Art Night London is a free, annual, contemporary arts festival which made its debut and transformed London for one night in July 2016. For emerge, last summer in advance of the event, we spoke with Enora Robin, University College London doctoral candidate and core team-member at Unlimited Productions, the all-female force specializing in ‘projects at the crossroads of arts and urbanism.’ Enora provided a generous, behind-the-scenes view of the experience and excitement of producing the inaugural year of the festival.
ASHA VEAL BRISEBOIS: I am curious about how Art Night, working on the project, may or may not have changed or informed your perspective on the role of arts organizations in society. Is there anything that you’ve observed differently or learned?
ENORA ROBIN: I think coming from the French context, London is quite challenging and quite new for me because there is much less public funding for big events like Art Night here, because the budget is quite high and it’s also not something that’s been initiated by the mayor’s office. Whereas in Paris, Nuit Blanche was very much put forward by the municipality, so obviously they had the municipal budget allocated to that. So I think this project really changed my view on what public art is, and that private organizations in partnership with public institutions and cultural institutions can bring art that is free and accessible to all. And that’s a specificity of the London context—where public art is actually not necessarily publicly-funded art. It’s just art that is broached to the public for free. It can be brought to the public by many different types of organizations, which is challenging in a way but also very inspiring. You get to work with people from very different institutions and they all get together to bring the best of the arts to Londoners and London visitors. I think that’s great.
AVB: Does Art Night aspire to be in conversation with the global arts community? You’ve already talked about comparative experiences between Nuit Blanche, London, Paris, different things. Is that part of the goal to have a conversation?
ER: I think that’s always been part of the goal, having different artists from all over the world—from American artists, French artists, we have a Swiss artist, we have obviously UK-based artists, also a Korean artist. I think it’s through the artistic program that we’re creating links between different countries, and some of our supporters and funders are cultural institutes from all these places. So I think it’s great in that way, to sort of put them together and just foster a dialogue between different parts of the world, but also because Art Night is inspired by Nuit Blanche and there were many Nuit Blanche orchestrations all around the world. Thirty-three cities have started to have their own Nuit Blanche, and we will be part of that international Nuit Blanche network.
AVB: How did the Unlimited Productions team decide to delve into Art Night as a project?
ER: We met when we were at university. Some of the others had worked on the Nuit Blanche project in Paris, working on the coordination and the production side of things. We had all been living in London for two or three years and we thought it was a shame that an event like Nuit Blanche, which is free and accessible to all, hadn’t arrived yet in London. We thought that it might be interesting for us to try to import and implement it here. We started working on it and meeting people who might be interested. We managed together as a team of five, meeting and meeting, and we became bigger and bigger. After two years we managed to have the first Art Night coming up in July 2016.
Unlimited Productions has a team that’s five people, but on a daily basis when we’re working on Art Night we are a team of ten people directly involved.
AVB: That’s excellent. The ladies of Unlimited, you’re all in your early and early-mid 20s now? I think this is important to the story.
ER: Yes. We’re all in our 20s.
AVB: What is the goal of Art Night? What will the schedule be like? Who are some of the collaborators?
ER: The idea behind Art Night is to help people rediscover the city’s heritage through arts. There are different components. The first component is that every year we want to engage and ‘rediscover’ a different part of London. That means choosing an area that’s walkable, so that people can follow an ‘art trail’ and discover different venues, indoor and outdoor, on this trail. The second component is that Art Night will involve a public institution which has links to the area as well. Every year we are going to invite a new cultural institution to create the art trail and the idea is very much about being as collaborative as we can. So we encourage institutions to recruit young curators to set up the artistic program, because we think it’s quite interesting to have fresh eyes. Also we collaborate with many different venue owners. Not everything is publicly owned so we do have to deal with many private owners.
This year’s Art Night is curated by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is a very old London institution and a very radical art institution, so it’s quite interesting to work with them for the first edition. They are located in Central London so that’s also why we have an arts trail in Central London. They’re working with the young curator Kathy Nobel. She was working at Tate Modern before, focusing on performance arts. So the first edition of Art Night is very performance based, which is great because I think we’re going to see contemporary arts maybe through new eyes. Because it’s not only big art pieces, but it’s also about people moving and people interacting.
AVB: Who are some of the artists?
ER: Some of the artists that we have—we have mostly women for the first edition, which just happened to be—but we have Laure Provost who’s a Turner Prize winning artists who’s going to take over Admiralty Arch, which is a very famous old monument in London. People can hardly go there anymore because it’s going to be a hotel. So we wanted to do something there, and she’s going to completely transform it. We have the American artist Joan Jonas, with jazz musician Jason Moran, and together they are going to perform in a cathedral on the south bank of the River Thames.We have an artist called Nina Beier who’s going to transform a luxury flat in Central London, which should be fun. We have an English artist called Celia Hempton who’s going to take over a whole floor of an iconic brutalist building on the London trail as well. We have a Korean artist called Koo Jeong A. who is going to completely transform a disused tube station. I think it’s one of the most popular events. Many people signed up for that because I think it’s quite a unique chance to see the place…a disused tube station in the middle of the city is quite unusual, and to see this artist there is going to be great. She is going to play with smells and lights. This project is co-commissioned with Arts in the Underground, which is an institution which is part of Transport for London. It’s quite interesting that they have an arts team within the Transport Authority, and we are working with them on that.
