East Street Arts

The Compass Live Art Festival took place in Leeds 25-27 November and was accompanied by a symposium. Both festival and symposium were the culmination of an 18 month project to further develop live art in Yorkshire and the Humber. Crossing the city, both symposium and festival explored live art in the public realm and as socially engaged practice. The diverse mix of practitioners, academics, curators and producers and venues involved in the symposium also served to test the possibilities of collaboration between different types of venues, programmers and higher education institutes within the city. The outcomes from the 18 months project will shape the longer term vision for Live Art in the region and after a stimulating weekend of discussions and debate, I thought I would share here my own thoughts and reflections from the weekend.

I start Saturday in a two hour workshop with Carolyn Butterworth and Ilana Mitchell. Carolyn is an architect and lecturer, and her research interests are in both socially engaged architecture and live (art) architecture (exploring the performativity of the built environment and its use/meaning and change over time). This area of practice has many shared points of interest with live art and although I struggle at first to read architecture in the way I read and understand a live performance event, the examples and points of tension within architecture provide a stimulating start to the discussion. The group is made up of artists, curators, producers and researchers, and some of the provocations from Ilana and Carolyn are explored in open discussion. We ask; what is the starting point for a piece of work? Does an artist have a ‘brief’ to work to as an architect would? Who would write it – who is the ‘client’ – the audience, the funders? Does an artistic project ever really have a tangible, fixed or definitive end?

Carolyn talked about the conventional architect not wishing to re-visit the building they have designed after completion. The basic premise of this is that people will have ‘cluttered’ it, and it will no longer resemble their artistic vision. This abandonment and finality on completion seemed alien to those from different practices. There are clear moments in the process of making a work where the artist, curator or editor will feel the need to revisit the original aims and intentions they had for an art work and sometimes re-visit the work again at entirely different moment in their career. One of the pieces presented during the week of Compass in Leeds was ‘Schrodinger’ by Reckless Sleepers at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Schrodinger is a work re-visited by Artistic Director Mole Wetherell after ten years, with the original set dusted off after years sat idle in his garage. Mole explained at the post show discussion his reasons for re-visiting this highly choreographed and devised piece. Put simply, for Mole it was an appropriate time to re-visit this work; with a completely new company working with him, it was altered minimally and updated for 2011 and a completely new audience. He sees a value in having works in repertoire within performing arts. He makes the argument that if a company’s time and artistic energy has been invested into creating a work, letting it disappear after a short tour seems uneconomical and careless. There are new possibilities now, with new people involved, both as performers, but also audience members. When asked if he would re-visit it again in another ten years he couldn’t imagine why not. The conviction and passion for this work has not died, but lay dormant within Mole as artistic director and custodian of the original concept. This may be a unique case, but consider how many times ideas and themes are revisited by artists in other mediums, often gaining recognition and acclaim for their specialism or artistic style that becomes unique to them.

The argument that it can be just as interesting to re-visit a work, than to start again from scratch each time is a compelling one. Much in the same way, the people who use and inhabit buildings will be an ever changing community a. Could the argument not be made to architects to acknowledge shift, development, weathering and re-appropriation from the outset? Should buildings not be worth a re-visit by their original architect? Here we begin to uncover the real differences between architectural practice and that of performance. The architect may not have intended the people to use it in the way they have, but does this mean they are wrong? The audience may not read into a performance what the performer hopes for, but surely this is the heart of why we make work that is ‘live’. It is ever-changing, unique to each audience member, to each moment in time. In grappling with the temporality of life and the recognition nothing can last forever, performers are working with an incredibly powerful awareness and starkness of reality, and can act with openness and flexibility to an ever changing social landscape. This seems to be intrinsic in the ethics, approach and nature of the practice of live art and can be seen to set ‘live’ work apart from many other core sectors and artistic practices.

In discussions on Sunday the topic returns to the ‘public’ space within the ‘Politics of Access’ workshop. The politics involved in performing in the public realm can be read as artists reclaiming some ownership of the city and community in which they work. The problem often lies in that what is deemed to be ‘public’ space is often tightly controlled by local councils and out of bounds for most performers, without permits, permissions and a long set rules and regulations. A recent project by Leeds Metropolitan University Gallery and Studio Theatre in partnership with Situation Leeds – Junction is one recent example where art intervened in the very fabric of the city. Artists and designers transformed tired ubiquitous junction boxes into vibrant canvases of new work, commissioned to create a humours intervention in to street life. Examples of existing works taking place within the public spaces of the city seem to be few and far between in this discussion however. There is a sense that private spaces have become more open to the opportunities brought by artists, than the local council. In Leeds artists have been stepping into empty office and retail units, but the ‘public’ spaces of the city seem as difficult to access as they ever were, with numerous different agendas at play, and a myriad of differing rules, i.e. from the public city square to the paths surrounding it classed as ‘highway’.

Christian Nold artist, educator and ’emotional cartographer’ has proved in previous projects that packaging knowledge in a certain way can give recognition to findings drawn out through artistic projects in the public realm. In using graphs and statistics, he finds that those in positions of power (such as the local mayor) have taken note of the findings which came about through working with local participants. The power of data is often in how, rather than what is presented. The ambition to create ‘effective knowledge’ through art is of particular significance to those working in the public realm. There is a great strength in how artists work in this field, in communicating and recruiting participants and in capturing the detail, which is something many other sectors seem to have lost interest in. To be truly socially engaged, might we not also look to the model of exchange, working with communities and publics as collaborators, not participants. Projects where the artist learns from the community often need to take place over a longer time frame, but also profess the most significant impact on empowering the community and making considerable impact on society. If artists can not only recognise the performativity of data, but harness it, then the impact it can have goes beyond the immediate outcomes and responses of the participants and audiences involved.

At the end of the weekend it is clear to me that many of the conversations and discussion topics sparked could be taken further than the parameters of ‘Live Art’ practice. Beyond the practicalities of involving venues across the city to host the symposium, its biggest success was in indulging in the discussion made possible by the rich mix of individuals present. Each session was started with an acknowledgement of this and a request to speak openly and sensitively, because of which each session was successful in fostering a dialogue which went beyond a comprehensive discussion, but became a thought-provoking one.

With Compass now looking to the future and the PSI Conference and Ludus Festival taking place at Leeds University and throughout the city in June 2012, Yorkshire and the Humber is placing itself firmly on the Live Art map.