This Festival Wants You To Rethink Social Justice Through The Moon

Taking over Newcastle this weekend, arts festival Tour de Moon is celebrating nightlife and encouraging radical imagination in order to find solutions to life’s complex problems.

PHOTOGRAPHY Nick Ballon & Keaton Chau

When I ask creator Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian how she would describe her brainchild Tour de Moon, she tells me it’s “a direct response to history repeating itself.” Ask her again, and she says it’s “a platform to celebrate nightlife”, and ten minutes later she adds, it’s “a federation of care and support for arts communities.”

Tour de Moon, it turns out, is all of this and more – comprising a four-day, multi-city festival of free public art events and installations travelling via a sustainable ‘Moon Convoy’, supporting and amplifying the work of artists in towns and cities across the UK to encourage radical imagination and new ways of thinking in order to find solutions to life’s complex problems. The festival’s team boasts more than 90 individuals and hundreds of collaborators including its Youth Reporter Board and Advisory Board to showcase commissioned artworks from more than 800 artists.

The sheer scale of the festival – from Moon Experiences, Moon Live and Moon Cinema to Moon Games, Moon Press and an AI-powered Moon Hotline – is matched only by Nelly’s enthusiasm for the event itself. But to understand the vastness of the operation beyond its colourful games and wacky installations, Nelly explains the three-year exploration she’s undertaken to reach this weekend.

Being in these rooms where the visions of what is going to happen for humanity have been discussed for many years, drove me to see the need for international debate around what the public actually wants from space exploration and the future of humanity in space.

Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian

In 2021, Nelly’s design studio was selected to host one of 10 major creative projects commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, which is taking place across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 2022. Nelly is an artistic powerhouse – she’s a creative director, a filmmaker and the founder of NASA’s International Space Orchestra and the tuition-free charity University of the Underground. She’s worked on large-scale projects with political activists including Noam Chomsky and Pussy Riot, and artists Kid Cudi and The Avalanches. 

She’s known for challenging institutions from within through events, and as Vice-Chair of the Technical Committee on the Cultural Utilization of Space (which she describes as “the UN but for space,”) a member of the IAF Space Education and Outreach Committee, and a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence permanent committee, there seems none more qualified to be leading the charge to inspire young people to develop alternative futures. 

As for the Moon, Nelly explains that the festival sees our “universal satellite” as a character, a landscape and a prompt for radical imagination. “Being in these rooms where the visions of what is going to happen for humanity have been discussed for many years, drove me to see the need for international debate around what the public actually wants from space exploration and the future of humanity in space,” she says.

Having already taken over Leicester, the Convoy has arrived in Newcastle today for a four-day events schedule, and will showcase also in Southampton before culminating in a closing street party at Pedro Youth Club in Hackney, East London, on 16th June.

The festival’s team worked closely with youth agencies and the network of Night Mayors to identify the three locations that would most benefit from disruptive artistic expression. “We identified that for us, [location] was about deprivation, not just about where our audience could be, but where had experienced a lack of COVID recovery and recovery funding specifically from governments,” Nelly explains.

And while we all may be guilty of thinking our best ideas have come to us while we’re out at the club, Nelly reaffirms that the forward-thinking nature of the UK’s nightlife culture could be the key to rebuilding our social systems and enacting change. “We’re trying to not only challenge the model of commissioning for the festival itself but also trying to challenge aesthetics, ideas, thinking so that we don’t offer a vision for the future of humanity in space in the same way that older generations and rooms of Congress that I find myself in think,” she explains. “We want to show that other visions are out there and the most exciting ones are coming from youth and nightlife workers, not from people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.”

We want to show that other visions are out there and the most exciting ones are coming from youth and nightlife workers, not from people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.

Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian

As part of the UNBOXED shortlist, Tour de Moon received funding from UK Government and has redistributed more than one million pounds of its funding back into artist bursaries. “Part of the commitment we’ve made is that we want to acknowledge the past and so we recognise we come from a history of colonial heritage and therefore it’s essential for us to redistribute wealth,” she says. More than 800 bursaries were awarded to emerging artists, playwrights, filmmakers, poets and musicians between 18-25, as they identified young artist communities were particularly impacted by COVID-19.

