Interview with Josh McNorton, Producer for Open Senses Festival

adventurous, scintillating, surprising

Hi Josh, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m originally from Canada and I moved to London in 2012 to work on the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. I’ve remained in London ever since and gradually transitioned from producing cultural events to more unique, thought-led festivals. For three years I produced FutureFest, a two day festival in London about the future, which was a great experience. Now I am producing a new festival called FuturePlay (formerly the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival) which coincides with the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe, in August.

How did you get into the world of the senses?

I think events are inherently multi-sensory but I didn’t realise the potential for audiences to be transformed by sensory work until I discovered BitterSuite. I met Steph in 2014 and was immediately enthralled by her quest to advance the experience of live music. I commissioned her to create an original piece, The Sensory Score, for FutureFest in 2015 and we’ve been discussing Open Senses and collaborating ever since.

Why the senses in particular?

As a creative producer, I love orchestrating reactions from an audience. In this day and age, there are so many distractions and so much competition for people’s attention and time, so we need to work harder to captivate people. Rather than relying on technology, theatrical devices or gimmicks, multi-sensory work uses what every audience member already has – their senses! The senses are a surprisingly underutilised frontier in live performances and immersive experiences, so there is a lot of room to innovate.

Also, by featuring multi-sensory work, the event becomes accessible to a more diverse audience, especially people who are sensory-impaired.

What led to the creation of this festival?

It started two years ago with a core team of four and lots of discussions, meetings and emails. It has been Steph’s vision driving us from the start and I think we’ve come pretty close to realising it!

What have been your biggest hurdles / surprises along the way?

It’s a boring answer but funding is the biggest challenge. New festivals typically take at least three years to turn a profit and while we have a different business model than most festivals, we’re still expecting to lose money. Open Senses doesn’t have a big promoter, sponsor or funder backing it. Everyone who works on the festival and contributes is a volunteer but there are still infrastructural and marketing costs. Without public funding or private sponsorship, it’s virtually impossible to pull this off… but somehow we’re doing it!

Why should people make time to come to the festival?

Open Senses is unlike any other festival and the programme is so wide-reaching that there is something that will interest every person. Plus, there are plenty of surprises for those who want to dive in and see a lot across the weekend!

Why does it matter?

It matters because it’s unifying a diverse group of artists, academics, makers and innovators while also celebrating London as a leader in multi-sensory practice.

What are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?

I’m most looking forward to SenCity, as I’ve been hearing about it from Ronald for many years but yet to experience it myself. Just as with BitterSuite, the idea of pushing the experience of live music, and making it more accessible and enjoyable for everyone, is really exciting.

Where would you like to see this progressing to in the future?

As Open Senses is such a unique and important concept, I’d love to see expand to other cities. But I can’t think too far ahead as we need to make the inaugural London festival a success first!

What three words would you use to describe the festival and how you feel about it?

Adventurous, scintillating, surprising.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Thanks to those who have been and will support Open Senses this year. Get out there and buy tickets!

Start your own conversation @OpenSensesUK #OpenSenses2017, this conversation initiated by Natasha Blok.