Can the arts offer meaning, enjoyment – and be a force for change?
For the Troublemakers’ Festival in Swansea, I tried to create an event which was rooted locally, had proper depth, and inspired people to take real action. Commissioned as programmer by the From The Station To The Sea project, I started with what was there already. The festival was built around existing venues – a theatre space, Oxfam bookshop, independent gallery, artist-led studios, a shop-sized cinema, a pub, an artist-led centre in old offices, local cafes, a sewing workshop. I added events and activity which enhanced them, added depth to them, encouraged people to see them in different ways, or brought in different audiences to these existing venues.
In closing the High Street to traffic for two days, we not only tested an idea local campaigners had long talked about, but we created a physical connection between these buildings and spaces. The High Street is usually very anti-pedestrian: crossings are limited, sight lines poor, and the traffic discourages casual browsing from shop to shop, reduces dwell time, and disrupts the useful permeability offered by lanes and alleys running off the High Street.
Picture: Theatre Lane by Simone Sheridan for Troublemakers’ Festival. By Dan Thompson
The aim of building on existing venues seemed to be achieved: Galerie Simpson reported their most successful event, people visited Volcano Theatre, Cinema & Co, the Tech Hub Basement Cafe, Sew Swansea and other venues for the first time. The High Street Skate Jam showed a wide audience an activity that’s usually indoors and hidden. One 79-year-old who usually avoids High Street enjoyed the Skate Jam so much, he casually suggested it should become permanent. Local cafes reported good takings: two reported their busiest ever weekends.
In crossing over audiences – bringing together social justice talks alongside skateboarding, sewing alongside stand up – people were (unconsciously and apparently accidentally) exposed to new experiences. The festival also encouraged people to move from one thing to another, and to get more deeply involved; if you saw an artist you liked, you could come and hear them talk, and then maybe join a workshop.
People just passing through, and regular High Street users like the street drinkers, were also offered new experiences and a chance to engage: some watched, some took part, some had interesting conversations with artists and other people involved in Troublemakers’. Nobody was moved on: the usual life of the street was disrupted, but not stopped.
This planning went deeper, too. I am frustrated by speaking at events where there’s no time for acts and audiences to come together. And I am annoyed by artists who “attend an open mic and leave as soon as you’ve done your shitty little poem or song.” So artists were booked to stay for the weekend, expected to do a short talk about their work, and invited to join audience, volunteers and the production team in an open lunch every day. In return – they were given a wide brief, and invited to create work they really wanted to make.
Some of the artists came together long before the Troublemakers’ Festival, to meet at my studio. It was interesting subsequently, during the festival, to see them act as friends, supporting each other’s events, and to see more experienced artists mentoring emerging ones.
Most of the commissioning budget was spent in more interesting ways than booking artists I knew and taking them to Swansea, though. We commissioned much activity through open calls and local meetings, and ran three commissioning strands which brought very different work to the festival.
The local WI meet on the High Street, and they were given a commissioning budget and invited to write a brief for an artist. Being unused to commissioning and unfamiliar with the ways artists talk about work, it was an interesting process and it resulted in one of the best commissions of the festival.
Office staff who are based on the High Street were also invited to commission a piece. Working with Coastal Housing staff in this way enabled them to understand and have ownership of the festival, so they were better able to talk to their local tenants about the Troublemakers’ Festival. Coastal’s tenants were given first notice of the festival, and were offered advance tickets for some events we expected to sell out.
A ‘Disruption’ thread saw a variety of artists given £500 micro-commissions, and as these were street based, they provided the outside links between spaces in more interesting ways than if we’d just commissioned street entertainers or buskers.
Woven through the festival were a series of magic moments: a protest march by disabled children demanding a zebra crossing for their school, the appearance of a dragon, an attempt to levitate the Palace Theatre, a suffragette leading a crowd of followers, a wildly optimistic protest march, a graffitied motor car, a local version of the Obby Oss. These all help people see the street in a different way: the memory of them will linger.
Overall, we counted over 4000 on the High Street while it was closed, and over 1000 at other events, performances and workshops. The festival engaged even more online, gaining worldwide attention through films of the High Street used as a skatepark. Our final event was a WI meeting: the usual attendance of around 15 people swelled to more than 80.
At the end of Sunday’s road closure, we brought people back into the Volcano Theatre. People inspired by the previous four days of activity were invited to give a one-minute pitch, with the public voting for their favourite which would get a £500 kickstart. The public votes to put pianos in venues across Swansea – an idea pitched by a 16-year-old woman. Other people stood up – and pledged to make their ideas happen anyway. Swansea will, for example, have its first Fun Palace this October.
And I’m currently writing a Manifesto For the High Street, based on ideas people contributed throughout the festival and during a series of workshops I ran with local people.
So Troublemakers’ Festival has had a real impact. It has built on existing activity, and helped increase audiences. And it has generated new grassroots initiatives, too. It has shown the potential of a street many had written off, and brought people back to rediscover the architecture, life, and businesses that are there.
It highlighted the High Street’s interesting past, but made clear it has an interesting future, too.
Picture: Troublemakers’ exhibition at Volcano. By Dan Thompson.
All other pictures by Math Roberts, commissioned to be photographer in residence by Troublemakers’ Festival
Troublemakers’ wouldn’t have happened without other people. So thank you to: Carrie, Claud, Paul, Vic, Kay, Barbara and all the team at Volcano, Huw and Coastal Housing, Caroline, Carys, and all the Troublemakers’ Festival production team, all the Troublemakers’ Festival volunteers – an exceptional bunch, all the venues involved, Tasha at Sew Swansea for constant support for many years, Phil at Oxfam for being an inspiration, Anna at Cinema & Co who let me screen Passport To Pimlico, Exist and everyone who skated or DJ’d, Swansea’s cycling community, Swansea Central WI (mainly for cake), Patrick Driscall, Mark Rees, and – of course – all the artists but especially Bernadette, Charlie, Stella, Tasha and Mark who all helped me shape Troublemakers’, and Sarah, Simone, Deborah and the Gaggle cast, Rob and the Sign of the Times team, the Unfair Funfair gang, Stephen and the levitators, Math, Lee, Sam and Julia, Tim, Nazma, Mark, Mr & Mrs Clark, Ariane and Graham, Mark Thomas, and finally – the High Street businesses who coped with lots of extra people and a little bit of chaos.