This weekend sees the return of Art Night, London’s largest free contemporary art festival.

Taking place across two sites in Walthamstow and Kings Cross, it features a range of exhibitions in a number of public spaces, such as a library, car park and community centre.

Alongside an open programme, directed by Zarina Rossheart is the curated programme, curated by Helen Nisbet and featuring work by 12 artists.

These include: Cory Arcangel and Hampus Lindwall, Barbara Kruger, Christine Sun Kim, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Joe Namy, Julie Cunningham, Zadie Xa, Shiraz Bayjoo, Frances Stark, 2019 Turner Prize nominee Oscar Murillo, Emma Talbot, and Alice Theobald.

Here, Emma Talbot and Joe Namy talk about why they got involved in the project, but first Helen Nisbet explains what to expect from the programme, the logistics of putting on a one-day festival, and the legacy of the event.

“I felt the artists had to be excited about being part of what is already a really creative community”

How did you get involved?
Helen Nisbet: Each year features a new curator or artistic director. Previous editions have included Cathy Noble when it was in partnership with the ICA, and Fatos Üstek when it was in partnership with Whitechapel Gallery. Then last year it was Ralph Rugoff and the Hayward Gallery, which coincided with its 50th anniversary.

Art Night features two main strands, the curated programme which includes 12 projects that I am responsible for, and Art Night Open, which is directed by Zarina Rossheart and was put together following an open call.

This year has seen a slight shift in that the partner is the first London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest. It is also taking place across two sites, so mostly in Walthamstow, but also with a hub of activity in King’s Cross. It is a way of bringing people to Walthamstow, which is actually really easily accessible by tube. It’s only about 15 minutes between the sites, and the night tube will also be running.

The festival’s curated programme takes inspiration from London pop group East 17’s 1993 song It’s Alright. What was your thinking behind this?
I started last October with the knowledge that the festival would be taking place in Walthamstow, which is where I used to live, and live nearby now. I grew up as teenager in the ’90s listening to East 17, who are famously from the area. Just for fun I was listening to some of their tracks, and the song It’s Alright kept coming back to me, and particularly the lyric “Don’t you worry, cos it’s alright, don’t you worry, child of the night”.

It’s playful, and in a way I’m not really someone who likes heavy-handed themes. I’m much more interested in the artists being free and having the freedom to make the work that they want to make in response to the places that they are working with. So I didn’t want to slap a heavy theme on anybody; I just wanted to set the tone for what I was thinking about at the time. It’s an inspiration, not a theme, even if music does feature really heavily in the programme this year. East 17 talk a lot about Walthamstow, and in a similar way the festival is almost a love letter to the area.

It’s interesting because people who are my age know who they are but artists from other countries don’t really have an awareness of them. Unless you were around at the time, it’s difficult. Their music is so specific to the ‘90s. It also alludes to really difficult political times, and how we might support each other. There is a sense of solidarity, care and love in amongst these challenging moments.

How were the artists selected?
I was aware that Art Night, for the first time, was taking place in a community rather than a central London area. I felt like the work had to be particularly sensitive, and that the artists had to be excited about being part of what is already a really creative community.

I also didn’t want to shy away from the questions relating to gentrification and what it means to have a major festival take place in an already very creative community. So I looked at artists who are interested in social justice, social practice, and the politics of these questions, but also who are at different points in their careers.

Art Night is only one night. Is this logistically challenging?
It is tricky, but in some ways it makes more sense. A lot of the venues we are using are public spaces, such as car parks, the market, cinema, pub, and a community centre. It’s pretty rude if you use a public library for a month. As a municipal space, people need it. So one of the benefits is you can take places over but restore them very quickly to their usual use. But this is logistically challenging and there is a huge team of people involved in making it happen.

What happens to the work afterwards?
I was keen to involve co-commissions so they would go on elsewhere afterwards, or go into collections. In the case of someone like Barbara Kruger, she is creating a major public work in the town square in Walthamstow. I wanted something that was showstopping and significant, and also a nice marker of this major festival coming to Walthamstow. So, Barbara’s work will stay up longer than the one night, and will be on display until September. We want the impact of Art Night to last way beyond this one night.

I hope it adds to the rich life of the area, but also forefronts how important art is

Emma Talbot and Joe Namy explain why they got involved in the project and what they hope the impact will be on the local community.

How and why did you get involved in Art Night 2019?
Emma Talbot: Helen Nisbet posted an announcement about Art Night being in Walthamstow and I told her I was really happy to hear that, as I’m based in E17. She came to the studio and the commission came about through our conversations.

Joe Namy: They approached me to take part. I knew of Art Night’s reputation from artist friends who had worked with them previously, and knew they could create the conditions that allow artists to make some really amazing work. Plus I had been wanting to work with Helen for a while as I have a lot of respect for her as a curator.

I had been trying to do my performance Automobile in London for over five years, but just couldn’t find the right moment to make it happen. So when Helen invited me to think about doing something for Art Night, the stars aligned and I knew they could give me the proper support to do it right. It wasn’t easy, there’s a lot of difficult problem solving when it comes to any public performance in London – especially performances using sound – but they’ve had my back every step of the way.

There is a broad spectrum of different artwork on display. Can you describe what you’ll be exhibiting.
ET: I was asked to respond to Madge Gill’s work [an exhibition of the Walthamstow-born artist’s artworks runs 22 June – 22 September at the William Morris Gallery] and have developed elaborately painted silk works. I’ll be installing a large-scale painted silk canopy, hanging along the length of the gallery tearoom, and a three-part painted silk hanging at the venue Mirth, Marvel and Maud.

JN: Automobile is a platform that explores the politics of bass through customised car stereo subcultures, found in almost every major city around the world. This is the eighth version of the performance, which I’ve done previously in Beirut (twice), Abu Dhabi (twice), Mannheim, Gwangju, Montreal, and Toronto. It celebrates the universality of this culture, but also the local uniqueness that can only be found here in London. Even within the subculture you can find sub-subcultures, from bass cars to sound clash vans. So we have a diverse spectrum of sound systems from across the scene here.

For the performance, we’ll be linking the super-charged sound systems to create an immersive, synchronised, surround-sound environment on the roof of Sainsbury’s car park and, after midnight, in the car park of Walthamstow’s Mall. Throughout the night, a live 10-channel mix of field recordings and sounds I collected and composed will be weaved into a durational sonic arrangement featuring sound clashes and mixes from guest sound artists, DJs, and dancers to vibrate and explore the limits of these sound systems.

Accompanying the vehicles are a series of visual scenographic accents I designed. Feathers, blades, and teardrop banners will blaze the car parks, using textiles sourced from Walthamstow’s market and produced in collaboration with Walthamstow’s Forest Recycling Project.

The curated programme has an unusual theme, being inspired by an East 17 song. What do you make of this approach?
ET: I thought it was an encouragement to act with a sense of freedom. I liked responding to the fact that Madge Gill, as a self-taught artist, followed her instincts and made things that have their own logic, energy and freedom, that weren’t trapped by dominant generic ideas – and capture the attention of others even now, long after she was making.

JN: These souped-up sound cars are a complete labour of love, some of these guys spend tens of thousands of pounds and countless hours building their beautifully customized, intricate sound systems, with no return on their investment except for the sound. Truly obsessive fanatics! So this project is all about celebrating that passion and love.

Art Night is also taking place at a number of unusual venues, such as pubs, a library, and a shopping mall. Was this challenging?
ET: Thinking about how to inventively respond to a venue, a site, a space and doing initial research to come up with ideas is a great opportunity. It’s great to see the work ‘in the world’ in this way.

JN: Every public site provides a unique set of challenges as well as gifts to respond to and riff off, that’s the nature of working with unconventional spaces. That lack of control can also create the conditions for something truly magical to happen. I often work in both a gallery context as well as on the street, and projects in public spaces can affect audiences in ways that are not possible otherwise. For Automobile, so many different kinds of people came together to make the project happen, creating diverse community intersections and engagement that I believe can only happen through public art.

I was blown away by the hospitality that was extended to us by both managers at the Sainsbury’s and the mall, as well as by the council. However, I was disheartened by the initial police response to the project, although not entirely surprised. They immediately directed unfounded suspicion towards the project, which speaks volumes to how authority treats gatherings and certain kinds of music in this city.

The festival is family friendly. What do you hope it achieves, particularly in terms of its impact on Waltham Forest?
JN: I’m so happy we were able to involve students from the Leyton Sixth Form College, working closely with their brilliant culture and community manager Richard Hodgkiss, having the students produce original compositions specifically for the performance. We were also able to involve Walthamstow’s Forest Recycling Project, a local charity that supports initiatives to reduce, re-use and recycle waste, and help people live sustainably. One of their services provides reclaimed fabrics donated by community members, fashion houses, and others. We collaborated with Elizabeth Salazar, Alicia Whitfield and their talented fabrics team to produce the vertical cloth banners for the performance scenography, using repurposed fabrics and fabrics purchased from across Walthamstow’s vibrant market.

ET: I hope it adds to the rich life of the area, but also forefronts how important art is; it can transform places, offer different ways of thinking, open out questions and provide formative experiences. I have been living and working here for 16 years, bringing my sons up as a single parent for much of that time. So as a family, we’re happy to see E17 as a main location for Art Night and of course as an artist, I’m happy to see artworks by artists I admire right here, in my area.

Art Night will run all night on Saturday 22 June 2019. A selection of projects will be open on Sunday 23 June for families and day-time visitors from 12pm-4pm.

1. Joe Namy, Automobile, Beirut, 2013, variable channel sound performance for cars w_super modified
2. Zadie Xa, Child of Magohalmi and the Echos of Creation, 2019, HD video, film still
3. Oscar Murillo, The Institute of Reconciliation, 2017, installation view, The Showroom, London. Photo: Daniel Brooke
4. Emma Talbot, Open Thoughts, 2018, acrylic on silk, Never Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen, Germany. Photo: Achim Kukulies
5. Joe Namy, Automobile, Montreal, 2016, variable channel sound performance for cars w_super modified
6. Emma Talbot, Suspended In Natural Space-Time, 2019, watercolour on Khadi paper, 30cm x 42cm. Photo: Emma Talbot

More on

A Q&A with… Claudette Johnson, artist exploring black identity and representation

Abii Hampsey, Newcastle University Fine Art Degree Show 2019. Photo: Narbi Price

Degree Shows 2019: alien structures, a multisensory installation, and protest art applique

Assembly Swansea: “It’s a radical act to accept the place you’re in now”