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Jen Walke-Myles: Partnerships matter when making outdoor theatre on Dorset’s heritage sites

Inside Out Dorset. Photo: Nick Read Hilltop installation And Now at Inside Out Dorset. Photo: Nick Read
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Now that site-specific work and outdoor arts are almost commonplace, what sets the biennial festival Inside Out Dorset, which celebrates such art, aside is the way we use art to animate the landscape – we communicate something about the landscape itself through the work we present there.

We handpick our sites – both rural and urban – for each festival and in seven festivals we have rarely used a site twice. We do (very carefully) place some existing work but for our heritage locations we commission artists to make work in response to the sites themselves and support them through the process.

Working with heritage sites has become our specialism

Over the years, working with heritage sites has become a specialism for us and that has led to our developing partnerships with environmental and heritage organisations. We work particularly closely with the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team.

In 2014, the AONB was involved in developing an artists’ brief for Ridgeway Responses, small-scale commissions responding to the South Dorset Ridgeway. The event was part of the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership Scheme giving the artists involved exceptional access to heritage and environmental experts as they developed their work.

When artist Sarah Butterworth wanted to create a large-scale chalk artwork, The White Hare, inspired by Neolithic hillside drawings, she needed practical support in mapping a massive 2D image on to a 3D hillside. The council’s senior archaeologist introduced us to mapping expert Jon Hogan, who had worked on the Osmington White Horse reparation. He helped Sarah plot the artwork using satellite imagery, software and GPS.

The Soaring Sky by Arbonauts, an outdoor performance by local singers which is part of Hengistbury Headlines. Photo:  Dimitri Launder
The Soaring Sky by Arbonauts, an outdoor performance by local singers performed as part of Hengistbury Headlines. Photo: Dimitri Launder

Heritage sites often come with designations such as “site of special scientific interest”, and we work closely with landowners and heritage partners to respond to the environmental sensitivities. For Inside Out Dorset 2016, we are creating Hengistbury Headlines, a 2km trail of art works, performances and installations in the nature reserve at Hengistbury Head, a scheduled ancient monument.

Temporary artworks will be installed there for four days from September 22-25, and some of these have structural and technical elements that need to be hidden from view. We have to listen to the people who know the site best. For instance, it’s not okay for us to dig a cable into the ground in one site (it counts as ‘excavation’) but it is okay to stake into the ground at another less archaeologically sensitive part of the site.

Ultimately I think our partnerships work because the art work we are presenting is about getting our partners’ heritage messages across and engaging audiences in the locations. Inside Out Dorset – where all the events are free – attracts diverse audiences, either introducing them to the site for the first time or deepening their relationship with a place. If we can do that and attract those same diverse audiences to experience some transformative art, I think we’ll have done our job.

Inside Out Dorset runs from 16 to 25 September

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