I was a participant in a new festival in Cardiff called the International Performance Festival Cardiff, which brought an odd mixture of performance and arts from across the world together in some carefully curated spaces. I spoke with the Director, James Tyson, about the evolution of the festival.
RICHARD PETTIFER: The ‘internationality’ of the program is interesting – there’s works from Bulgaria and Turkey, Australia, and the Americas as well. I suspect this is because of circumstance and chance, as well as by design? i.e the works coming to you, as well as you chasing the works. There’s nothing from Africa – was that disappointing?
JAMES TYSON: Yes, circumstance. What enables something, and what it connects to, and what surrounds it. There is no resolution to bringing certain works into a single context, yet, it may unlock or articulate something relevant within a certain set of circumstances by demonstrating that disparate works collectively develop a certain voice or form of thinking that is otherwise potentially marginalised. It is by no means exhaustive, yet wherever we are in the world, I do believe we can touch upon a certain shared humanity. Perhaps in future years by remaining close to this, more considered and as yet unknown contexts may develop that can bring in works from other places.
RP: If you had to define that voice, just in your chosen works if you like, but also more generally, what is it?
JT: I think it is important for the format and presentation of the festival that there is enough space for each audience to be able to consider this question, what is being communicated, and to grow, intellectually or however, though their response to it.
RP: I’ve been impressed with the level of care and personal investment shown towards each act, as well as the curation itself, which seems precise and delicate. From the outside it’s almost like each act is presented as a gift. Is this an accurate way to surmise your approach in selecting the works presented?
JT: Well, I have thought quite a lot about how we receive and view works as an audience, and how we can better appreciate what we see.
RP: And has that shaped your choices?
JT: Yes. I believe each of the artists presenting work in the programme is considering these things at some level. Or the festival itself I hope is an attempt to give a space for an artist to enable their work to be received, whilst leaving open to whatever circumstances that may arise as to what this will involve .
RP: The festival is quite small scale – does this offer advantages to you in terms of flexibility and mobility? How does that compare to the bigger festivals in the UK?
JT: It does give some advantages in terms of flexibility, so that the programme can stay close to the process of making.
RP: Going back to the careful presentation of the works, I mentioned they felt like ‘gifts’ – do you think it’s important for art to be presented like this? If so, why?
JT: I think you answer that question. Agnes Martin speaks of humility, and I feel that is a good approach. It is a responsibility from those presenting as well as those who give their attention to receive. And how we can better learn to do this, so that a work may become a part of a culture, or an act that may enable us to think about who we are, where we are from and how we live. What you are commenting on may also well be a reflection of the particular artists who are presenting their work as part of the festival.
RP: …that they take care in their work?
JT: Or that they are aware of a very complex process that is being put into place through making performance, whether it is described as an exchange between people, yet also a consideration of how we inhabit time and space, and how we become responsible to this.
RP: The festival enters into a context of funding cuts and a seemingly contracting outlook in the UK, which appears to be turning back inwards after years of tolerance and acceptance of outsiders. In this context, it must have been difficult to organise an inaugural festival that is international. Were there challenges persuading people IPFC was a good idea at this time?
JT: It’s important that you say that, describing a perception of the UK from the outside. There is also from the inside a certain amount of apathy, which can make organising a festival of this kind quite straightforward.
RP: You don’t mean that no-one cares… do you?
JT: Rather an apathy related to a political-economic context, as individuals or communities, because of the patterns and pressures of work and how lives are lived, there can seem more reasons for not doing something than there are for actually doing something. This mostly seems to do with time, where a certain professionalisation of every-day life gives less time for space which can allow for an autonomy of thought, passion or energy, let alone a collective space; where even words such as “community” become appropriated within frameworks that seem rather to allow quite a limited space for people to really develop their own forms of expression. Paradoxically then, in this space of non-activity, it seems if there are some resources to do something, it can actually be quite possible to just get on and do it, and for people to work together. So this “apathy” can be quite a formative space, an opportunity for change of some kind. Making this visible within these other professionalised structures, whether governmental or cultural or political, is perhaps not so straightforward. Just as an example, while distributing the artist’s catalogue for the festival, Taz Burns (Festival Co-ordinator) and I visited two large cultural venues in the city to ask if we could give them some catalogues for people to pick up. I realise we were assuming a certain position of naivety in relation to the mechanisms of arts marketing and distribution services, but in both places we were told they would not put them on display for the public, but that they would distribute them in their staff room. So what does this tell us, when we have developed an arts infrastructure which can only communicate to workers within its own field? It wasn’t a problem with other more independent spaces such as bookshops, cafes, bars, small performance spaces. So it has been an interesting process of seeing where these more or less active spaces are. And that is how this festival, which carries with it a desire to bring in an international framework, has been put together.
RP: Well, I guess institutions feel the most fear in this scenario. What’s interesting is that arts cuts tend to shift money into the hands of bigger institutions (for example in Australia’s recent budget almost all organisations received funding cuts but the institutions were largely spared, and ballet actually rose), and yet conditions of austerity in fact favour smaller, more mobile organisations – outside the arts as well. Perhaps the institutions realise this. And after all, they are also very reliant on attendance.
JT: Yes, it is politics. Or at least figuring out who needs the most space, and what is more or less easy to give space to.
RP: This seems very much a trial run for something later – do you secretly hope that the festival will grow exponentially, Walmart-style, and conquer Cardiff?
JT: No. Although, I do think Cardiff has a remarkable history of performance, from both local and international perspectives. The work of groups such as Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Brith Gof, Magdalena Project, Moving Being, Centre for Performance Research and artists such as Eddie Ladd, Ed Thomas, André Stitt are pioneers in this respect, as well as organisations such as Chapter. Yet always it is necessary to reformulate, and specify, what is being referenced, which orthodoxy is being observed, what may be excluded. I hope the festival contributes to a wider awareness, in relation to art history and a local context of how Cardiff may continue to develop the possibilities of performance in Wales, within the UK and further afield. From a UK context, given the concentration of artists working in performance in such a small city, Cardiff can often seem overlooked, yet as a practice and history of art-making in this city, it continues