Picture yourself a performing artist – not a classical actor, or a budding playwright – in a country with an ever-shrinking culture budget but an ever-growing number of people competing for the same chunk of money, space and audience attention. Making work inevitably gets stuck at the very end of a chronological to-do list; devising comes after networking, persuading venues to open their doors, free-cycling props, gathering twitter followers, designing the flyers and luring the spoilt for choice audience into buying a ticket. Artist and activist Katy Baird has no illusions about the effort involved: ‘You are expected to be a producer, tour booker, social media expert, application writer, funding writer, venue organiser, lighting designer, the list goes on and on. It is really tough and can sometimes seem overwhelming and never ending.’
Yet a year ago when Steakhouse Live, ‘an artist collective creating and supporting experimental risk-taking performance’ was born, Baird added ‘producer’ to her own list. She’s hardly alone; the number of emerging artists pursuing a DIY approach to curating is on the rise. It’s tempting to assume most artist-led initiatives are born out of frustration and a lack of support from traditional channels – Baird sums it up as artists recognising a vacuum and then promptly filling it. Steakhouse Live however took as much from the support artist or non-artists led initiatives can provide as it did from spotting the gaps in the existing infrastructure. ‘At the moment there are a lot of fantastic platform events that are really supporting artists at the beginning of their career, like Arches Live and BUZZCUT in Glasgow, Hazard in Manchester, Tempting Failure in Bristol, Hatch in Nottingham, ]performance s p a c e [ in London and of course the SPILL National Platform in Ipswich to name a few. These and the many others up and down the country are brilliant opportunities for artists just starting out to not only develop and contextualise their practice but most importantly to meet other artists and organisations which will hopefully lead to further support in the future.’
Baird mentions only one London-based platform and it’s no wonder: the ones outside the M25 are generally bigger, better known, and possibly more appreciated by artists for the support and exposure they provide. In the capital, performance and live art are surrounded by hundreds of other content providers, meaning venues dedicated to experimental art forms may decide to opt for the commercial and affordable within the radical. Artists based outside the capital, and those determined to experiment, often get left out, producing a worrying state of affairs that brought Steakhouse Live about: ‘Unfortunately in London there seems to be less and less places to perform and less places willing to take risks. I know so many brilliant artists that are just not getting programmed by venues in London and if they are programmed they are expected to do it for little money and be very grateful for the ‘opportunity’.[…] We were totally inspired by all the other artist run spaces and festivals happening and just thought that rather than moaning about the lack of opportunities for us and other artists we would just do it ourselves.’ That’s not to say Steakhouse Live is curated only with the general lack of opportunity in mind: ‘It’s important for us that we embrace a wide range of artistic practices with Live Art, theatre, drag, sculpture, performance art, installation, video and dance, often all on the same bill. Promoters like Duckie and LUPA have been huge influences on us in this regard.’
For an artist-led initiative in its infancy Steakhouse Live had a bit of a grand opening. It occupied a known London venue with a core audience, sold out and delivered a programme that didn’t fall into the trap of echoing half a dozen others. True to its word and instead of inviting household names hoping to pull the same old audience, Steakhouse Live imposed its own agenda of diverse, idiosyncratic artists it believed were not getting enough attention, and proved there was a tangible interest out there in more that just the usual players. The plan was to keep it to a one-off, but in the 12 months since Steakhouse Live has worked with Holloway Arts Festival, Hackney WickEd and Beacons Festival, delivering 7 events and as Baird points out ‘most excitingly of all’, collaborating with a grand total of 62 different artists.
This year’s festival continues the curatorial train of thought of its predecessor, with a line-up of exciting names no one has had a chance to get bored of. Performance art icon Rocio Boliver/la congelada de uva is visiting with a piece that tackles the unfortunate intersection of consumerism and menopause; Liz Aggiss offers a glimpse into A Bit of Slap and Tickle, engaging with themes surrounding the ageing female body. Thom Shaw’s Drag Mountin and Lucy Hutson’s Bound promise very different approaches to drag and gender representation. Then there’s Julia Wilson’s exploration of relationship between Disney films and madness, F/K/Alexander’s singing/noise event and, as a counterbalance, a far more contemplative hue by selina bonelli and Khiara Hewetson. Diversity – of professional status, styles, traditions adhered to – remains tangible and essential to the festival. Steakhouse is not tailored specifically to emerging, emerged or any other label of artists, though this year labels did play a part: ‘I think that what can be the biggest challenge is how and when to take the next step and at what point do you stop ‘emerging’ and just be an artist. This is something we have been thinking about a lot.’
While the performance discourse is overwhelmingly dominated by sustainability conversations, Baird’s ideas on immediate improvements are simple and focused on widening the web within the niche art form. ‘It would be great if there was a lot more communication between everyone, so that not only could we support and promote each other’s events, but more importantly share information about artists and the best ways of supporting them and their work. I also get frustrated that there are so many totally amazing artists from outside the UK that could come here much more often if there was more joined up thinking between venues and festivals – if they spread and share the cost and support. There is of course Escalator East and Live Art UK and other organisations that do this and do it well, but it still seems that not being in more communication with each other we are missing a trick.’
Sustainability however must be on the mind of Steakhouse Live and other similar platforms as they consider where they might go and how long the momentum can last without a substantial funding commitment. Baird is taking it one step at the time, enjoying the independence that comes from a lack of financial accountability, at least for the time being: ‘It is true that everyone involved in Steakhouse does so in a voluntary capacity. The money we make through ticket sales or through support of partner organisations all goes directly to the artists. I imagine there will be a point in the very near future where we apply for funding or we receive bigger commissions so that we can pay the artists more as well as the Steakhouse Live team, but there is most definitely a certain freedom involved in doing it all ourselves – we are able to do what we want, when we want and how we want to do it. Also as an organisation that is just barely a year old at the moment for us it is all about working hard and building up the relationship and trust of our artists, audience and the organisations we have worked with and may reach out to in the future.’