As the impact of Covid-19 really settles in, the arts world is learning many lessons very fast. With the gatherings of people which form the main income source of a lot of arts organisations looking like they’re a long way from returning in many countries - or even like they’ll be permanently and radically altered - things can look very bleak.
There are, though, those who are used to reacting to adversity. DIY venues, underground culture, experimental artists who are a long way from the mainstream institutions and big venues: these are repositories of innovation and make-do-and-mend resilience.
One such is The Old Police House in Gateshead in the Northeast of England: “A collective, voluntary project involving Adam Denton, Mark Wardlaw and Mariam Rezaei.”
Since 2013 they have used, yes, an actual old police station as a base for performance, clubs and other arts activities, and have also programmed the TUSK Fringe Festival in parallel to the mainstream arts TUSK Festival at the huge Sage Gateshead venue.
During lockdown, their Housebound Series of weekly broadcasts has been a beacon for radical art. From noise to ambience, high tech to zero tech, they have connected audiences and artists locally and globally, and played with what the livestream format can achieve. Many of these performances are archived on Twitch, and there are two more of these broadcasts left to come, then the team will be looking towards bringing the TUSK Fringe online. Via email we spoke to Mariam Rezaei, Adam Denton and Mark Wardlaw - all of them sound artists in their own right, and stalwarts of the arts scene in the Northeast - about what drives these agile but ambitious projects.
Hi Mariam, how has this lockdown period been for you? Obviously all venues and promoters are trying to keep in touch with their audiences online now, but are there special challenges given the diversity and ambition of your programming?
The mental health of our contributing artists has been a constant concern during this time and we want to say a big up to everyone who’s been involved. This is a very difficult time for everyone - and for us at The Old Police House, running a series of gigs has kept us busy with something positive to work towards. In fact, before lockdown we were finding it difficult to regularly programme due to the combinations of time, spatial and economic constraints, so the running of shows online without some of those concerns has been an interesting prospect which has brought up some magical and unexpected encounters in the virtual.
Our resources are relatively limited: we have to get around the dispossession of actual space and think about what’s the minimum we need to put something on and what are the ethical and moral implications of doing so.
Just running gigs as a team from different locations in real time has been a challenge but a really satisfying one to overcome - along with running four or five hour shows with a domestic internet connection, to UK time, with people streaming from all over the world - so people performing at 8am in Japan, 4 am Hong Kong, etc. And of course these events for the individual performer are strange as there’s obviously no physical energising forces from a crowd or whomever played before you. The lack of being in the room together is sad but we’ve chosen to see the positives of being together online and reaching out to a larger audience.
Have the broadcasts taught you anything unexpected - about programming / formats / audiences, etc?
Audiences are loyal, no matter where you find them. Having an online archive, even if only semipermanent, has implications, positives and negatives. People are of course now used to more openly accessible resources like online streaming television and the immediacy of sharing and selling audio of live performances.
People are beginning to use social media to their own advantage, across platforms and to diversify audiences, while it’s important to remember that we’re occupying someone else’s real estate, whether that’s YouTube, Facebook or Amazon (who own Twitch). New communities of artists with similar interests in arts and politics are forming internationally and promoters are now opening their doors to newer and emerging artists.
There will be people who go to gigs who perhaps feel more comfortable contributing to discussions in an online format, who maybe find it easier to write text than speak. The accessibility of gigs to anyone interested is always something we’ve tried to consider as seriously as we can - and having shows online has shown us the power of using the virtual to reach people who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to access the show... although on the other hand this is restricted to anyone with an internet connection.
Preceding lockdown, we tried as much as possible to stream gigs, or at least portions of them, to widen the scope, to reach audiences and further the viewing for the artist performing. It’s taught us how fucked up time is now, and further restated the importance and necessity of gigs in a physical space, sharing bodily space. This series of online shows is no substitute for that, but it has provided a space for people to commune and for artists to experiment with technological limitations and possibilities, in ways they might not have pre-Covid.
What have been your favourite moments or sets in the broadcasts so far?
So many amazing performances and unique ideas have come forward! Every single thing has been amazing and mixing artists well known to us alongside new friends has been awesome. Particular stand out moments in our gigs came from Yeah You’s in-car set in our first Housebound gig. The smoke alarm going off during Chewnzine’s Noise Cookery set, Sophie Cooper’s live chat performance of her Dial -a-Bone set where she used a picture of the old TOPH sign in the background are particular highlights.
We’ve had live solo sets from David Toop and Angharad Davies plus the brilliant Ilan Vokov, David Lemoine, Daniel Meir, Rhodri Davies and we loved John Russell showing us his home music studio! Those guitars! We were lucky to share a Glasgow Improviser’s Orchestra zoom set and a new collaboration of Stable, FK Alexander and Penstkart! Lady Kitt sent us a stunning Lip Sync set and Petronn Sphene has played solo and in duos! Erika Leaman (of BLŌM fame) dialled in for a genuinely spontaneous solo improv set when another act’s set up failed and we’ve had artists including Abiboss in Russia, Nerve in Hong Kong and Kazehito Seki in Japan dial in to perform live.
Can you tell us something about the ethos behind the venue and festival? Running an unorthodox arts venue like this must require a sense of mission.
“What do we think is lacking or needed, how can we do it, who does it give a platform to?” That’s kind of how we’ve operated from the beginning. We got hold of a space that we wanted to share with other people, whether that’s performing, promoting, witnessing - to create an outpost of internationally focused experimental sonic life in the Northeast, that runs on love and a commitment to what we’d prefer the world to be like and that hopefully we can do our bit in bringing it about.
Are there any other community arts spaces in UK or further afield that you're inspired by, feel kinship with or have direct working relationships with?
Bringing TOPH into existence was very much inspired by the lack of a similar place, certainly in the Northeast, but more widely in the UK too, at that time. Over in Newcastle, we had just lost Morden Tower as an important and charged performance space. There are similar places like The Audacious Arts Space in Sheffield, now known as Hatch, Fuse Gallery in Bradford, and in London Cafe OTO, The Old Dentists and Iklectik. These places have a differing vibes due to various constraints, which we were fortunate to have eluded given the circumstances surrounding the spots we previously inhabited. We were fortunate to have space in kind for a short while. We were exceptionally fortunate to have an audience and to be part of the rich community.
How do you feel experimental music in the UK has responded to the past decade of austerity? Does the musical community have the tools and connections to respond to the hard times to come?
Experimental music, however you are defining it, has continued more or less as it did before the official implementation of austerity. Our corner of experimental music has withstood the aforementioned spatial dispossession that has happened due to council asset sell-offs, unrealistic rents, certain types of “value systems” inherent in the arts.
What we have tried to show with our recent Housebound Series is that you can get stuff done with very limited resources and a willing community. A showing of inter-independence. There is no professional trajectory being thought about really, it’s more “lets contribute to something that’s happening.” No protection of reputation, resources or network connections, trying not to do capital’s work for it… which is always the unrealistic and impossible task!! Growing the shoots from the grassroots, using privileged platforms we’ve helped build and always with the aim to build community and make next-level, new art.
Look at www.twitch.tv.theoldpolicehouse for archive.
There are two gigs left in the Housebound Series on June 12th and 19th with Djing, performances and talks by Letitia Pleiades, Josie Sparrow, Ali Robertson, Mercuro-Chrome, Nicola Singh and Harriet Plewis, Lee Patterson, Ryoko Akama, Fritz Welch, Gwilly Edmondez, Mike Vest, Chlorine, Cath and Phil Tyler and more.
Cover Image: Mariam Rezaei
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs