Helen Cole, Director of the all-new Inbetween Time Productions and former Live Art and Dance Producer at Arnolfini, was recently asked to give a talk about live art, emergent artists and risk. It became a reflection on how the live art scene in Bristol has grown into a vibrant, internationally significant community of provocateurs and experimentalists. In celebration of the launch of Inbetween Time Productions this month, we invited Helen to share those thoughts on tb.net
The talk was commissioned for “The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow” curated by Plymouth Arts Centre and legendary performance artist, Marina Abramovic, in January 2010.
Lois Keiden of Live Art Development Agency has asked me to think about issues relating to emergent artists and notions of risk. And necessarily it has made me think about the community of practice that has developed in Bristol.
Despite my youthful enthusiasm in practical terms I had a rather rude awakening on my arrival at Arnolfini as the new Programmer of Live Art and Dance, 12 years ago. The Live programme was nowhere near as important as I thought it should be! From an early point the task in hand was far more than just programming. I really needed to dig it into every inch of the venue, to fight for its visibility and survival, and well and truly get underneath Arnolfini’s skin.
I had arrived in Bristol from Manchester via Glasgow, all cities with strong and self-sufficient artistic communities and venues where we could meet, see work, argue about it, learn from it and then put it on. But most of this was simply not happening in Bristol in 1997. An audience certainly came to see the shows but few international artists performed there. No local artists were able to show their work, hence they didn’t hang out. They dropped in, but rarely stayed in Bristol for long.
So, what happened next? My first task was clear and easy. To move Arnolfini Live towards commissioning, research, producing and touring new work, to open up opportunities for local and emergent artists. Open platforms, commissioning strategies, feedback sessions, artists’ talks and discussion events, symposia, artist-led events, works in progress, showcases, festivals, forest walks, residencies, parties, picnics, ball games and treasure hunts. To help evolve Bristol into a place where artists would want to live to make their work.
We began to form a community of people intrigued by live art and interdisciplinary practice. It was a road we travelled together. Under various guises and some weird titles, strategies for developing new work and emergent practice continued to evolve and proliferate. Inbetween Time, Breathing Space, We Live Here, Arnolfini Associate Artists, Dark Side, I Am Your Worst Nightmare, I Am Still Your Worst Nightmare. All of these projects encompassed a simple plan: a bit of money, a sympathetic ear, a critical eye and the all important, all too rare, time and space, followed by the opportunity to see what happens when the resulting work is put before an audience.
So I needed to build an audience that would take this journey with us. I have come to believe that making art is a constantly changing process, a journey of dead ends and sudden revelations, but at its heart it needs to be a process that is shared with others. I wanted to try to build an audience that would understand better this process of making a work. Over my time running the programme at Arnolfini, I had exactly one person ask for their money back, one letter of complaint about the content of a show, one couple storm out of the theatre exclaiming loudly that ‘this is not dance’, one person shouting ‘fuck off’ as a woman pissed on stage and another man shitting on stage himself. That’s not bad for 11 years. At the same time I have met people who do not expect a night’s entertainment in return for their ticket money. Who are open not just to put their bum on the seat, but to leave it there for a full eight hours. Who will step on stage to kiss a woman holding a frozen popsicle in her mouth. Who will climb on board a transgendered robot, wear wigs and costumes or lie for hours with a man as he hypnotically licks the window of a greenhouse again and again and again. This Bristol audience has come to know the work of a growing group of artists over time. They have seen the stumbles and the triumphs and can judge each one on its own merits. The false division between us and them is breaking down. This audience is small but it is fearless and loyal.
And I can honestly say it is this combination of artists and audience and the constantly blurring line between the two that make the Inbetween Time Festivals possible. The important thing here though is that at all times the risks that we take have been carefully calculated. The risks on the surface may sometimes appear small. How hard can it be to perform with a passing audience in a small white box for eight hours? Like stunt men, our curatorial strategies have helped us plan each step. Each leap combines known and unknown.
What has happened in Bristol is proof that the live art sector is exceptionally good at creating context and community. Yet neither is achieved by one institution or one group of people. We need all kinds of others to rub up against us. It needs a starting point, as Anthony Roberts, Director of Colchester Arts Centre, once described our Inbetween Time Festivals: “a Petri dish to get the chemistry going”. But because conventional structures do not always work, we have to – or want to – make up our own, or move on. When I think back to 1997, we were limited entirely to using Arnolfini’s theatre space for the Live programme, and even then only between cinema screenings and at irregular weekend intervals. In order to work with the more diverse timeframes, locations and audience exchanges that are the lifeblood of experimentation, we simply worked site-specifically and in alternative spaces, with new partnerships and locations. We were uncompromising, tenacious, fierce and robust. We took over Bristol’s shopping centres, multi-storey car parks, forests, churches, docksides and warehouses. We inhabited motion simulators and city streets and every inch of Arnolfini’s dark corners and cubby-holes, dressing rooms and backstage corridors, knocking down walls and embedding our being into, onto and between them. It took years of constant hassling for me to put live art practice in the venue’s gallery spaces but even this now happens on occasion.
As one of my colleagues said recently, this wanderlust inevitably means that the curator of live art needs to move on too. In August last year I left my full-time post at Arnolfini to work on other projects and to continue to deliver the Inbetween Time Festivals in Bristol. If our fundraising is successful we will present the Inbetween Time Festival 2010 in December and once again we will work with Arnolfini and other partners to take over every inch of public, virtual and theoretical space we can muster for two months.
And now 12 years after I arrived, Bristol has a growing international reputation for its live art community. This community has an identity and methodology all of its own. And I cannot emphasize enough how important the artists I have worked with still are. They form the backbone of the world’s live art programmes, they are my constant provocateurs and audience. They are the lifeblood, the sounding board and the outside eye. All of them continue to make work that challenges. They are taking the same risks they took in those early days when they first tangoed on stage with shaking legs, or the first sugar glass bottle hit a bowed and bleeding head.
Uninvited Guests, Kira O’Reilly, plan b, Alex Bradley, Paul Hurley, Steve Robins, Sophia New, Tim Atack, Folake Shoga, Jo Bannon, Ed Rapley, Duncan Speakman, Shi Ker, Doran George, Dani D’Emila, Yara El-Sherbini, Peoples in Pieces, Mike Jones, Pete Barrett, Tanuja Amarasuriya, Hannah Crosson, Tim Harrison, Luke Jerram, Tom Marshman, Clare Thornton, The Special Guests, Simon Jones, The Performance Re-enactment Society, Spaghetti Club, These Horses, Low Profile, Kathy Hinde, Search Party, Action Hero, Julian Warren, Elaine Kordys, Saini Manninen, Paul Clarke, Sylvia Rimat, Lucy Cassidy, Martha King.
And as the live art sector in Bristol and nationally enters another time of deep change and transition, I have confidence that it will review, refresh and renew. The discussions between myself and the artists and audiences I work with have become embedded in each others’ imaginations. We have become co-conspirators, fellow explorers finding ways to make the feeling of being here resonate. We will continue to invade and pervade this city of Bristol and its major institutions.
This indefinable chemistry; its a scary business… who knows where it might end.
Director, Inbetween Time Productions