Be There At The Start – Attenborough Arts Centre showcases Unlimited’s research and development programme

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Unlimited partnered with Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester to host a day dedicated to research and development work commissioned by the program. ‘Be There at the Start’, held on the 23rd March, was a unique opportunity to get an insight into artistic processes from artists working across cultures, artforms and sectors: presenting work by Richard Butchins, Anna Berry, Raquel Meseguer, Juliet Robson, Rinkoo Barpaga, Kai Syng Tan and VIVA Carnival. Review by Jenni Hunt

Black and white photo of the entrance to a tunnel lined with paper cones.

Anna Berry’s Breathing Sculptures installation – a public kinetic installation in which a room is lined with paper cones that ‘breathe’, creating an immersive experience which is both strange and otherworldly.

Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, was keen to stress that the “focus of the day is about art” – recognising the high quality work and achievements of some extraordinary artists. The Attenborough Arts Centre was an ideal location for this, as for twenty years it has been working to widen access to the arts and ensure fully inclusive programming, currently holding a DeStress festival focused on mental health and wellbeing.

The installations from Juliet Robson, Raquel Meseguer, Richard Butchins and Anna Berry were varied and exciting – everything from the opportunity to listen to the sounds of Leicester and to see the stars to a tunnel, which seemed to breathe as its walls shifted and moved, and from artwork co-curated with non-verbal autistic individuals to Raquel Meseguer’s Light Choir – lamps which show when their operators are resting. Each of these pieces was intriguing on its own, but was enhanced by the opportunity to hear the artist speak about their work and their process.

Raquel Meseguer lying in a doorway

2. A Crash Course in Cloudspotting (the subversive act of horizontality). Photograph: Synnøve Fredericks

Along with the physical installations, there was a presentation by Rinkoo Barpaga, showing clips of his film and theatre piece ‘Bubble and Butch’ and talking about the one year process that drove its creation. The film examines the isolation and vulnerability of young Deaf people. Mike Boland, who plays the main protagonist of the project, had no prior acting experience – he was the barman at Barpaga’s Deaf Club, and this project was an opportunity to show a side of Deaf culture which is often hidden away.

The research and development phase of this project, though only brief, came with the opportunity to allow the two main actors a visit to the place the show is set, so that they could understand the atmosphere of the deprived area where the character of Bubble lives. Barpaga drew a comparison between Bubble and Robinson Crusoe – marooned with no-one around who he is able to communicate with;  Bubble has slipped into depression and begun to lose his knowledge of BSL. By gaining the care of Butch, a fierce looking dog, Bubble is able to again emerge into the world.

Photo of a young man on a park bench with a bulldog sat as his feet.

Film still from Rinkoo Barpaga’s ‘Bubble and Butch’ featuring deaf actor Mike Boland.

Barpaga emphasized both his desire to raise awareness and empathy for those who are in Bubble’s situation. Every second Deaf person has mental health issues, but this is often ignored. Another element of the story was raised by Lee Blake, who portrays the second main character Troy in the production. Blake is an Urban Sign Language user, and this provided an opportunity to discuss the history of racism within the Deaf community and to show the creativity of those who found themselves doubly excluded.

Barpaga has found that Unlimited has changed his thoughts around performing, moving from monologue to performance. Such work relies on partnership, and he hopes that he will be able to take this project on to full production, touring small venues and bringing Bubble and Troy’s story to further Deaf and hearing audiences.

Along with the artworks, there were panels which were focusing on the potential benefits and pitfalls of collaboration. Research and Development (R&D), described by Unlimited as “an opportunity for artists to test out, experiment and explore new ideas and methods of working, to help develop their projects further”, is an important part of the creative process, and one that Unlimited supports in its funding. This gives groups and individuals the opportunity to trial various elements of their work, discovering what is successful and what they want to adjust or improve.

When working across cultures or sectors, time for R&D becomes even more important. Whilst working across cultures can be challenging, it is also a huge opportunity – for example Yetta Elkins of VIVA Carnival spoke about the work done with a Samba school in Rio, including bringing over dancers and costume designers to work with disabled participants and ensure that the outfits created were suitable for wheelchair users and those with other access needs.

The Carnival troupe will be taking part in numerous events: Luton, Liverpool, Newham, the Southbank, Isle of Wight, and possibly also international carnivals. It is clear from the reaction of participants that they have gained greatly from this, especially being included from the very start of the project.

Working across sectors can provide new perspectives on ideas, with arts and sciences able to work together to create. Kai Syng Tan spoke of the productive antagonism such collaboration can provide, as psychiatry and art worked together to reconcile different understandings of mind, both coming away with a more nuanced understanding – with emphasis very much placed on how arts can benefit the other sectors.

The use of R&D has given these artists time to work together and to alter their practice, with Abby Watson speaking of how time to develop the project gave her an opportunity to step aside, listen and pay attention to the objects she was working with. Collaborations such as these provide the chance to see overlaps and opportunities which can enrich the work of everyone involved.

Arts funding is limited in scope, with some funds only available for a few months – but many of the artists spoke of the hope that collaborators would be able to take on further ownership of the project, building on the current relationships in order to further empower themselves. Events such as this bring together a creative and passionate group of people, and with next year’s Unlimited R&D funding being selected the future looks exciting.

For more information about Unlimited visit http://weareunlimited.org.uk