Spill Festival of Performance: On Spirit

Now on its 7th year, SPILL Festival of Performance opened in London last Wednesday, October 28, 2015, breathing fresh theatrical air with its artists bold spirit. Combining live art, activism and performance with accompanying music, exhibitions, installations and artist panels, SPILL’s multi-faceted program typically, this year, challenges the body and the mind with the working title On Spirit.

In the corridors of some of London’s more intimate venues, from the Barbican conservatory to the National Theatre and the landmark Andaz hotel, it reflects on the subject of AIDS (Karen Finley’s Written In Sand and Ribbon Gate), and evokes the spirit of punk (Dorothy’s Shoes In My Room and SPILL Salon’s public conversation Dress Your Rage). Reviving the terror of self-immolation (Heather Cassils’ Inextinguishable Fire), it practically encourages us to make new memories (Ria Hartley’s Recall).

Daniel Oliver Spill Festival

Photo by Guido Mencari for SPILL Festival of Performance 2014

FK Alexander Spill Festival

Photo by Holly Revell / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance

One of the most prominent events of this all-immersive 12-day stretch (up until the November 8th), is no doubt Gemma Marmalade & Nomad’s Food Séance: Dining Divinations, hovering in the crossroads of earthy pleasures and the paranormal. Opening the doors to the atmospheric Masonic temple of the Andaz London Liverpool Street, it serves the visitors a specially commissioned SPILL cocktail and an imaginatively crafted menu with multiple dishes feeding the spirit as much as the senses. Despite creatively attempting to delight our palates, SPILL was conceived not simply to indulge, but to challenge, opening simultaneously a steep stairway to inspiration and tough topics for discussion. The festival’s Artistic Director and Curator Robert Pacitti better explains SPILL’s radical means and philosophy in the following short interview.

Danai: What has been SPILL’s vision since its inception?

Robert Pacitti: I created the SPILL Festival of Performance as a tactic to make things better in the UK for my own artistic practice, through being in service to others. I was frustrated that it was easier for me to show my work around the world than it was at home, and certainly in London. I had shown work in lots of great places in the city, but when whoever had booked me moved on it seemed the venue was then inaccessible. I realised that it was individuals within organisations and institutions making things happen, not the macro-structures themselves. That struck me as an opportunity to create something on our own terms: meaningful, visible, contextualised, artist-led. SPILL was the result. The festival has presented work by some of the most prominent makers in the world of performance and cross-genre radical practice (Karen Finley, Diamanada Galas, Ron Athey, Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, Ryoji Ikeda) alongside that of early makers and those whose practices may have been overlooked. Half of our activity is the live programme and the other half is contextualizing SPILL Think Tank activity: SPILL Salons, SPILL TV, SPILL Writing, SPILL Thinking and more.

Danai: Do you feel there is a need in the London / international art scene for a united front on more provocative, and thought-provoking work?

Robert: I think it is essential we stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Many of us making performance work identify our practices as activist – they are how we are contributing to the world we live in. What is that if we do not share it, how is it useful if it’s not informing broader research and activity? It is essential that we connect, contextualise what we do, document our work well, archive what we do openly and generously. Otherwise we just mimic cultural economies controlled by galleries, collectors and money markets. Performance by its very nature has an inbuilt potential to operate differently in how it gets presented and shared, what it is aiming to achieve. If you want to trade your work traditionally, good luck to you, but many of us now are prioritising different forms of collective encounter, exchange and potential.

Danai: SPILL takes pride in being an artist-led festival. How does that translate into the process – from the organisation and choice of participants to collaborations?

Robert: I do not ‘shop’ for work. I am not that interested in that way of working, and we prioritise our resources differently to sending me on lots of expensive trips. I am amazed by the amount of time some other festival folk spend traveling, even for seemingly ‘cool’ festivals. It’s not my model at all. So I do three main things that help me connect with other artists: I follow my nose – I already know lots of amazing makers and there is no shortage of people I would still like to present, so that’s the first way; secondly we make an open call out for the SPILL National Platform and Showcase initiatives that we run, with lots of other organisations and individuals helping us reach far with that call; and thirdly I put out for my heroes – I knew from the off that if SPILL was going to work it would have to present the work of artists that were giants of the field. So that’s the bit where I swallow hard, take a big breath and pick up the phone. Then in the way we present the public programme I try hard to squash any hierarchies between newer makers and experienced ones, the well known and the unknown, and present everyone equally within the frame of each festival edition.

Danai: The festival also provides a platform for young, or overlooked artists. What do you think today’s art scene has to offer with regard to previous generations and why is it important to shed light to such work? 

