Festival was Al's idea back in, ah... 2025. We would have stayed just another local gang of AR artful dodgets with a local reputation, a manifesto, and a video-channel, but it was Festival which took it first national, then European, then global.
It was the Field of Dreams approach – he approached the Council about giving him the use of a couple of blocks of practically derelict streets in Digbeth for a “street festival and augmented reality happening.” He claimed he had speakers – Bruce Sterling, Josh Fielden, Ommiah Hanssen, who hadn't accepted yet, some of them didn't even know they'd been invited yet. But that was Al – he always acted as if he had everything or nothing to lose.
He had the backing of the half of the city's artist community who thought he was the new Warhol – the other half hated him, naturally – but I think what must have swung it was the support of the AR-techs and Fab-Labbers up at the University, who jumped at the chance to test out their kit just down the road. They were respected, they made money for the city, in collaboration with them we wrote 3 or 4 of the core apps that underpin what we understand as augmented reality today.
So, we got a green light and off we punks went went.
Inviting the gamers and cosplayers? It was a no-brainer. The artists gamed, the gamers were customising their look with AR and carrying on their games in real life, and the cosplayers coded for a day job and were using the new tech to spruce up their look. After all, to use the classic example, it's hard to rock a Chun-Li look when you're a 6'5 bloke from Bournville. We'd been known to turn up to gigs and parties en masse as characters from our favourite Final Fantasies, so, y'know, this was our scene. Clo and Jake especially, they could go even to the most purist back-to-nature LARPers you can possibly think of and say, “Trust us, this is going to be awesome.”
So, come June 2025, I was relieved – Steampunk Messiah was I – to discover that we'd got 5,000 people (at least twice our target) to a weekend of phantasmagorical events. We got old Man Sterling and, ah, Neil Stephenson as the marquee speaker on Sunday night and as many chin-stroking workshops about data and Derrida as the theorists could wish for. For the rest of us, there was Lovecraftian suspence gaming, Lankhmarian inn-character inns for mass-participation, and, and the artists had just outdone themselves with the immersive spaces.