Interview: Robert Pacitti of The Spill Festival

Becoming An Image, photo by Heather Cassils

Becoming An Image, photo by Heather Cassils

The Spill Festival of Performance, the UK’s premiere artist-led biennale of experimental theatre and live art, kicks off for its fifth year in London this April. Alex Hopkins caught up with Artistic Director Robert Pacitti to talk about the vital types of connectivity that only performance art can give.

Tell me about your own background and work.

I am a performance maker myself and spent the last 20 years working almost exclusively oversees. I trained as a visual artist and am 45 now. Back then there was a lot of street activism. Thatcher was in power and it was a very particular time in British social politics. I realised quickly that I didn’t want to make things that hung on walls in galleries. I’m not dissing that – I’m a visual art fan and go to a lot of galleries, but I knew I had to use my own voice and body somehow.

While it was exciting to travel it also became a little frustrating as I was building work from UK politics and ideas of activism and not getting to share it with a UK audience. I moaned about it for a while and then decided to do something to change it. Out of this Spill was born.

You also worked with Quentin Crisp. What did this involve?

The piece of work was called ‘Civil’. When I grew up The Naked Civil Servant was the only gay thing in my parents’ house. I spent two weeks with Quentin in New York’s East Village. I have to say that lots of people did it before me and did afterwards, so it wasn’t a special thing as Quentin was available to many, but it was an important part of my career. I brought all the audio recordings, writings and footage back to the UK and made a solo work which is an hour long and on a white stage, with a white background. There was a bed on stage which was used as a scene of crime – the reason queer people experience any prejudice, in any shape or form, comes from the act of sex. It was also inevitable that the piece of work reflected on the Aids crisis and all those we have lost. I toured ‘Civil’ around the world for 10 years before Quentin died and was then invited to perform at his memorial. I was laying naked under a hat stand that had his hat on and a hair fell off his hat. I don’t think anyone else in the room would have seen this lilac hair that gently drifted down and fell on me, but I’ve still got it. I just thought that was the complete culmination for me of the relationship I had with him.

About six years ago I was looking back at this body of work – I made it in 1994 – and I thought nothing has changed. Yes, we have definitely got more visibility, we’ve got rights and marriage through the Lords, but my experience is that I can’t walk down the street in Ipswich holding hands with my boyfriend. It’s still not a safe space in public space, so I decided to remake this work and asked someone else to get involved. It was in Spill in 2007.

What are the goals and key ideas behind the Spill Festival?

I wanted to do something in this country which was artist led and of the highest quality, but also something that was not reliant on just one person. For example, if we work in a venue for a couple of years and that one person leaves we may never work in that venue again, so I wanted to create something that was autonomous, robust and also accessible.

The work I program is quite challenging and is not always seen in a high profile way in this country. I don’t think it’s difficult work, but I think the people who consider it to be difficult are perhaps others who work in the creative industries who may be a bit nervous about what their audience does or doesn’t want. I truly believe that people want to take some live risks and feel some energy in a room. This is the sort of energy that you get from live performance. It can jolt us with new ideas. Half of what we do at Spill is the program of work and the other half is setting up different ways in which people can speak about it. If my working class mum can’t ask a question about what she’s seen and what it’s about then something is wrong. We are really trying to smash that idea that work is elite and niche. That’s how it started.

What kind of work can audiences expect in this year’s Spill?

It’s not billed as a queer festival, but I’d say that a lot of the work can be read through a queer frame, whether the makers have same sex experiences or not.

Jamie Lewis Hadley has been working with a doctor and taking his own blood which he puts in bags and then shoots, so you have it splashing everywhere in front of an audience. It’s a work about control of our own bodies and also the panic arouind Hiv and Aids.

Empress Stah will be at the Soho Theatre and will be creating a unique performance called  ‘Edge of Chaos’, which is part of an ongoing project with a long-term ambition – to create a performance in outer space.

Heather Cassils is coming over from Los Angeles. I am not sure how she identifies, but she definitely plays with the fluidity of gender in her work. She trained as a stunt woman and has a physicality which is both masculine and feminine. She uses weights and changes her body and diet program with each piece she does and her work is really fierce.

There’s a young woman in our National Showcase called Lucy Hutson who is making a work called ‘If You Want Bigger Yorkshire Puddings You Need A Bigger Tin”. She talks to women, family members, about gender and the experiences of being a woman.

Rosana Cade has created a piece in which she takes an audience member by the hand and leads them through Brick Lane. In the course of the work the person is passed on to eight different people – each one taking his or her hand. It’s really beautiful. One of the people is a 6 foot 3 inches man in drag and we are having to do some really particular work on how we keep the artist, audience and performers safe in that situation, because Brick Lane is still the front line.

What do you see as the challenges of queer performance moving forward and how relevant does it remain in a time when LGBT people are gaining more rights?

That’s a big question, but off the bat I can think of a couple of things. I have a real concern about the depoliticisation of younger people. There are lots of us who literally got pushed to ground and had to steel ourselves to stand up at various frontlines. It really wasn’t that long ago. My worry is that we seem to have won our rights and yet there is still this potential erasure happening. If we don’t have people like Peter Tatchell perhaps it starts to go backwards. He is the obvious activist and it’s difficult to think of anyone else who does what he does.

I also feel we would all benefit from a greater understanding of the politics of gender. Any prejudice around power is going to effect queer identity, so let’s not assume that all queer people  are white men, for example. The rise in HIV infection and other STIs among young people is also really worrying.

Added to this, I think, is the disposability in the way we can meet people for sex. This is also a brilliant thing – I come from a sex positive place – but I do worry that we may have lost any sense of community outside of the commercial scene. There are true pockets of vibrancy in all sorts of places, but we don’t seem to have that one platform for exchange anymore. Yes, we now have a fantastic array of places to go, but where is that connectivity? I believe that performance is one of those spaces where you get that electrical charge of energy. You don’t get that through a computer, or even film. Live performance is all about our bodies and our stories.

What role do you think the internet, particularly gay ‘hook-up sites’, has played in reducing a lack of genuine ‘connectivity’?

I think it’s fantastic that we have immediate access to each other, but where are our role models –  particularly  for younger people? The queer scene is breath taking in its diversity, but it’s still fairly body fascist and it does still break down into niche territories. I just worry that if there was to be a rapid acceleration of difficulty for us, and our rights, we might have lost some of the glue to hold us together.

Everything that has happened with Richard LIttlejohn and Lucy Meadows, the transgender school teacher who killed herself, those sort of outrages still really gather people and galvanise us. I get my politics collectively through Facebook now, rather than any other public platform, except performance. But I would say that we are not in control of the platform that is Facebook. Its control is anonymous and it can be switched off.

This takes me back to when I started Spill in 2007 and the autonomy I centred it on. Five festivals on and I think we have created something that is sustainable. That model of live performance – where we arrive at the same space at the same time and go through the same thing together – still has huge power and is vital.

The Spill Festival runs from 3 – 14 April at various venues across London.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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