Speeches to the City

Speeches to the City: a collaboration between artists, locations and witnesses, by Hannah Sullivan and Martha King (freelance creative producers)

Laura Burns @ Spike Island

Laura Burns gives her speech outside Spike Island

During the Bristol Art Weekender a series of speeches, written and performed by commissioned artists, took place outside five art galleries and museums in the city centre. On soap-boxes, at different times of the day the artists’ crafted words were delivered to clusters of public ‘witnesses’. The speeches were written in response to a brief that encouraged a playful and critical engagement with both the history and form of speeches, and prompted a consideration of public space as a forum in which to express a personal and political voice.

The brief was carefully put together as provocation, inspiration and guide. Here are two sections from that brief:

The project wishes to establish the city as an active place of public communication and exchange. Aiming to challenge what is said and what is heard in the city, whilst questioning the frequency of its use for this purpose. Through the commissioning of performance writers we aim to inspire and provoke others to consider their personal and political voice in the city.

We encourage an awareness of the craft of speech making and welcome provocative critiques of the form. We encourage playfulness and lightness. We are interested in the potential messiness of not knowing, of having (or not having) a personal and political voice and of addressing the confused entity of ‘the city’, as both a place and group of people. We encourage you to imagine how you might stand and where you look when speaking, we are excited by how these performances can feel different to the other vocal presences in the city. We completely encourage your own voice, your own approach, your own performance and the notion that the very act of making and delivering a speech in public is a political act.

We came to consider this brief as a large part of the curatorial work – and what followed as a collaboration between artists, locations and witnesses.

Laura Burns @ Antlers Gallery


After the brief was sent there was a period of silence, as each artist figured out how to respond, inspired by their own city, this city (Bristol), by past speeches, lost speeches and their own feelings of having ‘something’ or ‘nothing to say’. An online conversation began once the speeches were sent to us in their embryonic forms – with each artist taking a different angle on the subject and all acknowledging that speaking out in public, from a soap-box (with its problematic and loaded history), felt like a significant challenge.


Emma Bennett’s speech evolved from an initial interest in 17th century protestant sermons to become a critical look at the rallying power of speeches to emotionally and physically move us. She worked with the rhythms and sounds of famous speeches, eventually generating a speech via a process of speaking her own lines ‘through’ Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech (using double channel playback through earphones) and using three gestural movements taken from Marlon Brando’s performance as Brutus, in the film of Julius Caesar.

Christopher Brett-Bailey created a hypnotic collage of poetry, comedy and jargon, ‘a sort of tongue twister come political speech: fast, rhythmic and wordy’, looking at the relationship between a city’s politics and its geography; peppered with references to his memories of living in Bristol ten years ago. Laura Burns, beginning with a desire to explore ideas around the freedom of speech and unheard narratives, ended up making a speech about women and their different ways of speaking. She used water as a metaphor to explore movements and words that are ‘free flowing and ever changing’, as opposed to certain syntax or formulaic speech patterns which ‘attempt to fix words in stone’, like monuments. She took us on a journey, crossed the river in silence, and on the other side presented a poem to the water, calling out women’s names to the elements.

As the speeches evolved so rapidly we gave ourselves as long as possible to work with the artists to fix the locations and times of the speeches. It was important for us to program in a responsive way, by engaging in a dialogue with each artist, in order to provide an appropriate context for their performances. To test the effect of different locations we gave the artists’ the chance to perform their speech twice, either in a different location or at a different time of day, to see how the same words might sound and re-sound in shifted contexts.


Christopher Brett-Bailey @ Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

As we anticipated, each shift in location and consequent re-configuration of temporary community influenced the speeches meaning and reception; the relation between words and the proximity to the river in Laura Burn’s speech, the relation between language and different architectural structures of power in Christopher Brett Bailey’s or the time of day in Emma Bennett’s. In each site a different theatrical space was created, through the act of performance ‘public space’ was for a short time transformed.

Another factor in determining meaning around the speeches was the positioning of the project within the context of the Bristol Art Weekender. Against this framework the speeches were performed against the backdrop of art venues, and in addition, we had chosen artists to speak. On reflection, the project could also be interpreted as questioning the role of the artist in relation to public space, (and perhaps more specifically the institution/art world itself), as well addressing the role of the ‘political’ and ‘speaking’ artist who crafts, delivers and has something to say – and all the difficulties that come with this.


We often referred to the public as ‘witnesses’. We always imagined this work for a temporary community who happened to be in the right place at the right time – similar to stumbling upon a busker, a preacher or an accident. We were interested in how new communities could emerge and people could come together in a present moment of witnessing; connecting fleetingly as onlookers, through a ‘common purpose’ (Rule 4, Situations: 2013). And how, through such interruptions, we might provoke thought around ‘public speech’ and raise questions about ‘who speaks’, ‘who is spoken to’ and ‘where we speak from’. We wanted to begin to address some of our conflicting cynicisms around the power of oratory.

In addition to the gathering of witnesses during the event we developed another temporary community, prior to the project. This was done through the building of a resources page that anyone could contribute to with: a thought, example, text, or link about speeches and speech making. Contributions varied from philosophical quotes, to clips of comedians and Google street-view shots of the Bristol gallows (the original ‘speakers corner’ sites)! The blog became another form of public space through which to build a small community, with an invested interest in the project. We now want to return to a more discursive space and host live conversation events to extend our exploration into ‘speaking in public’, but this time with more emphasis on dialogue.

Speeches to the City

‘Speeches to the City’ was a New Situationist Commission and part of the inaugural Bristol Art Weekender in May 2014.

Audio clips and text from the speeches made during the Bristol Art Weekender can be found here: www.speechestothecity.wordpress.com

Reference: Situations (2013) ‘New Rules of Public Art’. SituationsUK

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