Radio silence

I’m deep into writing, working on a new book based on the LAS interviews and archival research. It’s about culture, curation and the ways we might enable interdisciplinary experiments and creative risk – and the histories and communities of practice that have become what might get called live art in Scotland. It’s too raw to excerpt at the moment – trust the process! write then edit! – but I’m looking forward to sharing some of the project in future months.

Away from my desk, I’ve mainly been at Take Me Somewhere festival, Glasgow’s biennial international festival of radical performance. Above is FK Alexander’s The Problem with Music – a wall of noise and deliberate destruction named for Steve Albini’s essay on the state of the music industry, first published in 1993 – and below are some details from Eve Stainton’s large scale work of suspenseful choreography-with-welding, Impact Driver.

Live art at #edfringe

Some quick hit suggestions for finding experimental, interdisciplinary live art, theatre and performance at this year’s Edinburgh festivals.

Since its first year in 2011, Summerhall has built strong reputation for programming adventurous, experimental work – sometimes by partnering with other UK producing institutions like Paines Plough who are backing running their own pop-up venue, Roundabout, by working with international showcases like Canadahub or Taiwan Season, or by hosting work selected for Made in Scotland or the Horizon Showcase (see below). They’re also one of very few fringe venues using ‘performance art’ as a genre to aid show discovery.

Fringe of Colour runs its own fully-fledged film festival in July but still hosts a volunteer-run database of work by Black artists and artists of colour. Scotland-focused LGBTQ+ magazine Somewhere: For Us has special fringe issue listing shows with an LGBTQ+ theme or staged by LGBTQ+ performers. DIVA – the magazine for LGBTQIA women and non-binary people – has its own ‘don’t miss’ list of queer shows.

Made in Scotland returns with a curated selection of Scottish artists and companies: shows appear in the programme under the broad genres of theatre, dance and music but the work itself tends to ignore disciplinary borders (a show like Superfan’s Stuntman is listed as both theatre and dance).

Founded in 2020, Horizon Showcase offers a mix of England-based artists and companies making ground-breaking new performance: like Made in Scotland (and the British Council Showcase before it), it’s a selectively-curated showcase aiming to connect artists with international presenters but unique in offering longer-term support to develop new work through their residency programme.

This year’s programme appears across Summerhall, the Traverse and Zoo Southside – though sometimes exploiting unusual off-site spaces, with Rachel Mars’ monumental work FORGE taking up residence in the Lyceum Theatre Workshop. Really hard to pick any other favourites but excited to see Deborah Pearson and Action Hero’s collaboration in The Talent and Ray Young’s return to the festival with BODIES.

The Traverse runs its own festival Travfest in August – the focus is on new writing but with a range of forums, including musicals, a web-based treasure hunt, gig theatre, and Nassim Soleimanpour’s new participatory work Nassim (with a new performer on stage with the playwright for each show). Though you can find the shows listed in the main edfringe programme, the Traverse have a unique practice of scheduling the same show at different times on different dates – double-check you’ve got the right ticket.

The central edfringe programme has a long list of genres, though this draws on how artists companies have chosen to identify their work – it’s a blunt tool but try searching for experimental, performance art, disabled-led or neurodiversity-led work.

And then there’s.. the EIF programme, the first curated by the new festival director Nicola Bendetti who’s interested in asking where do we go from here? Tickets trend expensive (even with various discounts and access schemes) but the theatre and dance offer – this year including Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse and Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring in a double bill with the duet common ground[s] by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo – suggests what’s possible when you aim to support pioneering international work and have a hefty budget to support that goal.

SGSAH summer school: interview-based research

Interviews are at the heart of the Live Art in Scotland project – so it was a real delight to spend this morning delivering a workshop on interview-based research with my former PhD student Katie Hart, whose own brilliant work on women’s cultural leadership centres on conversations with culture workers from across the Scottish theatre sector.

The workshop was offered as part of the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities annual Summer School. Our ambition was support graduate students in making some concrete choices of research design while surfacing the thinking that might inform how interviews are then ‘put to work’ in a thesis project. Why use interviews over any other method? What do interviews enable that wouldn’t be possible by any other means? What functions are interviews or interview-based data intended to serve? Will they challenge, verify or expand established knowledge, or offer something else entirely?

In doing so, we wanted to talk about the ethical dimensions of research involving real, live people – not simply the formal processes of seeking approval from institutional ethics committees, or the paperwork which records informed consent but how to navigate moments when an interview participant says – with disarming simplicity – ‘I trust you’. 

We also wanted to explore the value of researcher reflexivity – that is, strategies for recognising and making use of the knowledge that our social identities and lived experiences shape how we might address, construct, interpret, and present research. This enables another kind of ethical reflection, helping us to think about whether we are doing with research with, for, or ‘on’ a given community – and the obligations or critiques that those positions might invite.

