Performance art festival Spills out across Ipswich
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich plays host to the second Spill Festival next week. Arts editor Andrew Clarke talks to Robert Pacitti, the event’s artistic director, about his desire to put Suffolk at the cutting edge of contemporary culture.
The Spill Festival returns to Ipswich next week for its second surreal explosion of imagination, invention, discussion, music, art, theatre, dance, film and all sorts of creativity that defies categorisation.
Spill is five days of live performance that helps put Ipswich at the forefront of international art. It attracts an audience and performers from around the globe.
The event is the brainchild of Ipswich-born performance artist Robert Pacitti, who returned to his hometown five years ago and is an enthusiastic partner in the We Are Ipswich initiative, a collaborative drive by The New Wolsey Theatre, DanceEast, Eastern Angles, Gecko theatre company, Tilted dance company and The Pacitti Company to highlight the world-class cultural work being created in Ipswich.
All those companies are recognised and supported by the Arts Council and are designated as National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and are key players in the nation’s cultural life. Ipswich and Suffolk have eight NPOs, more than Essex, Cambridgeshire or Norfolk.
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This is something Robert Pacitti is very proud of and he thinks the people of Ipswich and Suffolk deserve the very best that contemporary culture can deliver, and should not be afraid to shout about the great work being produced here by local arts organisations. As a young man he felt constrained by Ipswich and ran away to “find himself”, spending much of his 20s and 30s travelling around the world, creating performance art and carving out a name for himself as one of live art’s best practitioners. Now, in his 40s, he has accepted the lure of home and has come back to Suffolk ? and o Ipswich in particular ? to invest his time and energy in celebrating the town’s creative buzz.
He said Ipswich was benefiting from a golden age of cultural creativity that had been steadily gaining momentum over the past decade. “We are Ipswich is really important and in one way or another everyone has had a hand in getting us to where we are with the festival. “Spill has newly-commissioned work happening at the New Wolsey (GetInTheBackOfTheVan’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and at DanceEast (John Bowers and Mehmet Sander’s Animate Objects In Sonic Action) on their main stages, and I think this shoulder to shoulder approach is very collegiate and makes us all stronger. Together we are here to serve the public and that’s our job.
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“People talk about Ipswich going out to the world, which is important, but I have done that. I spent 25 years touring the world, working in all sorts of places; now I am looking to make Ipswich the centre of things. I do work internationally but I am much more excited about what we can do here because the potential here is phenomenal. I am not surprised we are doing Spill in Ipswich. When we did it last time, some of our visitors came and said ‘Why Ipswich?’ But by the time they left, they were saying: ‘Why not Ipswich?’”
Spill is a festival that embraces the whole town, with events at Spill’s Think Tank headquarters next to Ipswich Museum, at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Waterfront, at the New Wolsey Theatre, the old police station on Civic Drive, UCS, Ipswich Corn Exchange; and it will also mark the opening event at the new Ipswich Arts Centre in St Clement’s Church on Star Lane.
He is particularly pleased Ipswich council has continued to work closely with him on the festival and has granted access to spaces like the old police station, so they can create works in unusual, atmospheric spaces people don’t normally get to see.
“The arts community pretty much came out to support us from the word go and that was partly because Spill was known before it came to Ipswich. We had staged the festival in London in 2007, 2009 and 2011, and, because Ipswich is a relatively small place, we are buddies as much as we are colleagues. Of course, we always put our own work first, but we are very supportive to one another. So the advocacy of someone like Sarah Holmes or Bryony Rudkin is very important.”
He spent a long time talking to council officials, explaining exactly what was going to happen and why he was bringing certain acts.
“It wasn’t hard to gain access to somewhere like the police station but it was a case of getting a match so everyone understood what we were doing. I went through all 126 events that I am curating at this year’s festival. I didn’t pull any punches. I said this artist does this; this is my reason for bringing it. We risk- assessed that; we went through the process of needs, public offer, public benefit, and when we got to the end of that process we had a match.
“They are happy to see a building being used for something which is ambassadorial. It will attract visitors from outside, as well as showing people who live here something that they may not have seen before. The future has to be about continued partnership with the town. It’s all about rooting the festival in the community.”
Spill is about providing a wide range of acts – some of which folk will find challenging, some entertaining, some surreal, some provoking, some bewitching, and some will require a great deal of thought and discussion. Robert said the key is not to be put off or frightened by the events, which are being dotted all over town.
“I am interested in serving Ipswich and creating a situation where Ipswich becomes synonymous with world class work that is radical in nature but is not difficult or inaccessible. My job as a curator is to find those points in the programme, where, if we are going to lay down this series of provocative works, then we need to create enough space to reflect on them, to use plain English, and if someone doesn’t understand what is being said then they should feel free to ask the person saying it to explain it a different way.
“I have been thinking about how I can push the edges, looking at what the people in Ipswich might expect, but not pushing so much that it becomes irrelevant. An example of that was in the last Spill Festival when we presented a work called Home Sweet Home and across the week of the festival anyone could come along and help build a cardboard Utopia at the DanceHouse.
“I would say I ‘deployed’ that work as a bridge to help those people who were feeling nervous. We said ‘You may not have heard of us before and it may sound super-scary but here’s this gateway and if you only want to come and engage with this that’s fine, but if you want to look sideways and see what else is going on here are the routes off to a new and exciting world.
“I have done something similar in this curation with Siren by Ray Lee, which is being presented at St Clement’s church and it’s a forest of large mechanical structures. They look as if they have been made out of scaffolding and Meccano and each one has a large arm at the top which rotates, and at the end of each arm is a speaker and a small light. So above our heads this ethereal choir starts to build in the space and then these red circles start to get drawn. It’s very, very hard to say what this is like; it doesn’t come across in print. It is one of the things that has to be experienced. So I thought this would be a wonderful work for the new arts centre and they are going to use it as their opening event.”
His view is that culture is important for the mental wellbeing of everyone and serves to help keep everyone healthy, a fact often forgotten or overlooked by those obsessed with cost.
However, he acknowledged that events have to be paid for and artists need paying to survive. During the first Spill Festival in Ipswich in 2012 he commissioned a full economic impact study, so he could accurately track the effect the festival had on the town and how it may help develop the town’s economy in the future.
“I can tell people about the visitor spend, how much they spent in town away from the festival, how much they spent in shops, in restaurants, on transport, on accommodation.
“I know 10% of those who attended the festival were international. I know two thirds of people who attended the last festival were from outside the town, so they were visitors. So, while it was great they were bringing money into the town, my mission this time is to build up the festival as a local event. I want people to regard it as their festival. Spill belongs to Ipswich. ‘This is ours and we’re keeping it.’”
“I can tell you that those visitors stayed three-and-a-half days and, away from the festival – that’s not buying tickets, a brochure or anything festival-related – they spent £26.50 a day on average.”
The Pacitti Company has raised most of the cash to stage the festival itself, either through running community events or through grants and sponsorship.
“Spill in Ipswich and in London are quite different. Firstly there are economies of scale. The Barbican is a powerful organisation worldwide. In the second Spill we presented a trilogy of works by Romeo Castellucci, who is one of the giants of experimental theatre – there are 150 people on the road in that show, eight attack dogs, a horse – and a grand piano was set on fire every night – there was no way we could do that in Ipswich. London can mobilise audiences to support that scale of work.
“Another thing that makes Spill in Ipswich different is that Ipswich is a very different place from London. I am not that interested in an alien community coming here for five days and leaving. What we want to do is make Spill meaningfully embedded in the town.
“One of the reasons the programme is so packed is so that we can get everyone in. People can choose from a wide range of things to see. We are about to put up pathways on our website which show you how to pack in as much as you want and how you can get from one event to another quickly.”
Spill is pulled together from an array of work Robert has experienced over the years and is assembled around a central theme, which this year is Surrender.
“I have had exposure to work from a lot of different disciplines. So what comes into it? My personal taste. Hands up. I am presenting work that I want to see. Also, it’s not an academic exercise. I am more moved by something in my tummy or by something that brings tears to my eyes, and I keep a record of experiences like that. I have a big book where I keep all that information and I draw on that as and when I need to.
“Spill is an activist festival. I am trying to agitate some change. I am trying to actively make conditions better for artists creating experimental work. We know that if you can think of any area of experimentation, anyone who works in science, health, manufacturing, research of any kind, knows that such work pays dividends and it can help all of us.”
n Spill Festival runs in Ipswich from October 29 to November 2. Full details: www.spillfestival.com