Live&Online, Safe&Weird: Borealis 2021 Embraces Hybrid Festival Model

Each March, nestled among the fjords on the western coast of Norway, the picturesque city of Bergen welcomes an international roster of intrepid and forward-thinking artists for the annual Borealis festival. There’s an intimacy and coziness to Bergen—one can navigate the small footprint of the city entirely on foot—and the hygge of being hugged on all sides by snow-topped mountains creates an unexpected oasis for experimentation.

But this year brings something a little bit different as Borealis expands its reach and accessibility. Through a hybrid in-person and streaming festival that runs March 17-21, Borealis 2021 will invite local audiences and people around the world to join in on the experience, which promises to be Live&Online, Safe&Weird, Home&Away, and Kind&Wild.

“A festival that happens exactly a year into a global pandemic can no longer claim itself a victim of a sudden collapse of culture, but at the same time, it is still almost impossible to predict what will happen,” says Borealis Artistic Director Peter Meanwell. “We’ve spent the last year facing the challenges of border closures and reduced audience capacity by asking questions about sustainability, accessibility, and community. 2021 is a hybrid festival as a result, with local musicians performing live, and international voices contributing through scores, films, and discussions.”

Borealis Artistic Director Peter Meanwell and Managing Director Tine Rude--Photo by Thor Brødreskift

Borealis Artistic Director Peter Meanwell and Managing Director Tine Rude–Photo by Thor Brødreskift

Safe, weird, kind, and wild perfectly encapsulates the ethos of Borealis. Few festivals have cultivated such an open environment for experimentation—to try and fail, to educate and meditate, to laugh and play, to analyze and feel, and to hear and be heard.

The digital offerings available to stream include an experimental film project from Abdu Ali and Markele Cullins about Black artistic solidarity across the global diaspora; a performance film from Marshall Trammell that infuses Native American and African American technologies into a graphic score; a concert by BIT20 Ensemble dedicated to the music of Raven Chacon; a film project from experimental violinist and sound artist Laura Ortman; a DJ set curated by the Philadelphia-based duo 700 Bliss (Moor Mother and DJ Haram); and cross disciplinary world premieres from this year’s cohort of Borealis Ung Komponist (Borealis Young Composer) participants. 

Meanwell says, “We’ve favoured working with filmmakers rather than live streaming, and building clusters of content through podcasts and texts, exhibitions, and screenings…2021’s festival is different, but we’ve learned a lot along the way about what really matters to us. Crucially, we are still supporting radical artists and radical ideas in a time when we need new thinking and new ways of listening more than ever.”

700 Bliss (DJ Haram and Moor Mother)--Photo courtesy of Borealis

700 Bliss (DJ Haram and Moor Mother)–Photo courtesy of Borealis

This commitment to radical new ideas—both in concept and in execution—has often positioned Borealis one step ahead of the curve. As one of the early signatories of the PRS Foundation’s Keychange Pledge, Borealis achieved “50:50 gender balanced programming” years before the 2022 target date. As other organizations struggled to meet this initial goal, Borealis forged ahead with rebuilding their language and measurement tools for gender equity in order to be more inclusive of nonbinary and gender nonconforming artists who are not represented in a strictly binary framework. 

Borealis’ impact has long been defined by quietly doing the work through clear actionable steps. One of the central initiatives to Borealis 2020 was “Doing Not Saying,” aimed at creating a more welcoming environment for all. Lead by Artist-in-Residence Jenny Moore and the Feminist Militia (present at every event to assist anyone feeling unsafe or unwell), the project focused on providing wheelchair accessibility, gender neutral toilets, quiet spaces, and sober pals for solo attendees.

And with the 2021 festival, Borealis is now prioritizing racial equity with the same focus and intentionality that has defined their previous approach to gender equity and accessibility. The 2020 festival began this shift by featuring George Lewis and Elaine Mitchener as two of the headlining artists, and the 2021 festival programming centers BIPOC voices with new works by Raven Chacon, Abdu Ali, and Borealis Artist-in-Residence Marshall Trammell. 

Raven Chacon--Photo courtesy of Borealis

Raven Chacon–Photo courtesy of Borealis

The duality of Raven Chacon’s artistic identity as both a contemporary classical composer and a solo noise/electronic musician collides in his newly-commissioned work for BIT20 Ensemble, Owl Song.

“I rarely incorporate electronics or processed sounds in my chamber works,” says Chacon. “But more recently (especially during these Covid days), I have been interested in combining all of the mediums in which I work…Because I cannot give a live concert with electronic sounds or instruments in these times, I thought to bring it into [Owl Song].”

BIT20’s performance will also feature Chacon’s Double Weaving for string quartet, American Ledger No. 1 for full ensemble, and Quiver for solo cello.

Through the Baltimore-based curatorial platform as they lay, Abdu Ali and Markele Cullins will offer up a new experimental film titled “Close to Home,” featuring Temi Odumosu and poetry by Mecca Verdell. The film and the post-screening conversation investigates the “solidarity and collective consciousness around being a Black artist” across the global diaspora. Notably, the event description explicitly states that while all are welcome to join, Black voices will specifically be prioritized in the discussion portion.

“For ‘Close to Home,’ me and my collaborator Markele Cullins wanted to pursue an artistic investigation on finding out what it means to live as Black on different sides of the Atlantic,” says Ali. “Although imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy globally defines our struggle as Black people, it doesn’t dictate our essences as Black people. We are not monolithic. So for Black folk to build global solidarity, it is essential that we be in dialogue with one another to investigate and examine our narratives to use whatever discoveries that we find as tools for resistance.”

Abdu Ali (Photo by Micah Wood) and Markele Cullins (Photo by Amira Green)

Abdu Ali (Photo by Micah Wood) and Markele Cullins (Photo by Amira Green)

Marshall Trammell’s ELEVEN POSTURES is pedagogical film that dissects his interpretation of the graphic score from his 2019 public art installation, “Burn the Temples/Break Up the Bells.” Remixing communication technologies from the 1680 Pueblo Indian Revolt and the Underground Railroad, the visual score is a series of newly created “codes” (inspired by the quilt codes of the Underground Railroad), burned into wood with branding irons. 

“In the film, I attempt to describe my body, mental images, emotional states, objects in the room, and the entirety of the composition for each posture, save the final composite performance,” says Trammell. “I am developing a conduction method…as a participatory research-based practice to create new codes, embody through performance, and translate/reintegrate them through discursive interpretation of the music/performance as a listening study/impact assessment.”

Marshall Trammell's ELEVEN POSTURES--Screenshot courtesy of Borealis

Marshall Trammell’s ELEVEN POSTURES–Screenshot courtesy of Borealis

Borealis has proven year after year that a commitment to equity does not require a sacrifice in quality or integrity. As one of the most progressive international music festivals for contemporary and experimental music, their programming is a singular model for organizations seeking to create accessible and safe spaces for artists and audiences, center diverse perspectives, and confront pressing social issues.

Borealis: en festival for eksperimentell musik runs March 17-21, 2021 in Bergen and online. Stream the digital offerings via


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