For Queen and Country

Feature in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Robert Ayers reflects on the honouring of live art’s fairy godmother, Nikki Milican OBE.

It was one of those things that seemed utterly bizarre and entirely proper at the same time: in an email wishing me a happy new year and reminding me ever so gently about a piece of writing that I still hadn’t completed, Nikki Milican added, ‘by the way, the Queen made me an OBE’! I immediately sent her back a joyous, expletive-strewn note of congratulations and enquired when I’d be seeing the press release from her company, New Moves International. Her response was typically self-effacing: No, there wouldn’t be a press release, she told me, as though it was the silliest idea she’d ever heard, and then she added, ‘It does seem ridiculous to have my name next to people who have given their kidneys and other body parts in the call of duty…’ And therein lies the enigma that is my dear friend Nikki Milican.

People up and down the country, and around the world come to that, are terrified of her. She has a perfectly well deserved reputation for taking no nonsense whatsoever so far as her festivals New Territories and The National Review of Live Art are concerned, and she’ll brook no lack of respect for the art that is at their core. No matter if you’re the artist who made that art, she will actually drive you to a higher level of responsibility, professionalism, and – perhaps most important – pride in what you’ve made than you might have had in the first place. And no matter what form the art takes (because Nikki has produced every single kind of performance art there has ever been over the years) she often gives the impression that she has a greater belief in it than some of the artists responsible for it. But that is the simple source of her sometimes alarming passion. Unlike so many people in the art world, and particularly the performance art world, her motivation has nothing at all to do with ego. She loves the NRLA, and she loves every moment of that half a winter week in Glasgow – even though there are moments every year that will have her tearing her hair out – but I have often thought that if she could enjoy it, and make it all happen, and put in all of the hard work, but just become invisible for the duration, then things would be just perfect for her. She can’t be doing with people constantly telling her how brilliant she is.

Nikki often talks of the ‘family’ that is the NRLA – all of those generations of artists whose careers would have been impoverished, or simply never have happened at all, had it not been for the stimulus and recurrent sustenance of the festival. I am delighted to count myself one of the oldest members of that family. If Nikki hadn’t offered me £350 and given me the run of the Midland Group building and its roof and fire escapes in 1984, I shudder to think where I’d have finished up.

So it gives me enormous pleasure to offer Nikki Milican the big kiss on the cheek that she won’t get from the Queen, to salute her as the Fairy Godmother of Britain’s live art and performance art world, and say that while an OBE for ‘services to performance art (live art)’ is an appropriate start, I look forward to the day when she is rightly recognized as Dame Nikki!

Referenced Festivals

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-2
p. 21