by Mira Benjamin
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Winnipeg in Winter might not seem like the ideal place to make new art come alive. In fact, the Canadian prairie city made international news headlines this past March for reaching temperatures colder than the surface of Mars! However, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the depths of this freeze as an artist in residence at Cluster New Music + Integrated Arts Festival, and contrary to news headlines, my experience of Winnipeg was one of warmth & vibrancy, bubbling with life.
Photo: Pablo Riquelme
Toating the tagline “boundless enthusiasm, endless possibility”, Cluster Festival is curated by the dynamic team of Luke Nickel and Heidi Ouellette, both composers raised in Winnipeg. For five years running, the Nickel-Ouelette team have set about to bite off more than any sane person could hope to chew, and have proceeded to chew ravenously, producing festivals that are rich, diverse, and inspired.
Under their direction, Cluster is slowly building a devoted following in the Winnipeg arts community, and turning heads across Canada and internationally.
I was invited this year to give a solo violin recital of four newly composed experimental works – the kind of obscure project few festivals would have the courage to take on. Cluster’s eagerness to present my concert speaks volumes of their artistic audacity, but my week in Winnipeg revealed something much more precious in the undercurrents of Cluster’s workings: community building at its best – the nurturing of an open-minded, open-hearted group of artists whose lives are enriched by their experiences at Cluster.
During the Cluster week, co-director Heidi Ouelette opens her home to the more than 25 artists participating in the festival. People come and go, someone is usually practicing while someone else is napping, and there’s always a divine smell coming from the kitchen. Heidi’s husband, Paul, is the silent guardian, providing support and vegan-friendly meals to all the artists and festival team.
Photo: Brett Howe Photography
Against this welcoming and generous backdrop, one can witness the festival events taking shape. Whilst enjoying an afternoon tea at Heidi’s, one was likely to observe co-director Luke Nickel preparing 16 stacks of score cards for the largest ever group performance of James Saunders‘ With Paper, to overhear featured composers Martin Arnold, Stine Sørlie and James O’Callaghan engaged in an impassioned discussion of Winnipeg’s preferred microbreweries, or to be inundated by the arrival of the rowdy Architek Percussion van, who always seemed to have rescued a cold and stranded artist en route from rehearsal.
The relaxed, homey environment provided by the Cluster team might make one expect the festival to occupy a similarly humble artistic scope. But Cluster’s four nights of artistic presentations were really a tour de force: Montreal artist Adam Basanta‘s full-gallery Room Dynamics installation; Xenia Pestova‘s whimsical sets of miniatures for toy piano and electronics, artfully assisted by Eliot Britton at the sound board; Jason Sharp‘s racing heartbeat, amplified through a concert bass drum beneath a thunderous improvisation on bass saxophone; Portuguese duo Gil Dellindro & Deli Gleba‘s grotesque hanging ice sculpture, which melted the evening away onto an amplified metal disc of boiling, rusting ferocity.
Cluster’s programme was wildly divergent, curated intelligently and judged impeccably to allow subtle connecting threads to shine through.
Much like the iconic Cluster 2014 Quilt – lovingly crafted by Winnipeg fabric artist Cathie Ugrin, who also happens to be Heidi’s mum – which hung all week as a leitmotif, waiting to be raffled in support of next year’s festival.
I can only say that among all the festivals I’ve visited, Cluster has left a distinct impression. The personal attention of the curators to each detail did not go unnoticed. Their passion and dedication is infectious, and I think the other artists and audience members would join me in saying that our week in Winnipeg really gave us the feeling that we belong to an artistic community.
Luke and Heidi have proven a point that I have long hoped might be true: when you put enough love into something, it thrives. Cluster is thriving, and I recommend you keep an eye on this little festival, because next time you blink, Cluster will be BIG!
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Mira Benjamin is a Canadian violinist based in London, and co-director of nu:nord.