Art Night is a festival that utilises unusual public spaces to bring art to those who might not normally set foot in a gallery. Starting on 18 June and running until 18 July this year’s festival includes a series of billboards by Guerrilla Girls, as well as new work by Alberta Whittle, Isabel Lewis, Oona Doherty and many others. Our new art editor, Luke Cockayne, caught up with curator and artistic director Helen Nisbet for a brief chat ahead of the festival.
What brought you to Art Night?
I had been working as a curator for the past 10+ years, and much of my work is centred around commissioning artists to make new work, often outside of traditional gallery contexts. Art Night was shifting from taking place in central London to focussing more on communities – working in dialogue with people within municipal spaces where they live and work is a key interest for me, so when the job came up I guess I was a fairly natural fit.
Seeing as it didn’t run last year is this your first festival as artistic director or your second?
This is my second. The first festival I curated was in the London Borough of Walthamstow – we did projects in social clubs, libraries, cinemas, schools for those who are d/Deaf, car parks, markets and community centres with artists including Joe Namy, Christine Sun Kim, Cory Arcangel, Barbara Kruger, Zadie Xa and Frances Stark.
As a white woman how do you approach commissioning and acquiring the work of artists from BAME backgrounds?
By remembering that I’m a white woman. Intersectionality is very important to me, my work considers representation across race, gender, sexuality, disability and class. But there are limitations to what I can do / what I can know as a white, able-bodied woman – so I make sure to begin conversations by asking artists how I and the team can best support them, and by actually listening to how they respond. It is also important that I am not foregrounding myself in conversations that are not about me – there needs to be resources to bring in BIPOC and LGBTQI+ collaborators, or to pay for BSL interpreters etc.
In terms of acquiring work, I sat on the Arts Council Collection’s Acquisitions committee until last year. Redressing the balance of a very white, and historically male collection was vital to me, but it was also essential that there were BIPOC members of the committee to lead on this work. I was also particularly focused on making sure the collection considered artists from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales so it genuinely reflected the whole country rather than just what’s happening in, for example, London.
Art Night was founded as a way to bring ambitious performative work to non-traditional public spaces. Are you worried that some of the impact of these spaces will be lost through online viewing?
Things certainly are different this year. We had to postpone the 2020 festival and instead did a small online programme with the artists. This actually worked really well – it meant folk all over the world could see the commissions and the process helped me realise how great work that’s shown online can be. But it needs to be done well. It’s a whole new way of working which I am still figuring out – most of the artists are too.
We also have some projects in physical space, which allow people to be together, albeit in smaller groups. This feels particularly poignant given what has happened over the past 15 months. I have dreams about Art Night 2019, hundreds of bodies together dancing in car parks, drinking in a social club, dancers weaving through bodies at 3am during Zadie Xa’s performance in Walthamstow Library. It feels like another time.
How site-specific are some of these pieces?
Some of them are very site specific, some are more universal. Isabel Lewis spent 2019 and early 2020 researching in Skye, and the past year imagining Skye from her home in Berlin, working closely with us and the team at ATLAS who co-commissioned the work. We put together a series of guided walks and a final ‘occasion’ at Braes Village Hall in Skye and it is all about a hyper local landscape, ecology and people. The Guerrilla Girls billboards talk to a universal question, but their placement within communities and asking for direct action makes them about every single one of us.
It’s exciting to see a London-based art festival coming to places like Dundee and Skye. Do you feel that there’s a responsibility to bring art out of the white cube and into the community? How do you navigate doing that in a sensitive way?
I don’t feel like there’s a responsibility. I think when it feels like a responsibility people do it very badly. I see this a lot, people being like “we need to work in the regions!” or “we need some women on this panel!” and it’s obvious and generally, pretty terrible. But for me, this is how I work. This is how the associate curators on Art Night work, this is how the partners we’re working this year work – we’re interested in genuine collaboration, we are not from major centres, a lot of us don’t live in them and we understand how important it is when good, thoughtful work comes to us and most importantly of all, when we can input into these conversations rather than just having things happen to us.
What are you most excited about?
Every single one of the commissions this year! And bringing them to places like Abergavenny Train Station, KLA Arts in Uganda, CCA Derry-Londonderry, Murray Edwards College Cambridge, Skye.
I’m also excited about future Art Nights which I’m hoping will allow a return to some of the traditional ‘one night’ Art Night electricity of bodies together… please keep an ear out for this – I’d love you all to come – pencil summer 2023 in your diaries.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, so of course we’re coming to Dundee with the Guerrilla Girls billboard – which is a call to action for folk to go to local and national museums and count the women represented in the collection – harking back to their most famous work ‘Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into The Met?’ and showing that not much has really changed. That’s hosted by and in partnership with the excellent DCA. I’ve also organised a talk with V&A Dundee and DCA about women and public space which will take place on 7th July and has some amazing speakers. You can book to join this here.
Interview: Luke Cockayne
Image: Still from Alberta Whittle’s ‘Holding the line: a refrain in two parts’, which will be available to view online at artnight.london for 48 hours from 8pm on 18 June until 8pm on 20 June. All online commissions will also be broadcast again at the Art Night marathon screening on 15 July.