You walk through the entrance of Bristol’s only English Heritage property, normally closed to the public. Inside there’s a new structure, raised off the ground to protect this scheduled monument’s valuable archaeological remains. It’s a bijou patchwork, put together from scavenged materials – factory floorboards and doors, bricks from a Salvation Army citadel.
The maximum capacity of this novel performance space is 50 people. But with no official programme, there’s no way of knowing who’s on when. You might get a poet, a choir or a heavy metal band. And since admission is free, you can keep on coming back to experience the changing atmosphere at different times of day and night. Welcome to Sanctum.
It’s been described by The Guardian as “one of the most ambitious arts events likely to happen this year”. They’re not kidding. For 24 days, from 6pm on October 29 until 6pm on November 21, this temporary space will be filled with sound 24 hours a day. That’s 576 hours of continuous performance. More than 500 local artists are taking part.
Photo credit: Max McClure
Best known for Michael Sailstorfer’s headline-grabbing burial of gold on Folkestone Beach last year, Bristol-based arts commissioning organisation Situations has never organised a large-scale project in its home city until now. What’s more, they’ve succeeded in luring lauded US ‘socially-engaged artist’ Theaster Gates (it’s pronounced The-aster, fact fans) from Chicago to stage his first UK public art project amid the dramatic, bombed ruins of Temple Gardens’ 14th-century Temple Church.
“I’ve been following Theaster’s work for some time,” says Situations director Claire Doherty. “I was particularly interested in him because he transformed this area of deprivation on the south side of Chicago into a thriving cultural hub. He didn’t do it in a standard regeneration way. He actually used materials from all over the city to rebuild these various little houses along Dorchester Avenue.
“But he didn’t only transform them architecturally: he created employment for locals. What’s interesting about Theaster is that he also plays the art market very cleverly, so he’s become a bit of an art star. He’s exhibited around the world and he channels the money that he makes back into these other projects. As a charismatic figure making artworks in completely different ways, he felt like an artist that Situations would want to work with. But I also knew he was in heavy demand. So I went over to Chicago and persuaded him to come to Bristol.”
Word is, you stalked him. “I did,” she laughs. “I sat on his front step for a couple of hours. He knew I was coming, I hasten to add. But he’s a very busy man, so I just waited until he came back. What was interesting is that he’s very straightforward. He said, ‘Why should I come to Bristol? Why do you want me there?’ He’s also quite cautious about going to another city and just trying to replicate what he’s done in his home city, because he would be an outsider.”
Photo credit: Jason Schmidt
Theaster was sufficiently intrigued about a city he knew about only via Massive Attack (Not Banksy? “A bit, although his music interests outweigh his street art interests”) that he pitched up for a nose around. Situations took him on a tour of various potential sites, but Temple Church was the one that piqued his interest. This preference for a Grade II-listed building in the centre of the city might seem surprising, given that he made his name working in derelict, run-down and deprived communities in Chicago. After all, we’ve got plenty of those too.
“We did look at other locations around the city,” counters Claire. “But one of the things I felt quite passionately about was that the artwork needed to grow from somewhere where it had a real heart. He responded to this burned-out ruin of a church – particularly to the idea that the church itself had this former life and was no longer being used for worship. So the question then was: could we build something together which had a programme that reached out across the city? Locating it in the city centre was a very positive thing in saying: why shouldn’t people with incredible musical talent be showcased in the centre?”
It took eight months of negotiations to secure government permission to use the church, which entailed submitting detailed structural plans to protect the building. Some 350 local performers then applied to take part in the project, the remainder being approached to do so. “The best way of describing what we were looking for was the ‘sound of Bristol’,” says Claire. “So it’s as diverse as possible, and we’ve been as open as possible. We tried not to select too much. There might be some pop-up surprises in there, and people we don’t announce ahead of time.” Like Theaster’s great mates Massive Attack, for example? “Ha ha ha. We’ll see…”
Photo credit: Max McClure
Performance slots will range in duration from 15 minutes to three hours. “I think the really interesting thing will be the handover between performers. So you might get a gospel choir handing over to someone making a speech handing over to a death metal band. It won’t feel like a gig, where you’re waiting for them to start. It’s much more like a jamming session.”
Making a speech? Yep, that’s right. The artist has said this exercise in ‘Bristol speaking to itself’ could also be a platform for protest. Any limits to that? “Well, there are practical things. Children are very welcome to come along throughout the programme. We just advise parents that after 9pm there might be adult content. And as we know from John Wesley’s New Room chapel, this has always been a platform for dissent.”
It’s shaping up to be quite an event, and certainly promises to be particularly interesting after the clubs start tipping out in the small hours. “You do get a different kind of audience at night, but, perhaps surprisingly, our experience is that it becomes kind of self-policing. Obviously, there’s going to be security on site 24 hours a day, but it will feel like a very welcoming space.”
So what does Claire hope will be Sanctum’s legacy? “I hope all sorts of things will come out of it, from connections between performers to amazing transformative experiences for the audience. In regard to the arts in Bristol, there are one or two moments that really stand in my memory – whether that be this summer’s Fog Bridge or some amazing underground theatre performance – and I hope that Sanctum will be similar.”
So who is Theaster Gates?
Photo credit: Sarah Pooley
The “poster boy for socially engaged art” (said Art Review, which placed him 44th in its Power 100 list), Chicago-based, 42-year-old Gates started out as a potter and frustrated urban planner. This artist, musician and activist’s most acclaimed work, the Dorchester Projects, imaginatively repurposed derelict buildings in his south Chicago neighbourhood as cultural spaces. This year, he won the prestigious Artes Mundi contemporary arts prize. As a musician, he is also the director of experimental collective the Black Monks of Mississippi, who combine soul, gospel and blues traditions with religious chants
For more information, visit www.sanctumbristol.com.
Top photo by Max McLure