In a year of dislocation and re-alignment for the cultural industries, I talk to Compass Live Art about relationships with artists and with audiences, art without frontiers, Leeds, and plans for the 5th biennial Compass Festival in spring 2021.
Why use a compass? We associate them with travelling and destinations, their clock-like form and dial connoting accuracy and human mastery of movement, of intent towards places known and those yet to be discovered. We think of prospects and horizons, new sights.
Yet to use one requires a moment of stillness, breaking the view to drop your head and hold palm flat. Stepping beyond the temporal to align yourself, not with punctuality or ETAs, but with the earth’s magnetic liquid core that makes a small magnetic needle fluctuate, float and come to rest. A compass can’t tell us where to go or why, but it helps us understand where we are in relation to our planet, and to each other. It locates us.
Compass Live Art, now ten years strong and operating as a team of five, knows all about the importance of location, of surroundings and site. The team run a biennial festival of live art in the city of Leeds and in between, a programme of residencies, commissions and standalone events, all of which are propelled by the relationship between audiences and spaces.
This focus on where art happens grew, says Compass’ Co-Director Annie Lloyd, from her time as Director of the Gallery and Studio Theatre at the Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) which she developed into a critical point on the small-scale touring network between 1990 and 2009, introducing experimental theatre and performance to audiences in Yorkshire. Lloyd recognised ‘the incredible practice going on’ and how so much of that stayed niche ‘because most people don’t get to see it.’
Lloyd was compelled to ‘flip the relationship between audiences and spaces’, eschewing the traditional venue-centric model of auditoriums, ticketing and marketing toil spent generating attention for events. Instead, they would respect and tune into people’s elemental curiosity, intelligence and broad appetite for art, placing it in a range of discoverable settings, shopping centres and markets, libraries and city streets. By circumventing the venue model and eliciting incidental audiences (those happening upon the art live, on-site), Compass sought to adapt how art was made, valuing the audience at project inception so that it became possible to generate work reflecting the community it would take shape from, and be experienced within. Visibility of audience and of art was critical. The two have to be in sight of each other and this meant developing relationships with non-arts venues in the city who, like the audiences they welcomed, offered ‘no resistance’ says Lloyd.
Such an expansive approach to art programming and presentation relied on Compass developing equally meaningful relationships with artists. These were crucial to ambitious projects such as ‘Four Legs Good’ (2018), which revived the practice of medieval animal trials in the Victorian courtroom at Leeds Town Hall. Audiences witnessed a day of public hearings, complete with defence counsel, judge and jury; the playful absurdity of such undertakings made possible by the extensive research and project management in bringing live animals (and barristers) into the Leeds court rooms.
It’s late November 2020 when I talk to Lloyd and Senior Producer Anna Turzynski, to mark what would have been the festival’s original launch date. The team share news of three of the eight projects now scheduled for spring 2021.
Joshua Sofaer’s ‘Museums in People’s Homes’ acknowledges the home as a site of personal curation and intimately assigned object-value by creating a portable museum complete with miniature gift shop and café. Housing oddities and artefacts drawn from the artist’s work with fourteen Leeds-based collectors, the project dematerialises objects to foreground the ‘stories of the people who collect and how the objects hold meaning’ (Joshua Sofaer). The storytelling at the heart of this gregarious project is reinforced by the extraordinary physical presence of the artist Sofaer, who, poised in a full bodystocking -in the middle of the structure, gleefully attempts to decentre the authority of the curator role ‘by making him a bit comic… the body becomes another object, and also a kind of blank canvas onto which other stories can be told. He is storyteller and also story’ (Sofaer).
In a project that spans across 2019 and 2020, the one-man museum represents a visual manifestation of Sofaer’s research and conversations with Leeds residents during that time and artfully articulates a dual aspect of material culture: of objects as something tangible that we can see, hold and attach meaning to; and of the intangible object, existing only in our recollections, the product of our cultural interpretations and inherited knowledge. Audiences will be able to book personal tours of the museum in their own homes later in 2021.
Theatre and digital art company ZU:UK return to the city with ‘Pick Me Up (& hold me tight)’, an interactive audio project on an epic scale that will co-ordinate all of Leeds’ public phone boxes to ring at 11am each day during the festival. This technical feat is made only more impressive by the fact that it is part of a national project in which 34,000 public phone boxes will simultaneously ring on New Year’s Day 2021 (the pilot of which took place in Leeds twelve months earlier).
The work developed out of ZU:UK’s research into the experience of loneliness and the project’s participatory nature amplifies issues around isolation and mental health by drawing attention to the ways we listen. People across the city will be encouraged to pick up the phones when they ring to experience a gentle audio experience, and an audio-visual map available online will offer live tracking of the phones as they are picked up or waiting to connect. While mindful of not revealing the impressive tech involved in orchestrating this mass telecommunication event, Turzynski admits the project management ‘has been magical in its own right’, involving a ‘wonderful team of volunteers, including members of the public, who have come together to locate, test and evaluate each phone box in the city’.
Trust and a synthesis of shared values underscore Compass’ work both past and present. In the forthcoming project ‘Public House – The Yorkshire Square’, artists and performance makers Katie Etheridge and Simon Persighetti (Small Acts) launch a four-sided, fully operational 12ft x 12ft pop-up pub in Leeds’ iconic Kirkgate market. It’s a project that represents a developing relationship between the artists and the organisation, one acknowledged by Turzynski as ‘transformative’ in how it’s allowed both commissioner and the commissioned artists to develop a strong collaborative base from which to extend the boundaries of their socially engaged art practice.
This accord and mutualism are reflected in the project’s celebration of the city’s pub culture. Working with Leeds brewers, publicans and campaigners, Etheridge and Persighetti chart social landscapes and situate the pub as an enduring vector point on the Leeds historical, intergenerational, social and community map.
The seismic impact of 2020 on the UK pub industry was already preceded by changing social habits and economic decline. Modelled in the likeness of an original Tetley’s Brewery fermenting vessel, the ‘Public House – The Yorkshire Square’ installation will highlight the fragile balance of pub culture and showcase its enduring value and capacity to evolve. There will be a diverse menu of traditionally served pints and a host of events, including heritage tours, tap talks, self-guided trails, podcasts and family activities, all seeking to affirm that ‘the pub of the future has many faces’ (Etheridge and Persighetti).
Audiences will also be asked to share their favourite drinking haunts in the upcoming Lost Pubs Competition, with the winner brought back to life as part of the ‘Public House – The Yorkshire Square’ installation; a conceptual nod at the replica Hark to Rover Inn, situated in the Leeds Victorian streets and buildings recreation at Leeds Museums and Galleries Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall.
I ask what it means to present work in a spring arts calendar compared to the Festival’s usual autumn date, and how an arts organisation maintains its visibility outside of its festival schedule. Turzynski emphasises the industry involved in the development years between festivals, most crucial of which is the artists’ forming of material connections with the people and city of Leeds: ‘Our aim is to embed artists in the city and to break down some of the familiar barriers facing site-responsive commissioning such as time, geography and networks’.
The latitude brokered from their refusal of conventional artistic spaces and the commitment to make all events free serve to illustrate Compass’s broader porosity and fluidity, one that responds readily to Leeds’ altered cultural calendar of 2020. While the Festival’s usual November dates typically allow for a joyful disruption of the city’s Christmas-wrapped commercial spaces, the team wryly look forward to avoiding the biennial ‘wrestle with Christmas trees’ and ‘slightly warmer weather’ in March. Recognising that they will be one of the first city-wide public art events to take place in 2021, Compass acknowledge a sense of responsibility towards facilitating safe experiences alongside playful exploration: ‘Whether you are out and about or staying home, we have created many entry points from which to enjoy the festival so you can be inspired and remain safe at the same time,’ affirms Lloyd.
This becomes possible, say the team, because of working alongside artists they believe in, delivering a programme firmly located in the city of Leeds that feels more relevant and necessary than ever. It’s a belief that echoes LADA, the Live Art Development Agency’s vision, of live art as a way of thinking rather than a definable practice. Whatever its form or mission, live art seeks to offer interactive experiences for audiences in a diverse and public sphere.
Why use a compass? Because live art is more of a search than it is a clear destination. Sitting in the liminal space between what we know and where the wild things are, the role of this art form is to set out and never arrive. Less the artist-as-wayfarer and more artist-as-orienteer, the live artist helps us go places. Trespass even, but never occupy.
For ten days from Friday 19 March to Sunday 28 March 2021, the 5th biennial Compass Festival returns, imaginative and conscientious, to open up the city of Leeds. Not to tell us where to go and why we should, but to help us locate ourselves and find each other.
Compass Festival 2021 takes place across the city of Leeds from Friday 19 March to Sunday 28 March 2021. Details of the full programme are being confirmed at intervals and can be found at https://compassliveart.org.uk/
Pamela Crowe is an artist and writer based in Leeds.