Home Live Art (HLA) is an Arts Council funded company of creative producers, who have developed contemporary arts projects since the early 2000’s. From churchyards, pubs and sixty- seater buses to renowned cultural institutions including the British Museum and The Barbican, the company has brought artists and audiences together through performance, interventions and participatory practice.
One of our most recent projects has been the Ida Barr Mash Up by artist Christopher Green. Combining song, dance, writing, live performance and cabaret, the project aims to bridge the gap between generations through a shared interest in popular cultural forms such as rap, reggae and R & B, all framed within the tradition of the music hall “sing along”.
Ida is neither drag nor alter ego, but is based upon a real life musical hall singer of the same name who Christopher wholly embodies once the costume is on! The back-story is as follows: Ida is a former music hall star forced out of retirement by her meagre pension; deciding to update her act, she becomes a rapper.
The process brought together varied participants from schools and local community centres in a series of singing workshops led by Ida. Together, they performed a repertoire of songs that eloquently ‘mash-up’ old music hall classics with R&B chart hits. Often accompanied by a local guest choir or music group, Ida weaves together the musical interludes with jokes and satire, creating an uplifting performance by an unlikely gathering of participants.
The Ida Barr character has a very unique appeal that is playfully cross-generational. Older people appreciate the in-joke references to Gaviscon and repeat prescription drugs and younger people relate to the pop music and the urban ‘street’ vernacular – especially delivered by an ‘old lady’. Attending a recent Mash Up performance in Brighton that brought together school children, an elders’ samba group and a gay women’s ukulele band, a female vicar told us: …’The church could really learn from this!’
Ida Barr’s Mash Up has taken us to unlikely venues for such an event, from the National Theatre to the Sheffield Festival of the Mind and the Grassington Festival in Yorkshire. Fundamentally, it has sparked discussion within the company about what community or participatory work means to us, and what the values underpinning it are.
On the surface, the work we do now looks markedly different from the early days of our ‘salon’ events in a house in South London. Owned by the then HLA Director Laura Godfrey Isaacs and her family, the house had been recently renovated – a major personal undertaking in itself. This invited further exploration in terms of looking at how you create a home, architecturally, conceptually and emotionally. Laura and her Co-Director Mimi Banks explored how the presentation of live art, the hosting of audiences and working with artists accustomed to site-specific work could function within a domestic space – one which they could control to suit their working patterns. This was fuelled by Laura’s commitment to having a very young family and not wishing to run a public venue.
The resulting work had a strong radical aesthetic that explored the unique domestic context: the blurred lines between art and life, and the dynamic between site, performer and audience. It was also a largely professional or sector audience.
Artists performing in the house often used every inch of building including the bathroom and bedrooms. We’ve hosted Kira O’Reilly performing with her mother as part of the Transgressive Bodies series, Adrian Howells in Adrienne’s Dirty Laundry Experience, a one to one performance where audience members brought a bag of dirty linen which was then washed during a 45minute personal interaction with the artist and Kazuko Hohki and the Frank Chickens presenting The principles of Japanese Food as part of the Culture of Cooking series.
Since the decision to leave the house behind for larger, more mainstream spaces and invariably much larger audiences, the work has “loosened up”, becoming more playful. This is in part due to the public contexts we find ourselves in and the largely community audiences we now present to. Increasingly asked by local authorities, large institutions and outdoor festivals to develop live art activity for either young, family or ‘least engaged’ audiences, the work focuses more on the sociable interaction between artist and public.
In saying this, we try to stay true to the ‘homely’ principals developed in the house – the way we look after and host artists and participants (duty of care) and through the thematics of the work itself. We continue to work within the realms of making, ritual, food, gathering and the relationship between artist and audience
Increasingly, we invite artists to create small, self-contained projects, which directly engage with the public. The resulting work is more light hearted and conversational – stories are told, jokes are shared and often things get made, for example testing out your bra unfastening skills with artist Jenny Edbrooke or off loading to Catherine Hoffman’s “Madam Ex” about an ex-lover and the revenge you might exact on them.
We try not to create an ‘us and them situation’ where we as curators or the artists are tightly driving the artistic agenda. Instead, we leave room (metaphorically and literally) for things to go off at a tangent and for people to engage on their own terms. Consequently the interchange between artist and participant is more relaxed, friendly even.
It is this approach we have taken with the Mash Up. Our aim is to give people a good time, create an informal and communal experience and send everyone home happy! Although more akin to pop up then some of our other participatory work, there is still merit in this. The fact is, not everyone can or wants to commit to a project that develops over a long period of time. Such projects are also very costly and incredibly time consuming, which for a small organization, is a real issue. Sometimes the brief or immediate encounter is nourishment enough for everyone!
The Mash Up is definitely an immediate and spontaneous event – a mass singing experience that brings everyone together in a wonderfully chaotic and energised environment. Inevitably, this raises questions about quality and excellence – the key to a successful ‘sing-along’ however, is a complete disregard for accuracy and joining in with your fellow singers with abandoned gusto. It’s not that the project lacks depth, but ultimately people have come together to sing and perform for each other and the importance of this transcends everything else. First hand experience tells me everyone leaves on a high and everyone seems a little happier – so excellent job done and quality day out.
As with the Mash Up, juxtaposing different things to create a ‘culturally confused’ event is something we like doing. The Alternative Village Fete is probably our most successful project in achieving this. Taking the concept and structure of a typical English Fete with stalls, cake sales, country dancing and the like, we present the format as authentically as possible, but turn it on its head and gently poke fun at it. Using actual market style stalls with stripy canopies and gingham tablecloths, we programme genuine selling stalls next to stalls run by artists. For the public wandering around, this means coming across someone selling perennial plants next to an artist dressed up as a very demonic member of the WI, whom you have to try and out stare. Alternatively, there might be someone selling jams and honey, next to artist Bob & Roberta Smith inviting you to write to the Mayor of London on issues of climate change. In our 2009 fete outside the National Theatre, we had an actual Bird of Prey demonstration with golden eagles flying over the heads of a spellbound public. To paraphrase Jeremy Deller, it’s about the ‘weirdness of Britain and tapping into the WI spirit which has loads of parts to like but also a deep conservatism.’
Whether it’s the Mash Up or the Alternative Village Fete, HLA has come to describe its work as participatory or socially engaged. Of course, socially engaged art is nothing new, its principals have been practiced for decades. The energy and social activism of organizations such as Welfare State International in the 1970’s and 80’s reflected the political and social edge many community arts organizations aspired to at that time. The difference now however, is that this type of work is largely attributed to government agendas around social inclusion and community cohesion rather than shared values and philosophy.
Some claim that for such projects to be empowering, the artist-participant relationship needs to be fundamentally democratic or collaborative, on the basis that this process will emancipate communities. Our experience tells us that this isn’t necessarily so; the work needs to be steered, albeit loosely, by us producers or artists, otherwise participants invariably flounder. It’s not about coercing or manipulating outcomes, but providing a framework and making decisions in response to the community you are working with, so they feel confident and secure in what they are doing – freedom can come from structure.
Of course, the implication that socially engaged work will also empower communities and give them a voice is complex and difficult to evaluate; it remains to be seen how achievable this is in the long term. There are numerous examples of excellent community based activity where the results have been profound, even life changing. But for many small organizations such as HLA, where resources and time on the ground are extremely limited, the priority is more about giving people a positive, joyful experience rather then being an instrument for change.