Robert Pacitti explains why our current studio, the Think Tank, took 20 years to come in to being. He recounts how internationally touring a piece of Pacitti Company work called Finale evolved new models and contexts for radical practice and participation. He charts the creation of the SPILL Festival of Performance, and describes how his large‑scale project On Landguard Point moved Pacitti Company out of the city and home to Ipswich. He then shares the process through which all of this came together, in the opening up of the Think Tank, both physically and conceptually.
Let's start with a couple of definitions. Firstly, performance (or live art) for me isn’t an art form or a discipline per se, but rather a cultural strategy to explore the possibilities of liveness, made by artists who choose to work across, in between, and at the edges of more traditional artistic forms – but often on and around the body. This work comes in many forms. Secondly, I am motivated in the main by artwork that is as content-led as it is formally experimental, which includes work that may be termed activist or socially engaged. This doesn’t, however, always imply work with a narrative. I am interested in art that deploys form as a tactic to communicate what it needs to share or say. And I am always most excited by work that feels urgent. Work which responds to the time in which we live, or which is motivated by territories that the artist feels they have no choice but to address; maybe because they accelerate some new thinking around a subject, or perhaps because they open up a space for exploration which hasn’t existed in the same way before. Either way, I am principally interested in work that aims to make a difference.
The Think Tank is a hybrid. It is my studio, our company office, and a series of interconnecting spaces purposefully established to host new ways of opening up shared exchanges. It facilitates a rolling programme of events, groups, classes and courses. It also houses our library and our research facility, which has a primary focus on experimental practices, but consciously seeks to question what those might be and importantly who they can be for. Originally built in the 1880s as life drawing studios, the inspiring and versatile spaces within the building are also regularly hired out for a range of uses and functions. To date these have included artistic and creative residencies, executive meetings, as a social club for young adults, political assembly, seminars, informal discussion and idea exchange, project development, training sessions, team building retreats, film screenings, fundraisers, and parties. So it operates on a mixed economy model. But how did this artist‑led tactic evolve, and what were the conditions that enabled it? Well aside from the practicalities obtaining the building, which I’ll describe later on, looking back it seems I'd spent many years preparing to open a multi-function space.
From 1988 to 1992 I trained as a fine art painter and a performance maker, but from the off I was mindful not just to present my work in galleries – sites where tradionally viewers might have engaged in more solitary rather than collective experience; where the artist wasn’t always necessarily needed in person for the work to happen. So I began placing my live fine art practice in black box spaces. Not theatres as such, but sites that could simultaneously straddle conceptual gallery concerns with the technical capacity of theatre craft. At that time in the UK this was relatively limited but included the ICA theatre space in London, Glasgow’s CCA and Tramway, and the Arnolfini in Bristol. But in venues right across Europe, the US, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, I found a way to show my practice to audiences who could read it across multiple art forms. And so 15 years of internationally touring numerous works passed by, some solo, some group shows, some one-off durational actions, some of them made in advance and rehearsed then repeated (see our extensive archive of Past Works here). I spent much of my time engaging with others to explore, research, create and craft the works. Initially this was as a solo artist, then increasingly under the auspices of being a director, be that for live work, film or other hybrid projects we were making. Today my practice still comes from studio‑based, process-led, investigation through research.
In 2001 I began a project called Finale that subsequently toured around the world for a number of years. Originally co‑devised in collaboration with Dicky Eton, Marisa Carnesky and Sheila Ghelani, Finale was crafted around material I’d previously made for a solo work titled This Is Not A Love Song (1999 / 2000). For this new group work, Pacitti Company worked with Swiss cult electronica band Velma to produce a series of visceral, site‑specific international performances. Abstracting the 1867 Émile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin, Finale dispensed with narrative structure and character, in order to prioritise the themes of the book: deception, lust, spite and domination. Toured as a group performance, Finale was initially set within an exhibition, placed within a theatre. The audience entered a black box space to be met by a curated exhibition on the white walls of a large freestanding cube in the centre of the space. Eventually entering the performance area through a hidden door in these walls, the audience got up‑close and personal with the live work – through the walls of a gallery into a space beyond.
Over time the show’s form shifted. The set was ditched and Finale was shown site-specifically in all sorts of amazing locations internationally (an old prison, a disused reservoir, a huge outdoor car park, or on the crumbling ruins of old town walls). The work also became the result of a 2-week participatory workshop residency wherever it was in the world. Pacitti Company would work with up to 30 local practitioners on issues around Manifestos and the Explicit Body to develop shared content, and then – also responding to site – place the workshop participants’ outcomes in relation to existing Finale materials. The results were always electric.
This process irrevocably shifted the ways in which Pacitti Company toured. Finale directly and deliberately challenged the traditional touring model of going somewhere, doing our thing all tits and teeth, and leaving shortly afterwards. The form of the project was adjusted from a readymade show to a peer review workshop leading to high-octane public outcomes. Finale became a tactic for us to purposefully take more responsibility for being guests somewhere else. Coming from the UK with its colonial past this felt pressing, especially as the Company became more known, invitations to perform became increasingly long haul, and the economic conditions around the work shifted accordingly. The model allowed us to prioritise the expertise of local makers and form meaningful temporary coalitions between us all.
I use the word ‘coalitions’ rather than ‘collaborations’ carefully here. We always worked in the language (or languages) of the host country, both for the workshop and the public outcomes. But Finale explored complex issues of race, class, gender, cultural and sexual identity – how could we possibly assume to understand with parity the local frame for those investigations in places we hadn’t been before, let alone anything more nuanced, or without knowledge of those artists or thinkers or activists that had been working there for years? So we were standing shoulder‑to‑shoulder, with shared manifestos negotiated and worked up as a new group each time. This meant establishing shared trust very quickly, with little room for holding back, and working intensively to get to the core stuff we all felt was most important.
Finale was performed between 2001 and 2010, during which time we met scores of truly amazing participating artists, all over the world. Gradually I realised that the model increasingly demanded I start to think about international reciprocity, flipping being a guest to also becoming a host. It took me a few years to work out what I was chasing, but when I did the SPILL Festival of Performance was born.
SPILL FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE
SPILL is an international festival of radical performance, live art and activism, inaugurated in London during 2007. Initially planned to be a biennial event, the first SPILL eventually became annual, with each edition curated and themed: On Agency (London 2009), On Infection (London 2011), On Proximity (Ipswich 2012), On Contact (London 2013), On Surrender (Ipswich 2014), On Spirit (London 2015) and En Masse (Ipswich 2016).
Since 2007 SPILL has presented the work of over 2,000 amazing artists and companies to audiences well in excess of 200,000, plus a truly vast online audience watching SPILL TV. The festival deliberately takes place at a range of main stage and high profile sites. In London this includes the Barbican, Southbank and National Theatre Studio; in Ipswich it includes the Town Hall, New Wolsey Theatre and Ipswich Museum. But SPILL also prioritises found spaces and artist‑led locations. The festival responds to what each work requires of it while always trying to leverage ambitious new potential, for both presenting artists and audiences alike.
I created SPILL Festival in 2007 to address an urgent need in the UK for a high profile, high quality, sustainable space for my own work and that of peers. Having worked successfully around the world for well over a decade it was incredibly frustrating to still struggle on home ground to try and secure performance opportunities, and in truth I moaned about this for a few years before I realised I could act to change it.
Early on in the process of starting a new festival I learnt an important lesson: that I had a different sense of agency when speaking with venues about presenting the work of others, than I had ever had on behalf of myself. I realised quickly that SPILL was only going to work if I treated it as being in service to others – to other artists, to the broad field of new experimental performance work, to project and venue partners, and ultimately as being in service to audiences.
I established SPILL with 3 primary objectives: I wanted to provide regional, national and international audiences with an accessible yet rigorous programme of the highest calibre experimental work.
Secondly, I wanted to facilitate industry dialogues around provision for experimental performance and new work, in order to contribute to its development nationally and internationally.
And thirdly, I wanted to assert international reciprocity as a model of best practice. By now I knew that the promotion of Pacitti Company’s own work overseas would always require considered cultural placing, and SPILL became my tactic to reciprocate.
SPILL has presented UK and international work in equal measures. SPILL commissions new works for each edition and also presents pieces that are already touring. It has shown the work of some of the world’s most influential international contemporary performance makers, alongside many of this country’s most progressive creators of live work. But the festival also prioritises early makers and the SPILL National Platform quickly became the heart of this.
Soon after the first festival a younger artist wrote to me saying that he thought SPILL was great, but asking if he was going to have to wait 10 years before I considered curating him? This struck me deeply, as it indicated that not only were people already expecting SPILL to happen again, but it had become aspirational for some makers to be part of. I started thinking through how I might be able to include newer artists in the programme, alongside raising a high flag for the field through working with giants such as Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, Forced Entertainment, Diamanda Galas and others.
In 2009 Pacitti Company launched the SPILL National Platform – an open submissions programme for artists who had been working for less than 3 years professionally, or had only made 2 works before. From the off we interpreted ‘younger’ only in relation to how long someone had been making work and not to do with their physical age. In more recent years we have ditched 'emerging' as a term altogether, favouring instead 'early makers or those whose practices may have been overlooked'.
Because the festival had already gathered momentum in its first edition, we decided to approach the National Theatre to see if they would house the Platform. They said 'yes' and this was a game changer. We also evolved a partnership model with our long‑term colleagues at the Live Art Development Agency (LADA). We jointly put together a Platform application process which reflected what we would want if we were applying for it ourselves. We used common sense, and respect. I invited a range of experienced folk connected to live art and performance to sit as a selection panel, and we advertised the opportunity far and wide. The response to our first call-out was huge. Hundreds of people wanted to take part, and in the first year we presented 20 works by artists working from experimental theatre, live art, visual art, and radical dance.
Audiences for the works were all full and lots of people working in the arts came from across the country and visited from other countries. Immediately we saw that the SPILL National Platform could work as a rapid professional accelerator for the artists involved, and indeed many of them went on to tour extensively as a result of their SPILL showings.
The Jerwood Charitable Foundation began supporting the National Platform and this again changed everything. We were able to expand the programme considerably, and offer a deeper level of service to, and engagement with, the artists taking part. We were able to spread the word further about the opportunity, and invite visiting international presenters to attend specifically. I also created a development pathway into the broader SPILL programme, and began commissioning artists who had taken part in the previous edition of the Platform to make new full works for main stages at the next festival. So artists I did not previously know could apply to show at the Platform, and then find themselves performing new SPILL commissions less than 2 years later.
SPILL has also always been as much about creating a context for the work, as it has been presenting live events. The SPILL Think Tank element of each festival spans salons, feasts, critical writing, publishing, SPILL TV and more. Each of these has a very clear function. For example, SPILL Feasts are a deliberate strategy for non‑formal information exchange between audiences and practitioners. They were born directly out of Pacitti Company experiences of touring around the world for many years to venues where everyone working there will sit down to an informal meal together at some point during the day. The feasts perhaps best exemplify what SPILL set out to achieve – to turn the means of production for radical work inside out, by blurring the line between artist, audience, expert, venue director, volunteer, cleaner, critic… a template for a future Think Tank building even. But I hadn’t realised that just yet.
ON LANDGUARD POINT
Between 2009 and 2013, Pacitti Company made a project called On Landguard Point. It was the East of England winner of Artists Taking The Lead, a major open submissions commissioning project at the heart of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The project took its name from the place where Landguard Fort stands; the site of the last successful defence of England in 1666. This is also the place where I worked as a waiter in a nearby tearoom when I was a teenager, and is a short drive from where I grew up and went to school. So the landscape is hugely personal and familiar to me.
As I started to put together the ideas for On Landguard Point I knew that the project needed to be much more than simply my own personal take on home, and so a region-wide project was born. The project joyfully mixed up so-called ‘high art’ and local culture, but if I thought that SPILL had been hard graft – well this one nearly killed me. It totally changed my view not just of how, but of why I make art, who with and who for.
Thank you mass feasters. Thank you Graham the blacksmith. Thank you Ben the black sniffer dog and the humans you live with. Thank you hundreds of scarecrow makers. Thank you teenage lads faking being scouts. Thank you placard carrying and shouting protesters. Thank you John Bowers. Thank you electric and bass guitarists. Thank you Dick Mannering. Thank you architectural cake makers. Thank you senior bowls team. Thank you massive Suffolk Punch horses and the humans that walked with you. Thank you red tractor driver. Thank you mapmakers and technical drawers. Thank you smoke bomb placers. Thank you Museum of East Anglian Life. And thank you to everyone who worked on all the complex organisation and filmmaking. That was an On Landguard Point weekend to remember.
Robert Pacitti, Facebook post, 1st of August 2011
Billed as ‘an East of England adventure in real life and film’ this large‑scale, multi‑platform project included site‑specific performances, online participatory activities, multiple outdoor public events and more, some of which culminated in a full‑length feature film: On Landguard Point (2012). Over 20,000 people took an active role in making the work happen across the six counties that form the East of England (Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex) and it was all built around notions of home, trade and defence. In a review of the feature film On Landguard Point writer and critic Diana Damian captured parts of what I was dealing with when she wrote:
What of place, nowadays? What of the history of land, of territory and ownership? We tend to think of urban spaces as legislated public sites – a choreography of colliding bodies in their intricate trajectories, bathed in the shadows of a concrete landscape. Yet we think of nature all‑together differently. Here, layers of history are present in traces and tracks, ruins and celebrations; there is a different scenography at play, one that challenges the urban identity politics in a more nuanced and candid way. Robert Pacitti’s On Landguard Point is, in part, a response to this.
This part of coastal land becomes a site of transformation, underpinned by an original soundtrack by Michael Nyman. The film enters a territory and considers its rhythms, people and layers in a playful rejection of the ethnographic in documentaries. Capitalising on mass participation, process and performance, On Landguard Point is a cinematic examination of the poetics of landscape and home. Set in the East of England and the result of a series of public outdoor events staged with local communities and embedded in the film’s own narrative, On Landguard Point seeks to make visible the “contours of a flat land”, as Pacitti himself states. […]
On Landguard Point also speaks of access, both in its form and content. On the one hand, this is present in the narratives of trade underpinned by the film’s own excavation of history; we return to the port, consider questions of trade and explore the ways in which landmarks are constructed and re‑constructed. On the other, the very process of staging these participatory events provides a particular authorial challenge. Who are we as viewers in relation to marching bands, to clowns, to Elvis impersonators and these recurring images of soil whose meaning keeps shifting?
Review of Pacitti Company’s On Landguard Point in Run‑Riot, written by Diana Damian‑Martin, 11th of February, 2014
On Landguard Point directly challenged any notion of who the experts are in large‑scale cultural production. It asked: does it always have to be artists, curators, producers and technicians who make cultural activity happen? Why can’t amateur enthusiasts, children, seniors, even passing audiences create it too? In order to make On Landguard Point I spent 3-years connecting with people from all walks of life, who clearly proved they can. However, let’s be clear: we are talking about high quality art here, not simply feel good community initiatives or family‑friendly playtime. The film On Landguard Point was made to the highest production values that means allowed and to professional standards. But still, this investigation of who makes cultural activity happen was the central tenet of the entire project.
To launch On Landguard Point, Pacitti Company first asked residents from the East of England to share their experiences of home, for inclusion in an online encyclopaedia for the region, called A People’s Peculiar. This offered residents an opportunity to tell their stories of life in the East – its places, people, histories, myths, folklore, dreams and futures. We issued postcards for people to send back to us, received stories via our website, and took to the streets by setting up story sharing tents in markets and town squares across the region. Alongside 2-years’ worth of our own in‑house research, this bank of knowledge and experience shared by co‑residents formed the backbone of the eventual project.
During the development of On Landguard Point I began an exchange with the high profile British archaeologist Carenza Lewis, based at Cambridge University and famous for her appearances on the Channel 4 television series Time Team. This exchange effectively established the relevance of archaeology to our project about home, especially when central to that concept were notions of shared and shifting heritage, connected through time via people and landscape. I was influenced hugely by Carenza describing this relationship as one of “creating an umbilical link between the homes and the residents of the present, and those of the past”. On Landguard Point thereby linked archaeological excavation with performance through Dig & Sow – a series of specially commissioned archaeological excavations involving many thousands of people across the East of England as both participants and audience. Existing as a year long project in its own right within On Landguard Point, Dig & Sow was effectively ‘participatory community art’, although I didn’t feel any needto wrap that language around the project.
