Louise O’Kelly found Block Universe London, the performance art festival, four years ago.
Coming from the art background, Louise discovered her interest towards performance art while working in a gallery that represented the estates of many performance artists from the 60’s and 70’s. She then continued to study Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths and focused her research on performance and memory studies.
We talked about how Louise came up with the idea for Block Universe, how she accepted the challenges, backed the venture and became a successful female entrepreneur in the art industry.
ABOUT BLOCK UNIVERSE
Hi, Louise! It’s so nice to meet you. Tell me about how you came up with an idea for Block Universe.
Hi, Daria! Block Universe was born out of a desire to support artists who work with performance and to create a platform to promote this medium. As someone who loved going to see this type of work, I was conscious that it was primarily being programmed in galleries and museums as either a form of entertainment at the opening of an exhibition, or as part of the public programme in response to the main show. Rarely, if ever, it was being given space in its own right. I felt it was important that this new generation of artists working with the performance was acknowledged and that space was created where performance was the focus, even if that was just for one week in the year.
How did you back your idea?
We still work with very tight budgets, but the first year was on a complete shoestring. We put in a successful bid to Arts Council England and called in as many favors as we could to make it all happen. I and two friends – Nicky van Breugel and Xica Aires – put in many late nights to pull it together. I knew that many artists received little or no pay for their performances and that they were often under-resourced, so my goal was to ensure that the artists were fairly paid and received appropriate support. To supplement what we had already raised, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure fees and costs towards the productions.
Why performance art?
To me, artists working with performance are making some of the most exciting work in the contemporary art field today. I see a new generation of artists creating work that is genuinely interdisciplinary and approaches live experience from a different perspective than previous generations of performance artists.
Having that element of live bodies moving, speaking, feeling, and sharing the same space as you create an intangible quality and an immediacy that I find compelling.
How do you find new artists?
I spend a lot of time researching, seeing shows and getting to know an artist’s practice as well as following recommendations. The internet is, of course, an incredibly useful tool, but doesn’t compare with seeing something live. There is no submission process, the selection of artist is lead instead by mine and my colleague’s research.
Why did you decide to have a pop-up structure, rather than a specific location?
I feel it’s important to look at the different contexts in which performance is presented and experienced, and how this alters audience expectations or adds another layer to the conception of the work. That shift between a white cube to a black box, a historical museum or space, which is none of those things, becomes a useful tool to think about where performance sits within traditional gallery models in the visual arts world, or how it operates within traditional theatre confines.
What was the theme for this year’s fourth edition?
The theme this year is looking at ways of being together in the world, whether that is on a communal or societal level, or in our intimate, personal relationships. It felt necessary to think about how we can exist together in an era of very divisive and discriminatory politics in the UK, including the looming specter of Brexit. On a one-to-one basis, these power structures play out in our relationships also, so many of the works in the festival this year also look at the politics of love and sex. For example, on the 31st May at Senate House, we have Australian artist Giselle Stanborough looking at the techno-capitalization of our love lives in a 4-hour durational lecture-performance that is kind of like a tongue-in-cheek, ramped up version of a TED talk.
What have you learned since the first edition of Block Universe?
So, so much. We all just threw ourselves into it, and I can see how passion and determination make so much in the world possible if you believe in what you’re doing.
ABOUT BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR IN THE ARTS
What do you think are new trends in the arts startup/entrepreneurial hub?
I think there is a lot of potential to look at ways of engaging with time-based work using new media, such as video and digital works. Suitable examples of re-thinking how we experience these or how one collects these type of works are organizations such as Opening Times or Daata Editions. There is indeed plenty of potential for disrupting current models of buying and selling artworks online, although so much of the art world is based on relationships that it may require generational shifts for that to evolve in the long-term.
Do you think it’s harder to find financing for a startup in the art world, rather than in any other industry?
I do think it’s a real challenge. Philanthropy for the arts does not exist in the same way in the UK as it does in the US. Government funding to the arts is continually cut, even though it provides a very significant return on investment to the economy. As a performance festival, we can offer a ‘return on investment’ regarding experience, but not necessarily a monetary one in the same way an investor would hope for from a tech startup.
Is there a high potential then for disruption by new entrepreneurial ideas in the art market?
Having contributed something new to London’s cultural landscape, it made me realize that there is still plenty of space to introduce new ideas and ways of operating within London and the art world more widely. I feel that it’s a space that welcomes innovation, and there is plenty of scopes to shift or disrupt existing models within the arts, on either commercial or non-profit levels, though of course, these things take time and shifts are often subtle.
Tell me about your personal experiences as a female entrepreneur in the arts. What have been your challenges, findings, revelations?
It’s nice to be referred to as an entrepreneur, as that entrepreneurial mindset feels relevant to what it takes to launch a new organization and idea into the world as I have done with Block Universe. I’m acutely aware of the imbalance of power structures and how this negatively impacts upon women, but I can’t say that I can identify any particular challenges or revelations that relate to my being female in my experience of setting up Block Universe. I feel that every challenge I have encountered throughout the process has been a positive process to learn from, and relates more to the fact of me realizing my vision in the world than it does to my experience of being a woman.
What’re your plans for both Block Universe and beyond?
Next year is our 5th year, so we’re already looking ahead to this special anniversary! We’re planning more events throughout the year in the run-up to our next edition. And beyond that… you’ll just have to watch this space!
Learn more about BLOCK UNIVERSE on its official website