Since 2015, I’ve been travelling to Leeds’s Transform festival and writing about it, and after four years my understanding of Transform is entwined with my relationship with the city that hosts it.
Any interaction with Transform is necessarily an interaction with Leeds. Transform’s events have evolved over its eight years through a conscious engagement with spaces around the city. Shows at the festival have taken place in Leeds’s streets and public spaces; in Chapeltown’s West Indian Community Centre; at Northern Ballet; at HUB’s sub-zero railway arch. If you want to get to these places you need to figure out where they are, and some of them have been a fair ways to walk for someone who doesn’t really know what to expect when they arrive. Transform incentivises and necessitates that you make yourself familiar with Leeds in a way which a ‘festival’ based at a single established theatre venue could not.
In 2015, Transform split from West Yorkshire Playhouse to become a separate entity, and after running annually from 2011-2017, the festival is newly on a biennial model. If this year’s festival is an indication of the future, Transform is giving itself the space it needs to develop and commission a robust programme of work developed locally and internationally. This year’s programme is big, broad-ranging and exciting, seeing work from across Europe, from Brazil and China, come to Leeds. It takes place over two weeks and any engagement with the festival shorter than that is necessarily incomplete. This year I can only make one day of the festival. I’ve got a lot on but I’m glad I’ve managed to make this small piece of time.
In this article I write about the shape of, and passage through, cities. I also write about the conspicuous policing of the pseudo-public retail spaces in Leeds city centre. So I want to start with an honourable mention for Rewire Leeds, the show that aligned most directly to my interests. Presented by German company machina eX, Rewire Leeds is an interactive game played over texts, in which you perform the role of an uncontracted private security agent. I register my profile to prepare for the game to begin, but my schedule contradicts itself and I’m unable to reach the game’s start location and make the next show I’m due to see. I’ve failed in my charade of employment.
The game invites feedback. I have the texts on my phone still, from communing with an automated operator. Her name is Veronica, and I wonder what processes she ran through before finally giving up on me. I’m worried that I’ve upset a computer program performing a role. I think about texting an apology. I wonder if when she is shut down she is still waiting for me to show up and reply to her.
When I first arrive in Leeds, I head to the Tiled Hall café at Leeds Art Gallery. I have a few hours before I’m booked to see anything and the first thing I want to do is sit and reflect on the last three Transform Festivals I came to. But the card machine isn’t working and I don’t have any cash. I can’t follow the first set of directions to an ATM I am given and it has started to rain. A woman with a very pretty dog gives me some clearer directions and by the time I get back to the café the cash machine is working again. Leeds is testing me.
Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse) is undergoing a refurb. I walk up to the building looking for the box office and there’s no way in. It takes wandering around the back and talking to a man in a hi-vis jacket with a whispery voice before I learn the temporary box office is on a street I’ve already walked down to get here. Transform is hostile to a tourist like me, to a degree that I respect. My equipment for navigating Leeds consists of asking for help.
There’s an improvisational aspect to my day – beyond the shows I have tickets for I don’t have a plan. The first sit-down show I see, What We’re Made Of (Part One) has the energy of finding-your-way to it. This first of three sections presented by Transform’s Future Radicals young creatives is subtitled ‘Meet Us’. The collective sit onstage, at the end of a process working with artist David Shearing. They share their thoughts and responses to the day’s newspapers, passing the mic and talking openly to us about their prides and anxieties. They crack jokes, just sort of act themselves and it’s just yknow plain speaking and that. It’s a frank sharing of the world, of spaces and permissions. The performers spend more time than anything else sat listening to each other. The most repeated act by all of them is giving the mic, allowing space to the next person who wants to chip in.
In this way, we learn something about the young people sharing this space, being in this city with us.
My notes ask me ‘Where did the theatre happen?’ I think of theatre as a social act – it is important that it is experienced in the same (physical/psychic) space as others. There was a transformation which was engendered in us as an audience; as the young people in front of us shared more of themselves, they became something other than what they started as. After answering questions from the audience, they invite us onstage for pizza for the finale – not to do much, just to have a chat, get to know them a little more normally. If theatre is a social act, then theatre happened in that invitation to participate in society.
