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Collaborative Commissions Lucy Macnab, Participation Producer at Southbank Centre
Southbank Centre’s heritage is in the 1951 Festival of Britain. The ambition of festival organisers in post war Britain was to create a ‘landscape for the imagination’, and this vision still drives the organisation today, under the artistic leadership of Jude Kelly. The 21 acres of creative space includes the Royal Festival Hall, HaywardGallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall and programming that spans literature, music, dance and the visual arts.
What is collaborative commissioning? This presentation shows a range of commissions I’ve led at Southbank Centre. I’ve chosen them to provide food for thought and to pose some questions about the commissioning process. A collaborative approach has been integral to my work: partners, stakeholders, artists, community organisations and learning organisations are among those I’ve worked with and whose creativity and practice has built Southbank Centre’s potential and programme. The territory I cover here is the coming and taking part by audiences, the revealing of the spaces between the main auditoria and galleries of the site, the discovery of new relationships between artists and audiences and the sense of a cultural story which links us to each other both in the past and the future. As commissioner and producer, I’m involved in a hands on way from the start of any project. Often my role is about facilitating the relationship between artist and participants, negotiating each other’s expectations and experience. I hope it provokes some useful thoughts and questions...
The Rime of the ancient mariner This was a project that began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a 200 year old classic poem, and commissioned Bellowhead, a folk band who were artists in residence here, to create a score for it. The piece first began as a collaboration between Southbank Centre and the Young Vic theatre, to create a site specific piece for the London Literature Festival in July 2009. We involved a cast of 150 children from 5 local primary schools in the creation and performance of the piece.
The whole process began with a research and development week, where the creative team worked with primary children to develop ideas around the music and movement of the piece. The team included director, choreographer and the three composers from Bellowhead.
The creative team then worked in five local primary schools to devise and rehearse the piece. This involved a weekly session over eight weeks, working on choreography, music, acting and puppetry.
The children were not only engaged as performers, but as composers, instrument makers and bloggers, investigating the writing and language of the poem.
For example, the poem speaks of a man’s careless damage to his environment, and a musical instrument making project explored how to create percussion from shells and household rubbish like empty plastic bottles and cans.
The production was brought together on the Southbank Centre site for two performances in July for an audience of 3000. It was an ambitious spectacle, born out of a completely collaborative process, between children, artists and producers at Southbank Centre and the Young Vic. Photo: Keith Pattison
The piece was site-specific and learning based, and demanded a high level of involvement from the commissioner/producer from the start of the project.
How important is it in your work for the commissioner to be involved in the creative process, and from how early on?
How open are you as an artist or a commissioner to working with children’s ideas and incorporating them into the work?
If you are working with participants, is it as collaborators, or as learners?
Are ‘workshops’ sometimes tacked on as an afterthought, or are they the place where you begin?
Photo: Keith Pattison
After we’d recovered from July, we felt that the music we’d commissioned had a future life. So in early 2010 we developed the piece as an indoor performance, with choirs from primary and secondary schools and an adult choir from LA children’s services. Poet Lemn Sissay played the role of the Mariner. Photo: Belinda Lawley
The show sold out four shows in February 2010 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of our Imagine Children’s Festival. We are now at a stage where we’re investigating a song book, national versions of the project and instrument making elements. Bellowhead’s version of the poem could become a piece for schools and community groups to perform, as well as for future Southbank Centre productions. Photo: Belinda Lawley
wallstrip In Summer 2010 Festival Brazil took over Southbank Centre, and as part of the London Literature Festival, we worked with graphic novelists and twins – Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá to create a wall-sized comic strip.
The twins’ approach to the commission was immediately collaborative – not only to involve the local community but other artists as well. This practice is very common in Brazil – an attitude towards the art that we found very inspiring. It felt natural for them to collaborate on this commission with a group of young people who we were working with us as London Literature Festival curators. Photo: India Roper Evans
Fábio and Gabriel skypedwith the young curators before they travelled to the UK, and when they arrived, spent a week at the festival absorbing London experiences. They asked the young people to think of text and questions for the strip, as well as to contribute artwork. Photo: India Roper Evans
During the course of one day they edited, revised and collaborated to create a coherent artwork. All were credited as co-creators.
How flexible are you as an artist or commissioner to respond to your surroundings and the people you work with?
How much time do you have for commissions? Is it long enough or too long?
Photo: India Roper Evans
Poetry international 2008 One area that I’ve really enjoyed working on has been inviting young people in as curators and commissioners of work. This project was the work of a young woman called GizellaOjadi, who curateda music and poetry event as the opening show of Poetry International 2008.
The festival had a Palestinian theme, which was not something Gizella had engaged with before. She brought together a musician, ReemKelani, and a group of her friends who read poetry in translation of MahmoudDarwish. It was the most extraordinary event, for audience and performers alike.
Who commissions new work?
What different kinds of work might we see if art was commissioned by young people? Would artists be able to trust them?
Global poetry system GPS is a user generated world map of poetry – the poetry that is all around us, from gravestones to graffiti, from birthday cards to blogs, in the landscape and in our memories. Its ambition is to inspire people across the globe to identify the poetic in their everyday lives, to find it, map it and share it. www.southbankcentre.co.uk/gps
The idea for GPS began with poet and Southbank Centre artist in residence, Lemn Sissay. Intrigued by the idea of finding poetry throughout an arts centre, not only in the Literature programme, or the books in the Poetry Library, he set out to track down all the poems that were present at Southbank Centre over the first year of its reopening, from June 2007. Assisted by two young poets, he found it on stage in the words accompanied by great classical music, in art galleries engraved in stone, written by security guards late at night, Lemn’s collection inspired us to ask what would happen if other people joined in the sleuthing.
How are artist residencies different from commissions?
How much freedom is an artist given in the process?
How do we curate user generated content, and what possibilities are there for online participation in our work?
So do these projects have anything in common at all? I think what links them is a common approach to the work being collaborative. It’s about participants and artist in dialogue, each learning from the other, as well as the passing on of skill by the professional. It’s about unique experiences and encounters. About space for a beautiful product, with time for the artist to create something new, rather than simply reproduce or teach their craft. Maybe the commissioning process is the opportunity to create new landscapes of the imagination. Lucy Macnab, October 2010