Thursday, 17 May 2012

'Getting lost is essential': The Quay brothers on their city-wide Leeds art project

From 18 to 20 May, theatrical artists the Quay brothers will turn the whole of Leeds into a stage, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. The artists promise that every person strolling through the city will contribute to the choreography. Prepare for a labyrinth to get lost in.

Film by Joe Bream and Marishka Van Steenbergen

The Quay Brothers re-imagine Leeds for 2012 Cultural Olympiad

(Published in the Guardian Northerner on 17 May 2012) 

Yorkshire's swishest shopping streets, and the mysterious Dark Arches, will turn into strange and different places for the next three days.

Leeds Canvas and the Quay Brothers. The Dark Arches are one of the most atmospheric corners of the city centre, hidden below the train station and above the river Aire Photograph: Tom Arber

Residents of Leeds have woken up to find a boat lodged in a tree in the middle of Briggate, the handsome pedestrian-only street at the heart of the city's shopping district. The unexpected shipwreck, 14 metres across and four tall, is the first major public installation to mark the beginning of the Overworlds and Underworlds event.

The internationally acclaimed artist filmmakers, the Quay Brothers, have designed this temporary installation as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Overworlds and Underworlds, happening from tomorrow, Friday 18 May until Sunday night, will see the pair, plus a group of carefully selected fellow-artists, using the city centre of Leeds as their canvas.

This is the first project by Leeds Canvas, an arts consortium chosen three years ago as the Yorkshire region winner of a commission for Artists Taking the Lead. The commission is one of 12 across the UK which are celebrating the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

Steve Dearden, associate producer for Leeds Canvas, explained:

Initially the arts council invited proposals for a large piece of public art in all the English regions. That's when the consortium came together and made a very basic invitation. We would say to an artist, here's our city, our people, our buildings, make a piece of art which explores and celebrates that.

The free event will include three days of public performances and installations involving light, live music, dance and film. However, specific details of the event are being kept secret until closer to the weekend. Dearden said:

What we want is for people to suddenly be surprised by happenings in their own city or visitors seeing things in the city that have never been seen before. All along with the brothers what we want to make is a piece of art based on the city. Based on themes in city life, the flow and movement of people and of water around the city. So the day-to-day activities in the city suddenly becoming strange with strange interventions being made, whether by physical objects or moving objects or people.

The Quay Brothers are working in collaboration with eight of the city's key arts organisations; Northern Ballet, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North, Yorkshire Dance, Phoenix Dance, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds Met Studio Theatre and Leeds Art Gallery.

Leeds Canvas said they chose the Quay Brothers because of their previous work in Leeds creating art installations for Leeds Art Gallery. They also knew that the brothers had always had a fascination for the Dark Arches under the city's main train station.

Dearden explained why Canvas is hosting a fleeting public art event rather than a lasting installation.

By choosing the Quay Brothers we always knew we weren't going to get a monumental sculpture. They work with light; they work in that ephemeral way. We knew it would be an amazing thing that came out of the city that would be there for a period and then disappear again. But hopefully it is one of those interventions where it is something that becomes part of peoples' memories or the way they talk about the city.

Overworlds and Underworlds will begin on Briggate in Leeds city centre, including the illustrious late 19th century arcades and leading down to the mysterious underworld of the Dark Arches. Dominic Gray, projects director at Opera North said:

The idea of Overworlds and Underworlds is that we've got these very mysterious atmospheric worlds, one underneath and one above. There are subterranean movements going on underneath our feet that are historical as well as physical, the movements of people over hundreds of years. Overworlds is the angels and the things we aspire to, the things that are in the air that we glimpse out of the corner of our eye. The project is about how us, the living people, walk between one or the other and negotiate our map through a city where those things are going on.

The Dark Arches. Photograph: Tom Arber

Dearden hopes that the event will leave a lasting legacy of collaboration between the artists.

It's important to mention that it has not just been about the core team of chief executives or artistic directors. People from different levels have been working together, including the education and marketing teams who have collaborated for the first time. So hopefully the legacy of this, apart from the artistic legacy, will be a much closer relationship between those key organisations in the future.

He also enjoyed his time with the Quay Brothers:

It's been fantastic working with them, it's been wonderful to go and meet them in their studio. In this very unique working space, you knock on door in the south of London, open it up and suddenly you are in this junk room of a Russian monastery, lots of icons, books, decanters, you could spend years in there exploring. And at the other end there is this high-tech editing suite where they are making films with the newest equipment.

Leeds Canvas expects Overworlds and Underworlds to be an event that will be remembered for years to come. Dearden said, “I think when people see some of the set pieces there will be a sense of wonder and fun. I expect that on Friday and Saturday night people will be taking photos of themselves in front of these amazing things and it will become part of the photographic record of the city and part of the way people talk about the city in the future."

Here's a clip of Steve Dearden and Dominic Gray talking about the weekend's excitements in Leeds. Film by Joe Bream and Marishka Van Steenbergen. 

Leeds centre prepares for OverWorlds & UnderWorlds

(Published in the Guardian Culture section on 17 May 2012)

Quay Brothers to take over city centre with mysterious mixture of light, dance, music, film – and a boat in a tree
The Boat on Briggate: the free three-day event begins on Friday. Photograph: Yorkshire Dance
The Quay Brothers, acclaimed American artist filmmakers who live and work in England, will be transforming the city of Leeds this weekend as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The free three-day OverWorlds & UnderWorlds event, which starts on Friday, will involve the identical 64-year-old twins Stephen and Timothy and other artists putting on a series of public performances and installations involving light, live music, dance and film.

Secrecy surrounds the exact content of the shows but a large clue appeared last weekend with the overnight arrival of a boat lodged in a tree in the Briggate shopping district. The installation is 14 metres wide and four metres tall.

Visitors will be invited to explore the city with fresh eyes, following a map that will lead them through the city centre, where they will encounter public performances involving water and music. Venues will include the County Arcades, which will be filled with the sound of children's voices and live music. The map will then lead visitors down into the subterranean Dark Arches, where they will encounter film and performers within the alcoves.

The Quay Brothers have been working in collaboration with eight of the city's arts organisations: Northern Ballet, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Opera North, Yorkshire Dance, Phoenix Dance, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds Met Studio Theatre and Leeds Art Gallery.

Asked for more details about the events, the Quay brothers, who have a habit of finishing each other's sentences, said:

You have to experience it. We have set all these things in motion that make it unpredictable and that's the whole point. The journey is the essence of this thing, to be in the middle of that journey and [to know] that being lost can be pleasurable.

The Quay Brothers are renowned as original filmmakers who usually work on a small scale, creating stop-motion animation films, often using puppets.

In contrast, the OverWorlds & UnderWorlds event will be on a large-scale, challenging the artists to translate their dreamlike style using puppets into a dreamlike world of dancers, film and public installations. The brothers are best known for the 1986 film Street of Crocodiles, adapted from a short story by Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

Light is also a motif of the artists' stories. In 2000 the Quay Brothers were commissioned by the BBC to make the film In Absentia in collaboration with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The film combines live action and animation, using relentlessly changing light to convey the thoughts of a woman repeatedly writing a letter.

The Quay Brothers have also created set designs for theatre and opera, which has informed how they approach the OverWorlds & UnderWorlds project. "It's the idea that with the little bit of theatre and opera work we have done, [we're] seeing the city as being a stage so you're staging a large installation piece.

We're hoping there will be a certain choreography of events but that things will overlap or intersect or happen. It is a thing we have to let go, we have to set the parameters, [we] have to wind it up and then off it goes.

The OverWorlds & UnderWorlds event is the first project by Leeds Canvas, an arts consortium, chosen three years ago as the Yorkshire region winner of a commission for Artists Taking the Lead. The commission is one of 12 across the UK celebrating the London Olympics and Paralympics.

When asked for their views on the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the Quay Brothers said: "It's too big for us, it's hysteria, we're not good at that. We're closer to rats that stay underground from all of that."