WHERE WE ARE RIGHT NOW
Thu 18 Jun 2020
Like everyone, we’ve had a challenging few months at Transform. I’ve never been a big blogger – actually the very idea of it usually fills me with embarrassment and dread – but given the circumstances I’m aware that there is a need for any organisation, small ones included, to be more transparent about their work and thinking. So with that in mind, I wanted to share a window into my last few months, and start to frame some of the thinking we’ve been doing at Transform HQ in terms of what the future might hold.
Back in mid-March, I had the privilege of visiting São Paulo for MITsp festival. Across a week and together with some international colleagues I got to engage with a variety of performance created by artists from across Brazil. A year on from coletivA ocupação’s extraordinary performances in Leeds, it felt humbling to re-engage with the powerful, activist spirit of work created in Brazil and see first-hand the issues and ideas at the fore of artists agenda’s, from race and identity to trans rights. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short and the last days of the festival cancelled due to Covid-19. On my last day, I met and exchanged with artists involved in the Brazilian showcase programme, some of whose work I had seen but some who in light of cancellations would no longer be able to present. The sense of grief was overwhelming. These extraordinary artists had developed their works over months and some years, many without funding or infrastructure and in exceptionally difficult contexts. What I still hadn’t understood, is that this would be the first of many cancellations I would be confronted with; and definitely not the last artists I would hear from for whom the repercussions of Covid-19 would send shockwaves.
Back in the UK, we had to respond to our own cancellations. Jamal Gerald’s UK tour of Idol felt like it was just warming up before being cut short. It felt deeply sad not to be able to present the work to audiences in Manchester, Sheffield, Cambridge and Brighton before a homecoming in Leeds. This was felt especially by Jamal and the creative team who had put so much into bringing the work back to life. Unlike many of our peers, the financial repercussions of tour cancellations were fortunately not too severe. The majority of venues committed to full or part fees, and we were able to pay all artists 100% of their contracts. A special thanks to those venues who took the time to understand our position personally and reassure us of their support. We are continuing to support Jamal to ensure his important work reaches a live audience again in the near future. In the meantime, you can get a copy of the Idol playtext from Oberon here.
Due to our biennial model, we didn’t have a festival planned this year. I’m in awe of festival colleagues across the UK and beyond who have managed the enormity and complexity of festival postponements and cancellations. I’ve been inspired by the ingenuity of festival allies like GIFT and Fusebox (who took their entire festivals online) and how those like LIFT, Mayfest and Take Me Somewhere have responded by continuing to support and amplify programmed artists. We are also already seeing bold re-imaginings of festival formats, from those like Santarcanangelo in Italy and Rising in Melbourne, giving us lots to consider in terms of the malleability of festivals.
At Transform, prior to Covid-19 we were gearing up to go into festival creation mode for Transform 21, planned for April 21. Whilst like all festivals, each edition is by its very nature fleeting, the process to create each festival takes substantial time. We are working at least a year in advance with artists, young people and groups to develop new productions and co-create, not to mention the substantial, research, planning and fundraising involved in bringing each project to life. By April, all the sources we would usually apply to had closed, including Project Grants which accounts for circa 20% of our festival funding (detailed Transform 19 financial breakdown here). Whilst we didn’t have an immediate festival cancellation on our hands, it became increasingly obvious that realising the festival even in a years time was not going to be viable (special thanks to Evie at Common Wealth and always our board for helping me understand and navigate this). Whilst we now need to remodel the festival creation process, we are still aiming for there to be a Transform 21, hopefully in the Autumn of 2021.
Thankfully, Arts Council England have awarded Transform Emergency Funding of £29,000, which will keep the company going over the next six months. This funding will cover fees for our team to continue working to re-model the festival, working towards raising the £ needed for a future edition and getting planning underway. Crucially, we are in a position to begin commissioning and supporting some of the artists and creative people who will play a fundamental role in Transform 21, with a focus for now on UK and especially Northern artists. We will continue running our network Festivals of the Future which involves festival leaders across Europe re-imagining the role a festival can play today, and will work with colleagues nationally to develop new and sustainable means of international collaboration.
Beyond the detailed planning work, there are much bigger questions to answer. More than ever, there is an important role for festivals to play in catalysing and enabling change. Our work with Festivals of the Future feels more relevant that ever, but we now need to ensure that artists and local people are part of this conversation too and that Transform 21 is as useful and meaningful to the region as it can be.
In the coming months, we will not only be considering how a festival can practically and safely happen in Autumn 21, but what the very nature and urge behind the festival must be. Covid-19 has massively exposed the inequalities in our sector, with independents at the sharpest edge. Festivals have a role to play in empowering and supporting independents in more substantial and longer-term ways as we work towards a more equitable cultural landscape. At the same time across our city people are feeling disempowered and cut off, especially the young people we work with and those who are marginalised. Now more than ever, it has to be the role of a festival to not only foreground different stories and perspectives, but to give agency and decision-power to a wider community. This must involve listening, reflection, and work to re-define who has access and power within a festival and how.
With the threat of increased inward thinking, festivals have an especially important role to play in ensuring experimentation and internationalism are prioritised. In the face of travel restrictions, border closures and a climate emergency – Transform has to ensure international conversation and exchange remains in our foreground. We can work together with others to re-imagine what international collaboration and presentation looks like in future and ensure this stays at the centre of our mission and programme.
There is so much to grapple with and do before we can manifest Transform 21. We know we are far more likely to find solutions and ways of re-imagining things in collaboration with others. What we also know the current crisis has evidenced in our own city and beyond, is that the adaptability and creativity of independents must be better valued, in order to create a blueprint for a different kind of cultural landscape.
At Transform, we will keep focused on listening and working through what we need to in the coming months, whilst getting future projects up and going and working towards realising Transform 21. We’ll check-in every few months with more updates on work and thinking. In the meantime, if you want to be part of defining what our next festival should look like and do or if this thinking aligns with any of your own, I would love to hear from you.
We understand we are in an infinitely privileged position to be able to keep working. If you are an artist or creative person working in contemporary performance and based in West Yorkshire, we are offering a series of producing consultation sessions with artist time paid for – find out more here.
Image – The Darkest Corners, RashDash, Transform 17