THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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104 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

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Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

Blues trot text005

 

HMV label image

‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

08 May 2017

Recording of the week: Parental warning

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This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Ethnomusicologist Bryony Harris (née Pearson) spent 2002 doing field work in Uganda to record the drumming styles of the Busoga and Buganda as part of research for her dissertation "Towards a notation for African dance drumming, focusing on the Baganda and Basoga of Uganda". The recording featured this week [collection C1079] was part of that research and in a recent e-mail exchange, she gave us some more insight into its making –

“This is such a rich layering of instruments and textures. It was a very humbling experience to attempt to learn something of the history, tradition and drumming technique in a snapshot of time. I arrived with my western preconceptions, a 20 year old English girl trained in western music, but completely out of my depth with the complexities of this traditional music.

Bryony Harris_Uganda

This recording is of the Kalalu village 'Balongo' group of musicians. Kalalu is a very rural village, a bumpy bicycle ride from Jinja in Busoga, where some of the children were fascinated / scared of my white skin. They were very welcoming but keen to be paid for their expertise – and rightly so, in hindsight. As it was something I hadn't really budgeted for however, we got the group to play together for my recording by arranging to produce a cassette for them. The market for cassettes was still going strong in 2002 Uganda as they were cheap to produce and buy. We took photographs of them in their blue t-shirt uniform and they decided on their best songs.”

According to the catalogue entry, based on the recordist’s notes, the song warns parents of the dangers of cursing their children stating they will be affected and face trouble in the future. For such a serious warning, it is a joyful song featuring the following instruments: endere (flutes), ndingidi (string fiddle), nkwanzi (panpipes), embaire (small xylophone), ensaasi (flat metal shaker), endumi (small drum), engabe (long drum), tamenaibuga / irongo drum.

Abazaire Abatukolima - 'Parents Cursing their Children'

Upon re-listening to the recording, Bryony reflected –

“The quality of the song is judged by the lyrics and the singer - the competence of the musicians is taken for granted. I think I did move around with my microphone a little during the recording, as you can hear different instruments stronger at different points. Thoughts that return to me on listening to it again: Firstly - where is the beat? The need to focus on the shaker to hear it - but then the drums always put me off when they enter! I was trying to focus my learning on the drums, but they were so different to any West African rhythms I'd played previously. Seeing the drums signal the dancers to change their amazing rapid hip movements. Where does the cycle of notes start? How do they know where to come in? The phenomenal speed of the interlocking xylophone, where different patterns spring out at you the more you listen. The cyclical nature of the melody and the variety in texture and colour. This music, which is made of fairly simple, repetitive parts is elusive. The more you listen the more there is to hear.”

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

02 May 2017

Blair's Babes

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Twenty years ago, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in a landslide general election for the Labour Party. Among the new government’s Members of Parliament were 101 women. A photograph taken on 2 May 1997 of 96 of the new Labour women MPs with Blair publicised the new cohort, but the image and the associated term 'Blair's Babes' were attacked as having a demeaning, sexist tone.

Mo Mowlam on Blair's Babes

In this extract from an interview Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) remembers inadvertently coining the phrase. Mowlam was not proud of the image, but she justified it by pointing out that it helped convey the message that such large numbers of women MPs had been elected, to a public largely unaware of what happens on Parliament. In any case, she comments, ‘A lot is demeaning in politics.’

Full transcription:

I have the unfortunate notoriety of having worked out Blair Babes, because somebody said something, and I said “Well, Blair Babes, that’s what we are”, which I don’t—I’m not proud of, and it’s been used against us. But I think we needed to do that. I think we needed to do other things to show that we were there in such large numbers, because you very rarely understand how little the public know about Parliament, how little they know about their MP, how little they know about what’s going on, and I think it’s very important to get whatever method you can to get that message across, and I think that was a good one.

I mean, some people felt it was sort of kind of demeaning.

A lot is demeaning in politics. You often get used, you write something, it gets rewritten; that’s demeaning. I think there are many more demeaning things than that picture. I can see that we were being herded together like animals, but it was for a function, for a purpose, to get a message across that women had arrived, and I think that was an important message.

Did you think then that big influx did actually change the atmosphere at all?

It did a little. I didn’t think it would, but I remember when I went in once and there were men talking to all the women, which wasn’t always the case, and I suddenly realised there was an election coming up and jobs in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and women had votes, and so they were being talked to in a way I hadn’t them seen before, and men took women’s issues into account.

