NRLA 2009

SF: Not one but two thought-provoking arts festivals visit the Tramway in quick succession this month. The Skinny meets the people behind this hive of activity and finds out what it's all about<br/><br/>PQ: ""The image I always use when people ask me what the hell it is all about is of a great big swimming pool. Just jump in and splash around"" - Ian Smith

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 05 Feb 2008

After a season in the dark, Tramway explodes back into light with two annual festivals: the National Review of Live Art (NRLA) and New Territories. From 6 February until 8 March, the Southside will be packed with performance artists and avant-garde dancers who delight in busting genres and defying categories. Glasgow will celebrate the cutting edge and inspire, excite, bemuse and challenge the world.

The National Review is a venerable institution, now in its third decade and still discovering new performers and ideas. Like a mutant hybrid of an academic conference, a busker's paradise and an intense '60s happening, the NRLA is one of the few theatrical events where MC Ian Smith's claim that "anything can happen, and probably will" is more than just lazy advertising. The purpose of live art is to challenge definitions, and it crosses every boundary of taste, media and acceptability. The NRLA selects the most radical artists, and provides them with a space to fulfil their fantasies - or fail miserably.

Smith has been the human face of the NRLA for "more years than I care to remember". His down-to-earth personality and comprehensive knowledge of the genre make him the perfect guide to the "extended family of weirdos" who will be taking over Tramway for five days. Acknowledging that Live Art can be intimidating for the uninitiated, Smith helpfully suggests that first time visitors ought not to worry too much about enjoying every artist. Since Live Art can stretch from five-minute mimes through to multi-media epics, he encourages a relaxed approach.

"The image I always use when people ask me what the hell it is all about is of a great big swimming pool. Just jump in and splash around: some of the stuff is challenging, some of it is delightful. One man's meat is another man's poison, and that is the point of the festival. You really just have to go in open-minded with a huge sense of humour and have fun."

As part of Mischief la Bas, Ian Smith brings humour into his work: a quality rarely associated with the stereotypical image of the avant-garde performer. Yet it is laughter that is often the most appropriate response.

"One year, there was a fire alarm. I ended up directing the traffic outside with four hundred people milling around - which was very amusing because I don't know how to drive and that became a performance in itself. We had to peel a performer off of the floor who was stuck there with copydex: we had to carry her out and then carry her back in to continue her piece."

But in the communal space of Tramway, which serves as a café for local residents, there are surprises ahead.

"Last year there were people sitting around in the café bar and the initial performance was a woman blowing herself up on the lawn. I don't think that they were expecting that with their decaf lattes."

Sister festival New Territories follows immediately. A more relaxed programme, it stages six shows over three weeks. Originally concentrating on dance, it has broadened its scope to include anything that can be considered as 'new work'. General manager Colin Richardson-Webb admits that "it doesn't have any definitive structure: we don't just programme any one thing. It changes year in, year out. In 2005 there was a lot of dance; in 2008 we have choreographers, but they reconfigure the stage, use video work. To call it just dance is dismissive."

All of the New Territory shows, however, are large-scale, either involving established companies or demanding a relatively traditional, if flexible, theatrical space. For the most part, they can be experienced as a night out rather than an endurance test - with one notable exception, as Richardson-Webb points out.

"Kurt Hentschlager, who has represented Austria at the Venice Biennale has this piece that involves a really hardcore soundtrack with bass, a lot of smoke and projections. So it is quite disorientating to the audience members and comes with quite a few health and safety notices. It will be fascinating to be immersed in this fog and strobes for almost an hour: almost a journey without moving anywhere."

Elsewhere, Societas Raffaello Sanzio are bringing their oblique approach to dance. Interestingly, the company is calling for forty local men to perform as extras. Meanwhile, American outfit Goat Island "are doing their last ever tour," says Richardson-Webb. "They have a massive following in Glasgow, and Nikki [Milican, New Territories' programmer] was the first person to bring them over to the UK. It's a closure of a twenty-year relationship - they've done three educational courses for us and the response has been incredible. It will be an emotional night."

Speaking to Smith and Richardson-Webb, it becomes clear that nobody wants to say what these festivals are supposed to be about. It's a given that most of the interesting work in this area can be hard to pin down, and both the NRLA and New Territories are generous in allowing the artists and performers freedom. Nobody wants to be categorised or limited by genre.

The other side is that some artists do take the opportunity to make a public spectacle of themselves, managing to find new ways to confirm clichés or take adolescent temper tantrums, simplistic political ideas and received notions about revolution beyond patience. The audience can be too polite, allowing self-indulgent drivel to escape with mild applause, and the pervading atmosphere of paranoia - 'Did I understand this in the right way?' 'Was it rubbish or am I ignorant?' - protects some dismal posturing.

At the same time, there is no question that certain pieces will open up new ways of thinking and performing, shine light into darkened recesses and become, what critic and board member Mary Brennan has called "the closest I come to acts of faith. It is a huge spiritual excursion". The modern aesthetic pilgrim needs patience and compassion, and the ability not to become too irritated by patent absurdity, but New Territories and the National Review of Live Art collect together a stunning array of original expressions.