A Unique and Complex Project: Laura Plant reports from Sanctum Producers’ Masterclass

‘Claire and Matthew are here today to delve deeper, to answer the questions we’ve all wanted to ask about this unique and complex project.’


Photo: Situations

Claire Doherty is hesitant to give a masterclass. Bemused and gratified, like exhausted climbers at a conquered summit, she and Matthew Austin, Associate Producer, are keen to give us a disclaimer: that not all has gone as planned and that they are still learning every day. A heading flashes up on screen: “Public Art (Now) ’Still-trying-to-master-it’ Class”.

We are in a room full of much of Bristol’s art circles, in the beating centre of culture that is Watershed. The building is swarming from crowds gathered for Festival of the Future City events; there’s a tangible excitement in the air. All but one of the gathered audience has visited Sanctum already, so we are familiar with the space which is hauntingly majestic, yet quiet and intimate, just as we are familiar with its format – relaxed and surprising, an unexpected array of performers: some seasoned, some unfamiliar. But Claire and Matthew are here today to delve deeper, to answer the questions we’ve all wanted to ask about this unique and complex project.

With Sanctum hitting its 490th hour mark as we gather, Claire starts with the wise words of Irish producer Patrick Fox who describes a producer as a firefighter and a diplomat, someone who takes the temperature of the project and keeps ideas going for as long as possible. Something in her tone suggests that they know this all too well. From here they take us through the story of Sanctum – from conception, to birth, to adulthood. Unlike most other Situations projects, Sanctum began with a direct invitation to an artist, an interest in the community focus of Theaster Gates’ work and a desire to bring this to Bristol. This, (coupled with a revelation from a previous project Nowhereisland), that time could be a valuable material, provided Situations with a starting point. From here, after ‘stalking’, waiting on the artist’s porch and then finally meeting Theaster Gates, Situations developed a set of guiding principles that shaped and gave life to the idea. These included an aspiration to create a project which could breathe energy into an overlooked space and give volume to under-heard voices. On top of this were donated bricks from a Bristol Salvation Army building, an interest in the spirituality and soul of a city and the idea that music can provide sanctuary and build social connections.

sanctum illustration 2

Illustration: Laura Plant

The producers discussed the importance of the durational nature of the project from the start. While Theaster’s original idea of playing one continuous note for 24 days did not quite meet the ‘exceptional’ project criteria of the grant behind the project, the notion of the rhythm of time provided them with a focus. Referencing previous projects from both MAYK and Situations which have played out over a day or longer, they talked about what happens to artists and audience members during performances of length, exploring how reactions change through the course of a day. Settling on continuous sound performance for 24 hours a day for 24 days, the project took shape. They discussed how they were interested in how and why audiences were called to visit a space where you had no idea what you would encounter, resulting in visiting decisions being based solely around the time of day, how it fitted into audiences daily routines. With this in mind came the challenge of programming a lineup of performers to chime with, or subvert, the rhythm of the day. Matthew discussed Sara Zaltash’s call to prayer which was scheduled every day at different times, explaining how it was deeply sad and haunting to watch in the middle of the night yet could be uplifting during the daylight – the time and context largely informing the audiences consumption. The secret nature of the lineup was important in encouraging people to open themselves up to new experiences that they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise choose to partake in.

As well as discussing the mammoth task of programming 552 hours of performance and the challenges of finding suitable artists, Matthew and Claire discussed how before the project opened there had been concern about its 24-hour nature. Protocols such as how to deal with antisocial behaviour from late-night revelers were well prepared for, as the team decided that in order to provide a true sanctuary they must allow homeless people to visit and stay there too – it must be open to all. So far, there had been scarcely any trouble, aside from one young gentleman who, during a performance from a nude artist decided to follow suit and remove his clothes as well. This bold audience member later turned out to have been a friend of mine – just one fairly absurd example of how Sanctum stories have rippled out amongst the community of Bristol.

” I feel that one of the reasons Sanctum has been a success is because it generously gives ownership to each and every person involved, from builder to audience member, enabling each experience to be intimate, made-to-measure.”

In fact, perhaps the most interesting of all was to hear of the surprises, challenges and impact that the team have confronted since the project opened to the public. They talked of their gratification at how people have embraced visiting Temple Church into their daily lives, weaving it into their routines, such as the numerous Sanctum regulars who come everyday on their lunch break to eat their sandwiches. They also talked about how facilitating the experience of the performers has proved difficult at times. Because the format of the project doesn’t always allow for a slick performance there became a need to persuade artists that they were joining a collective project rather than playing their usual gig. They talked about how they too had had to relax into leaks, technical issues and slightly clunky changeovers, accepting that its unpolished nature simply added to its charm.

Sanctum illustration 1

Illustration: Laura Plant

Despite this the team have been delighted by stories of encounters between performers, often leading to collaborations and friendships – a collective experience which artists, performers, staff and audiences have all shared across the project. While no one could solely experience all 552 hours, through sharing personal stories a beautiful and valuable community perspective has been created. This is much like the structure itself, raised collectively by hand and made using materials that are individually invested with history and nostalgia. I feel that one of the reasons Sanctum has been a success is because it generously gives ownership to each and every person involved, from builder to audience member, enabling each experience to be intimate, made-to-measure.

Offering a final thought Claire discussed the stark contrast between Sanctum’s make-do-with-what-we-have attitude with the multi-million pound stadium development arising a stones throw from Temple Church, suggesting that despite the difference in money invested, both perhaps will be equally successful in providing a community gathering place and a collective spirit.

Laura Plant

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