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The Power of Ideas

Andrew Kelly (Festival of Ideas, Bristol) and Vallejo Gantner (PS122, New York) interview IBT Director Helen Cole.


AK  Cities are critical for the creation of ideas. In fact, I think this will become even more important in the future. How does the city encourage and nurture ideas, and how can we do more to develop this?

Bristol, like any city, is a concentration of different peoples forced together in time and place. This creates an incredible melting pot, a platform for expression and a provocation to action. As result of this rich convergence, ideas inevitably explode, and wherever there are ideas you will always find artists.

I believe that artists are any city’s lifeblood so you will not be surprised to hear that I believe Bristol needs to attract more artists and to better support the ones it has. Artists are often the advance guard in any process of change, creating radical, brave, beautiful, and playful artistic endeavor. And of course cities are constantly in the process of becoming, of being re-written by the people that walk their streets and call them home. In Bristol we should collectively better celebrate our homegrown artists. The ones who contribute to this evolutionary process to help shape the city we want.


VG Can we afford to keep privileging the role of the artist in cultures that today value creativity across every sphere of endeavor?

There is no doubt that we have a lot to learn from other sectors where investment is targeted towards enabling creativity to flourish and where the focus is research and future development.

However in other industries creativity is always linked to the means of production and above all the creation of profit. It is only in the Arts where creativity is authentic and independent. This underlines the reason why the Arts are important. It’s the job of PS122 and IBT to shout about the true value of the Arts until we are blue in the face.


AK Festival of Ideas has tried to get the balance right between celebrating existing ideas developed in Bristol (historically and now) and bringing people with new ideas to the city. How is this balance most effectively and creatively managed?

Any festival needs to make links between established truths and new ideas, between the old guard and the young bloods.

I believe festival structures are absolutely the best way to do this. Short, sweet, intense meeting points of new ideas. Take people on a journey with you. Feed their minds, change their views, allow them to reflect and develop their own voice.

Be fearless as producers/directors. Give a platform to the visionaries, the iconoclasts, the provocateurs. At IBT we open up that platform to Associate Artists: Bristol’s homegrown thinkers, dreamers, doers. Be controversial not comfortable, critical and informed, but non-hierarchical. Be egoless, brave and unflinching. From this kind of festival we mix the old with the new to enable ideas to take hold.


AK We’re seeing worrying trends in publishing, a decline in newspaper circulation (locally and nationally) with less space devoted to reviews, ideas and debate. Some fear this is reducing the opportunities to explore and generate new thinking. To what extent do you agree with this view and how can we best address ideas in the future light of these changes?

I too recognize that there is a fight on to safeguard the future of traditional media. With rare exceptions, traditional publishing has not historically created space for the kind of radical practice represented by IBT.  It has always been up to us to find our own way of discussing and distributing ideas. Yet traditional media has provided a rich backdrop of critical engagement that forms the context for this work to survive.  In the face of digital technologies and the attendant proliferation of ideas it is easy to get lost in an endless digital loop.

I believe we need traditional media more than ever.  We need the great, original thinkers within this environment of mass-democratization.  We need the clear, informed voices to help us find the signals amongst the noise. We also need this proliferation of thought to continue. To create the platforms where new voices can emerge.  To use this distribution potential to reach people who would not have access to critical ideas before.


VG Tell me about the last work that changed the way you perceive the world. How? Why? 

Art does not often change the way I perceive the world. To be fair I do not actually expect it to. Yet art can make me so angry I burn, send hot tears pouring down my face. It can touch me, challenge me, make sense of things. It can be a call to arms and a reminder of what it means to be here, to be alive.

I saw a piece last night by Brazilian choreographer, Marcelo Evelin.  It was like nothing I have ever experienced. Using the theatrical conventions of light and dark it made me unable to trust my own eyes. Literally I was drowning in light as 6 bodies moved as a rhythmic, unpredictable, heaving, breathing mass amongst the audience.

At times they fell into us. At others they split apart and just stood and stared. They were utterly unlike us, but strangely we were them. It was beautiful and full of integrity and intent.  The dancers were the best they could be, all knotted, powerful, sinew, flesh, sweat, muscle and bone. It utterly unsettled me. I have a searing memory of what it felt like to be running away from them, always in complicity with the other 50 people in that room. This is all that performance should be.


VG Your and my work exists in a local context and in theory for a local audience but individually we also exist in a national and global context. Are these the same, can these be reconciled?

IBT is probably much better known outside Bristol. In fact some people only know Bristol through the prism of IBT.

Through us they see Bristol as a city where creativity and experimentation thrives. From Bristol’s community choirs, to producing partners in New York, IBT has long-term associations with its partners and audiences, and over the years it has worked hard to put Bristol on the international artistic map. It has invested in an entire generation of over 30 Bristol artists. Yet equally it works with international artists to commission and premiere new work that could not happen anywhere else. All of this and more is what PS122 and IBT have in common.

When you work on the edges of contemporary arts practice you find your community wherever it may be. Sometimes it is there right next to you and at others you have to create it from scratch. Local and global feed each other until they meet in festivals like IBT. This is when the chemistry begins….


VG What would a perfect collaboration between PS122 and IBT look like? (seriously let’s do it…)

I think we should create a PS122 in Bristol and an IBT at PS122 – even if we achieve it only once. Now let’s breathe…! And then let’s make it happen…



About the Interviewers

Andrew Kelly is Director of Bristol Festival of Ideas and Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He founded and led At-Bristol, Brief and Animated Encounters Festivals, Digital Arts Development Agency and the Bristol Great Reading Adventure. He is author of 12 books.

Vallejo Gantner is Artistic Director of Performance Space 122. P.S. 122 is one of United States’ leading multi-disciplinary presenters of innovative contemporary performing arts. Prior to this, Vallejo was Director of the Dublin Fringe Festival (2002–2004), co-producer of Spiegelworld (2006-2008) and Artistic Associate of the Melbourne Festival (2000/01). Originally from Melbourne, Gantner has worked in a range of capacities throughout the arts in the US, Asia and Australia.