Francesca Millican-Slater is a Birmingham-based artist working in writing and performance who creates theatre shows, intimate storytelling performances, performative investigations, walks and podcasts. She works in response to histories of place, people, objects and the way stories are collected and told. Francesca has been commissioned to capture the festival’s R&D Project, which is now underway and involves 30 Creative Teamsbringing together more than 500 creative individuals from across STEAM and throughout the UK. Here she provides some of her impressions from the first four weeks of the R&D.
While debates have been raging across social media and beyond as to what and who Festival UK* 2022 will represent, I’ve been sitting inside the virtual R&D space watching, listening, sometimes talking, with people from the 30 teams as they meet each other, ask questions and start work on an idea that aims to reach 66 million people.
Teams are drawn from across STEAM practices- there are poets and astrophysicists; choreographers and conservationists; musicians and designers. There are the arts companies you might expect to see, alongside not-for-profit youth-led organisations and community focused charities.
Since November 16th, for two days each week over a month, individuals from these sectors have been logging on to a specifically designed online platform, the Creative Studio, for a lively programme of talks, Q&As, workshops and networking opportunities designed to inspire, question and challenge ideas while building a working team culture.
It’s part of Festival UK* 2022’s R&D Project, which lasts until the end of January and the speakers were an impressive line-up - author Bernadine Evaristo, director Stephen Daldry, space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock and historian David Olusoga, amongst others. Teams were invited to dip in and out, with all the material available on ‘catch up’ alongside challenges, provocations and artistic responses from the Creative Advisors, including artists Nwando Ebizie, Gabriella de la Puente and Bishi, activist and writer Magid Magid, Bishi and mathematician Bobby Seagull.
In the opening speech the teams are told why they are here: to design ‘a large-scale event. Not just ONE event on one day in a single place. It could be live. It could be digital. It could be a mass public engagement act. It could be a series of tiny acts.’ There are no blueprints, the team at Festival 2022 has no pre-conception of what it could be. It is about ‘bringing people together and celebrating the UKs creativity and innovation.’
Some teams have come with the kernel of an idea, some are working within a theme and some are hoping to develop a concept through this R&D. There are people who are surprised to find themselves here, meeting their team fully, digitally for this first time to start this process. They have been brought on board for their specialisms, their expertise. I hear the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ more than once.
So, it is a cautious beginning to the four weeks, as people navigate their understanding of the huge task, getting to know each other both in their teams and within this wider network. Gathering in the Creative Studio also invites skills and knowledge sharing across teams with a view to developing a shared resource of information and community.
In circumstances outside of a global pandemic, people would be gathering in a real room, around tea urns, talking about biscuits and eyeing up name badges. As it is, they appear briefly on screens at each other’s desks and kitchen tables, in online networking speed dates and begin to form a wider sense of community through typed words and pertinent questions on the discussion forum that runs alongside all the events.
What is a concept when it is created for everyone?
What does that look like and is it even possible?
Questions of inclusion, collaboration, participation and spectacle are a constant presence, prompted and navigated by the carefully curated talks and workshops.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock tells of her personal dream to reach space, offering the ‘crazy dream’ of the moon landings as an allegory and demonstration that ‘collaboration lets us do things we didn’t think possible’ that ‘the power of engagement’ is that ‘we can literally change people’s lives.' She asks the teams to ‘Be big, be bold, aim high, blow the socks off'.
David Olusoga traces the imperial, elite history of ‘the national festival’ and its use in political positioning, highlighting the impact these events had on individuals. He asks ’if festivals are subvertable?’ Can the creatives involved ‘imprint upon them their own ideas and their own aims?Is a festival still a festival if there are no big glass buildings, no new stadium?’'
In a Creative Advisor conversation, artist and writer Zarina Muhammad asks ‘does the wider public also get equal stakes in this activity?’ In a workshop, freelance creative producer Roseanna Dias asks ‘we all understand that audiences are not a thing, not things to be reached, counted or engaged, they are […] whole people with real messy lives’.
Running throughout the discussion forum in typed words are people dreaming of reconciliation and hope, wanting to throw a birthday party for the world, find a way to eradicate loneliness, make a day where the world comes together, change perceptions. Keyboard questions are asked about how to eat the elephant and what acts can be done to change the narratives we are told.
Alongside the moments of inspiration, dreaming big and questioning, are workshops that cover team building exercises and dynamics, ‘prototyping’ and ‘breaking your idea’. From my digital distance, as the weeks go on, there is a gathering confidence and unity within the teams.
When I got to glimpse into some of the groups’ private discussions happening outside the Creative Studio platform, I saw a democratic process with a sense of enthusiasm, optimism and honesty. It didn’t look like all the usual suspects, artist and auteurs, it looked like people beginning to make something new.
Though there is an emphasis on shared knowledge across the teams, there is understandably, a privacy around the sharing of specific ideas, both because this is a competitive process, and to retain surprise and delight in delivery. There is a feeling that ‘even if we don’t get through, it's been so useful, I’ve learnt so much and made so many connections.’ There is another sense that ‘'this experience has been overwhelming, but in a really positive way’.
Broad themes across the groups consider environment, conservation and sustainability within food and clothing. Other ideas examine language, structures and the amplification of voices that go unheard. Space itself as a place runs alongside ideas about urban and rural connections with digital space being discussed as place where everyone can gather.
The focus I have seen is on participation, a coming together in a moment or moments, that is not centred on a celebration of nation, but of people. From across the groups there is genuine intention, integrity and excitement about they might do.
After the discussion, elation and focus that the Creative Studio offered, we are ‘now where the work begins’. Creative Teams are currently working towards feasibility studies and their presentations in February.
Ten of these projects will be selected. In 2022 people across the UK and the rest of the world will experience a moment of joy, a sense of togetherness, a chance to see or do something they haven’t seen or done before. That is the hope, and at present, hope is a rare thing.
For more information about Francesca’s work, please visit her website.