The Globe Inn, Newtown, Exeter.
Artists from all over the south west UK have gathered in the upstairs room at the Globe Inn, a local pub in Exeter, to discuss progress towards the production of Battle For The Winds, a large scale outdoor processional performance which will launch the Olympic sailing at Weymouth in July 2012. Lead artists from the seven county regions of the south west are meeting with the artistic directors Cirque Bijou and Desperate Men to stitch together ideas which will enact their county geographies through outdoor performance, combining elements of procession and pilgrimage with community participation and a grand spectacle on Weymouth beach. Money is tight, time is short, and there are many unanswered questions. The room crackles with creative exchange as each area reports progress towards the Battle For The Winds performance which will showcase the region on a global stage next summer: a performance which is part of the Cultural Olympiad, but which is also a cultural outsider from this grand, national project – a ‘Wild West’ circus born in an era of intense financial, political and cultural uncertainty.
As each group checks in, this embryonic pageant begins to mythologise the role of the South West UK in the ‘golden age’ of British global influence . Its performance landscape is a fictive 19th century realm of eccentric English inventors, Cornish wrestlers, Jurassic stone and maritime adventure. These early imaginings include processions of huntsmen, cream teas and working boats, urban circus, skaters and mobility scooters. They enact the regional rivalries of Cornish independence, the diversity of the modern city and the traditions of the countryside, the power of nature and the industrial harnessing of its atmospheric electricity, its stone and minerals. Travelling through the landscape from the seven cardinal points of the region – Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Bristol and Somerset, this episodic proto-performance plans to converge on Weymouth for the creation of a further myth – a reinvention of Greek legend which seeks to ‘gather the winds’ for the Olympic sailing:
Aeolus, Father of the Winds, asks his son, Zephyrus, to call the Seven Winds of the South West to Weymouth and Portland. However the winds are captured by the mischievous Doldrum, who wants to steal the voice and breath of youth. The Seven Winds are rescued by an unlikely hero, who frees the voices and returns the winds.
Through its adaptation of this Greek legend, the Battle for the Winds narrative is performative in nature –it makes something happen. The drama places the ‘sacred’ Olympic competition at risk in symbolic terms, becalmed by ‘evil’ forces. Without its dramatic climax, in which the wind is rescued and released to fill the sails of the competing vessels, the event cannot proceed symbolically. Thus, the public drama is also a social drama, which recruits its audience to the ideological necessity of the Olympics and frames this necessity within the physical materiality of the town of Weymouth.
Each county area is free to interpret this story in their own way as the seven wind gathering teams and their eccentric, eco-powered Wind Vessels travel to Weymouth to combine in a spectacle which will open the Olympic sailing events. As the imagineering continues, artists envision the Wind Vessels being accompanied by otherworldly, elemental music, the sound of storms and the melodies of weathervanes, sails and rigging. They create a landscape of air, isobars and weather charts, referencing the lineage of local poetry, of Hardy and Shakespeare, alongside the carnivalesque, intestinal comedies of ‘trapped wind’ whoopie cushions and and ‘letting the wind blow free’. They morph industrial and maritime heritage into music and dance performed by rugby players and surfers. They plan their involvement in the Olympic Torch Relay and their partnerships with communities, schools, colleges and local authorities; their role as ‘civic magicians’ in the maelstrom year of the 2012 Olympics; linking some 40 events, reaching 500,000 people and involving 1500 artists. They imagine work in the sky and on the ground, in the air and on the water. They blend ancient and modern, the handmade with the digital, hope and ambition with practicality and restraint.
It is a grand vision, a ‘ridiculous show’, and one which, while partly funded by the Arts Council, has yet to raise all the money it needs. To date, Battle for the Winds has received no money from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games or its sponsors, yet it has secured the involvement of the RAF, the Navy and the Army in its planning. Its lead artists and performers are professionals, its choruses, casts and participants are unpaid communities, students and performance groups. As the meeting progresses we await news from a further potential sponsor about whether the project has ‘permission to apply’ for funding for the last piece of the jigsaw – a climactic Olympic spectacular on Weymouth beach.
In Weymouth itself, the performance aims to project this spectacle onto the landscape of the beach and Weymouth Bay, to create an altered state in the landscape which de-familiarises it in the manner of a spatial invasion; one which tricks the eye and layers new stories onto the quarries of Portland and the military gun emplacements of the High Angle Batteries. Its story links locality with archetype, in which a villain emerges from local stone to challenge the gods and the elements themselves before being overcome by a hero from the margins of mainstream society. The performance plans to fly dancers in the air, co-opt Navy speedboats and culminate with 2000 people walking into the sea with flaming torches against a horizon of ships’ sails illuminated in the dark.
As the imagineering moves into negotiation with the strict spatial controls which will be exerted on Weymouth Beach by virtue of its designation as a 2012 LOCOG Live Site, the group enters the spotlight of the international mega event that is the Olympic Games. Concerns are raised about the ethics of Olympic sponsorship, about who will ‘own’ and control the creative space into which they are stepping. The international spotlight brings its own opportunity in the spirit of ‘Olympic’ competition: a challenge to achieve excellence, a chance to prove the ability of British outdoor artists on the world stage and to match the achievements of their rivals in mainland Europe.
News arrives that the group has indeed won ‘permission to apply’ in recognition of its achievements in pulling together this regional partnership. Beneath the artistic endeavour, the commitment and the fertile imagination of this group of performance artists, a pragmatic ambition exists. This Olympic spectacular represents the enactment of a new, regional outdoor arts geography which seeks official recognition of its production abilities and financial scope to establish itself as a production network for the future. Its legacy will be the creation of structures which foster further professional artistic engagements by artists with outdoor sites and through which local people can channel their creative ambitions in relation to the places in which they live.