Writing about her role in the journal Medieval Settlement Research Lewis reflects on the interactions between archaeologists, performance artists, and public participants, and highlights some of the positive effects working in the community had on all involved:
Watching [the final film of On Landguard Point] in Cambridge, I found it beautiful, moving and thought-provoking, magnificently complimented by Nyman’s musical score. As the combined result of so many projects, it was inevitable that little of the film was given over to the archaeology, this was never going to be an ‘art house’ take on Time Team. But where the archaeology did feature, it had considerable impact, and it provided the last, lingering images of the entire film: after a charm in the shape of a dog (representing Black Shuck, one of the best‑known East Anglian legends), was deposited in the bottom of a completed test pit, the camera lingered on in close‑up as shovelful after shovelful of soil was thrown in on top, in a visually beautiful, deeply‑textured, compelling, contemplative sequence which lasted several minutes. It was as unlike Time Team as anything could possibly be.
[…] Dig & Sow introduced many people to archaeology, of course, and gave them an unforgettable experience they would not have had otherwise, while providing valuable new information about the past which advances wider research into historic settlements. It added an extra dimension to the On Landguard Point film which significantly enriched it. But more broadly, by involving archaeology in a cultural project focussed on performance art, our involvement with On Landguard Point also underlined the diversity and inter‑connectedness of ‘culture’ in all its different manifestations. It showed how archaeology can contribute to a broader range of community cultural and arts programmes than it usually does, and reinforced the links between archaeology, heritage, museums, culture and the arts. The demonstration that the inclusion of archaeology enhanced and broadened the appeal of the primarily arts‑based On Landguard Point project should be a useful lesson for the future — many people took part who would not have been interested were it not for the hands‑on archaeology, and it reached parts of the community that On Landguard Point would not have done otherwise. […]
On Landguard Point is a project from which everyone involved will doubtless gain something different. We are all individuals, and this was a project that made everyone think. Perhaps the final words about its capacity to speak to those involved should be given to one of the East Anglian residents who took part in the digging:
‘I was given the silver rifle charm yesterday to bury in a test pit my team dug in my back garden. As I lay the rifle in the bottom of my pit I had a sudden rush of emotion: my son is in Afghanistan at the moment serving in our armed forces. I snatched the rifle from the pit and put it back in the envelope I had freed it from two minutes earlier. My promise to you is, in October when my son returns safely home I will place this charm in the ground at a depth of 500mm. My son, and my family, make my Home......’ (PP, Dig & Sow participant in Potton. June 2012)
On Landguard Point - Carenza Lewis, Medieval Settlement Research, 2013
So how did Pacitti Company move itself and its work out of the arthouse and on to the streets, gardens, and common ground of the east – inviting mass public participation for the making process, and then subsequently as audiences too, without compromising anybody?
Well the answer is: we didn’t. There remain casualties, most of which sit firmly within the professional cultural industries. The first of these is any relationship Pacitti Company might have to the idea of training as validation. I have huge empathy for young people who can’t afford college now, but I always try and share with them the many other ways to make extraordinary things happen. Of course money helps, but without wishing to sound glib: where there’s a will, there’s a way. The second casualty is ‘theatre’. The idea that high art is only enjoyed by the connoisseur, within chic buildings and a ticket that has been paid for, has no place in my vision for what great art can achieve. I cherish experimental work that is sometimes made on very little resource and may well have small audiences. But there are many models which demonstrate its essential longer‑term cultural value; just as there are for many other types of first pure and, then subsequently, applied research.
And why did On Landguard Point work as a participatory public endeavour? Well, one of the reasons is that we worked to build up trust. Over a 2‑year period we met amateur groups, local authorities, regional businesses and key individuals across youth and social services and invited them to engage with the project. Because of its London 2012 context On Landguard Point was a way for the public to feel involved in something much larger, bolstered by the involvement of well‑known participants such as Michael Nyman. The work itself was about creating a shared space for people to take part by excelling at what they do best, be they majorettes, brass bands, folk singers, or the many people who have helped out as volunteers. As routes into the arts become increasingly difficult to access, those of us with existing skillsets and resources are using them to serve larger cultural agendas than just our own work, thereby helping future generations gain a foothold, is a valuable way of operating. It also makes tangible sense of public investment.
