Feature in Issue 20-4 | Winter 2008

My first ‘job’ in ‘the arts’ was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Those words are in quote marks because this was in the days (mid 70s) when the talk was of art, not the arts, and making and presenting art was seen as a vocation rather than a career. Divisions between departments at the ICA were pretty loose then. In our view it was all art. In a typical week I might well be programming an ethnographic film festival, doing the get-in for The People Show, running the bar at an informal late-night gig by The Clash, or setting up the opening party for the notorious Prostitution exhibition that earned us the Daily Mail headline ‘These People Are The Wreckers of Civilization’. Of course it didn’t last, and we all got chucked out eventually. The ICA was dull and boring for a while, then a fresh crew took over (including Lois Keidan, now of Live Art Development Agency) and a new era began.

The ICA is currently in the spotlight because of the decision made by its artistic director, Ekow Eshun, to close the Live & Media Arts department from the end of November 2008. This has understandably caused a furore – although, to play Devil’s Advocate, Eshun is mostly concerned about the redundancy of New Media as a distinct artform and wants to rid the ICA of its Digital Studio, and I’m with him on that. ‘New Media’ is a horribly old-fashioned notion – a pencil and a computer are both just tools, after all.

There are plenty of theatre spaces in central London, so if he wants to focus on visual arts practice, so be it (and hopefully he knows that includes performance art). Outside of the London International Mime Festival – which will, as usual, be using the venue in January 2009 – the ICA theatre (one of many badly managed and underused black-box London theatres) has not been programming anything much of interest for years. It’s no great loss.

And actually, London isn’t the epicentre of experimental theatre/performance practice currently (with notable exceptions including CPT, BAC, Toynbee Studios, Barbican BITE, Shunt Lounge). Look a little further afield and you’ll notice venues such as the Warwick Arts Centre, The Basement in Brighton, greenroom in Manchester, Arnolfini in Bristol, The Phoenix in Exeter, and The Arches in Glasgow – vibrant artistic centres commissioning and programming exciting new work. Look through the Total Theatre Magazine lens and you’ll realise that a lot of theatre/performance we cover doesn’t even need a theatre building – to pick a few examples from current and recent issues: National Theatre of Scotland’s rural touring; the Without Walls consortium of street arts festivals; NoFit State’s circus-theatre; and the Fabulous Walks project and numerous other site-responsive works documented in this issue.

Yes, I’m as sad as anyone at the thought of no theatre at the ICA. But mostly for reasons of nostalgia. Times change, let’s leave Eshun to his yuppie restaurant-bar and get out into the railway arches and onto the streets.

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-4
p. 4