This interview (C1182/64) was recorded in July 2004 for the Harman-Shephard collection of interviews with women Members of Parliament. Find out more in our oral histories of politics and government collections guide. Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

01 May 2017

Recording of the week: the Woodlark

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This week's selection comes from Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision.

Between February to June on southern and south-eastern English heathlands you may be lucky enough to hear a Woodlark singing. The bird emits a cascade of sweet liquid warbles, often in a large circular display flight some 50-100 metres up in the air above its territory. On windy sunny days in early spring, as we have now, its beautiful notes come and go out of hearing range when heard from a distance, giving the heathland habitat an ethereal quality. 

Song of a Woodlark (Lullula arborea), recorded by Lawrence Shove in 1960s 

Nederlandsche_vogelen_(KB)_-_Lullula_arborea_(350b)

Woodlark and Crested lark (On top: Woodlark; below: Crested lark) from Nederlandsche vogelen (Dutch birds) by Nozeman and Sepp (1770-1829)

Many more recordings of British wildlife can be found on British Library Sounds. To learn more about how and why birds communicate, visit our recently revamped Language of Birds online resource.

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24 April 2017

Recording of the week: when is a word not a word?

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

The Evolving English: WordBank is extremely positive evidence of the robust nature of our native dialects, as demonstrated by this speaker's use of the verb puggle [= ‘to prod, poke about in e.g. a hole to clear obstruction’]. As a young, female, middle-class speaker she doesn't conform to the usual dialect stereotype and she also comes from the south of England, where the apparent demise of local speech forms is most frequently asserted. Nonetheless she expertly describes and defines a word recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'English regional (chiefly south-east)'. Puggle also features in the 6-volume English Dialect Dictionary, the most comprehensive record of 18th and 19th century English regional vocabulary, where it's attested in Hertfordshire and Essex.

PugglePuggle - as defined in Vol. 4 of the English Dialect Dictionary (1898)

To have a puggle

As a dialectologist I'm also particularly interested by her observation that 'I always thought it was a real word and it turns out it's not'. This, sadly, is frequently the fate of dialect vocabulary, but I hope she and other users of perfectly valid local forms are reassured to know that the validity of puggle is acknowledged by authoritative dictionaries and that it has been around in the Home Counties for at least 150 years and clearly still survives in the 21st century - no doubt alongside other supposedly 'long-lost' southern dialect words.

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19 April 2017

Live Art in the UK: Lois Keidan interview - part 2

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Lois Keidan is co-founder and co-director of the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), an organization based in London dedicated to the support and promotion of live art in the UK and abroad.

This is part two of an interview with Lois, which took place at the British Library, 20 January 2017. She discussed the history of live art in the UK, the work of LADA, and how live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain.

Playing_Up_Tate_image_Seraphina Neville blog
PLAYING UP, Tate Modern. Photograph by Seraphina Neville.

Can we talk about who are your audiences? Last year you had a very successful programme at the Tate with children.

Yes, that was great.

We work in all sorts of different ways - on our own curatorial initiatives and on programme partnerships, which set out to develop new contexts for art and for developing new audiences.

2016 was the first time we ever engaged with kids and that was through a collaboration with Tate Families Programme and the brilliant artist from Germany Sybille Peters of Theatre of Research. We were aware that there are a growing number of artists making interesting work for or with kids and a growing number of kids whose parents wanted them to be able to experience something unusual and different.

Susan Sheddan of Tate Families Programme was also interested in live art as a way of engaging with young people. So we jointly commissioned Sybille to create something in response and she came up with the idea of PLAYING UP -  a game that kids and adults play together, which draws on seminal live art works and on key live art methodologies and practices.

PLAYING UP was launched with a public ‘play-in’ in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern which was phenomenally successfully and certainly our most diverse audience programme in terms of age-ranges and cultural backgrounds. It was fantastic for us to see so many families engaged with live art and performing live art works.

After the successful play-in at Tate other venues and festivals wanted to host one, so we toured play-ins around the UK throughout 2016, with more planned for 2017. In this way we can now say that kids, young people and their parents are our audiences.

We think about audiences in lots of different ways at LADA. There are direct audiences that engage with our programmes and publications - artists, students, academics - and the adventurous and curious who come and see our work or buy a book that we published.

But we also think about audiences in other ways: for example, live art can offer different experiences to audiences and can engage audiences in the making of work and so we do a lot of work supporting the artistic development of artists and their thinking about their relationship with audiences.