Here are our slides, free to download.

Fringe of Colour 2023

Fringe of Colour is back for 2023 with a full hybrid programme of films from Black, Asian, Indigenous and Latine people in Scotland and around the world. Staged online and in-person through live events at Summerhall, Edinburgh, the festival’s design is centred on exploring new ways to connect artists and audiences – with thematic strands centred around the life cycle of a plant:

the seeds that we plant in the soil, to the process of roots finding their way into the earth and the importance of nourishing a growing plant. A plant’s life cycle holds innumerable parallels with our own existence on this planet. Through thinking about this cycle, we also explore the symbiotic relationship we humans have with the greenery around us, the fruits that plants may yield, and the pollination that follows.

Moved from peak festival season August to earlier dates in June, it’s clearer than ever how the event’s ethos is expressed through its curatorial and organisational form as well as its contents – whether in offering space to think about relationships as specifically Black, indigenous, and people of colour creatives and audiences to our environment, to reconsider the role of traditional arts critique in responding to performance art and film, or in planting seeds for future growth, with the festival’s artist commission from Ashanti Harris, Black Gold, joined for the first time by a new curatorial commission in the form of Begana, curated by Neha Apsara and featuring films from the Queer South Asian and Indo-Caribbean archive.

As in previous years, it’s also a festival thinking about the relationship of film to other arts practices – perhaps most clearly through programming of works by interdisciplinary artists and performance makers including Mele Broomes and Alexandrina Hemsley.

Originally developed as an initiative to highlight work by Black people and people of colour at the Edinburgh Fringe through a database and free ticket scheme, Fringe of Colour has often been discussed – narrowly – in terms of its intervention within a white cultural mainstream. The problem with this approach is that less attention has been paid to what the festival offers on its own terms (a move which, ironically and predictably, re-centres whiteness).

You can access the festival with a single pass starting at £5, with free passes available to any people of colour on request; some of the in-person events have a fixed capacity so check @fringeofcolour for details.

Programming notes: BUZZCUT 2023

This spring saw the return of BUZZCUT, Glasgow’s long-running festival of live art and experimental performance. Suspended during the pandemic and staged as an live-streamed ‘festival within a festival’ during Take Me Somewhere 2021, this year’s event was split between the Centre for Contemporary Arts and Tramway – two city venues with long histories of supporting radical work, not least in playing host to the National Review of Live Art. Keeping true to its origins as a free, pay-what-you-can event, BUZZCUT’s transition to these spaces from the bars, galleries and shops of its early years marks another stage in the event’s development: still welcoming, enthusiastic and adventurous but perhaps no longer quite so DIY (marked – if nothing else – by funding for significantly better fees for contributing artists).

Over the years, BUZZCUT has taken a range of approaches to programming – most often through an open call process, with the festival’s core team taking advice from a broader community of people in the Scottish live art scene to inform their decisions. A few different factors might be understood as informing this approach – the origins of the festival as an artist-led event established on the basis of grassroots values, and the evolution of the festival into an organization offering year-round support and development opportunities supporting radical performance practice. It’s significant that BUZZCUT’s festival does not have an artistic director in the conventional sense of a single individual making overarching, top-down decisions about programming: it’s instead led by Karl Taylor as organizational director and Claricia Parinussa as creative producer, who work together with a larger team of creative freelancers.

In 2023, the programme was developed through a few different processes, beginning with now-traditional open call from which a short-list was developed. This short-list was then passed to the festival’s guest curators, FK Alexander and SERAFINE1369, to make a final selection as artists who had performed in the festival during previous years and had a good sense of what could be offered. As BUZZCUT was primarily set up to support the development of experimental performance in Scotland – and is funded by Creative Scotland to that end – one condition of the process was that 50% of the artists should be currently based in Scotland. At the same time, BUZZCUT’s team worked with Rhubarb Festival (Toronto), FLAM (Amsterdam) and Heart & Soul (London) as organisations who shared BUZZCUT’s ethos, and who each curated artists to participate.

This approach may distinguishe BUZZCUT from many other festivals in the culture sector which retain conventionally hierarchical structures, even as they support and programme work with more radical or experimental values (though we might trace similar emphasis on the role of producing collectives in other live art-centred festivals and development organisations such as In Between Time and Fierce). One of the reasons that I’m interested in curation – in these and other events – is that its politics seem especially significant when the broader field of live art has been positioned as making space for ‘experimental processes, experiential practices, and the bodies and identities that might otherwise be excluded from traditional contexts’. How does that happen, in practice? What structures are created to serve and sustain that possibility?