Robert: It is absolutely at the heart of SPILL to support the evolution of performance, which is why we commission artists to make new work, and also why we champion the work of early makers. As I said earlier if we wanted just to replicate trading models of the object-centric art world then we would buy and sell, buy and sell – whilst we do charge for tickets in SPILL, a third of this year’s festival is free, which is as crucial to what we are trying to do as our support of newer makers, they are related. The important bit for me is acknowledging we stand on the shoulders of others and not arrogant enough to think of ourselves as better, or best, or the last. There are enough people wanting to be iconoclastic or ‘the one’. For me we are all part of a shared conversation and the important bit as a curator is presenting with care, that we do our best, that we frame work and provide artists with what they need to thrive, to take risks, and for those to be the right risks for them at any given time. I am interested in how we nurture a better tomorrow and beyond, so that has to include artists at all stages of their career. We make a free toolkit to help early makers in their approaches to us – that maybe works as an example of these ideas in action.

Danai: What makes On Spirit such a relevant working title for this year’s festival?

Robert: English-speakers use the word “spirit” in two related contexts, metaphysical and metaphorical. In metaphysical terms, “spirit” might mean that hard to quantify substance or energy present individually in all living things; or it might mean a daemon, or a sprite, or a ghost. So this SPILL asks us to consider what the relationship might be between ritual and contemporary performance, and what that might look like across different communities and diverse approaches. In it’s metaphorical use, the term “spirit” might perhaps mean our collective feeling of inclusion here at SPILL – the spirit of the festival itself – perhaps a spirit of defiance or resistance. So this SPIL ‘On Spirit’ also asks us what living and being active in a city now means for artists, activists, free thinkers and dissidents, at a time of sustained austerity and increased surveillance. This year’s curation ‘On Spirit’ manifests in the vital force that is the exceptional work of seminal performance maker Karen Finley. I offer my public thanks to Lois Keidan for connecting us with Karen and I hope lots of you get to experience this extraordinary work. Similarly Spirit is central to a trio of pieces presented by the wonderful Zierle & Carter, where dying as an essential part of all nature is carefully held as a space of possibility; in Robin Deacon’s outmoded technologies, used to revisit previous hopes and dreams; Ria Hartley invites us to remember; Katy Baird encourages us to drink – like we need much encouragement – Kris Canavan’s purging procession raises spirits in an act of defiance and resistance; Sarah Jane Norman records and re-records the potential of an indefinite self – that complex bit of us humans associated with mind and feelings and will. SPILL 2015 culminates with a very special final event – a treacherous fire stunt performed by Cassils in two parts – live onstage at the National Theatre and then a large scale projection on to the Royal Festival Hall – an action speaking directly to questions of privilege, responsibility, and power. At a time of increasing global uncertainty about the future, SPILL aims to generate some positivity. To add good energy to the city for its duration; celebrating the potential of radical artists to help us think of new ways of being, and of being better, together. So the theme runs deeply through the entire programme.

Danai: There’s been a rise in conceptual work the last few years, but do you think there’s been enough spirit, in reference to the Latin definition of spiritus (i.e. breath, courage, vigour) cited on your website?

Robert: The work is the thing. Many of the performances in SPILL are conceptual, energetic, and are about ways of moving power around. But they are putting something at stake, they are trying to experiment with something meaningful. I am personally really turned off by work which simply pushes physical materials around for the sake of the artist’s own formal experimentation, or which is ‘about the audience’. Get over yourself already, do something to make the world a better place to be, don’t just naval gaze. Nobody needs that shit.

Danai: Finally, could you pile up a top three of the most challenging or radical work we are going to experience in this year’s programme?

Robert: I can’t do that, partly because I don’t do ‘favourites’ and partly because I genuinely don’t know. It’s impossible to predict which works will profoundly move us, or which will be the ones where something significant shifts. If I’ve done my job right then you should be able to dip in to anything in the programme and have a connected and meaningful time. But if you want the full on experience, then come to it all!

SPILL Festival of Performance runs at various venues across London until Sunday 8 November. Tickets can be bought at the SPILL website and you can follow all the action using the hashtag SPILL2015.

George Stamos & Robert Pacitti Spill Festival

Photo Quentin Crisp and George Stamos in The Waiting Room for SPILL Festival of Performance

Zierle & Carter Spill Festival

Photo by Manuel Vason and Zierle & Carter for SPILL Festival of Performance

Sarah-Jane Norman Spill Festival

Photos by Sarah-Jane Norman for SPILL Festival of Performance

Robin Deacon Spill Festival

Photo by Chloe Pang for SPILL Festival of Performance

Robert Hardaker Spill Festival

Photo by Manuel Vason / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance

Ria Hartley Spill Festival

Photo by Ria Hartley and Manuel Vason / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance

Poppy Jackson Spill Festival

Photo by Manuel Vason / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance

Othon Spill Festival

Photo by Hector de Gregorio for SPILL Festival of Performance

Lauren Jane Williams Spill Festival

Photo by Manuel Vason / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance
Katy Baird Spill Festival

Photo by Holly Revell / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance

Adam Electric Spill Festival

Photo by Manuel Vason / DARC for SPILL Festival of Performance


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