A conference-event exploring the artistry of large-scale animation within street arts and carnival was a roaring success, says Dorothy Max Prior
‘Mechanical Creatures Come to Life in Luton,’ ran the teaser from the Puppet Centre Trust, in the news release for a conference event to be held October 2010 at the UK Centre for Carnival Arts. ‘The programme for the Big Ideas conference-event is set to give artists an insight into what makes an exciting carnival extravaganza, gives street arts splendour, and puppetry its magnificent magic.’
So did it live up to the hype? Actually, yes! Conferences can often be worthy but turgid affairs, but this one was a wholly different beast: dull academics delivering dry papers were off the agenda completely, and instead we feasted on interactive workshops in all manner of animations-related subjects, and lively presentations from artists at the top of their professions – and there were indeed large mechanical creatures brought to life in Luton, as the Carnival Arts Centre played host not only to Emergency Exit Arts’ giant dustbin robot, but also to The Lion King’s gyrating giraffes, Pif-Paf's sweetly sensitive elephant Trunk, and Mandinga’s whirling dervish dragon.
The conference launched with a keynote speech from François Delarozière, the artistic director of La Machine and the creator of mechanical giants such as La Princesse, the super-spider centrepiece for Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture celebrations, and of Royal de Luxe’s The Sultan’s Elephant. François spoke of his work as being ‘inspired by nature’ and showed some extraordinary footage of the making of his magnificent machines from his creation centre in France. He also led a couple of ‘troubleshooting’ workshops where delegates could take their design dilemmas to the master maker for a second opinion. Floppy tails, anyone?
Other workshop leaders included Symon Macintyre, the creative force behind the Scottish big blue giant, Big Man Walking; who got his participants to collaborate on making an instant large-scale puppet from the barest of materials (a length of rope, some tape, and some long sticks); Mervyn Millar, Associate Puppetry Director on War Horse (the wonderful collaboration between the National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company, who had his lot trotting round with chairs that morphed somehow into horses; carnival designer (and philosopher!) Paul Mc Laren who gave one of the most entertaining and enlightening sessions of the event on the theme of visual metaphor; and a team of puppeteers, actors and movement directors from Disney’s live musical version of The Lion King (originally created by Julie Taymor) who had their team of participants gasping in amazement at the intricacy, skill and dexterity of all aspects of that productions puppetry and mask work.
Artists making presentations included Keith Khan, a visionary who has conceived and directed many seminal events that are site-specific or which engage with technology and digital media, including Coming of Age and Escapade with Akademi, and Alladeen with motiroti and New York based theatre ensemble The Builders Association. Keith described cultural activity as ‘the quickest healing tool’, and felt this particularly the case with street art and other public art/participatory arts, saying ‘there is a real function to the work we are engaged in.’ He encouraged artists to ask: Who are we making work for? Why are we making work? What are the narratives? How do they fall together? What are people drawn towards? People want something to happen that they can be engaged with, and the heart of outdoor work / art in public spaces is the marriage of audience, architecture and artistic content – the key challenge is how to join it all up and make it an easy access point for everybody, using visual stories that everyone understands.
‘Mas’ (masquerade) carnival costume maker extraordinaire Clary Salandy of Mahogany talked us through the creation of her fabulous beasts and mythical beings (including that wonderful dragon) – explaining how political, social, and artistic starting points become visually and physically embodied, as she creates a kind of ’styleguide’ for herself with a chosen palette of colours / visual motifs, and from there to making two-dimensional drawings, and eventually three-dimensional creations which are often less costume than giant puppet cum sculpture animated by the skill of the dancer inhabiting the ‘costume’.
Another inspiring presentation came from Usman Haque on Architecture Interaction Systems. As an architect turned artist (although he was reluctant to name himself as such!), Usman Haque had carved a unique niche for himself ‘re-interpreting real space’ and exploring the ‘relationship of human beings to natural systems’. Lest this might sound rather dry, let me explain that the sort of projects we learnt about included Burble (launched at the open ceremonies of the Singapore Biennale 2006), which consisted of a 15-storey structure of giant balloons joined up like molecule clusters. Part installation, part performance, ach ‘Burble’ is designed, assembled and controlled by members of the public. The massive structure is composed of 1,000 or so extra-large helium balloons, held together by a carbon-fibre lattice, each of which contains microcontrollers and LEDs that create spectacular patterns of light across the surface of the structure. The public, who are – in true carnival fashion – both audience and performer, come together to control this rippling 'Burble' that sways in the evening sky, changing shape and colour continuously, in response to movements of the interactive handlebar at the base of the structure. There’s even a version of the Burble that involves getting the audience to bring their TV remote controllers out with them to manipulate the balloon-cloud!
Interspersed with the presentations and workshops were a number of ‘talkshop’ sessions – properly structured and led off by short presentations from key artists, so that it felt as if something really meaty was being offered as food for thought. On the first day, the Big Dreams session included Ali Pretty (of Kinetika) who asked: How do we get a narrative onto the streets and get thousands of people to engage? How might we do something differently, exploring a new toolbox? How to create a more meaningful interaction with communities? Deb Mullins of Emergency Exit Arts (one of the steering group that brought the conference together) reflected on how to make spectacle participatory. Large scale can still find imaginative ways to stay close to an audience. For Symon Macintyre of Big Man Walking, this notion of ‘closeness’ even with a large-scale project was essential; the soul of the project was the interactions between the Giant and the public. If a giant came to visit your community, what would you like to show him? Community-based Strange Cargo see Carnival as a gateway to other cultural experiences...a starting point for people to engage with culture, saying ‘Public art, public space, carnival – it’s all the same thing to us!’
A discussion on Music and Sound on the Large Scale, featuring contributions from Liz Pugh of Walk The Plank and producer Simon Chatterton (amongst others) led to a reflection on getting away from the end-on PA and into the mobility of sound. Trolleys, trucks, sound devices inside puppets and sculptural structures, acoustic bands that move, a mixing desk in a milk float, accordion players sited in quarries, speakers hidden under bridges or in plants – all these and more were discussed… sound surround takes on a whole new meaning!
One key session looked at Communicating the Narrative: Discourse and Language in the Large Scale. Producer Bill Gee reflected on the use of extraordinary locations which in themselves carry story and meaning, pointing out that creative producers structure how the audience encounter the work – and that we don’t have to work with the conventions of written theatre. Let’s hear it for the ‘spectator’ rather than the ‘audience’!
In that same session, Jeremy Shine of Manchester International Arts identified four different types of outdoor work: parade, participatory, site-specific/site-responsive, and touring. He noted that in the UK, we are obsessed with site-specific and one-offs. If touring work could be encouraged more, companies can make work that has a long life and an international focus, keep it in repertoire for 20 years and enable it to cover costs over longer time period. The story should be there first, he feels, encouraging artists to ask: ‘Why am I making this work? What do I want the audience to feel?’
For Claire Raftery, co-artistic director of Periplum, the interest is in the audience’s journey, how they are moved or changed, and how reactions are provoked – it’s an interactive game. She also defended the use of spoken text in outdoor work, and in particular the use of ‘poetic text’. Pippa Bailey (of The World Famous) asked: What can we borrow from film production processes in our attempts to tell stories outdoors on the large scale? For example, storyboarding, planning, translating ideas to big sites with minimal rehearsal.
Meanwhile, back in the workshops and out in the yard, steel was being bent on the carnival headdresses; feathers tweaked and lever gears pulled on the giant bird; cheetahs on sticks were danced across the floor; and a team of human fish swam across a room (aided and abetted by puppet theatre director Mark Down of Blind Summit). Not, as I said, your usual sort of conference…
The Big Ideas conference-event took place 6–7 October 2010 at the UK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton. It was produced by the Puppet Centre Trust in partnership with University of Winchester, ISAN (Independent Street Arts Network), Emergency Exit Arts, and the UK Centre for Carnival Arts.