East London's not averse to an arts festival or two. The LIFT Festival has been beaming out of a temporary hub in Canning Town for the past few weeks, bringing a series of creative events to a part of the capital that doesn't normally get many. Last night a quirky charade played out on the housing estates of E16, as seven technologically-modified ice cream vans drove round the area playing specially-synchronised tunes. Because artists are wacky like that. And you missed it.
Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans is the brainchild of composer Dan Jones, who wanted to create a wandering aural symphony which would evoke warm summery feelings in those who inadvertently heard it. He took seven very ordinary ice cream vans and kitted them out with synchronised GPS technology, then linked them together so that he could control which one played what when. They don't play Greensleeves, they play Dan's own composition - a rather more soothing melody all told. Mf7ICV was originally devised as part of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and trundled off round Norwich's inner suburbs at the end of May. It got a lot of press, including this feature on Radio 4's PM (complete with 2½ minute audio snippet) and this Look East report. They may not be Britain's first City of Culture, but there's always been a thriving arts tradition up Norwich way.
Eight o'clock in Canning Town Recreation Ground, and there was absolutely no evidence that any local resident was aware of what was about to happen. Kids were playing merrily on the swings (or beating each other up, depending). A few tired dogs were being taken for a walk, and the bench by the shrubbery was occupied by folk downing copious amounts of cheap alcohol. Right on cue, as the tinkling of the vans grew ever closer, a masked youth revved his enormous motorbike straight across the middle of the grass before disappearing off into the surrounding streets. So far, so normal.
The vans processed slowly around the perimeter of the park before spacing out and parking up and letting rip. The composition grew steadily, first with only a few brief musical phrases playing out, then gradually lengthening and layering until all seven vans were playing together. The overall effect was charming, if not overwhelming, with chimes echoing gently around the recreation ground for a full twenty minutes.
And yet many of the locals who'd been in the park seemed not to notice. The youngest continued playing, various teenagers carried on bickering and the lager drinkers didn't stir from their seat. Not even when the vans started issuing free ice cream did the majority of children attempt to obtain one. Maybe they thought they'd have to pay, or perhaps they'd never seen an ice cream van before and didn't associate their presence with the distribution of swirly cornets. It's very rash to assume that East London estate dwellers might have the same childhood memories as you. But I had no such qualms and wolfed down my free 99 with glee.
Standing in the centre of the recreation ground were a group of middle class adults paying rather more attention. A tiny handful of had read about the event elsewhere and made a special Saturday evening visit to Canning Town. But most appeared to be the organisers, the LIFT people, and associated media-type hangers on. They smiled, they listened, and they captured the sounds on iPhones and other audio-visual devices. How wonderful to be bringing an arts event of such calibre to the people of Canning Town. It's just a pity that so few of the genuine target audience noticed.
Eventually the vans revved up for one final circuit before heading off into the surrounding estate. They were due to tour three specially-zoned areas over the following hour, bringing brief musical delight to those living along the randomly selected streets. I doubt that many of those Canning Townspeople realised they were listening to a piece of art either. But back in the park one local lady rushed up to the bunch of organisers before leaving and announced that the evening had been "absolutely amazing!" It's inspiring like that, is art. Even when it's seven ice cream vans playing a mobile melodic symphony.
Music For Seven Ice Cream Vans is being performed one more time this afternoon in Rainham. Yes, Rainham. I only hope that the publicity in Rainham is better than it was in Canning Town so that a decent sized audience turns up and enjoys their brief spell in the artistic spotlight. Alas, I doubt there'll be hundreds and thousands here either.