Spring Update

We’re back!

After a longer-than-expected break for maintenance, the LAS website is back with an update to the Practitioner Directory of residencies and artist development opportunities. This second edition includes a range of new schemes and organisations across Scotland, as well as a brand new section linking to information about international residency opportunities. We hope you find it useful.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing reflections from this year’s BUZZCUT festival and insights from taking part in Art360 Foundation’s recent Demarco Archive Workshops (you can read Roddy Hunter’s notes on his contribution to the second workshop here).

On Monday, I’m also heading to London to take part in a study Study Day at Royal Holloway, University of London, on Cross-Historiographies of Theatre & Performance Art – as in Switzerland last year, it’s part of a growing effort to put the multiple histories of experimental performance into conversation with each other.

Live and Now: Stewart Laing

In this episode of Live and Now, Steve talks with director and designer Stewart Laing. As the artistic director of Untitled Projects, Stewart has led the creation of some of Scotland’s most adventurous, large-scale experiments in theatre and live art though – as Stewart himself notes – most often by making work that might fall somewhere between those two fields of practice.

In this excerpt, we follow the thread of influences on Stewart’s early practice – making work in and around the National Review of Live Art, and the emerging profile of Tramway as a leading venue for touring and international artists in Scotland – through the creation of a trilogy of works based on the novels of J.G. Ballard.

Contexts and documents

Live and Now: Sheila Ghelani

In this episode of Live and Now, Steve talks with Sheila Ghelani – an interdisciplinary artist whose work spans live art, performance, installation, social art and moving image – and whose most recent work includes Common Salt, a ‘performance around a table’ made with Sue Palmer that explores the colonial, geographical history of England and India.

Starting with Grafting & Budding – a lecture style performance examining ideas surrounding race, heritage, and mixing – we explore the development of Sheila’s practice as a solo artist in relationship to her work with Pacitti Company and Blast Theory, and the significance of a sequence of works presented as part of the National Review of Live Art.

Contexts and documents

Live and Now: Ashanti Harris

In this episode of Live and Now, Steve talks with multi-disciplinary artist, researcher and facilitator, Ashanti Harris. Working with dance, performance, sculpture and installation, Ashanti’s practice often focuses on recontextualising historical narratives – offering an exploration of the social, cultural and historical implications of the movement of people, ideas and things. Based in Scotland, Ashanti is co-director of the dance company Project X, lecturer in Contemporary Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and co-facilitates the British Art Network research group The Re-Action of Black Performance alongside artist and curator, Sabrina Henry.

In this excerpt from a longer interview recorded for the Live Art in Scotland project, we touch on the origins of Project X as an organisation platforming dance and performance from the African and Caribbean diaspora in Scotland, and explore the creative works which emerged from archival research into Les Ballet Nègres, known as the first British black dance company, as well as Ashanti’s wider explorations of diasporic knowledge and experience through performance.

Contexts and documents:

  • Ashanti’s website, AshantiHarris.com
  • The Re-Action of Black Performance, a research group exploring ‘how the state of being re-active is used as a theme in Black British performance art, not only as an act of agency and resistance but as a creative catalyst in the form, process, intention and legacy of the works created’.
  • Project X,  a multi-disciplinary collectively run organisation working to platform dance of the African and Caribbean diaspora in Scotland and further afield.
  • A conversation between Ashanti Harris and Dr Ranjana Thapalyal to accompany Dancing a Peripheral Quadrille, a new commission for the Edinburgh Art Festival 2022.
  • Review of An Exercise in Exorcism, staged at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA): ‘Built in 1778 for a tobacco merchant who made his fortune through the transatlantic slave trade, GoMA’s site is one of a number of neoclassical piles dispersed across the city that were constructed on the profits of the Caribbean plantations. […] An Exercise in Exorcism is one of a number of works devised by Harris on the theme of Guyanese Jumbies, malign ghosts that often inhabit particular locations’.

Live and Now: Karen Christopher

In this episode of Live and Now, Steve talks with collaborative performance maker, performer and teacher, Karen Christopher. For the last decade or so, Karen’s practice has focused on creating a series of duet performances devoted to re-examining the collaborative performance-making process. This work follows – and perhaps emerges from – some twenty years as a core member of the Chicago-based collaborative performance group Goat Island, who disbanded in 2009 after creation of their ninth and final work, a piece called The Last Maker.

In this excerpt from a longer interview recorded for the Live Art in Scotland project, we explore the Goat Island Summer school (originally staged at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts) as one thread of the company’s longstanding relationship with Scotland – and the significance of making space to explore new forms of individual and creative expression, beyond the typical expectations that surround the development of new work.

Contexts and documents: