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How the ICA is bringing performance back and wants to ‘set the agenda’

Institute of Contemporary Arts. Photo: Rob Battersby Institute of Contemporary Arts. Photo: Rob Battersby
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After dropping live art a decade ago, the multidisciplinary venue’s performance programme is experiencing a renaissance under director Stefan Kalmar. He talks to Matt Trueman about returning the ICA to its radical roots and his plans for shaping the organisation’s future

Ten years ago, the Institute of Contemporary Arts closed its live art department. It was a controversial decision, not least on account of its justification. Ekow Eshun, the organisation’s then-director, explained his rationale: “It’s my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks depth and cultural urgency.” Many people felt the exact opposite. In fact, at the time, live art suddenly seemed to be taking flight.

Writing in the Guardian, Lyn Gardner described “an unprecedented wave of activity in live art practice”, citing Spill Festival and Forest Fringe. Duckie was at the Barbican and Action Hero at the Battersea Arts Centre. Scottee and Bryony Kimmings debuted the next year. Eshun’s statement began simply: “Times change.”

His words bear repeating today. The ICA is under new management once more – Stefan Kalmar moved from Manhattan’s Artists Space in 2016 – and is restarting its performance programme anew. Next week, it opens a new work by the renowned New York experimental theatre artist Richard Maxwell. A signal, Kalmar says, of renewed commitment.

“The ICA has always been strongest when the different art forms are held in equilibrium with each other,” he says. “Essentially, we’re bringing the ‘S’ back into contemporary arts.” Performance is very much included.

Under Eshun, the ICA hit a crisis. Having become increasingly reliant on corporate sponsorship, scrapping day membership fees in the process, it was disproportionately hit by the recession. An Arts Council England Sustain grant of £1.2 million staved off closure and Eshun’s live art decision was only half down to aesthetics. He spoke of dissolving a departmental “silo-like programming structure” for a fluid, flexible approach but, in reality, his hand was forced by financial necessity.

Stefan Kalmar. Photo: Paris Helena
Stefan Kalmar. Photo: Paris Helena

More austerity followed – its annual ACE grant was cut by £400,000 and, under Gregor Muir’s directorship, the wage bill was trimmed by £1 million a year. But while the finances recovered, the ICA never fully returned to form.

Kalmar’s approach has been to bring the venue back to its roots – “to look at where things went wrong and how you reconnect the dots”. Its issues, he thinks, went beyond income streams. “People took the crash for a financial crisis, not a symptom of an ideological crisis,” Kalmar explains. “When that model went down, the ICA followed suit, but afterwards they looked at the financial problem, not the ideological one.”

In other words, the ICA never addressed its cultural contradictions. Kalmar believes the ICA got swept up in the emergent creative industries, a beacon of Cool Britannia, and lost sight of its radical, oppositional beginnings. He repeatedly cites founders Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, noting that the ICA established a model that’s been recreated all over the world. “It has to be agenda-setting,” Kalmar insists. “It’s like a speedboat racing out ahead of other, bigger cultural institutions.”

‘The ICA has to be a place for new productions, new ideas and new talents. That must be its role’

Its performance history bears that out. From the independent companies Michael Morris programmed in the 1980s –including Joint Stock, Gay Sweatshop and Complicite as well as Robert Lepage’s first UK outing – to the blossoming of live art under Lois Keidan in the 1990s, with Forced Entertainment tucked alongside Ron Athey, Blast Theory and David Hoyle, the ICA has pushed British theatre forwards. More than a decade later, the ICA still threw up the strangest shows; the sort that seemed to defy description. Russian duo Akhe filled the room with Rube Goldberg machines and BlackSkyWhite rolled out nightmarish parades of humanoid ghouls. Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before created a computerised population and let our popular vote lead its performance; a prophetic look ahead to today’s data-driven and referendum-reshaped world.

London has missed such theatrical meteorites since then. Alongside the ICA, the capital has lost several venues dedicated to edgier, experimental performance. Shunt Lounge shut up shop, Toynbee Studios went in-house, while Riverside Studios and Chelsea Theatre both closed for refurbs and face uncertain futures. The avant garde migrated to festival and club contexts – transient settings that struggle to build audiences or offer long-term development – and if mainstream theatre has absorbed elements of experimental practice, it has, inevitably, tempered its edges and idiosyncrasies.

It’s why the ICA’s gradual return could be so welcome. Maxwell is exactly the sort of artist with no place to go. Aside from a video installation in 2010, he’s not presented live work in London since 2006, when the Barbican ended its relationship with him. He’s not had an obvious home here since – particularly as his work has gravitated towards gallery spaces. “My work is becoming more, not architectural, but sculptural,” he says. “There’s less emphasis on dramaturgy.”

Richard Maxwell whose new play Queens Row premieres at ICA Theatre
Richard Maxwell whose new play Queens Row premieres at ICA Theatre

Neither a play nor performance art, Queens Row consists of monologues written specifically for three performers. Each was recruited via an advert placed on Gumtree or community noticeboards that read: “Acting work available. Singing required.” A phone number followed.

Process is as vital as content or form. For Kalmar, that’s key – especially with visual art so tainted by the market. “I think contemporary production, in the 21st-century world, is a collective effort, not the work of a singular, egoistic genius.” Performance, like film and discourse, fits the bill.

That bears down on interdisciplinary practice, something that’s always been at the core of the ICA’s aims. Kalmar believes that the organisation can, almost uniquely, host conversations and encourage overlaps between art forms. “If you look at contemporary artistic practice in the age of the internet, it’s those in-between areas that are interesting,” he says. “That’s also where our legacy is.” Kalmar points to artists like Steve McQueen, Tino Sehgal and Derek Jarman – “hopeful monsters”, he calls them. “We can afford people the space to work outside their comfort zone.”

Profile: Institute of Contemporary Arts 

Director: Stefan Kalmar

Deputy director: Katharine Stout

Chief curator: Richard Birkett

Audience figures: 450,000

Number of employees: 56

Funding levels: £4.2 million income and endowments raised in 2016/17

The space itself is being stripped back – false walls and ceilings removed, restoring Jane Drew’s original open ‘podium’ floorplan. The theatre too, for so long a black box better suited to gigs, has returned to its wooden gymnasium floor. “It felt like a club,” Maxwell says. “We opened it up and the space started to breathe.” It feels far more hospitable already with original skylights still due to be revealed; a neutral space to host performance, not a plain one to present it. A capital project proposal is in the works.

Returning to performance requires “baby steps,” says chief curator Richard Birkett. Maxwell is his third commission, following a Disney-inspired musical by Hyperdub’s Klein and an opera by Dean Blunt and Mica Levi. Both were rehearsed quickly and played short runs, lessons Birkett says are being learned: “We have to go slow, bringing back the curatorial expertise and the resources that performance requires.”

But the ambition is there to produce three new commissions a year, eventually. “We’re not just buying things in or presenting things from elsewhere,” Kalmar says. “The ICA has to be a place for new productions, new ideas and new talents. That must be its role.” It’s risky, but that’s precisely the point. “Our business is risk-taking,” the director adds. “That’s what set us apart.”

Queens Row is at ICA Theatre, London, from September 28 to October 13. More information is available at ica.art

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