THE BEGINNING

Art and music collide in Finland. Gemma Samways travelled there to witness it.

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Flow is proof that festivals needn’t be a slog. At 25,000 capacity per day, it’s significantly smaller than many of its European equivalents, but you get a sense that every single element of the event has been pored over with the happiness of attendees in mind. In addition to a superb bill, spread across eight different venues that all boast excellent sound, it offers a host of creative food and drink options, a cinema, a talks programme, and a centrally-located site, serviced by a range of readily available transport provisions.

A 30-minute walk or short Metro/tram ride away from Helsinki’s Rautatientori square, the Suvilahti site is a spectacle in itself. Formerly an energy production area, a disused gasometer looms over the courtyard area where the Main Stage is based. When the sun finally sets, at around 10pm, it becomes a vessel for hypnotic light projections.

Art is integral to the Flow experience. Curated in conjunction with the University of Arts Helsinki, special commissions are scattered between and integrated with the industrial architecture, from graffiti and illustration to sculptures and light installations. One of the permanent buildings houses an interdisciplinary Art Laboratory.

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When we wander in midway through Suistamon Sähkö’s set on Friday, we see a Leigh Francis doppelgänger leading the audience in dance, while rapping in Finnish over accordion and heavy beats. We don’t stay long. The symbiotic relationship between art and music at Flow is best evidenced in the Bright Balloon 360° arena, with its spectacular central orb, encircled by a ring of LEDs. The amphitheatre seats 1,000, and there’s room for a couple of hundred standing around the stage itself, which lends a wonderful intimacy to shows there. It’s a thrill to watch the drummer’s sticks fly at close range during Thundercat’s sun-dappled Sunday evening set.

Flow’s bold approach to programming means FKA Twigs headlines the Main Stage on Saturday, despite a relatively slim back catalogue. The risk pays off: her combination of spellbinding choreography and minimal, propulsive electronica has the audience rapt. Likewise, it’s the vitriolic energy of lesser-known guests Young Fathers who have the biggest impact during Massive Attack’s Friday night set, with Horace Andy’s haunting vocals on ‘Angel’ coming a close second.

Stormzy is another rising star that makes a huge impression. The heaving Black Tent is already semi-delirious when DJ Tiny materialises to warm up the crowd with a grime greatest hits, but when the MC eventually strides onstage, the whole venue explodes. Spitting bars bursting with UK-centric references, and frequently engaging the crowd in call and response, his charismatic performance is amongst the weekend’s highlights. Amongst the Finnish acts playing, Jaakko Eino Kalevi’s blissed-out synth-pop and Lake Jons’ melancholic Americana really shine.

There’s a strong showing from the weekend’s heritage acts, too. Playing the Main Stage early on Friday evening, Iggy Pop pulls a huge crowd and keeps them enthralled with a manic exhibitionism. Stripped to the waist, skin the texture of an overripe apple, he prowls and peacocks, swears, spits and clambers down into the front row, while delivering a greatest hits, plus ‘Sunday’ from ‘Post Pop Depression’. Similarly, New Order’s euphoric set is packed with crowd-pleasers, though it’s telling that the Italo glitter of ‘Plastic’ and shimmying ‘Tutti Frutti’ are every bit as compelling as renditions of ‘Temptation’, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

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You might think the fact that Flow is basically Valhalla for vegans and vegetarians might temporarily allay Morrissey’s righteous anger, but no. During his Saturday night headline set in the Red Arena, ‘Meat is Murder’ is accompanied by a grotesque horror reel, splicing together footage of battery farming, cows being electrocuted and sheep being slaughtered, while Boz Boorer’s sawn-off guitar feedback simulates the screams of cattle. There are rants about the ruling classes (“Of course the golden rule is don’t let the political class rule the game”) and bullfighting, videos of police brutality, and soaring renditions of ‘Suedehead’ and ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’. He appears to have tears in his eyes prior to launching into set-closer ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, and his closing words have an ominous ring: “Thank you for everything you’ve given me, and remember: whatever happens, I love you.”

The final two performances of the festival also possess an unsettling power. Headlining the main stage, Sia stands stage left, eyes and nose hidden beneath a black and white bob wig with a huge white bow, and she rarely appears on the giant video screens.

Instead, the camera focuses on dancers performing incredible, mime-like moves. For ‘Elastic Heart’, two figures in flesh-coloured clothing reprise Maddy Ziegler and Shia La Boeuf’s choreography, framed by lighting designed to simulate the bars of a cage. Beamed onto the side screens, with the production values of professional music videos, there are short, mimed vignettes between songs, expressing ideas of loneliness and anguish. The effect only accentuates the emotive power of Sia’s voice, its exquisite huskiness intimating cracks in composure.

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Clad in a black cloak which veils her face, Anohni’s appearance is similarly obscured, and she also relies on video to accentuate the eerie dread of material from the now Mercury-nominated ‘Hopelessness’, which tackles ecocide, drone warfare and surveillance culture. Each song is accompanied by clips of women – of all ages and ethnicities – lip-syncing lyrics, some of whom are crying. The effect is simultaneously haunting yet strangely euphoric, particularly when coupled with the way Anohni weaves around the stage during ‘Execution’ and final track ‘Drone Bomb Me’.

The set ends with a video of 70-year-old Ngalanka Nola Taylor, who implores, “Why can’t we work together to make the world a better place to live?” It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful climax to a weekend of brilliantly diverse musical programming.

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