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“Work that truly engages, provokes and adds to the conversation” - Tarek Iskander on Battersea Arts Centre’s ‘Going Global’ programme

Is it too much to think that an arts space in London can inspire and artistically arm a generation of young activists and performers? Can it help us join together and realise the humanity we all share? And as the UK transitions into its European breakup can it truly be global, local and represent us all in some way? It seems a tall order but for Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) with its ‘Going Global’ programme for 2020 it looks like, at least in theory, they might possibly have the code. And even if half of the enthusiasm he shares is true it might be, at least in part, thanks to Tarek Iskander the new Artistic Director and CEO.

It starts with something like ‘When It Breaks It Burns’, the retelling of the high school occupations that rocked Brazil in 2015/2016, co-created and performed by 16 of the young people who participated in the original protests, interestingly in what Iskander says is one of the ‘best shows’ he’s seen in recent years. But what is wonderful to see is that alongside this is a 2-day symposium with ColetivA for 100 young people from all over the country to learn how they too can change the world... and not only that they all get to sleep over in BAC’s Grand Hall as well.

Iskander says that they are avoiding piggy backing on ‘current hot issues’ and being ‘preachy’. Instead they’re trying to ‘engage, provoke and add to conversation’ with themes like the female gaze, consent and toxic masculinity (Daughter and Cock Cock.. Who’s There). And simultaneously the programme embraces VR (UnRreal City) and Instagram (Rich Kids, A History of Shopping Malls) with reflections on conversation, listening and weather permitting a walk (Neither Here Nor There).


[Samira Elagoz: Cock Cock.. Who's There]

It would be easy go on and quote from the press release for paragraphs but sometimes it’s not the best way to communicate an idea. Sometimes the best way is to let the subject speak for itself and let the pure passion for the project speak to you!

Talking about his inaugural programme helming the Battersea Arts Centre Tarek Iskander did not disappoint.

Jayson Mansaray: Is there any irony when you say “Going Global” in present day Brexit Britain?

Tarek Iskander: BAC is a place that has never been afraid of tackling the big and tricky issues of the day and this season is no exception. But we are also all about sharing positive messages, inspiring change and never feeling hopeless. Regardless of what you might feel about our relationship with Europe, this season is a place where everyone can come together to celebrate our collective humanity and explore the issues we share with our closest neighbours and in a global world. Brilliant international artists are bringing their incredible work to BAC this spring. They are presenting their shows side by side with the UK’s most exciting talents. Yes, the title is a bit cheeky for sure, but hopefully in a playful, inclusive way.

Jayson: Recently memes on social media seem to poke fun at Britain’s way of protesting versus say, the French... what can we learn from ‘When it Breaks it Burns’?

Tarek: This is the best show I’ve seen in years. I left it feeling astonished, inspired and ready to take on the world. It’s because these young Brazilians present their own true story of rebellion in a way that is raw and honest but also glamorous and exciting. The director has said that the show is actually ‘a bit sexy’. We think Activism and Protest can be sexy and exciting. And young people are now leading the way in terms of tackling climate change or fighting injustice. This is where the real energy is right now, and we want to get behind it.

We are inviting 100 young people from all over the country to a 2-day symposium with ColetivA to discuss and dream about how they can change the world. They will all sleep over in BAC’s beautiful Grand Hall. This space has always been a home for rebellion and mischief; just as one example the Suffragettes are a very important part of our building’s story. We have a lot of examples of great protest in our own history – we just need to own and celebrate it. When it Breaks it Burns shows us one way, a thrilling one.


[coletivA ocupação: When it Breaks it Burns]

Jayson: It’s an interesting time with #MeToo, consent and toxic masculinity being talked about much more openly, is that why these themes are in your programming?

Tarek: This openness and these tough conversations are long overdue. Two of the international shows in the season, Daughter and Cock Cock.. Who’s There, tackle these complex topics head on in a way that is sensitive, smart and uncompromising. These are incredible works – when I saw them, they blew me away – and at BAC the whole team felt it important to bring them to London so more people could experience them. We will never programme work that simply ‘piggy-backs’ on current hot issues; we are excited by work that truly engages, provokes and adds to the conversation. These are the kinds of pieces that can really change you and can impact how you see the world. That’s what they did for me. But they’re not preachy, and don’t try to hit you with an agenda. They are complex, insightful and refreshingly honest works.


[Jo Fong and Sonia Hughes: Neither Here Nor There]

Jayson: We live in a digital age but ‘Neither Here Nor There’ seems to offer an alternative narrative...and a walk?

Tarek: We have some great digital shows in Going GlobalUnRreal City is a unique Live / VR combo experience about smart cities and how we live in them. Rich Kids, A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran has the audience using Instagram while engaging in the work. I love these pieces and how they use technology to excavate new experiences and truths. But I also love a piece that immerse and engages participants in a quieter way – they reveal a different type of truth the digital stuff can’t access. Neither Here Nor There gives us moments to reflect and discuss and create together which is meaningful and energising in a lo-fi way. The world is multi-faceted, and the best artistic responses always reflect this complexity and give us different avenues through.

Jayson: What is an “anarchic pop concert”?

Tarek: Here’s a snapshot. Lucy has created some incredible songs that she is launching with this concert. She is wearing the most outlandish costume that really needs to be seen to be believed. She is belting out a heart-wrenching ballad of pain and loss. While doing this, her stage designer, Morven, has realised she needs a hole to sink into as part of the song’s finale. So she starts cutting a hole in the floor with a massive chainsaw. That is just 5 minutes of the wonderful crazy anarchy that is Life, Live!

When I started this job, Lucy McCormick was the person I most wanted to see at BAC because I genuinely think she is the UK’s hottest performance artist right now. Life Live! (in my humble opinion) is her best work yet. Never mind what anyone else thinks, I am just so hyped to see this again and I’m bringing every one of my friends to see it too.

Jayson: I feel like you are super ambitious – with such a broad range of shows why also programme two festivals as well?

Tarek: For us at BAC, it’s very important to showcase new and exciting talent; it’s the reason we exist and we’re up for taking risks on everyone we’re excited about. We’re delighted to be working with Impact Dance and the explosive performances they are bringing to the festival. Street Dance is an artform that is growing exponentially in popularity and deserves bigger platforms. Homegrown is BAC’s annual festival that showcases the best of young, energised, local talent. It is easily the staff’s favourite time of year, when our building is most buzzy, exciting and full of surprises. If you really want to see why BAC is so different from other venues, come during Homegrown, see several things on one day, and you’ll immediately understand why it’s an immovable annual fixture in so many people’s diaries.

Jayson: How did leaving the UK and returning when you were 17 inform your programming approach?

Tarek: It is of course extremely difficult to move between countries and acclimatise. Culture shock and feelings of isolation were things I struggled with for years. At the start everything feels terrifying, nothing is understandable, and people are so alien. But over the years you start to realise that these differences are absolutely artificial.

I can see now that the people I thought were so different are, actually, deep down, identical to all the people I knew growing up. The friendships and relationships I have now are as deep as those I had across the world.

Going Global represents that reality. The shows in this season invite everyone to look past superficial differences and try to find the commonalities we all share. It creates points of understanding and connection that punctures through our superficial differences.


[Florencia Cordeu & Omar Elerian: Autoreverse]

Jayson: What shows on the programme has BAC co-produced or supported?

Tarek: BAC has always been an important national engine for new work. Many of the shows in the season have been co-produced or developed by BAC in some way: Autoreverse, The Spirit, Swimming Pools, Outrageous Behaviour, Homegrown Festival, unReal City, Life,Live!, Rich Kids, a History of Shopping Malls in Tehran.

That’s not unusual. Behind the scenes, our beautiful town hall building is constantly bursting with artists and communities and young people constantly cooking up new ideas and being creative. What appears in our seasons is only the tip of this incredible iceberg. A lot of work ends up in other venues, and that makes us very happy. We just love seeing great work manifest, and we don’t feel territorial about it – we just want the artists we are working with to feel supported and to thrive.


[BAC's Homegrown]

Jayson: I hope you won’t be afraid to say - what are some things you are most excited about in the programme?

Tarek: I honestly can’t choose between these; I genuinely am passionate about all these pieces. They are so different and remarkable, each in their own way. I hope this is the same for me for every season as AD going forward – that every single piece is something you can be passionate about.

So for no other reason that it’s coming first, let me highlight Autoreverse. Omar Elerian is one of my favourite directors – and he has developed this exquisite piece with Florencia Cordeu using real tape cassettes that she has exchanged with her family in Chile. It’s that kind of unique personal story that I really cherish. I suspect this will be one of those special shows that stays with the audience long after they’ve seen it (in a good way of course!).

Jayson: For those who don’t know, what is BAC’s approach to “Relaxed Performances”?

Tarek: It just means we’re not uptight about stuff. The audience can come in and out of the space and make noise as their access and bodies requires. We have ear defenders and a dedicated chill out room that people can go to if they need it. We don’t change the shows (i.e. we don’t adjust lighting states or ban loud noises) but we do give audiences as much information as they like about what happens in advance. Making all shows relaxed has made all our performances better – there is an immediateness and a freedom and an excitement to the auditorium.

People mistakenly think relaxed performances mean some kind of anarchy or constant disruption. All it means is that artists and audiences are encouraged to be respectful of each other and mutually supportive. However, I don’t think we have a right to call ourselves a performance space unless we are genuinely accessible to everyone.


[Sleepwalk Collective: Swimming Pools]

Jayson: How do you balance experimental with also trying to appeal to a wide audience?

Tarek: I don’t recognise this as a real trade-off. Of course, we are excited by artists and creative who want to take risks and innovate and push boundaries – and that kind of activity is synonymous with BAC. But a lot of people are also excited by that too – and it means you can access experiences at BAC that are hard to find anywhere else.

It’s different, but that doesn’t mean it’s not popular. We programme the best work we can find and support – we don’t dumb down or try to cater to what we think may sell a lot of tickets. Audiences want stuff that is mischievous and novel and thrilling too. We’re on the same page!

Jayson: How did ‘Up Next’ help prepare you for the role as Artistic Director & CEO of BAC?

Tarek: It meant I knew the building and it meant I loved the people and the places as much as is humanly possible. But I think it made it harder in some ways to go through the interview process. The stakes were quite high for me as I knew there was no other venue in the whole country I had any interest in being AD or CEO of. You get to experience the wonderful values and how unique the place is from the inside. When I was offered the job, after 5 interviews, I confess I cried just a teeny bit.

Jayson: It’s a shame that many people can’t afford art experiences especially on the West End – how else have you made BAC a place anyone could go and see some performance?

Tarek: Nearly every ticket for every show in Going Global is less than £15 and often much cheaper. It’s expensive bringing international work in, but we have invested in that without raising our prices as we feel it is something everyone should have access to and experience.

It’s not just about ticket prices. There’s no point offering cheap seats then charging people £10 for a glass of wine. You can have a meal at BAC for less than a tenner. The drinks are affordable. Our building is always open and welcoming for everyone – you don’t need to spend money to use this a place to work or to just hang out. It isn’t our building, it belongs to our local community. If people can no longer afford to come to BAC, or make the building their home, then I should be fired. That’s the job. Everyone who works here is passionate about that – it will never change.

Jayson: In three words describe the following:
Tarek:
Tips for being an Artistic Director: Support great people
Going Global: Inspiring, Uplifting, Mischievous
2020 at BAC: Always reinventing itself

@TarekIskander1

#BACGoingGlobal
until 30 May
Info and tickets: bac.org.uk

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