“Let’s be real here, one million pounds of bursaries when you put it together with more than 800 recipients, it doesn’t add up to a massive amount so it’s not like we have resolved the situation for creatives in these towns and cities,” Nelly says with refreshing honesty. “But it’s a starting point to bring them to the front of national and international debates, and also to give them a platform.”

One such recipient is the all-female theatre company Girl Next Door. Having met while training at the Newcastle Theatre Royal’s Actor Training Company, the trio developed their focus on self-awareness and amplifying women’s voices. For the festival, the trio have created ‘Superstition’, exploring the theme of ‘birth’ and the unexpected hurdles modern life throws at young women. 

“We believe that regional theatre stories can be some of the most universal,” they explain. ‘Festivals like Tour de Moon are fantastic for the North East Theatre ecology and communities like it. We have a loud and proud attitude that we hope invites people from across the country to visit our shows and other night-life events in Newcastle.”

We believe that regional theatre stories can be some of the most universal. Festivals like Tour de Moon are fantastic for the North East Theatre ecology and communities like it.

Girl Next Door

Other standouts from Newcastle’s event schedule include Dainty Blast’s exploration of astrological identities in ‘The Room Upstairs’ and ‘A City in Moon-trimony’ by Leicester-born artist Octavia Nyombi

Moon Experiences will see the plays shown in transformative new mediums through an immersive 2-hour showcase, while Moon Cinema is another programme offering fledgling creatives an opportunity to create large-scale projects, often for the first time, and supported 12 up-and-coming filmmakers to tell important stories around identity, care and their experiences with nightlife.

“I hope festivals such as Tour de Moon can be a reminder to my community that thinking outside of the norm and creating art from a place of curiosity and imagination is healing and can be well received in my places in the world,” says internationally-acclaimed filmmaker Moréna Espiritual. “Additionally, I hope events like this continue to invest in the work and people from South America as an act of redistribution and an avenue for both communities to grow and learn from each other.”  

For Moréna, this meant hiring a large team behind and in front of the camera made up of working-class, BIPOC and queer members of their community. Moréna’s short film ‘Mi Coro’ interviews BIPOC voguers from around the world as they detail their failed attempts to communicate with a new alien species known as cis-heterosexuals, and the different ways failed communication has resulted in ostracization and violence.

I hope festivals such as Tour de Moon can be a reminder to my community that thinking outside of the norm and creating art from a place of curiosity and imagination is healing and can be well received in my places in the world.

Moréna Espiritual

“We want to celebrate youth counterculture and nightlife culture and we want to find ways that creatively we can address really complex problems and uncomfortable topics such as racial, social justice, pluralism,” says Nelly. “All of these ideas are the reason for Tour de Moon which is why it’s unsettling, it’s a show that’s going to be Marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it, but that’s part of the journey.”

Alexis Maxwell’s animated short film ‘Madness and the Moon’ responds to the sorry state of the mental health system in the UK. “I wanted to look at a future where mental illness is accepted and celebrated,” Alex explains. “We talked about all the old wives’ tales of the moon being a harbinger of madness and started to ask, why is that such a bad thing? We want to feel mad pride and mad love and mad acceptance.”

“Speaking to people in my local community made it rich with this sort of shared passion,” says Alex. “We’re all from the same places, we grew up in these council estates and struggled with accessing the same mental health services so it gave us a collective sense of drive to make things change. I got to speak to people who would never consider themselves artists or creators, but they got fired up thinking about all the different ways art could tell their stories. It filled it with all the passion, hope and authenticity of my hometown.” 

“We have no backup plan, which I love to say but that’s for real,” Nelly laughs as is her eternally-optimistic approach, though the scale of work produced speaks volumes for how important this festival is for its organisers and its artists. “Every night is different, every show is different, they’re all local talent and for some, this is their first proper paid job or paid commissions, so starting new beginnings is a big part of our mission Tour de Moon.”

For more information on Newcastle & Southampton’s event schedule, head to Tour de Moon’s website. You can book free tickets to the festival here, and follow our Instagram and TikTok to see the BRICKS team at the festival this weekend.

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