During autumn 2014, seven postgraduate and early career researchers from the University of Aberdeen took part in two contemporary performance and performance evaluation workshops and one public performance, along with researchers from Newcastle University and the Universities of Dundee and Glasgow. These Artists, Academics and Ancient Texts Performance Workshops, along with an additional performance in Glasgow, were generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through an Early Career Collaborative Skills Development grant, and kindly hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and Seventeen, an Aberdeen City Council arts hub.

The team

The team was led by Lisa Collison (Centre for Scandinavian Studies) and overseen by a multi-institution project board (Ruth Barker, Sue Brind, Stephen Broad, Tim Ingold, Lucy Leiper, Elizabeth Reeder, Michael Rossington and Ken Skeldon). The series was conceived and developed by Collinson and Barker, and began with an intensive three-day workshop on reading ancient texts, decision-making in creative work, use of voice and body, performance creation, and evaluation using Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP), which was taught to the group by Elizabeth Reeder. This was followed by two day workshops, each ending with a public performance and CRP session.

Why did we engage?

The aim was to empower arts and humanities researchers to use ancient texts as bridges between past and present. We spotted an appetite for serious contemporary artworks drawing on such texts, but noticed that whilst traditional researchers often had the creative capacity and desire to develop such works, they rarely had the confidence to know how or where to start, whilst artists often felt unsure about sharing their responses to ancient texts with traditionalists. The solution was to offer relevant, simple, targeted training and confidence-building to researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds, who could then replicate the training for others. The ultimate goal was to develop a cohort of researchers who would use ancient texts in creative, confident and meaningful new ways, shedding light on our past, present and future.

Who benefitted

The main beneficiaries of the project were the researchers, whose enhanced work could be expected to benefit future public audiences and colleagues from other disciplines. The researchers gained experience in developing original performances based on ancient texts (both individually and in collaboration), in working in contemporary art venues, and in understanding and evaluating contemporary art performances based on ancient texts. Collinson gained experience in applying successfully for national funding and running a short but innovative multi-institution project.

Wider impact

This programme has opened up several new research and public engagement directions for participants:

  • Amy Bryzgel, Suk-Jun Kim and Lisa Collinson have created a discussion group, involving several other members of University of Aberdeen staff, called ‘Performing the Past’.
  • Artist and workshop co-leader Ruth Barker gained confidence in contributing to debate within an academic context outside fine art, and plans to pursue this further.
  • Amy Bryzgel has used the workshops to develop a new performative aspect to her work as a historian of performance art. One outcome of this was participation in an event at Aberdeen Art Gallery, called ‘After Hours Extreme Makeover’ in March 2015. Along with Lisa Collinson, and further AAAT participants (Claire Organ, Irene Garcia Losquino, Suk-Jun Kim, Declan Taggart, and Blake Middleton) she performed a version of work developed during our workshops.
  • Suk-Jun Kim made a successful application to co-supervise a sonic art PhD responding to the contents of Aberdeen City Archives and the University Library’s Special Collections.
  • Medievalists Jessica Legacy (Edinburgh) and Paul McFadyen (Dundee) worked on a public engagement project about the Canterbury Tales.
  • Suk-Jun Kim invited medieval literary historian Paul McFadyen (Dundee) to perform at sonADA, an experimental music festival he co-founded in 2014.
  • Medievalists Blake Middleton, Declan Taggart and Claire Organ have all reported feeling much more confident about appearing in public since the performance workshops, and soon after took part in an extremely well-attended Pecha Kucha event.
  • Collinson has gained confidence in talking to and working with contemporary artists, and recently chaired two sessions at a conference hosted by the Timespan arts and heritage centre in North Scotland. This has led to a publication.
  • Collinson has successfully tried a version of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (normally used in the arts) in a pure history/archaeology workshop, and will continue to promote it as an excellent tool for constructive, non-confrontational discussion in a wide variety of contexts.
  • Both workshop leaders got experience in project management and researcher development training.
  • Spin-off public engagement has capitalised on the infrastructure provided by the University for example University May Festival, European Researchers' Night and the AHRC Being Human Festival.