We also think about audiences in terms of how live art can influence mainstream culture. Live art has led many of the developments in participatory, experiential practices and has influenced younger artists like Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd of You Me Bum Bum Train who create extraordinary participatory events that absolutely capture a mainstream imagination and engage with mainstream audiences.

So we think about audiences in all kinds of ways from the very diverse audiences that come to see our work right through audiences who have never heard of live art, who have never heard of LADA but in some way are engaging with art that has been influenced by live art.

And you do a lot of international work as well…

We try to do a lot of international work. In the pre-internet days we did a lot of travelling, going to places and flying the flag for live art and helping to promote artists’ work by doing screening programmes and talks. And now, in this internet age, we can do all that without leaving our office in Hackney Wick. We have just done a screening programme at the 3rd Venice International Performance Art Week and as much as we would have loved to have been there we couldn't go - but in a sense we didn't need to be there because the work could be seen there without us. I’ve also taken part in various symposia around the world by Skype rather than being somewhere in person.

As well as international programmes, we are also part of a four-year EU-supported Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP) which is particularly looking at collaborative practices and how they can engage with new publics.

So what would you say live art offers that other arts don’t?

In addition to some of the things I have already suggested I think it offers experiences which might be difficult to find in other art forms. For example, the idea of placing the audiences at the centre of the work so they become responsible for the making and the meaning of the work. In that sense it offers its audiences a form of agency that they possibly wouldn’t get with other areas of practice. It can also provoke audiences to think about things that they might not otherwise have thought about or they don't necessarily want to think about. It might not change their minds about things but it might make them at least reconsider, or reinforce their opinions in a way. So I think it offers interesting provocations as well as interesting cultural experiences.

Do you think that live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain?

Yes, I think we've ended up in a very strange place. Live art and the arts in the UK has been a very inclusive area of practice which has given voice to silenced or disenfranchised artists such as black artists, queer artists, and disabled artists. Live art has given a voice to marginalized artists and offered a practice which artists can make their own - they don't have to conform to dominant cultural narratives, or received ways of doing things, but can make work that reflects their experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

Because so much live art is about experiences and conversations, I think it does have something to contribute to addressing the new schisms and divisions we’re now facing.

Can you tell us about events or projects that LADA has planned for 2017? We heard that you are moving to a different location this year?

We are relocating to Bethnal Green and moving there will afford us the opportunity to do lots of events and activities which we can’t do at the moment.

We are going to be doing more work with kids and young people, working again with Sybille Peters and Tate on KAPUTT: a transgenerational academy of destruction - the first academy that will bring together people of all ages.

We are going to be working with the artist Hester Chillingworth, as a thinker-in-residence, looking at different strategies and methodologies for engaging with young people, particularly genderqueer teenagers.

We are going to be producing a whole bunch of new publications - a  major new title on the artist Kira O’Reilly, and books with the artists Martin O’Brien, Zinzi Minott and the Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić amongst others.

We are also going to do more podcasts for the Live Art UK network we coordinate. Live Art UK has also just been awarded an Ambition for Excellence award from Arts Council England for Diverse Actions, a four-year programme with all 28 members of the network looking at the next generation of black artists, producers, thinkers, and activists in the UK.

We will are also going to be working on different programmes and partnerships internationally and here in the UK, including the Folkestone Triennial, and running our annual DIY scheme - a professional development scheme run in partnership with 20 organisations across the UK in which artists conceive and run unusual and often outlandish workshops and research projects for other artists.

And what is going to happen with the study room in the new building?

The Study Room is moving with us and as we will have a much bigger space in our new premises and we are going to be doing even more Study Room events and activities.

And more study room guides?

Yes, more Study Room guides. Since 2006 or so we have commissioned over 30 Study Room guides around themes ranging from Live Art and Journeys to Live Art and Food to Live Art and Motherhood, and we have around ten new guides in the pipeline.  

How do you see the climate of live art in 2017 in comparison with what it was 20 years ago when you were programming performance at the ICA, or with the early years of LADA? How have things changed since?

In some ways the climate of live art today is unrecognizable, and in other ways its identical. For example in a recent gathering with a group of emerging artists from the SPILL Showcase which was  part of last year’s SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich a lot of the issues that came up and that artists were concerned about were similar from the ones that artists were discussing 20 years ago.

But in other ways it is unrecognizable because there is so much more policy in provision now and live art is recognized and understood as an area of practice. 20 years ago when we  talked about live art we always had to explain what it was and why it was important. Now we don't always need to explain it, and here we are talking about it at the British Library.