We have the artist Jennifer West who’s going to take over a church in Central London. She’s American, she’s working in L.A. We have the British artist Linder who’s going to take over a central area of the city and have a burlesque show there, close to the Institute of Contemporary Arts. It’s quite diverse in terms of where people come from and the type of places that they are going to use. This is a sample of the artists we are going to work with. We have many different partners. And again, Kathy Noble, in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art, is curating the first edition, and we have a few public and private sponsors attending the event. PHILLIPS auction house is our featured sponsor.
AVB: Are there communities that you are seeking to be in dialogue with within London itself, such as community-based organizations or social issues. Is that part of it?
ER: It’s completely part of it, because the fact that Art Night is a free event. The idea really is to break outside of the museum’s rules and in that way to engage with people who would not necessarily go the Institute of Contemporary Art or the Tate, for many different reasons. It’s not so much a question of access, because many museums are free in London, and I think in that way it’s accessible. But maybe people find institutions a bit overwhelming. They might be more attracted to see art in unusual venues. So we are trying to reach out to a broader community.
Also we are working with the organization Open City on an education program. For a mediation program we are collaborating with the Art Fund organization, of students from many arts universities across London whom receive a special training about how to communicate artistic facts or art history to an audience.
AVB: Can you talk a bit about how you and the Unlimited team approached the management of Art Night, and specific roles within and external of the core team. What would you say are some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of producing Art Night? The very basic practical things. What did you do? Even on a day-to-day, when you walk into the office or if you work from home.
ER: We’ve been working very, very closely with the curator, Kathy Noble. She’s got her own curatorial team, but we are obviously in contact with them all the time and we’re supporting all of the projects from a production side—focusing on how we can make things happen and how we can facilitate the curator’s work through getting partnerships with the venue providers, through dealing with health and safety. A big component of the project as well was that we were fundraising, and we managed to raise all the funds to make Art Night happen. Part of Unlimited was exclusively dedicated to fundraising. From when we started the fundraising strategy and up until we finally got all the funding we needed, took about a year.
Obviously it takes time to build the right network and to meet the right people, and it takes a lot of energy. You have to make the effort to still do the project even when you don’t have any funding yet. You just really have to believe in it all the time. An important thing that we had from the very beginning is a designer on the Unlimited team, Lise, who helped us put the Art Night concepts together visually so that we were able to communicate very quickly when we had external meetings. I think for some people, it’s a small detail, but we took it very seriously.
AVB: And on a day-to-day?
ER: My role specifically on the Unlimited team is a bit different. It’s less about production and fundraising, but it’s more about research and publications. I’m leading the evaluation of this first edition to make sure that we learn from all that we’ve achieved so far, and that we can be more efficient next year. This role is a bit more research focused, but I think it’s something that an arts organization really needs, especially to reflect on what happened, the main challenges, how you managed to overcome. For me it’s very interesting to have that role of monitoring our progress and seeing how we cope with any challenge that might arise.
Also, there’s a lot of coordination because we’re dealing with so many different partners. It’s such a big project, and I think the fact that it links arts and architecture—and that we are the production team, but we have a curator, and then we have private and public sponsors—I think a lot of it is just coordinating and making sure that everyone is up-to-date and up-to-speed. We spend a lot of time on site visits as well to make sure that an artist knows the physical constraints of a place, because obviously each artwork responds to a specific site. At the moment, we are one month out from the event and so there is also a lot of organization of pre-event tools for the press. This is the kind of thing that we are doing at the moment. But originally, before we started the implementation phase, there was a lot of research. Venue research, research to find the right partners, a lot of research involved for the fundraising—because for big projects like this you need to knock on many doors, and it takes a lot of time as well to research who might be interested in funding these kind of projects.
AVB: Prior to Art Night, much of your own educational and career background was not in the arts, correct? Do you have the experience of advocating for the arts and non-arts settings?
ER: Although my background is not in the arts, I’ve always been interested and I’ve always participated in festivals, as a volunteer, or helping friends when they were shooting their movies and these kind of things. But I didn’t train in the arts. I have a background in political science and urban planning. I think it’s helpful to know the city and to be interested in the arts to do this kind of job—and also I’m not working on my own, as we have quite a few people on the team who’ve had the experience of working in organizations and managing and producing things. But many things we learned on the ground.
I think it might sound a bit cliché to say this, but if you are passionate and you’re really believe that the project is something that you want to fight for I think you learn quickly.
Also, you learn a lot by studying, but sometimes when you start working you realize that it’s a lot of improvising and learning by doing.
AVB: I keep thinking, especially for the women who are younger, how great it is to lead big projects. I think sometimes we don’t realize our own leadership potential. You don’t have to wait until you’re a certain age or level of tenure to try to do things.
ER: Yeah. I know. I agree. Sometimes it’s scary and sometimes you feel like ‘Hey, I’m completely not legitimate to do that.’ But actually it’s normal. Everybody has doubts and I’m sure that even when you’re 50 and a CEO of a company, you still wake up sometimes thinking, ‘I’m not the right person to be here. I’m not good enough.’ I think it’s quite normal to think that way, but it doesn’t have to prevent you from doing things.