While On Landguard Point included a host of large‑scale public events, I wanted them to retain an intimate feel, to have something personal about them. A number of the events asked participants to actually make the work – as performers in Flags Flying, or bringing their own food for The Edible Compass, or digging their own gardens up in Dig & Sow. This was partly based on ideas of ownership of the work, but also made it possible to create the widest reaching projects possible, by compressing divisions of maker / participant / spectator / consumer. The people and places of the east of England genuinely were the stars of this work. Whether that was by sharing a much loved family recipe, or searching for traces of before, everything was focussed on sharing our collective notions of home.
A visually stunning film exploring some of what makes the landscape here, both human and geological, so unique [...] Pacitti distils, as a perfumer would, the essence of melancholia [...] The beauty of On Landguard Point lies very strongly in it’s visuals and narration. Across much of the film Pacitti’s prose overlays a startling imagery. From synchronised swimmers, to singing fishwives, a brass band and the consistent use of black (black labrador, black flags and black huts). His use of quintessentially Suffolk imagery (such as the Suffolk Punches) neatly juxtaposes the beauty of our coast with a saturnine yet optimistic and embracing quality [...] I’m confident this film will be considered important in the small canon of films dedicated to our lives in the east.
On Landguard Point - Andrew Cann, East Anglian Daily Times, June 2012
Also at stake across all of these activities was enabling everyone to be expert in something, and for that something to remain on their own terms. An example of this is the mass of publicly submitted entries to A People’s Peculiar, covering extensive local knowledge, yet also often highly personal reminiscences. Collectively these tell of what home might mean for lots of different people, but with no sense of ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ required to qualify the information shared. So A People’s Peculiar perhaps now stands as an independent audit of what community art can be in the 21st century – a cumulative participant‑centred process, without need to sanction knowledge content, devolving where expertise sits in cultural activity, and resisting any sense of ‘art market’ around it.
At the time of making the project I found that people were constantly asking me about compromise – making challenging artistic work versus being accessible. I knew that the work I curate for SPILL wasn’t necessarily going to appeal to the same mass audience for On Landguard Point and so I adjusted the form and content of the project accordingly. Some of the professional people I brought in had huge problems wrapping their head around my vision, and indeed some people left the project in frustration and anger because they simply couldn’t get it and thought it was bad work. But I believed that a careful mixing of material authored by artists with that of non‑arts‑professionals was what would make this project meaningful to participants and eventually large broader audiences, which has been its success. And this also bed rocked two significant new developments that came next, pretty much hand in hand – moving SPILL out of London, and establishing the Think Tank.
SPILL IN IPSWICH
In 2012 I presented a large SPILL Festival in Ipswich, which prior to On Landguard Point would have seemed inconceivable. The opportunities afforded by Ipswich are very different to those of London – a huge metropolitan capital city, rich in cultural resources, and abundant audiences in search of something that little bit different. London is nonetheless a struggle to work in, because there is always competition for attention, and because it is a very expensive city. Ipswich on the other hand has no dedicated space for radical work, no immediately identifiable audience for the work, and can be a somewhat less tolerant place generally than the capital. However, it has an inspired local authority that, remarkably, doesn’t just listen to artists but proactively works with us too. It has a wealth of wonderful buildings that are still possible to access and use affordably. It has a small but determined arts community, albeit one that is growing as word spreads about the potential of the town. And importantly, it has a far more curious community than might at first appear to be the case. Indeed, Ipswich has a long and illustrious past of non-conformism and radical experimentation, across art, faith, trade, invention and more.
The other major difference to London for the festival is that in Ipswich it is possible to walk everywhere. This means that SPILL is able to operate town‑wide in multiple spaces (23 venues and locations across the 2016 festival, plus works on the street), with everyone coming together at the end of each day for gigs and parties. That’s a really tough thing to create and sustain in London.
