Listening to the archive (1): risk

A suddenly loud radio, carried by workers beneath the open windows of the theatre archive at the University of Bristol, on a hot day in early June 2021. Everyone is catching up on delayed projects, inside and outside. It’s my first week with the NRLA collection since.. I am not sure. It has been a long time.

Then the empty sound that accompanies noise-cancelling headphones. Then the hiss of a videotaped-recording preserved as a digitised file.

Then I am listening to a young man – Steve Slater – being interviewed about the work appearing at the 1989 National Review of Live Art. He is standing in front of a wall listing events in the performance spaces of Third Eye Centre, Glasgow.

How do you see the work changing? How has the work changed? ‘Each year there’s a different flavour to the performances that take shape because the artists are reacting to things around them,’ he says. ‘But the energy is always the same […] They take a lot of risks. They’re not afraid to take risks – they’re grasping, possibly too far some times, but that’s better than not grasping at all for ideas and things’.

In the next recording, it’s a year later: the voices of NRLA director Nikki Milican, festival Master of Ceremonies Neil Bartlett and artist Bobby Baker, taking part in a discussion event on what I think is the final morning of the festival. Often the recording is clear (Milican sits in front of a mic on a stand) but the speech of other participants is sometimes quiet or patchy. I am (not) in the audience, taking notes.

Milican is talking about the future, and inviting the artists in the room to let her know what they need from the NRLA, and the Platform – a programme strand of work from unsubsidised, emerging and often younger artists. She leads a feedback and discussion session on that year’s Platform performances and installations, inviting comments and observations from the floor. 

In one work, the performer smashed glass bottles, splashing the audience with milk and cutting his knee. I’m not sure if I’ve understood what happened. The details are unclear: not everyone in the room saw the performance, and the artist involved isn’t present. I make a note to check who took part that year and see if I can match the description of the work. It wasn’t risky, says a younger-sounding person, off-camera. It was out of control.

From his position sitting on the floor to one side of the room, Bartlett suggests that the NRLA programme brings together pieces with ‘not just differing but irreconcilable notions of decorum – what it means to approach an artwork, be with that artwork and leave that artwork behind’. He asks whether part of the experience of the festival is meeting people working ‘with different sets of rules’ and ‘encountering different forms of decorum, different ways of an audience approaching a work’. I recognise him from photos of work he made in the 80s and 90s, with his company Gloria. At least, I’m pretty sure I do.

The conversation turns to the generosity of audiences. After ten years, the audiences are perhaps becoming slightly too big and the rooms too small and too hot. Does the festival need to move?

Someone describes the pressure to succeed. It’s a very 80s thing, someone else later suggests, a sort of survival-of-the-fittest mindset. The exchange of voices suggests it’s ‘Anne’ speaking. Anne Bean? Another Anne, but still familiar to the festival? Another note to check.

Another young-sounding voice: ‘I think the thing that makes artists very very nervous is basically this is it. You’ve got no structure after this, you’ve got to succeed. […] If you don’t succeed at the National Review, there are very few structures where you’re going to be given that chance again. And it’s not a problem with the National Review, it’s a problem with everything outwith the National Review’.

Baker is sitting in profile but I think I recognise the voice well enough from her performances: I make a note to double-check. She recognises the concerns of the younger artists in the room – but affirms that failure is an important process of working: ‘I’ve failed consistently throughout my work. And I’ve failed recently. And it’s almost necessary to succeeding because so much comes out of it’.

That last line is unclear – perhaps the word isn’t ‘necessary’ but it’s the only one that occurs to me as making sense.

Then I’m racing through the last few minutes of the recording and the last few minutes of my time in the room before it’s cleared and cleaned for the next researcher. Bartlett is in MC mode, telling everyone – telling me – to please wait in the bar until we’re called into the space again. This is not the end, just a pause to breathe.