I arrived late on Thursday evening and the Bristol Biennial, Festival of Art & Ideas 2016 (BB2016) was well over halfway through its nine-day programme. It was dark, and arriving for an evening performance, taking place in a disused railway tunnel, was an entirely disorientating experience.
I had been given thorough instructions and yet still somehow the poorly lit path leading steeply down to the railway cutting felt like the wrong sort of place to be, entirely abandoned apart from a man walking towards me. I’d already turned around to leave once, I couldn’t back out again … so counter-intuitively, I asked the man for help. He kindly reassured me that within less than a minute I would be at the entrance to the tunnel and the location for the first of my many encounters would become clear. ‘In Other Worlds’ it’s easier to trust strangers in dark tunnels.
‘A Galaxy of Suns’, a choral piece performed live by thirty six singers from Gurt Lush and Bristol MAN Chorus, was devised by Michaela Gleave with Amanda Cole and Warren Armstrong. Staple Hill Tunnel was the perfect chamber for this choral experience; a unique opportunity for an enormous crowd to experience a stellar sonification – the singing of the stars. Single notes, sung as instructed by each individual singer via a headset, resonated intensely and the otherwise murky and unsettling space was cathedral-like in its transformation. The dramatic scale of this disorientating and cavernous space was only revealed when the lights were turned on at the end of the performance. Leaving the tunnel again was both eerily strange and humbly liturgical.
BB2016 (its third iteration) presents thirteen new commissions on the theme of ‘In Other Worlds’. This otherness took many forms: human to non-human, present to future; from the city streets to the very air we breathe. A series of exhibitions, talks, events and satellite projects encourage encounters with, conversations on and explorations of an array of alchemically transformed locations across the city.
Biennials are ever increasingly popular artistic and cultural ventures: over a clearly defined timeframe an area may be transformed through a series of interventions across a spectrum of scale, budget and participation. What would be distinct about Bristol’s Festival of Art & Ideas and in what ways would it be relevant to the people and their city?
First and foremost this is an artist-led organisation. Led by three Co-Directors, the programme is produced through shared values of hope and relevance, an international, artist-led outlook, and the creation of nurturing, accessible and sustainable environments. They demonstrate great ambition in interrogating the biennial model: what could it or should it look like? Through their research-focused commissioning process, they ensure that BB2016 is bespoke, responsive and inter-disciplinary.
The programme provides significant (funded) opportunities for early to mid-career artists. While partnerships with the many existing cultural venues are important to the festival, its programme takes place entirely outside of these conventional creative venues as well as stretching beyond the confines of the city centre itself.
Liz West’s ‘Our Colour’ was one such successful city centre occupation: an installation of coloured light temporarily resident in a vacant floor of a commercial building. The power of this work is entirely dependent on its simplicity – sequential coloured gels applied to the tube lighting create an entirely immersive space which was enjoyed by many children as well as adults.
Artist duo Alex Bailey & Krõõt Juurak have been working together since 2014 to devise works known as ‘Performances for Pets’, enacting a mixture of scripted and improvised movements for animals which address their often overlooked ‘labour’ in their role as our pets. I was lucky to catch one of their rare ‘Workshop for Humans’.
Taking place in a community centre on Bristol’s outskirts, this intriguing and intimate event invited us to enliven senses that we might otherwise ignore; to ‘look’ using only the smells we could sense in, of and around us. The audience were encouraged to trust the process, which required us to touch one another in order to impress or transfer our individual animal characteristics. This experience was meditative, yet rather than being asked to be dissociative, it required a great deal of journeying within. It was playful and well considered, welcoming, organised, reactive and sensitive as the best participatory practice should be.
My final encounter was ‘Liquid Presence’ by Diana Pupkevičiūtė, taking place ten minutes away from the city centre in a working marina. Rather than a private space temporarily opened to the public, or a public space temporarily transformed, we were surrounded by narrow boats and wide beam barges, rowers and the regular river traffic of a Friday evening.
I arrived early, as the artist was putting the finishing touches to the piece and immediately felt its vulnerability. Dressed in clothes much too light for the cool evening, the artist was positioning a single camera, locked on to the shot at the end of the jetty where she would take her position.
This was her final durational performance in a series of poetic acts of endurance which took place over six days in three different port cities: Kaunsas - the Lithuanian city in which the artist was born - Turin and finally Bristol. The artist began by tying a number of threads to her arm, to which she then tied the same number of white balloons which she had laboriously inflated and distributed throughout the performance. For almost thirty minutes she enacted this curious ceremony, alone on the end of the marina jetty. With the (inter)action complete, she paused briefly before falling backwards in to the freezing water below, a dramatic ending to piece that was otherwise silent. She emerged quickly, carefully dragging herself back to the shore where she wades from the water completing the work.
Is the biennial a model for the future or does its temporality go against our increasing concerns for our environments? I think that the model is one that I believe in, for now at least. The programme’s proposition ‘In Other Worlds’ also offered audiences an opportunity to think differently about our world, how we behave towards one another and our environments; a small transformation, recognition and shift in perspective one small step at a time.