So live art has a much higher profile nowadays. Technology has liberated live art in all kinds of ways and enabled all kinds of advances. We can now publish books and DVDs because the technology is there to do it.  Technology means that artists can produce and distribute their own titles without having to depend on the gatekeepers of culture. Artists can also disseminate information about themselves through Facebook and social media and make connections across the world and with like-minded people. Technology enables lost histories to be reclaimed and new forms of online research to be undertaken.

So technology has made the conditions in which live art is happening completely unrecognizable from what they were 20 years ago. There is more recognition and more provision and more opportunities for artists. But a lot of the fundamental problems and challenges for artists are still there.

So in a way live art is in a better place…

Yes, a better place but it can still be tough.

Well that’s all from me Lois, if you would like to add something else…

The only thing I would like to add is how brilliant the British Library has been in its recognition and support for live art.

We started working with the British Library when I was running the programme at the ICA and you came along and documented everything. And that means that those kinds of histories are kept here for posterity and they have been afforded a cultural value by the British Library and that is unbelievably important to us so just huge thanks to the British Library for their support for live art.

Go to part one.

13 April 2017

Live Art in the UK: Lois Keidan interview - part 1

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Lois Keidan is co-founder and co-director of the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), an organization based in London dedicated to the support and promotion of live art in the UK and abroad.

The British Library’s long relationship with LADA has resulted in a substantial collection of video recordings of performances, talks, symposiums and discussions programmed by LADA at different venues in London and the UK. The collection is available to view at the British Library premises and at LADA’s Study Room research library.

This interview with Lois took place at the British Library, 20 January 2017. Lois discussed the history of live art in the UK, the work of LADA, and how live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain.

Lois Keidan_image_Alex Eisenberg blogLois Keidan. Photograph by Alex Eisenberg.

What’s the difference between live art and performance art?

Performance art is live art. We talk about live art at the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) as an umbrella term that covers a wide range of performance or live practices. It’s a spectrum of practices from experimental theatre at one end right through to conceptual art at the other, and performance art is within that spectrum.

Performance art is probably best understood as a practice of visual artists. Its history is contested but you could say it emerged in the 1960s when visual artists turned to their bodies as their artistic material and as the site of their practice. They were rejecting the art market and the commodification of art and they were more interested in ideas, experiences and embodied actions.

Those kinds of approaches were also paralleled by artists who were working at the edges of theatre - rejecting the idea of the play, rejecting the idea of the fourth wall, and rejecting the idea of people pretending to be somebody else. They were looking at theatre as a space, and as an area of practice where they could re-write the rules and look at what kind of language they could use, what kind of relationship they could have with audiences, and what they could do theatrically with spaces.

Live art is a way of talking about such approaches to the nature and role of art and to the experiences of art by audiences, and a way of thinking about what art can be, how it is made, where it is made, who it is made for, how it is experienced and increasingly how it is written about and - in relation to where this interview is taking place - into how it is recorded and archived.

So performance art is an aspect of live art, and one of the reasons why we talk about live art and why there is this slight distinction between these two terms is to do with the kinds of practices and the kinds of artists that performance art represents.

Many years ago, in the very early 1990s, the Arts Council of Great Britain, as it was at the time, was looking at performance art and asking why it was such a Eurocentric and white area of practice - it was concerned that performance art didn't seem to be reflecting the diversity of the UK. And so it commissioned research to look into this that was undertaken by the artist and scholar Michael McMillan. One of things he suggested was that we should widen the frame of practices that we might consider performance art, and look at other practices within other cultures, which share the same sort of tenets of performance art but were not recognized by the art establishment or the mainstream art world.

Inspired by artist and writer Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Michael suggested that if we begin to change our terminologies and our language, then performance art could be a more inclusive area of practice. And so it was agreed that the Arts Council should change its terminology away from performance art to this more inclusive language of live art.

I was working at the Arts Council at the time and this was something that was very significant to me and the art and ideas I was interested in, and something I took to the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) when I went to work there in the early 1990s and then onto the formation of LADA in the late 1990s.

I would like to ask you about the formation of LADA in conjunction with how you first became interested in the kind of work you promote in LADA since you have been working most of your working career in live art.

Pretty much most of my working career. I started working in independent post-punk music, running independent record labels and managing bands and stuff like that, and then I went to work in community art, at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop. Theatre Workshop was interesting in terms of the projects being made there, who was involved in those projects and what they were about. And it was through these I became aware of, and inspired by, performance art.

One of the reasons it excited me at that time was its relation to punk. I recently wrote something about the relationship between punk and performance art for the British Council’s website on the 40th anniversary of punk. Performance seemed to me to relate to punk and post-punk music in the sense that it was a sort of DIY aesthetic, low-tech, and could happen anywhere. It was very inclusive of audiences, non-hierarchical, and I got really excited by it as an artistic approach and by the kinds of issues and ideas that were being addressed by performance artists concerning politics, the politics of the body, activism and changing the world and just basically being awkward and disruptive, which is what I was and I still am I hope.

So how did you get to co-found LADA?

Well I was lucky to be able to work at the ICA in London in the late 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The 90s was very much the golden age of performance art and live art in the UK and internationally, and when I was working at the ICA with Catherine Ugwu the programme we ran tried to reflect that.  

In those days a lot of work was being created in the UK as a reaction against Thatcherism. All kinds of artists who had been excluded from society and public discourse and made to feel that they didn't seem to matter under Thatcherism saw performance art as a rich area to be working in, and the same was happening with fiercely politicized artists in the United States.  At the ICA we were able to work with many of those artists and create a context to represent the different issues, experiences and ways of working they were exploring, and also to work with an exciting new generation of audiences who were thirsty for new ideas and experiences. 

The leadership changed at the ICA in the late 1990s and many of the programming staff left, Catherine and myself included. By then there were many great artists leading great initiatives, with a whole new generation of artists making work, as well as an older generation still making very radical works. The Arts Council in London was aware of how exciting live art in London had become and had developed great policy and provision for new ways of working, but was also concerned about how live art was being supported as they didn't necessarily have the capacity or the expertise to be able to offer more direct support.  

At the same time the Arts Council in London had started to look at delegating responsibilities for a range of art forms by setting up different agencies. As part of this they put out a tender for people to set up a live art development agency – Catherine and I applied and we got it, and that was how LADA was formed in 1999.

What are some of the areas explored by practitioners of live art?

Live art represents lots of different ways of working: from artists who work theatrically to artists who work more conceptually; to artists who work with audiences in participatory practices. I think within all of that live art offers an interesting context or platform for artists to look at many different issues. Some of the ideas that continue to be explored by artists working with live art practices include the politics of the body and issues of identity, such as representations of race, gender, sexuality and disability.

Live art has been an important and powerful platform for artists working with issues of social and environmental justice such as the Vacuum Cleaner, or Liberate Tate, and there are rich relationships between live art practices and political activism. It's also a ripe area for artists who are interested in conversations with audiences and in participatory immersive practices, as much live art is about the experience of art and the ways that artistic frameworks can give agency to audiences.

It’s also about the idea of working outside the received sites for art. Live art is very site-responsive and context-specific - its an area of practice that doesn’t have to take place within a gallery or theatre, but can be located in all kinds of public contexts and that can be exciting for artists, and for audiences who encounter that work.

It’s also an interesting area of practice for artists interested in issues of science, biomedical research and ethics, and the mechanics of the body.

Because it's not a fixed form, live art can engage with all these issues in ways that are different from writing plays or painting pictures.

Live art also influences scholarly research.There is a fluid relationship between practice and thinking within live art and between artists, academics and researchers, and that is generating interesting new ways of writing about art, which is not necessarily scholarly writing or the usual critical ‘reviews’ - its more about the idea of writing with art, writing from art, and artists are increasingly seeing that as part of their practice.

So you are saying that it sits well with the academic community?

Yes, very well, and increasingly so. Perhaps this is not the case in other places, but here in the UK it is. Certainly in the UK when I started working in this area of practice there were only two places that you could go to study: Dartington College of Arts in Devon and Nottingham Trent University. In other institutions performance art might have been referenced and referred to, but it wasn't taught as a module or studied as something in its own right.

But now many universities and art courses engage with live art and there are all kinds of dedicated modules and dedicated research going on.

Globally there is an international network of performance studies (Performance Studies international: PSi) and I think it is increasingly understood and taught and researched in different countries. It might be called different things but certainly it is increasingly studied.

I guess this is part of the work you have been doing.

It’s a kind of an advocacy thing, yes. What’s great about the UK - but it will be disappearing very soon with Brexit and the kind of new world order that we find ourselves in - is that there were so many international students who came to study in the UK and got really excited about live art and then went ‘home’ and became either British Council officers, or artists and curators all over the world, flying the flag of live art. That’s has been really exciting to see -  the globalization of live art with a new generation of makers, doers and thinkers.

Go to part two.

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections