Alex Rinsler is a public artist, festival producer and Founding Director of the Giant’s Foundry, based in Manchester, UK. He has worked on festivals since 2000, setting up the company Pirate Technics to build, program and burn more than 20 large scale installations, including towers, pirate ships, submerged temples and big green men.
You began your career co-founding UK group Pirate Technics with sculptor Mike de Butts to make ‘Burning Art’ or large scale sculptures involving fire and fireworks.
Much of the work was ephemeral; either destroyed or burned after use, how has this affected your approach to making art?
Festivals are very ritualistic. I grew up in the Jewish Community, where at the end of the Sabbath it’s customary to light a many-wicked candle to separate the extraordinary from the everyday. I saw our art having a similar function. We would make these beautiful, large installations that have special presence for just a few days: stages to dance on or temples to contribute to. The burning is as important as the building, to say goodbye, let go and return refreshed to the world you left behind.
For me the fire came first. I started in 2000 as a performer in Nottingham, UK. Fire is a humbling medium to work with: if you get arrogant you burn yourself and look silly. You have to work with care and respect, and this carried through to the installations. People’s rituals are very important to them and you can never know what weight they carry.
I try and keep this awareness at the centre of my approach now even though fire is less central to what I do.
Your by-line in your portfolio reads ‘Big, Colourful and Outdoors’ can you tell us more about why and how this is essential to art in the festival context?
The essential things are that your art doesn’t kill, maim or bankrupt. Everything is else is a matter of taste.
I am passionate about what can happen outside. Lots of people – I include myself in this – are intimidated by galleries or museums. I think big statements in the open air can make a difference. Buildings and technology tower over our urbanized lives, and with all the concrete and glass there’s not enough colour in our cities. I take joy from imagining a whole festival, or a city’s skyline, as a canvas to be played with. Dreams at scale come easily to me, and I have a canny knack for pestering people who say no until they can say yes.
When you make art outdoors, it’s free for people to encounter. The experience then unfolds with people rather than is done to them. This feels democratic: I work mostly with public money and so for me this is particularly important.
You speak about the importance of capturing the essence of a festival identity or theme. How do you go about doing this?
This starts with the people who are closest to the source, the Festival Directors and their teams. Running a festival can be so process-driven. There’s just so much to do. So it’s rare for a Festival Director to get the opportunity to really explore the story behind the world they’re trying to create.
Our installations act as an anchor for this story, an end point, something separate to the Festival but which can represent it. The energy radiates outwards and everyone participates: the site crew, production teams, volunteers, security and stewards. For a visitor, the action of dancing on it, contributing to it, or taking a photo with it can be enough to feel ownership. For the Festival Director, the connection goes much deeper. This makes for grand projects that stretch the brief. And when these are burned, everyone comes together in celebration. It’s heart-warming.
You helped produce the ‘Festival of the World’ at Southbank Centre, London in 2012. What was it like working with such an established institution, designing new experiences in a festival setting?
The Southbank Centre is the largest independent arts centre in the world, covering 21 acres in the centre of London. Heading for 29 million people crossed its site last year. Festivals are in its DNA: the Royal Festival Hall was built as the centre-piece for the 1951 Festival of Britain, to be a ‘tonic to the nation’ recovering from the destruction of the second World War.
This brings unique opportunities for collaboration; stones steeped in history, and a huge audience from every country and every language, local and global. It means working with an excellent team of producers and technical support to realize ambitious projects on austere budgets and against the clock.
Working at this scale requires a particular sort of patience: there are so many voices. Everyone wants to see the best projects possible but have their own constituents to satisfy. You need to be able to tell the same story, with passion, over and over again to planners, members, executives, marketers, schools, fundraisers, engineers or volunteers. You need to be sensitive to the needs of a global audience without dumbing down the impact or quality of what you’re doing.
A number of artists find the scale of the bureaucratic machinery very hard: as a producer you need to advocate on their behalf, while reassuring them when you don’t have the information they need to go ahead. I learned from Cathy Mager, one of the best producers out there, who commissioned me to make Urban Fox and championed the project from start to finish.
Image: Under the Baobab, (London, 2012) image: Kuriositas and flickr user xpgomez
Much of your work is site specific. How do you go about repurposing an idea or concept for touring and situating it in a new site?
It is difficult. Ideally you co-commission early enough to build legacy requirements into the design. This could be mean building in sections narrow enough to be transported, or to pack in freight. It could mean including extra fixing or tethering points to pre-empt a different lay of the land. But co-commissions of this kind are rare.
