“Throwing people off their expectational axis” – The Monthly interviews Adam Turkington – Part 3

Part two of this interview can be found here

When do you set up Seedhead Arts?

Before we get to that I think it’s important to just point out that as a rate payer I am very unhappy, in fact I am angry, with the direction of travel the Waterfront Hall has taken.

In terms of what has been done physically to that building, in terms of public access, in terms of value for public investment and in terms of using it for public benefit, it is a long way from where it should be and what we should expect. It’s a public building that has turned it’s back on the public.

But enough of that. When I leave the Waterfront, I am appointed Director of Culture Night and we set up Seedhead Arts.

Seedhead Arts is a partnership between me and my partner Ali Fell.

What approach did you take for your organisation?

When we were setting up I was aware of this received wisdom that “you should do one thing and do it well,” but ultimately we rejected that argument.

We wanted to have a flexible project, an infrastructure that would allow us to do many things well by using a particular type of approach. Seedhead Arts has a way of doing things that we apply across the board.

If someone approaches Seedhead Arts and asks us to programme events, or they approach us and ask us to curate a festival, or we get asked to do the box office or whatever it might be, we can say yes to it if we want.

How did you approach Culture Night?

I guess you want to make it a success but it was such a successful event when I took over and I had left the Waterfront in such a bad way I just didn’t want to mess it up. At the very least it had to be as good as it had been the first two years; when I come on board it’s the third year of Culture Night.

One of the first thing we had to do was to see if we could deliver an event where everyone participated in Culture Night for free. We just didn’t have a budget for artists’ fees and I really didn’t want there to be a situation where some people got paid and others didn’t. For the record I think this was right for the time and the event as it was in 2011 but given the massive growth in size and budget CNB in 2019 it may be time to revisit this.

When we did it we had some scope for material costs, and we would facilitate some funds from sources outside of the Culture Night organisation, but no-one was paid directly from CNB to perform.

That actually led to an increase in the number of people getting involved and led to an increase in the number of artists performing. And by the way that was the exact opposite of what a lot of people said would happen.

You would think it would be the other way round?

That if we weren’t paying people wouldn’t participate?

Artists and musicians are always complaining about not being paid?

What actually happened was that people came out to be part of it.

We started to see all sorts of performances or activities which were outside the normal street performance expectations.

People would do Catchphrase in the street, people would dress up and take over a space, choirs, visual artists, musicians, all sorts of people made a connection with what Culture Night could be and you could see the event build up to be something that mattered to people.

The second year we did it, we had a bonfire and a parade in the city centre. We burnt a Wickerman in Writers’ Square.

That was pretty amazing and you can say all sorts of things about meaning and what that represented, and what that activity challenged, but Culture Night opened those kind of possibilities.

You feel a certain responsibility to ensure that whatever you do, whatever events or activities you put on, you can justify the decision to do things like that.

You did expand the parameters of what was cultural and therefore to be included on Culture Night?

I really wouldn’t debate the question of whether or not wrestling is culture. Wrestling is theatre and therefore it is perfectly legitimate to have it as part of Culture Night.

The phrase I have tended to use lately has been that we are aiming to “throw people off their expectational axis.”

I wanted people to be able to say that “this was not what I expected it to be.”

Why that approach?

Because, if you want people to remember an event or a Festival then it has to break from their expectation.

If people turn up to something and it is exactly what they thought it was going to be then they are simply going to walk away and that’s it. There is no impact.

This is the whole point of the Arts. Yes, the Arts can investigate ideas, yes we can challenge the status quo through the Arts, we can challenge sectarianism through the Arts but we need to allow expectations to be challenged.

Life can be grey, it can be clocking in and clocking out, and there isn’t a lot for you to be part of, and maybe you just can’t afford to go to events, or galleries, or concerts but with for example Culture Night, you can get into the city centre walk around the corner and there is a band playing in a doorway, or whatever it might be.

That has to have an impact and we know that Culture Night has offered many people a different way to look at life here.

If anything drives me it is that idea of creating a jolt for people where they get a chance to think, “ I just wasn’t expecting that at all.”

Part four of this interview can be found here

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.