SLICE: London-Lahore

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Slice: London-Lahore is in an experimental project in a very real sense. As well as providing a framework to allow artists from two cities to respond to their built environment, it tests methods for long-distance collaboration. As has been reported in Blue Pages, I have previously visited the now defunct Theatre Department of the Pakistani National College of Arts to share ideas about teaching design, run workshops and seminars and, on my second trip, to design a show. But travelling is expensive, time-consuming, polluting and often fraught with red tape. Slice: London-Lahore offers an alternative approach.

We formed a team of curators comprising Fatima Hussain, an artist and NCA faculty member, Simon Daw, a UK-based theatre designer and artist, and myself. Simon and I are regular collaborators since training together at Motley, often working together under the name Scale on projects that explore issues around planning, architecture and utopianism. Fatima is part of Other Asias, a network of Asian artists based in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the UK intent upon challenging contemporary ideas about Asia.

We set ourselves the aim of getting ten artists (or collectives) from each country to collaborate using online tools such Skype (video-calling software) to create work that could be seen in a gallery context in both countries and also on the web. This meant the content had to be digital and suitable for online sharing. It also meant we had to find a framework for showing the work that could not only work as a website but also find physical form in a gallery.

To root the individual work of the artists within the overall conceptual framework, we drew an imaginary line (the ‘slice’) between our cities. After some discussion we decided on places central to how people move through their localities. Using Google Earth, we connected the central station in Lahore to Liverpool Street Station in London. We had already decided to limit ourselves to the first and last miles of the slice. In Lahore, the mile from the station ran through a diverse area of railway tracks, yards and backstreets. In London, it started in the city but traversed old alleys, Brick Lane, housing estates, a park and a Crossrail construction site, stopping by Whitechapel Tube.

Following confirmation of funding, chiefly from the Arts Council, we selected the artists through an open call and direct invitations. Fatima selected the Pakistani group while Simon and I chose the UK one. Working with Apples and Snakes, another of our funders, we selected two spoken word artists: Conrad the Scoundral, an MC/Producer, and Shamim Azad, a poet and story-teller. Shamim is a bilingual poet and story-teller and was given the brief of involving members of the East London Bangladeshi community. This was achieved via Bishwo Shahitto Kendro (BSK), a group based at the Brady Centre, through which the slice passed. We are also committed to working with schools in London and Lahore later this year.

Other contributors to London end of the line were Jonathan Watkins, a dancer and choreographer with the Royal Ballet, and Mathias Kispert, a sound artist. They were joined by a performance collective, Present Attempt, an artists’ collective called TBC, and visual artists Lucy Cash and Steve Rosenthal. In Lahore, two visual art collectives contributed work, one unnamed, the other called Aam Awaan. A third collective, VASL, provided additional funding. The other Lahore contributors were an architect, Zahra Hussain, a musician/sound artist, Kashif Mohsin, and several visual artists: Ayesha Kamal, Nida Bangash, Wajid Ali, Mohammad Shehzad Tanveer and Asif Kanji. The three of us curating also made work. Fatima charted the history of a Lahore courtyard, Simon made an architecturally inspired sculpture, transportable by plane, which was photographed in both cities, and I explored my family’s East End history. After walking our respective miles of the slice and choosing points to use as inspiration, all the artists met by Skype and used a blog to discuss work-in-progress.

The web and gallery versions of the project both allow viewers to chose which works they see by selecting the relevant artist’s point on the map. The website has a scrollable map, which also links to background information and the work-in-progress blog. It can be seen at www.london-lahore.com and www.lahore-london.com. The gallery version uses two three metre maps with sensors, using the same technology as Oyster Cards, which allow viewers to control what is displayed on a video screen, or in the case of a the Lahore version, a video projection. Headphones are used so that both Lahore and London works can run side-by-side.

We’ve had a lot of positive feedback and great interest from local communities – especially the Bangladeshi community in London. The Lahore version of the piece, at the National College of Arts, has just been extended by two weeks. The London version, which was at Idea Store Whitechapel then at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green (where Tayyabs restaurant provided generous quantities of food for the opening), has now closed but the piece is available to view online. The range of work, especially since some contributors don’t normally work digitally, was remarkably wide, with some using the opportunity to explore beyond their normal practices. Various dialogues were generated through our Skype meetings and the blog. We hope these will lead to future collaborations and a strengthening of ties between Pakistani and UK artists, and between the artists, their local communities and their built environments.

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