My relationship with Leeds is as an outsider. I visit infrequently enough that the city has usually changed shape in some way in my absence. Contrary to best efforts, cities don’t tend to be designed conveniently. Leeds is no exception; it has grown organically in a learned and used way; it has a twisted shape. Cities are readable on a superficial level to the outsider – they encourage superficial interactions, particularly cities like Leeds which trade on being retail destinations. Leeds city centre is dense with arcades, a warren of Victorian, Edwardian and modern tunnels in which to shop and walk. These give the city space of Leeds an annexed feel. These spaces and their aesthetic and social clarity are policed and maintained by Leeds City Council’s City Centre Management Team. Their aims are cited online and include ‘Quality of place’ and ‘Safe, Clean & Managed’. Their troops on the ground are their Leeds City Centre Liaison Officers. The arcades are not necessarily public space however, and may be policed by private hires.*
The newest arcades feel the most conspicuously policed but perhaps that is an illusion I experience having grown up as a little scrote. I feel more at home in the covered market. The floor is concrete rather than marble and I get myself a samosa and chips. It is council-owned, so at least I am subject to the normal laws of the UK.
Outside the arcades and markets, Leeds city centre seems designed for passing through – around any corner I walk I swear there’s another dual carriage- or motorway, leading somewhere else. There’s a tension between the Leeds of the flaneur, and the Leeds of the HGV-driver, but they exist simultaneously. I’m not quite psychically equipped to flan about the arcades, or physically to travel on the roads. But I have my legs and there are pavements and footways.
The work of Transform is ideologically in opposition to the policed civic space of Leeds. It is important to go where you might not. In occupying obscure locations about the city which even citizens of Leeds might not have been before, Transform gestures toward a commonality of space. To get to the Festival Centre at Prime Studios, I take a wrong turn about two minutes too late and walk through a private yard. A sign warns me ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ and I suppose I am a trespasser. I’ve not yet been prosecuted.
A new commission from Transform, Action Hero’s Oh Europa expresses through movement a spirit of blurring boundaries. More participatory archiving project/artwork than performance or theatre, Oh Europa gives further evidence (if it were needed) that Transform is willing to platform work which blurs traditional formal boundaries. My interaction with the work comes from entering a camper van, in which Action Hero travelled over 32,000km across the European continent, meeting with people and recording more than 20 hours of love songs.
When I arrive at the installation, I am the only punter there. I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve walked through some drizzle and navigated Leeds and I’ve not spoken much to anyone that day. It’s quiet. I step through a large, dark and almost empty unit and climb into the van. A few screens paired with headphones are fitted inside. A screen displays short videos of locations visited by the van and Action Hero, and the headphones play ambient sound from the location. It is soft and welcome to sit and listen to recordings of wind, water and distant traffic and people, as I leaf through the project’s accompanying book.
At 41 locations to date, Action Hero set up virtual ‘beacons’ set to GPS coordinates, where you can listen to broadcasts of the love songs they recorded on their trip. The ongoing work implicitly offers a vision of a borderless Europe; Action Hero’s Europe is a land mass where people live, love and sing about it. It strikes me that the struggles and breakings and failings inevitable to any large project are not presented here. Oh Europa is not about the negotiations, practical and political, that created it, but the ambition, connections and the fruits of the endeavour.
Some of Oh Europa’s locations are of political, historical or geographical significance. The one which sticks to me is the river Moselle, near Schengen, Luxembourg. Here in 1985 the Schengen agreement of the abolition of border controls was signed, on a boat floating where the borders of France, Germany and Luxembourg meet. I sit hogging a pair of headphones which plays through a selection of their collected songs. I might be half an hour, absorbing. I reflect on the power imagined concepts like Europe have. I reflect on the fragility those things we depend on have, and how small a thing I am, how little space I take up.
Action Hero are still collecting love songs. I have a mind which one I would sing if I am ever in the right place at the right time. Thinking about it is a good space to occupy – songs are tools for taking ourselves out of physical space and placing ourselves on a continuum of culture and time. We are our own heritage, in the songs we know and ways we see each other. Geography is just accidents.
