The Power of Publics: Reflections on Sanctum Producers’ Masterclass from Dina Ntziora

“Situations’ method of working is to define a set of principles, which sit around an artist’s practice and then start building around them. In this case, they worked with the idea of a soul of the city, then began to tell a very visual story about the city we live in.”

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Photo: Max McClure

Now the Sanctum hours are coming to an end, I begin to wonder whether a project like this actually has an end or whether it works beyond a timeline, surpassing beginning or closure. Sanctum is so much more than a one off project, it’s a new way to look at art, community and the city we live in.

Together with the 552 hours of performances there are also all those other layers of the project that unfolded in front of us. Attending the masterclass on Public Art (Now) from Situations allowed a deeper look into the thoughts, work, inspiration, logistics and efforts that brought the project together.

Coming from a Project Management background I expected to focus more on the logistics of the project; health & safety, licensing, timelines, production schedule. Instead I found myself getting immersed in the ethos and working practice that so characterised this project. Before attending the session I had assumed that the project was a strict operation: the final outcome being designed in every detail from the beginning. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how the work developed with a much more organic approach, which allowed so many additional elements and ideas to feed into the project.

I was also impressed with the honesty of both Claire Doherty and Matthew Austin while exploring some of the difficult moments of the project, not just its successes. It also made obvious how the team used their imagination and creativity to turn all the difficulties into additional features and highlights. The team not only built a physical space to perform in, but a community and a framework where local creative potential was really maximised.

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Photo: Max McClure

The masterclass or ‘still trying to master it class’, as Claire has called it, became an insight into the challenges, excitement, commitment, problem solving and community engagement that make Sanctum happen. Admiration for the artist, persistence, a clear vision, respect for the local culture, the ethical sourcing of local significant materials, curating the programme of performances, respect of the physical site, an inclusive call for artists across Bristol, a great production team, and revisiting and adjusting the vision, are just some of the many great qualities the team brought to the project.

Situations’ method of working is to define a set of principles, which sit around an artist’s practice and then start building around them. In this case, they worked with the idea of a soul of the city, then began to tell a very visual story about the city we live in. This approach led to a gathering of stories around the materials, methods and ethos, all feeding into the puzzle that became Sanctum. Listening to Claire and Matthew presenting the process behind many parts of the work reinforced the idea that every aspect has been crucial towards the project’s success. If you were to remove any of those elements the project would have not been the same.

Sanctum brings together all the aspects of working in the arts I strongly believe in: community, performance, creative use of empty spaces, history, architecture, time and above all, people. The entire project is made of Bristol. It brings back to my mind the words of Theaster Gates at his St. George’s performance;

‘This is not my project. It is Bristol people’s project. People are powerful and when we create platforms they can create powerful things. Sanctum is about Bristol’s capacity to be amazing’.

People are naturally interested in empty spaces and changing a space from private to public creates a feeling of ownership. Allowing them to come back as many times as they wish and experience the space in such different ways allowed Sanctum to become part of daily routines, becoming a point of reference in our social circles like no other public art piece, performance or exhibition had. We went to Sanctum, and Sanctum came back home with us.

Everyone felt welcomed. One of my favourite quotes is ‘equality is inviting someone to a party, inclusion is asking them to dance’ and this is what the project achieved. The whole of Bristol was invited to a party and asked to perform.

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Photo: Situations

For the last hour of the masterclass, we heard from the Exceptional Projects discussion panel, including Simon Cooper (Chair) Helen Davies (Director of Audience Engagement, Arnolfini), Luke Jerram (Artist), Zoe Sear (Communications Director, Bristol 2015). While listening it soon became clear why Bristol is such a great city to be in – so much art is created outside gallery walls and is accessible to all. A city can grow in many important ways without always relying on large capital expenditures or a major construction. Instead well-placed, site specific projects encourage the emergence of new spaces and/or the creative use of the existing ones. Public art is the most durable part of a city’s infrastructure; it can constantly change form but maintain its function of bringing the community together.

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Arcadia, Bristol. Photo: Ben Daure Courtesy Bristol 2015

This can be especially true when work is created in derelict spaces. Here it can help create dynamic and resilient places in and around our cities and can act as an urban catalyst. Such uses are an integral part of both short and long term planning to bring urban landscapes back to life. A temporary structure within the shell of Temple Church broadens accessibility to the arts by extending the locations in which these activities take place. It can expand democracy and empower the local community. We are never going to look at Temple Church again as a derelict church; it is now a community space and a creative hub. Many people will walk past it now and reflect on memories of Sanctum.

Theaster Gates’ work is about shaping attitudes about the cities we live in, and it feels like the raw material is becoming bigger. He states: ‘I feel like I am always in the middle of a breakthrough and am trying to work out those ideas, I am still learning what change is, what my role is in articulating what needs to change.’ So are we. This is why Sanctum as a project, has no end.

Instead it has allowed us to look at our city in a different way, re-connecting with space and people. The project has positioned artists in the heart of the city as part of the thriving creative community, allowing everyone to contribute to re-designing the city and its spaces.

Dina Ntziora

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