Equally important is to have clear contractual agreements with the first host about what’s to happen to the artwork after its time expires. Individual producers are not always the right people to re-purpose a work – they might not have the right connections or authority, or their contract might be up soon after the festival ends – it helps a lot if as the Artist you can take the initiative. While I think about it – it also helps if the people re-installing the work are the same ones as the people who put it up in the first place.
The worse case (this happens often) is that legacy hasn’t been discussed in time, the producer finishes their contract and the Artist has moved on elsewhere, hasn’t budgeted for the de-installation and can’t store A Big Thing in their back garden.
Legacy for site specific work can also be an oxymoron. Sometimes the build and concept can only exist in that space – for instance, our 15metre fabric tree Under the Baobab needed the wall and corners behind it to stand up.
Again, patience here is important. A good concept, (say, Trey Watkins Perspectives) has a long shelf life, and the right site might not present itself for some years after its initial showing.
What are the most common challenges that you experience as an artist and producer working with festivals and how do you manage to overcome them?
Large, outdoor, ephemeral works are expensive to make. They need to be made to a very high spec to be safe, as well as a whole host of different stakeholders to agree, from whom any one ‘no’ can delay or kill off a great idea.
As a producer the challenge is often a creative one. There aren’t many artists or artists’ collectives that have experience scaling up their work to outdoor space. More and more artists are now getting used to writing risk assessments and risk management plans, but many are not used to having them challenged. Have I said patience already?
Everything is beautiful when you don’t look down, Robots Art Collective, (London, 2012)
What are some tips for other early career artists and creative practitioners embarking on making artworks for festivals?
- Be ambitious with your ideas
Festival sites are great spaces to experiment. They are enclosed spaces, often on private land, with a minimum of red tape and a great platform to showcase what you can do.
- Be strategic with your projects
It will be difficult to sustain you and a team in the long-term from festivals alone. Think about which festivals most closely sit with what you care about. Think about where else your creations can make a difference: in city centres, beaches, schools, shopping malls, offices, department stores…
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There will be no shortage of people to help you if you ask. Designers, site crew and volunteers: if you know what it is that you need, help can be found. This is particularly important when it comes to safety. Your installations need to withstand children of all ages. Particularly adult children, who may well not be sober.
- Be sure that your final creation matches your proposal
I’ve seen so many wonderful proposals that come up way short in real life. If an Arts Manager or Festival Director knows that what you make matches what they have commissioned this will stand you in very good stead. After all, their reputation is on the line when they invest in you. Build in little surprises in the final piece that go beyond the brief and deliver beyond expectation.
- Stand by your team and recognize each person’s contribution
Festivals are stressful environments where sleep-deprived people work extremely hard, often for little financial return. Build up a reputation for being professional, having a team that works hard, completes on time, and is approachable. Talk up your team at every opportunity. Share credit when things go right, and assume responsibility when things go wrong. Make sure your team are fed well, that they have the right tools, that they know what’s expected of them. Be clear on who is being paid what, and when, and find the right way to thank each person.If you’re the lead Artist – be clear on your role, to your team and to the Festival. What decisions do you alone need to make? What responsibilities are yours alone? If you’re the Producer – over-communicate, do what you say you’re going to do and please, please, just be nice.
- Treat your festivals well
Listen to what they want! It is a bold move for Festivals to invest in an arts programme. It’s up to you to show that their investment in you is a wise choice. Follow their processes and protocol, and limit the number of favours you ask for on behalf of your crew. Say thank you in as many ways as you can find. Bring cake for production staff. Give the Festival Director a signed piece of artwork from the design phase. When your runner goes off-site, ask the main production team if they need anything. Have a crate of beer handy for the end of a long day. Budget for all of these things: small gestures and common courtesies go a long way.
- Pick your team carefully
Working with friends is massively rewarding, until it goes wrong.
Public artists, design studios and festivals that inspire you:
Cliché perhaps, but Burning Man changed my life. I was invited in 2008 to see how it’s really done, and then started the FireWorks Collective to represent the UK fire spinning community at the large performance before the Man burns. The scale of the art there is astonishing, collective endeavor that brings people together for the love of creation. It was so inspiring to meet people making big art for its own sake.
Coming to Sydney and being in Australia has been eye-opening. The scale and energy of the Sydney Festival, the culture of street art in Melbourne, how MONA has brought a million visitors to Tasmania in three years. I felt a lot of positivity across the board and I’m looking forward to returning.
Image: The FireWorks Collective at Burning Man, 2011. Alex is on the far left.
Vulpes Travels, Andy Hague and Nekane Requejo de Ozamiz (2011)
Header image: Jon Southcoasting