 10,000 volunteers, and, finally, by the athletic excellence on display. “The Brits are brilliant if you give them the chance to join in. They are the world’s best joiner-ins,” says Deighton, former head of the organising committee. “The Brits, though, are terrible if they feel excluded.”

An artist’s impression of StoryTrails © BFI, Nexus and Uplands, 2021

Sceptics of Unboxed fear it may fall into the second trap. Unboxed has not called for an army of volunteers; its emphasis is on paying professional creatives. It has not embraced Britain’s main nostalgic narratives: war, monarchy and flag-waving. But neither has it fully embraced its liberal patriotic narratives: the NHS and immigration, as showcased in 2012.

One Friday afternoon, I went to the studios in Hackney, east London, where one of the most ambitious projects was being pulled together. Dreamachine takes its name from a 1959 invention by the artist Brion Gysin, who believed that bright light reflected on closed eyelids could create an experience even better than television. A team including Anil Seth, a neuroscientist and expert on consciousness, Turner Prize-winning artists Assemble and Grammy-nominated composer Jon Hopkins has tried to perfect the experience.

The result, apparently, is a deep exploration of our perception. About 50 participants lie in the Dreamachine at a time, with their eyes closed. They stay there for around an hour, bathed in bright light and music (the music influences what they see). They are then encouraged to talk about what they experience. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before,” says Green. “We’re investing in something that I think will tour the world for years, with Made in the UK stamped on its arse.” Jennifer Crook, Dreamachine’s director, says, “I never imagined it could be realised at this scale.”

Dreamachine consciously does not reference identity or history. “It’s not born from a grand narrative. It’s a fundamental human connection,” says Crook. If the project is successful, tens of thousands of people in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff will have truly novel visions. So far, nearly a thousand have been through the prototype. Often they find that their experiences are wildly different and that is what brings them together. “Some people sit there discussing this for hours. We had one group who sat there for three hours — complete strangers!” Has any of them mentioned Brexit? “Not one.”

By the time Unboxed launched this week with a light show in Paisley, the nation’s focus had moved on from Covid and Johnson’s parties. Revulsion at Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had brought the UK together in a way that no post-EU trade deal could. Before the light show, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag lit up the street.

The show consisted of images projected on to Paisley Abbey, which dates back to 1163, while a local choir sang. We started at the Big Bang, the birth of life, the first cave paintings, and then leapt to modernity: plastics, planes, industrial farming. The projections played cleverly on the abbey’s contours: at one point the stones appeared to blow apart; at another a diplodocus seemed to be walking inside. A sparse crowd of a few hundred people clapped appreciatively at the end.

But the message was uncompromising. “Indigenous forests are funnelled into factories, sweatshops, mines,” ran the narration. The light at the end of the tunnel was in fact a bush fire. The exhilaration of modern life was the forerunner of Armageddon. “We are here, but not for long, not forever.” Whereas the 1951 Festival of Britain touted human achievement, the light show underlined our insignificance. As I stood in the cold night, this seemed a fitting epitaph to Brexit: it didn’t matter half as much as we thought.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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