Hannah Hartley says the outdoor arts industry’s long-held resilience and versatility has given them the tools to overcome nearly anything, just when it’s needed the most.
© Manu Picado
The term ‘outdoor arts’ at its most literal refers to just that: the work of artists taking place outdoors. It is a broad term, encompassing a genre of work that by its very nature is unbounded. It often assumes varied forms including theatre, puppetry, circus, live and visual arts, digital and dance – or any combination of these. Working in the public realm offers the widest possible access to public engagement with the arts.
A transformative relationship
Outdoor arts draw on a rich and international heritage. Street theatre, for example, is one of the oldest forms of theatre but in the wider UK arts sector it can feel overlooked – even looked down upon. More than a decade ago, Without Walls set out to champion the creation of outdoor art through a unique consortium of festival partners that has since evolved to include 36 organisations. These partners have collaborated on developing and touring an extensive catalogue of new artist works, fostering innovation and pushing the boundaries of creative development in the outdoors.
Ask our festivals and artists why outdoor work is so special and many will speak to its ability to seek out and engage with new and diverse audiences. It builds a transformative relationship with spaces and communities. From the epic spectacle played out to an audience of thousands in works like Periplum’s The Bell to the intimacy of a guided encounter offered by Ray Lee’s Congregation, familiar environments take on a new guise.
The Without Walls Touring Network evidences the power of outdoor arts to unite people in towns, cities and rural communities up and down the country. Currently supporting the programming of 18 passionate festival producers, it welcomed a new member last year in Grimsby-based arts organisation The Culture House. The network works across north-east Lincolnshire with a mission to bring high-quality arts to this region. Outdoor events form an integral part of the strategy, and their success has helped attract the investment needed to support an outdoor festival.
Our partners working within local authorities have long recognised the value of outdoor work and are further strengthening their commitment to it. Darren Grice, Deputy Chief Executive of the Rochdale Borough Cultural Trust, says: “Driven by the experience of the last year, I believe it is vital that it is embedded into the very core of our future cultural strategy.''
The UK weather rarely delivers but despite the difficulty, there is something thrilling about the unpredictability of presenting work so deeply rooted in the present moment. Site, context, and audience offer a unique set of circumstances every single time. As a result, artists and practitioners working in outdoor arts have developed a resilience and versatility which often astounds, and the creative and practical tools to overcome almost any eventuality. With nearly every other live event cancelled, the 2020 editions of Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and Bournemouth’s Arts by the Sea are testament to these qualities.
As the Government’s roadmap offers some confidence, the outdoor arts sector is looking ahead with relentless optimism. Without Walls has 21 new projects ready to be presented in a celebratory yet safe way. It’s exciting to see many other artists and venues turning to the streets out of pragmatism; however, I believe there is more underlying this momentum – the rapid growth in demand we have seen at Without Walls certainly predates Covid-19.
The circumstances of the past year have brought much about society into sharp relief, not least of all our relationship to public spaces. It is so important for us all to have access to clean, safe outdoor spaces, as well as an enhanced appreciation of the civic and community functions of these spaces for protest, commemoration, and celebration. Two extraordinary new commissions feel particularly poignant: Luke Jerram’s In Memoriam, a series of flags created from hospital bedsheets in tribute to our healthcare workers, and Recovery Poems a travelling light installation developed by Robert Montgomery, Emergency Exit Arts and Deanna Rodger. These works extend an invitation to the communities in which they are presented to pause and reflect, serving as a venue for community inspired workshops or performances.
Timely and thoughtful
While much work has been paused, Without Walls has continued to break new ground in pushing forward work that imagines a greener, more inclusive outdoor arts. We are supporting the sector with resources to ensure work can proceed safely, offering an inclusive experience for D/deaf and disabled audiences and artists, and empowering underrepresented communities.
Our artist residency in the glorious woodlands of Wild Rumpus last autumn gave respite and a much-needed opportunity for connection as we gathered under the trees to consider sustainability practices. Autin Dance Theatre’s Out of the Deep Blue and Jason Singh’s Hidden Music of Trees particularly resonated. These timely projects harness the tools of outdoor work in new ways, gently reminding us of our stewardship of our natural environment.
In a terrible year, the persistence of outdoor arts to keep bringing creativity to communities has been truly inspirational. As audiences tentatively return to cultural activities, our sector will be waiting with open arms. We are so excited to share these experiences with you all.
Hannah Hartley is Project Manager at Without Walls and XTRAX.