Geographical accidents mean that I see work more often from a smaller range of artists than the whole world has within it. One of the things I associate most strongly with Transform is seeing work like El Conde de Torrefiel’s Guerilla in 2017, or Holzinger and Riebeek’s Schoenheitsabend in 2016. As much as Transform is inseparable from Leeds, it places Leeds within an international context. I am unable to see Jamal Gerald’s Idol or 70/30 Split’s bYOB at this year’s festival but both are young artists from Leeds who I have seen perform work at Transform festivals past. With the festival’s support they have grown as makers and Transform demonstrates its confidence in their work this year by including them as part of the main programme. In common with Action Hero and Oh Europa’s conception of Europe as a geographically permeable and contiguous space, so is the international world of performance. Jamal Gerald and 70/30 Split have always been of the same broad fabric as older, larger companies, but Transform use their heft to financially and culturally back these relatively new makers through programming and commissions.
I have come to know Transform as a many-sided festival. In 2016, I saw Chris Goode & Company’s WANTED, a show devised with locals which asked, and attempted to deliver, what they wanted to see on stage. The result was a communal and accessible show which inspired a raucous joy in the audience at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Transform presents work like this confidently alongside dance shows featuring anal penetration and gallons of lube.This year, in the dark of a repurposed film studio, Transform provides work more opaque. Jija Sohn’s Tamago, a dance(?) performance(?) piece featuring at least three bales of hay(!) and a clutch of oversized shining eggs(!!) Tamago is moving in the way only movement can be. Sohn has a relationship to the hay bales she rolls, falls, and slides on during the performance. They are huge and solid, they hold her up but as she tries to lift them they become flaccid, droop on her shoulder and shed piles of dry grass onto the floor. At one point, Sohn uses her hands to tear into a bale she has wrestled to the floor. She doesn’t speak but glares at us with a loose-mouthed ecstasy. She communicates that this is right. Yes. We have wrestled the hay over here, it is time for the hay to be everywhere, tear it up.
Hay cannot be relied on. Sohn tries to climb the wall of the studio atop a bale but it is too flimsy. Her journey here has been slow, crawling, shifting her weight like a crab climbing downhill. From use of the hay, she has bore it on her back and its weight on her becomes tragic; it crushes her and at the end she cannot even rely on it to remain solid. She forces handfuls of hay up her jumper and her body becomes distorted, but comforted as the hay hugs itself to her. Hay. Just hay everywhere and Jija Sohn getting on with herself in the middle of it all and just fuckin fine I guess, yeah. Go for it! Hay!
Tamago is the Japanese word for egg, I am told. Sohn takes a single of her bright, large eggs and makes a nest for it. She sings to it, teaches it how to survive and suddenly she is joined by dancers from the audience, and she is singing to us, and they are dancing for us, and we are being asked to survive ourselves. There are different levels of nurturing energy invoked in Tamago. Sohn must work for herself, and through it she is able to care for an egg. Only one, though. In the final song section, she becomes almost aggressively encouraging. The world is terrible, confusing and strange, but we are too! If the world does not give to us what we need we can survive it, shout and sing at it, and persist, and care, for ourselves and for others.
Transform is only something I’m visiting. The work is good, I hope I’ve made that clear. I’ve seen plenty of European and international work through the festival that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Most important to me though is the civic and political context of the festival. An engagement with Transform demands an engagement with Leeds itself – it rewards knowledge of the city, or at least a willingness to learn. This not an accident. Take Transform from Leeds and it simply wouldn’t make sense – where would you put it? The festival is local and responsive and the irony is that I cannot understand the transformation it performs on its city. I don’t know Leeds well enough.
We might learn from Transform. A festival is a location before it is a programme of events. And an arts festival can be international and local simultaneously. One of Transform’s strengths as long as I have known it has been its character as a locus of multiple journeys. Distances have been crossed to bring the work to a single place. Theatre is about crossing distances. I don’t believe it is for making the gaps between us smaller, but for giving use better tools to see each other with.
Leeds itself might learn the value of allowing space to be used and passed through. The UK in general is a hostile place for people who wish to use space and property for social introspection over profit. Transform persists, through tenacity and necessity. It is a twisted shape because it renegotiates the city space, and asks us to use it as we need.
Transform Festival was on from 26th April to 4th May. More info on the festival here.
*The Victoria arcade as a single example, across the road from Leeds Playhouse, is owned and managed through Hammerson Group Management, who have a publicly available ‘Urban Exploring Injunction’ on their website, forbidding specific named individuals from entering their premises: https://www.hammerson.com/