Blog: The Lift to Experience - Is art or architecture the star of the show?

An appetite for placing and seeing art and performance in unusual places and spaces has seen a rapid proliferation of experiential events this year. What started as a quite radical transfer of audience from seated venues to spaces that include used and disused buildings, parks and public spaces - breaking the fourth wall - has now become commonplace. Theatre – and to a great extent the festival scene - may have led the way in immersive experiences, but many recent productions across art forms have lent themselves to multi-sensory work, often bringing together artists from across disciplines - architecture, music, sound design, visual arts - cross pollinating their audiences in the process. From orchestras performing in car parks to using the backstage and rooftop spaces of buildings, promenading through streets or wandering paths in an overgrown cemetery, using venues and public spaces in new ways seems to have captured the imagination of producers and audiences alike. It seems that the city and the built environment are now set as mise-en-scène. What, if anything, does this developing trend offer to the revitalisation of the public realm, our public spaces and the art work taking place within them? Could it be that architecture is now becoming the star of the show?

The contextualising and setting of theatre, art and music performance within public space and the taking over of old buildings is not a new trend by any means. Punchdrunk were pioneers of experiential theatre transforming empty buildings into multi-sensory sets, creating detailed environments in which the audience would be catapulted into. They combined art, architecture and experience inextricably. Artangel, who just celebrated their 25 year anniversary, make a specialism of creating ‘extraordinary art in unexpected places’; temporary site specific work that transforms public and private spaces. This year Artangel took over an 1844 former prison building, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in cell C22, for Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison. It’s the kind of project artists would bite their hand off to be involved in. ‘Reading Prison itself is Exhibit A’ wrote Guardian’s Laura Cumming. Its cruciform architecture with cells lined along narrow walkways was designed to keep prisoners from sighting one another. Notable works from a range of artists, such as Nan Goldin and Marlene Dumas, explored using the three floors of individual cells as a way of audiences viewing the work. The prison chapel saw the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Patti Smith reading Wilde’s long painful prison written letter De Profundis. It was an astounding project that gave a glimpse into a sparse and harsh prison life, made more poignant through reflective works. 

Rewind back to the beginning of the year; Artichoke produced Lumiere, a 3 day festival of Son et lumière, animating public streets and spaces across London including Piccadilly, Regent Street and Kings Cross. For three dark evenings in January buildings, facades, walkways and city streets provided the backdrop and stage scenery for a series of installations, video projections, and illumination oddities. In Kings Cross a twenty minute video mapping of an animated circus was projected across the front of Central St Martins drawing delight from on-lookers. Spectra-3, a kinetic light sculpture in the form of a grounded robotic satellite, sparked in the imagination the idea of communication between earth and distant worlds, providing a more intimate encounter. In Leicester Square the colourful light-fantastics struggled to compete in an already lit-like-Christmas environment, highlighting how difficult it can be to demand attention within an area that has so much commercial bling in every shop front.

During the summer, I took myself to Sadler’s Wells for No Body, a production combining light, music and audio-visual installations, dotted around the working end of the building. There were literally no bodies or dancers, except on film, in shadow, or suggested by recent absence. No Body's journey began on the curtained-off stage, where half a dozen grand chandeliers with tungsten bulbs flickered and glowed softly then brightly in turn, sequentially. In a momentary void, a single square beam of light appeared, expanding outwards with sweeping waves of Tron-like geometric light across the floor. The pulsing soundscape added to the increasing disorientation of being amidst a video game. Audience members were ushered along pipe-ducted corridors and into backstage rooms, usually occupied by costume designers and prop-makers. There lied a glorious array of cluttered costumes; frilled tutus, waistcoats, shoes, masks and wigs, which were scattered around the room suggesting a frantic backstage busyness, oddly just abandoned. In an adjacent room washer dryers were spinning yet bereft of laundry, emanating an eerie light. Head-ducking down a few steps into an airless, slightly claustrophobic basement store room, a row of chairs faced racks of assorted lighting; par cans, spotlights, a neatly arranged lighting storeroom. Plunged into darkness, the lights flickered and crackled, I felt momentarily like a prison escapee pinpointed by searchlights. Fused with a brilliant dramatic soundtrack the effect left me buzzing. This 3 tier piece hidden within the show, proved a highlight, bonding both space and content into fine-tuned concert. 

Creative producers NVA took their sound and light alchemy to St. Peter’s Seminary, an abandoned and dilapidated Brutalist building - considered Scotland’s modernist masterpiece - in Cardross for their Hinterland project. Audiences could wander around the building, its history brought to life through shadowy reminiscence of religious ritual and haunting choral music, but a key attraction was the weathered dereliction of the architecture itself. Southbank Centre hosted Klanghaus – part-gig, part-installation - taking small groups into rooftop corridors as a band moved from space to space to perform. The audience followed until emerging out on the giddy heights of the rooftop to absorb the Thames side views. The Roundhouse invited architect and designer Ron Arad for a second innings of Curtain Call, a 360° interactive installation, set within its circular architecture, formerly a building for trains to turn and framed with gorgeous industrial ironwork. Providing a canvas for films, live performance and audience interaction, the floor-to-ceiling artwork is made of 5,600 silicon rods suspended from an 18 metre diameter ring. Performance sets were thoughtfully arranged each night within the curtained space and the use of audio visuals brought to life a range of unique work alongside an appreciation of the space itself. 

Art Night in early July opened up intriguing spaces and buildings as part of a night of free art installations around The Strand and central London. One of the main pleasures of the night was roaming between sites and seeing mixed performances and art; from the Brutalist office turned gallery space at 180 The Strand to The Admiralty Arch and a disused platform on the Jubilee line. BBC Proms used Peckham Car Park for an orchestral show as part of its Proms season stepping away from its usual Royal Albert Hall to attract a different audience. An Autumn highlight saw Metal, taking over Liverpool’s Edgehill Station platform to present a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Set to film by Bill Morrison, the really quite wonderful and authentic backdrop of trains tracking past made for a special performance.  

A major new public art project has just been announced Illuminated River which will, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan put it "paint the bridges with light" along the Thames. American light artist, Leo Villareal and renowned British architects and urban planners, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands won a high profile competition for the commission. It promises to be one of the largest scale public art projects the capital has seen, and demonstrates how the notion of public art has been embraced by cities as a way of connecting people to their environment.

In much of the work that has been on offer this year, the architecture and space has become integral, but sometimes tips towards becoming the star of the show – I’d argue sometimes even eclipsing the performance or art pieces within them. The most exciting performances are often those which combine and fuse both harmoniously. They allow audiences to experience public space, architecture and the built environment in new ways, as well as seeing work that is provocative and exciting. For some of the large-scale, outdoor projects these events can help disrupt the everyday perceptions of the city, noticing elements of our buildings and streets that are part of our everyday. Many projects also give access to spaces that are normally off-limits. Promenading offers the sense of an unknown element of adventure rousing a what-will-happen-here curiosity. Its journey works best as one of involvement, participation and connection, rather than as passive watcher or spectator. Content and performance needs to live and lift up to the experience too, or it can feel empty and unsatisfactory. It’s important that producers create a balance and integrity between the performative and contextual elements. As experiential and site-specific work becomes more commonplace, will our demands for anticipation increase and our wonder diminish? Is there a danger it will leave us longing for a comfy auditorium seat, rather than traversing a muddy path around a cemetery on a rainy night or the grey stark stairwells of some re-appropriated building?

I hope not. An insight into hidden worlds or a new lens to see the world in front of your face  can be one of the best adventures of all.

– Joel Mills (Senior Music Programme Manager)