Features Published 11 February 2019

No Sleep Till Brexit

Sleepwalk Collective's Sammy Metcalfe writes on the impact of Brexit on the company, and why they're throwing a festival of work in Spain.
Sammy Metcalfe

‘No Sleep Till Brexit’

In late 2007 we made what seemed like the more or less arbitrary decision to move our company Sleepwalk Collective (then just one year old!) to Spain, and specifically to Vitoria-Gasteiz in the mountains of the Basque country in the North, where company member Iara Solano Arana was born and grew up. It was a risky move maybe. But at that point we were still just one year out of education, permanently broke, and nobody would programme our work, so it hardly mattered. Everything seemed risky back then, and nothing really seemed any more risky than anything else.

As it is, the fact that we’ve managed to string a career together – a life together – in the years between then and now, is almost entirely down to that one rash decision and the way in which it’s ended up locating us, personally and professionally and in every other way, between the UK and Spain. We’ve certainly benefited from the direct practical advantages that this has offered – if for a period of time we can’t get work in Spain that’s ok, we can just go to the UK instead. But what’s far more significant is that it’s allowed us to feel a part of – and to be inspired by – two geographically distinct artistic communities that are wonderfully different from one another, in terms of their creative attitudes and ambitions and the very forms and structures and aesthetics that they’re exploring and working with. Without this very special (and privileged) position we’ve been allowed to occupy all these years I don’t know what our work would look like now, and without the professional possibilities and flexibilities it’s allowed us I don’t know that we would have survived this long. Anyway it’s 2019 now and it’s probably fairly obvious where this article is going.

Very shortly after the result of the Brexit vote was announced, there was an explosion of announcements on social media and elsewhere from Britain’s major arts organisations and institutions expressing a commitment to maintaining the cultural “bridge” between Britain and Europe, no matter the consequences of the vote, no matter what comes next (which, at time of writing, is still fundamentally unknown). And I remember thinking…what bridge?

Because it wasn’t until I’d been on the outside for a while that I fully appreciated how much of an island the UK really is, both geographically and culturally. The lack of movement across the channel – of artists and artworks – is evident in how alien work by British artists often feels in Spain. The inverse is also true, to the extent that it generally has to be safely corralled within the confines of a festival of “European Theatre” in the UK, of “British Theatre” in Spain and elsewhere, in order for audiences to feel able to even approach it. And alien not just in terms of content – local- and regional-specific concerns are inevitable and right – but in terms of the theatrical languages and symbols and signs through which the work communicates. I don’t want to devalue the importance of festivals, but to see work only in a ‘specialist’ context – presented implicitly as something foreign, exotic, other – is to experience it at a psychological remove. If we’re unsettled or confused we can soothe ourselves by saying ‘this was made for a different audience’. The performers are naked because they’re European and that’s what European audiences expect and pay for, not because a naked body can be interesting, or affecting, or meaningful, to me. The work doesn’t implicate us, maybe, in the same way that work presented more explicitly as being made ‘for us’ might do.

All of this may well feel like a niche concern, but it does matter. As much as “Experimental Theatre” may be a marginal genre (and it is, let’s admit that much), it’s one of a number of vital testing grounds for new formal and conceptual ideas that more often than not will eventually filter up into the mainstream of commercial theatre, cinema, TV, videogames, and who knows where else. Without the networks which allow for the free movement of new ideas and forms of expression across borders, the only shared global culture available to us is that which is dictated and sold by rigidly-controlled social media, corporate advertising and the cultural imperialism of Hollywood and other global factories of market-approved mass entertainment. It’s bleak, and limiting, and it hurts us.

And it’s also just so sad! It’s such a loss! Think of all the artists whose work we’ll never get to see, just because nobody’ll ever bring them across the channel! I mean, Spain alone’s got so many great artists, who rarely – if ever – go to the UK! El Conde de Torrefiel! Tania Arias! Sònia Gomez! La Veronal! Poliana Lima! So many more!

Anyway, back to the point… Brexit obviously brings a fresh urgency to everything, and with all of this in mind, over four days in March (and coinciding with the presumably-still-Brexit-date of March 29th) we’re going to be running a micro-festival at the Centro Conde Duque in Madrid of work by UK-based artists called No Sleep Till Brexit (I know, it’s a shit-eating-grin of a title, but it stuck…). This is in part simply an excuse to show some work we love, by some artists we love, to a Spanish audience at a rare time when their focus will be on the UK; but it’s also an attempt to open up a kind of space inside that moment. Not to offer solutions necessarily (we still don’t know yet what we’re looking for solutions to), but at least to show symbolically that even as our governing structures fail us, we can still find small ways of closing the gulf that risks growing ever wider in the coming months and years. What else can we do.

Given how crushingly awful the fallout from any kind of Brexit is likely to be, even in the best-case scenarios, and given how many real lives will be affected, it feels almost churlish to even think about how Brexit is going to affect us personally, but it almost undoubtedly will. As a small, vulnerable company without stable funding or support, whose members and collaborators are almost entirely non-British EU citizens (Spanish, Finnish, Portuguese, Czech…), we honestly don’t know yet if we’ll have the time and resources necessarily to overcome whatever new paperwork and expenses this mess is going to imply for newly-foreign-ed artists. Just a few weeks before the (still theoretical…) Brexit date we’ll be in the UK for a handful of performances of our new thing Kourtney Kardashian, and we embark on these dates with the knowledge that this may be our last time working in the country, at least for a while, at least with the relative ease that we’ve enjoyed until now. Beyond March 2019 we’re simply unable to plan anything. We’ll see, I guess.

This is a personal tragedy, and in the grand scheme of things our own ability (Jesus, our ‘right’) to continue to work in the UK either matters or it doesn’t. What is important though is that we’re far from the only artists caught up in these circumstances, and in all likelihood our position is actually more privileged than most (we have, after all, been doing this for almost 14 years now, we know how to adapt). And more important still is the effect it will have on the artists coming after us. That future young artists might not be able to make the same kind of dumb, wild, career-changing (and life-changing) decision that we did in 2007 is just heartbreaking, deeply worrying and achingly sad.

For now that’s maybe all there is to say. We have little to express beyond worries and commiserations. There are no clear solutions, and there is little in our collective control. But we do hope to see you again in the future, on one side of the channel or the other.

Kourtney Kardashian is on at Battersea Arts Centre from 27th February to 2nd March, Axis Arts Centre on 5th March, and HOME from 7th-9th March. More info here. No Sleep Till Brexit is on from 28th-31st March in Madrid, more info here

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Sammy Metcalfe is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine