Transforming the familiar: A Q&A with Helen Marriage

Sultan's Elephant

The Sultan’s Elephant. Photo credit: Sophie Laslett

Over the last 10 years, U.K.-based production company Artichoke has produced some of the U.K.’s most talked about large-scale art events, ranging from Royal de Luxe’s The Sultan’s Elephant, which saw central London come to a standstill with over 1,000,000 spectators; to the U.K.’s largest light festival, Lumiere, which features installations from artists around the world. What does it take to pull off these events and how have they impacted local communities? IABC talked with Artichoke Director Helen Marriage, the 2016 World Conference opening keynote, to find out.

What inspired you to create your first large-scale event, the Sultan’s Elephant, which involved a 42-ton mechanical elephant and 20-foot tall marionette girl roaming the streets of London?

I’d followed the work of French street theatre magicians Royal de Luxe for over 20 years and couldn’t work out why no one in the U.K. had decided to invite them to perform. Their enormous sagas telling stories using giant marionettes were so entrancing. In the end, I decided that I’d better try to produce them myself, little realizing quite how complicated that was going to be. It took seven years from the first email I sent inviting Royal de Luxe to think about coming to London to us arriving on the streets with a live audience of over one million people.

Your work has a unique way of bringing the public together. What is it about these events that causes people to get into the streets and set aside their differences?

I’m absolutely convinced that the ways we’ve evolved our events so that they’re inserted into the very DNA of a city, means that they don’t appear to inhabit any one territory. No one is excluded from their own High Street and no one has any attitude to sharing that space with others. The events themselves don’t take place in the exclusive domain of a dedicated arts building like a theater, concert hall or gallery, so everyone is invited and it’s hard not to notice that the events are taking place. The scale we work on means that roads get closed, buildings get transformed and everyone notices!

Similarly, how have you seen communities benefit from events like the Sultan’s Elephant or the temple in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland?

World Conference Opening Keynote Helen Marriage

World Conference Opening Keynote Helen Marriage

It was clear from Artichoke’s first production, the Sultan’s Elephant, that there was a cathartic impact in simply bringing together a city with all its inhabitants and visitors. The Sultan’s Elephant took place about nine months after London’s 7/7 bombings during a period when the city was anxious and nervous about public gatherings. The joyous mood that surrounded the event meant that everyone felt better about living in the city and sharing the streets together. Central London became a playground; there was no recorded crime in the area that weekend, no injuries or hospital admissions—just a general feeling of well-being and happiness.

Similarly, when we produced Temple in Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland, we worked to bring together very divided communities in an act of peace and reconciliation. We saw more than 70,000 people visit the installation over a week-long period and knew that they were from all walks of life and communities. Together, they shared the beauty of the gesture from artist David Best and the city still resonates with and remembers the project. It had a profound impact.

You’ve said that you work with the belief that “the city can be turned into a stage for storytelling.” Could you explain that? How important is storytelling in your work?

Much public art relies on a cerebral or intellectual response to an abstract or conceptual idea. Some works are very successful in communicating with a wide public; some less so. Artichoke’s work is always about an emotional engagement with the public—we rely on effects, stories and meaning to convey impact and to make real a physical transformation of the public realm. This means that very familiar landscapes undergo a form of transfiguration, and those that witness that change also experience a kind of renewal or spiritual moment that often means that they are themselves changed.

Because of the grand scale of your projects, it requires a great deal of collaboration with city officials and other groups. Do you have tips for collaborating with a variety of stakeholders and seeing these events through fruition?

Organizations like Artichoke are always encouraged to partner with institutions, whether that’s emergency services, local authorities, statutory bodies or stakeholders in order to successfully deliver our events. While this is clearly important, what we’ve discovered over the years is that it’s more essential to make friends with the individuals in those institutions, to get them to embrace the aims and ambitions of the project, so that they want it to happen as much as we do. When you’ve reached this profound level of partnership, anything becomes possible. Event planning is broken down into a set of tasks, and these are divided up between those partners in the most efficient way possible. Nothing seems impossible when it’s broken into bite-size chunks and the responsibility for delivery is shared.

What can communicators take away from your work? How can they infuse more creativity into their engagement projects?

Communication is at the heart of everything Artichoke undertakes, whether that’s internal communication across the company, communication between partners or, most importantly, the way in which we communicate our ideas to the public. If you’re effectively invading public space, there’s inevitably going to be some disruption. It’s important that everyone involved in making the project happen is telling the same story—and invests energy and enthusiasm into describing how great the event is going to be, rather than dwelling on the negatives. I suppose that at Artichoke we try to get everyone—audience and stakeholders alike—to imagine for a moment that our familiar world is going to be momentarily transformed into something special. If we can get everyone to look forward to being there, to being a witness to this momentous moment, then the downsides of rerouted buses, closed roads or a busy Underground network pale into insignificance at the anticipated excitement of what’s to come. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Hear Helen Marriage live during Sunday’s opening keynote at the 2016 World Conference.