Bristol regularly ranks as one of the most liveable cities in the UK, listing good transport links (the central one-way system is atrocious), low unemployment (creative sector not as applicable) and the highest disposable income, among other factors. Bristol also hosts a rather substantial amount of festivals each year; the encroaching city centre redevelopments, central floating harbour and stately green-periphery all capitalised upon by corporate-sponsored and city council stamped public events, catering to the self-professed creative city. If you’re fortunate to have a disposable income each month (each weekend come the summer), or are one of the 22,000 students in the city and living from a student loan, then Bristol goes to great lengths to ensure there’s a festival (from the intriguing to the innocuous) oddity where you can circulate some of that money into the local economy again.
To name a few of these festivals, some more self-explanatory than others: BrisFest, Balloon Fiesta, Harbourside Festival, UpFest, Dot to Dot, Simple Things, Americana Festival, GrillStock, Veg Fest, Jazz Fest, Love Saves the Day, Slapstick Festival, Shakespeare Festival and several performance-based festivals including In Between Time, Mayfest and Ausform. St Paul’s Carnival sits slightly outside of these, in it’s various movements in and out of the officially-sanctioned (not to mention the halting of financial support from Bristol City Council and Arts Council England last year).
The point might seem laboured, but it’s an honest and widely understood situation in the city, which is why, when meeting with the committee of Bristol Biennial, it doesn’t take long until the question “Does Bristol need another festival!?” is asked. “There are a few festivals in Bristol that are for an artist community, and you see the same faces at them...”, notes Executive Director Eva Martino, an inhabitant of the city for the past 10 years. “For us it was important to gather lots of people, a real variety…”.
This notion of broadening audiences and spectators to the arts was conceived by curator Catherine Bourne, who founded and directed the first iteration, ‘Bristol Biennial: Storytelling’ in 2012. The inaugural festival was staged across multiple venues, mostly non-art spaces and featured over 100 national and international artists. Hannah Clark, now Artistic Director of Bristol Biennial, worked on this initiatory festival, volunteering whilst completing the final year of her Fine Art degree at UWE, in a bid to fulfil the ‘professional development’ module.
Hannah: “The first Bristol Biennial was very artist-led, very DIY, but it wasn’t communicated properly across the city, with a lot of people wondering why they hadn’t been invited.” Both as a platform and its use of the ‘Biennial’ mantle, it is possible to see how this first festival could have inadvertently developed a low-lying-legacy of tensions between itself and a wider, institutional community in Bristol. As Hannah continues though, “It [this lack of communication with wider institutes] was from just not knowing the network. It wasn’t exclusive, or trying to challenge the institutions in anyway, it was just not knowing them.”
It also comes back to resources, as Eva considered from later experiences of coordinating the festival: “You simply can’t do it all, you want to - to get press-releases out on time, to communicate effectively - but with limited resources and time-scales sometimes you just can’t.”
The committee of Bristol Biennial who we meet with: Hannah, Eva and Rowan Lear - Director of Engagement - were instrumental in reshaping the structure of the organisation proceeding the initial version. Having dissolved the company, leaving the platform and name open to the taking, Catherine asked Hannah if she would be interested in taking on a director’s role. Accepting the offer, the committee grew through various tangential collaborative projects and events, and further conversations around the feeling that art could be at times inaccessible and exclusive, with hopes for creating something that didn't replicate this: “We saw all these possibilities to make art that was more accessible and that could include many different people”.
The programme for ‘Bristol Biennial 2014: Crossing the Line’ was more coherent with a greater focus on specific channels for different audiences. ‘I’m Staying’ by Shaun C Badham was a large outdoor neon sign that toured across both formal and informal Bristol venues, commissioned by Bristol Biennial and launched during the development of the 2014 programme. Public interventions such as ‘Sonic Room’ or ‘Grass Men’ by Lee Macdonald and Ashley Peevor, respectively, garnered much attention and visible presence in an attention-centric economy, whilst greater criticality was introduced into the programme for artists to discuss austerity packages and precarity realities. Attendance figures grew beyond tens of thousands, which for a festival that only took place over the course of 10 days is quite astonishing. What’s more, the 2014 edition was pegged-back in the lead up by a rejected Arts Council bid.
Eva: “We put a huge amount of work and effort into the 2014 festival. I was in Istanbul on an International Performance Association Camp, representing Bristol Biennial there, when I got the call from Hannah that we hadn’t got the major funding. I was in tears.”
“We responded by submitting a GfA under £15,000 and were successful, but our ‘big plan’ got reduced a bit. We managed to pay the artists, but under a different agreement.”
Both the 2014, and the 2016 programme, ‘In Other Worlds’, were made up from open calls, with this years festival receiving upwards of 800 applications. Despite the huge strain on the small Bristol Biennial team’s resources processing such a quantity of applications, the democratic potential of this selection method and curation would appear to be exactly the point. As Rowan says, “It’s really hard work sorting through all these applications, but for me I really love that process, finding new work, not relying on people you know, or spending all that money on researching work that has already been shown in other galleries.”
Hannah: “I hate the pretentiousness of thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll fly all around the world and choose art’. The work won’t surprise you, you will know what you’re going to get. It’s important to take risks on people, that is how they develop.”
Eva: “It’s invaluable.”
Rowan: “A lot of the artists we worked with spoke about how they wouldn’t normally apply to open calls, but because of the way that ours was themed, and the way we talked about it interested them.”
Eva: “That is also part of the process going into the future, looking at the data of how we got that many applications, where they came from, the type of work, etc.”
Rowan expressed a hesitation around ‘data’, both a wariness of it as a qualitative measurement, but also the prospect of going through all of the applications for other research purposes, given the lack of resources available to the small team. For Eva though, this reflective period is akin to the first few years of any business, a necessary period of investment before any discernible return can be seen.
The misconception of a gallery’s resources, or indeed an events project like Bristol Biennial has been discussed before by other organisations. Mirroring aspects from our conversation with KARST last year, Hannah noted how artists sometimes don’t really understand the nature and particular demands on resources of a small-organisation: “When it fails, it really fails. It is a collaboration you have with them, so if they aren’t on the same level and don’t appreciate that you are an artist too, that we are all working our socks off, that we are all in exactly the same position, that is difficult. Sometimes they don’t understand that position. It is a needle in a haystack though, it does happen, but not that often.” It is of course possible in turn that some of this misunderstanding itself derives from the ‘biennial’ moniker again, and certain expectations around what this represents in terms of scale of organisation, budget or accommodating needs.
Resources are often made possible through an outsourcing from other organisations. Partnerships are crucial to any form of practice, whether it’s an informal deal with a local goods provider, or significant financial matching from a public body. ‘In Other Worlds’ saw partnerships with close to 40 other companies, local businesses or international creative-funding councils. The committee, however, remain both open yet critical of what’s possible when approaching the institution for project support:
Eva: “Where is the supporting network, or do people feel threatened? Looking at the face of Bristol now, and the role of institutions here, it has rapidly changed in the last 10 years. Maybe the institutions need to change their leading role, where is their responsibility for supporting the artist-led?”
Rowan: “I’ve worked in a lot of Bristol’s art institutions. From our side, Bristol Biennial, there has vocal been a lot of support from some, Mayfest, and Situations, for example. There is also a guardedness from some as well, and a notable silence from others. ‘Bristol Festivals’ has been really helpful, an initiative that puts all of Bristol’s festival organisers in one room together, to talk, and encourage you to not look at one another as competitors. At the same time, with the possibility put forward to work with some of the institutions, we were actually wary of being swallowed up by them.”
Hannah: “I’d describe the relationship towards us as very cautious.”
By not having curated the programme through a gradual growth of contacts, or through a process of selecting artists from other exhibitions, Bristol Biennial are seeing the majority of the work for the first time when the audiences do. There’s a great deal of risk involved in this wading out into the unknown, how a proposed project might translate when in a public environment, especially having not seen the work first-hand prior. This previously mentioned trouble with communicating the programme with some of Bristol’s institutions might stem from this approach, and is a complex negotiation that can’t be handled here, but considering how the festival functions in the wider community as a series of spectacles however, appears to successfully function outside the gallery context and general public’s concept of the museum. Making use of busy underpasses, central train stations, disused tunnels and public squares, Bristol Biennial encourages audiences to participate in the folds of the urban infrastructure on an acute level.
Bypassing the gallery produces another difficulty in sustaining public accessibility, as many of the sites are temporarily let, hired or occupied through the council or private businesses, which comes at a cost, and with restrictions. Speaking about ‘Our Colour’, a large indoor light and colour installation, and key Instagramming-target, by Liz West for this years festival, the artwork made use of an empty office unit in the city, which was free to enter over the 10-day festival period.
Hannah: “...in comparison to working in a museum or gallery, there was much more freedom to take risks in the space. People were skateboarding in there, people had their dogs, were doing yoga, there was breastfeeding all over the place!”
Something within the reception and success of ‘Our Colour’ reveals the paradox in the format of Bristol Biennial to some extent. According to the committee, close to 4000 people showed up on the last day of the festival to see West’s installation, with many having to be turned away. The increase in attendance figures over the 10 days is visible on the group’s Instagram feed; no matter the reach of targeted advertising, spectacles are a product of communication and exchange, they’re a word of mouth phenomenon. Social media accentuates this. Proving that the cultural legacy afforded by working in a large institution is not necessarily required in order to create large audience figures, what caps the project’s reach is its duration - when demand exceeds resources.
Rowan: “Being an empty property, it would have cost £200 for security, plus the work of four volunteers to keep the space open one extra day. Even once an exhibition is set up there are still costs to having it open.”
Hannah: “We could only really use these spaces because the festival is so temporary.”
With the festival finishing in September, and our conversation taking place but two days after the final event, all of the committee members appear to be questioning the future of the festival, reflecting how it occupies the city for those 10 days, and how it might work to its own advantages:
Eva: “To pass it on in the future is a big question, and maybe too soon to answer, having literally just finished. The thing is we are artists and people, so we have to recognise on a human level we’ve spent the last four years doing this. At the weekend you always have something to do. The question is where are we going as people, as professionals. It’s difficult, working a full time job, waiting to hear about funding, etc...”
Rowan: “I’m really interested in a lot of the projects we did, but working on an entire festival, it takes everything from you, and I want to put energy into other places as well. But I think that’s natural...We are also artists, we are artist-led, and we need to be artists as well. I don’t want to be a producer and a curator, I want to make things.”
Eva: “But can you ever nurture something like this without proper funding? I have a family and kids, so I can’t be doing this every weekend. Look how much we did with our spare time. Last Christmas we basically spent working and writing until 2am. It’s not sustainable. There are always things you could do better obviously, but that is the reality.”
One possible route the three artists might work again could be similar to the earlier commissioning projects like ‘I’m Staying’, seeing the success in managing single artworks across multiple sites over a much longer time period, sustaining a voice in the city rather than exhausting both self and resources within a concentrated period. Having worked on two festivals together, the committee have revealed the freedoms and constraints of working in parallel and against the contemporary art festival schematic that is spreading to varying degrees around the UK. The group also understand the great wealth of potential collaborations with other International artists in the future, which might manifest or come to fruition outside of Bristol Biennial down the line.
Eva: “If we go back to the beginning, our ethos was nurturing emerging artists. And we’ve been speaking about our project potentially having some satellite element in Europe, a bootcamp maybe, and then every few years the festival working as a kind of showcase of these partnerships built up through the bootcamp. Spending time together is important for artists, so possibly that’s an interesting direction for us.”