Imagine hugging a musician, dancing with people you have never met, sharing breakfast with people of all faiths and none, under a life size broken bridge. A provocation in public space, inspiring curiosity and conversation. A venue without walls where you become the story.
That was “Bridge,” a large-scale outdoor arts project celebrating the intersection of art, engineering and social change. It was produced by Imagineer Productions and creatively led by Artistic Director Orit Azaz, in response to Arts Council England’s desire to stimulate the production of more quality outdoor arts work in the West Midlands region of the UK. The project was developed over 2017–2018 and first toured to two UK locations, Coventry and Grantham, in September 2019.
“Bridge” was conceived in the aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the European Union, a troubled and divisive process leading to social and emotional turbulence. A large scale, inclusive, culturally democratic, creative conversation, taking place in outdoor public space, about bridging divides and connecting across differences felt like the most important thing we, as artists, could offer.
The initial creative concept was of an unfinished or broken bridge that can only be completed by the effort and imagination of people. Early inspiration came visually from the image of Mostar Bridge in Bosnia, and from a quote given to us by John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral, a symbol for peace and reconciliation worldwide:
“You have not truly engaged in reconciliation until your own people feel you have betrayed them.”
Designed by Sydney based designer Dan Potra, the “Bridge” structure, 22 meters wide by 6 meters high with a 6-meter gap where the keystone would be, acts as a provocation and inspiration for conversation and creativity, framing the story for participants, performers and the public. As with all outdoor work, we didn’t know how the image of the broken bridge would ‘read’ in a city/town centre space and what meaning people would make from it. We were surprised and delighted by the breadth and depth of response — residents and community groups, including faith, interfaith, sport, creative and social, businesses and artists — wanted to get involved and saw the project as a platform and beacon for their own work and for the positive energy and story of their city/town. We devised a spectrum of ways that people could participate, on their own terms as well as ours, in advance or in the moment. Over “Three Extraordinary Days in Coventry”, 30 groups hosted or devised their own creative contributions; 1,500 people of all ages took part in Bridge activities Under the Bridge and around the city; 3,500 people gathered to watch the night-time Bridge performance and, overall, the Bridge installation was seen by over 100,000 people.
In Coventry, the “Under the Bridge” programme included intimate and moving encounters that are unimaginable today: from the Crisis Choir, a group of vulnerable people who worked together to create a new song “Unbreakable” which was performed under the Bridge; to “Breakfast Under the Bridge,” where faith leaders from different religions sat together with volunteers and homeless people to share food and conversations about the divides that need to be bridged; to “Orchestra Under the Bridge,” which invited musicians and non-musicians to share an impromptu music jam; to a sing-and-sign flash mob performance by a specially formed Bridge of Light Choir, which brought children and adults with hearing impairments and learning difficulties together with those without.
Now, we imagine “Bridge” in 2021, in the aftermath — or perhaps, still in the storm — of COVID-19. We don’t know what this context will be like. Will people be ready to meet in public spaces? Will social distancing still be required? Will culture, entertainment, art and play feel relevant?
We know that “Bridge” is flexible, robust and open enough to be shaped, and to shape itself, around whatever situation exists, whilst retaining the clarity, rigour and integrity of our artistic vision. We know that working together across geographies, histories and cultural differences will be more important than ever: to make the most of this extraordinary experiment in living, and valuing, differently; to overcome the new divisions being engineered by leaders worldwide as borders are closed and blaming begins; and to lay the foundations for a positive, equal, sustainable future for people and planet, in the face of what we imagine will be an immense pressure to return to ‘normal’.
The enormity of what we must reconcile ourselves with — a new world with new rules, an intimate viral connection with people of all nations, a new set of choices about how to live and what rules to employ, trust or mistrust, barriers or bridges — the risk of betrayal, whatever this may now mean, seems high. We find ourselves in a new landscape.
Currently we are responding to the inevitable delays to our next “Bridge” residency, with a programme of creative research, exploring imaginative ways to connect artists and communities at this time of social distancing. At a time where borders are closed and people can’t get home, we will focus on international divides and how people are connecting across land, sea and cultural difference.
We are excited to explore “Bridge” with partners in this context and to build on the discoveries we made through our work so far.
Through the process of devising, developing and producing “Bridge” in two very different urban environments in 2018/2019, many discoveries were made which create new possibilities for the future:
● “Bridge” offers an unusually flexible model for touring large scale outdoor arts, with potential to reach huge numbers of people over a three-day residency period, with a combination of tourable and bespoke programming.
● An unusually wide variety of community groups, including many faith, sport, residents and social groups who do not normally engage in the arts, responded proactively to the theme of bridging divides / connecting across difference and welcomed the impetus and high profile showcase opportunity for their activities.
● The “Bridge” structure functions in public space as a multi-purpose venue with no thresholds — with three sizes of ‘auditorium’ and, for city centre sites, a ready made audience at all times of day.
● Some of the “Bridge” components have meaning and integrity as standalone artworks/elements and can be presented in their own right as well as part of a Bridge Residency.
● The themes, scale and context of Bridge is also inspiring for professional artists, working in different disciplines, at all levels of experience — providing a supported opportunity to pilot new outdoor work in the context of the Under the Bridge programme — this creates the possibility of new artists’ commissions in each Bridge residency location and potential for an evolving ‘menu’ of Bridge artworks / Components for ongoing touring at a variety of scales.
● The ethos and methodology of the project means that Bridge can be shaped in response to, and in collaboration with, partners and communities in each location — as part of a festival, as a standalone festival / event, as a framework for long term / strategic community engagement.
● There are multiple creative development pathways — including new artistic commissions for “Bridging the Gap”; new digital / online artworks that extend invitations to collaborate across geographies; and Bridge 2, working with the Leonardo da Vinci Bridge Kit materials to create a new large-scale participatory installation for public spaces.
If you would like to learn more or get involved, please head over to www.imagine-bridge.co.uk