So against this backdrop of a different cultural offer, we launched SPILL in Ipswich on Halloween. We placed work in galleries, theatres, civic chambers, dance studios and outdoors. We held daily salons, feasts and feedback sessions, activated a young writers group who responded to all the works on show, and invited guest presenters from around the world. We also organised the finances so that all of the participating artists were able to stay for the duration of the whole festival and see each other’s work. In this way a new generation of connected young artists was gently formed, which now continues to thrive through new collaborations and peer contacts. Launching the festival in Ipswich also created a wonderful new hybrid audience, whereby lots of people that had been involved in On Landguard Point came together with many of our usual SPILL attendees (who proved they were prepared to be mobile for the festival) and from that new rich mix a new Think Tank constituency also stared to form.
THE THINK TANK
When I was 16, I failed to get in to Ipswich Art School. I was genuinely heartbroken and shortly afterwards I left home, left Ipswich, and pretty much stayed away for 25 years. In the run up to making On Landguard Point I started staying regularly at my sister’s house in Ipswich. I knew I had to make that work from within the region, and Ipswich was the obvious choice. The Olympic component of the project stood me in good stead with all sorts of folk I might not otherwise have met, and a very positive partnership formed with Ipswich Borough Council. A short time later I set up a project office in Ipswich Town Hall, while maintaining a primary base in London. Across a period of about a year I kept my eyes open for suitable buildings to potentially move Pacitti Company in to, if the right situation arose in town to do so. One of the sites I saw was in the Victorian Wing of the Ipswich Museum and Art School Gallery. Other places included a derelict church, a strong contender for a while, as well as a very large old factory. But my mind kept wondering back to the beautiful building up by the Museum that seemed from the outside to be possibly occupied, albeit a little unloved.
It transpired that the building was owned by a local organisation that was using it for storage. A chance meeting with a pal who worked in an adjoining building led to the emergence of a key, and an impromptu visit took place. It had holes in the roof, water running down the walls, paint peeling off just about every surface, and areas of the floor looked a little suspect. But I immediately knew I could make something good happen here and set about listing all the things we would do if we secured it - pretty much all the things the Think Tank now does. It arrived fully formed in my mind as soon as I saw the building.
An initial enquiry to the Borough Council was turned down. A second approach some weeks later was similarly met with no joy. Working with the Council’s Cultural Strategy I set about spotting opportunities of what Pacitti Company could bring to the mix, in terms of facilitating some of what the Council was looking for.
The long and the short of it is that this worked, and after 9-months of renovations (which were paid for by the Council, the Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service, and ourselves), Pacitti Company moved in. The work was all done in consultation with the local Heritage Officer – the building is Grade 2 Listed – and we kept all modern interventions to a minimum.
We installed a flat screen TV, 5.1 surround‑sound in one of the rooms, wireless broadband throughout, and built one new wall which doubles up as a giant whiteboard. We raised the floor in a corridor to make all of the spaces flat level accessible, opened up a door that was previously unusable by sinking a radiator pipe in to the floor, and in one corner of the office erected a garden shed for me to work out of. And so it was that the Pacitti Company moved into the Victorian Wing of the Ipswich Museum: the very site of the art school I had failed to get in to at 16.
The Think Tank opened to the public on 19th of September 2012 with a programme launch for that year’s upcoming Ipswich SPILL Festival. This was attended by lots of local stakeholders and folk interested to see what we had made of the building. The event was packed, and from the off we knew the site was going to function well. Across the next few months we bedded down our first season of events, curated with local and national audiences in mind. Sessions that perhaps at first appeared a little provocative – such as salons on blood or death – were kept deliberately accessible in their marketing and execution, however serious their content. But while I hoped the eclectic mixed programme would have broad appeal I knew that only time would tell.
Today we welcome broad audiences to a rolling programme of accessible affordable public events, led by artists and experts from a range of diverse fields. From talks to courses, residencies and feasts, to research groups and kids activities, all fuelling future SPILL Festival thinking and generating material for new projects. Of course we need to keep fundraising in order to make it all possible. But our development of new models for meaningful participation in the arts remains so exciting, you might say its our life's work.