“There is still a lot that feels unsettled about Bristol’s relationship with slavery, with race and with how that manifests in the city today. It’s something that is ongoing, not yet reconciled”

Posted on May 6, 2016

We interviewed Katie Keeler, Theatre Bristol co-executive director, alongside MAYK (and therefore Mayfest) co-directors Kate Yedigaroff and Matthew Austin about why they chose artist Selina Thompson’s project salt. as their 2016 co-commission.

What was it about Selina that made Mayk and TB think they’d like to meet her and hear more about the project?

Katie Keeler: I was immediately fascinated by Selina’s area of research but I was also very taken with her as a person. Even before I met her, I knew she would be very bright, funny and interesting – and also very warm. I knew she’d care about her audience and that she would be extremely ambitious for the work. She does not do things by halves.

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Can you explain why this idea, why here and why now?

Matthew Austin: Last year we worked with Situations on a project called Sanctum by the Chicago based artist Theaster Gates. His approach to the city’s history – re-using and re-appropriating physical material from the Bristol’s past (in particular wood from an old sugar warehouse with links to the slave trade) was sensitive and beautiful. His work enabled the city to come together and create something new under the very beams that were part of a troubled history – the past being physically present in something new and celebratory. It wasn’t a monument or a commemoration – it was a sanctuary, a beacon, a home of sorts – something new that held the past in its very fabric, in its body.

Selina talks of the body being home in her introduction to salt. In many ways it was Selina’s personal approach to a global history that shone through in the commissioning process and why this idea felt like the one to pursue now. Her own journey, her own history combined with Bristol’s troubled history within the context of colonialism, slavery, resistance and protest was particularly resonant. There is still a lot that feels unsettled about Bristol’s relationship with slavery, with race and with how that manifests in the city today. It’s something that is ongoing, not yet reconciled, and both Selina and Theaster approach this with sensitivity and grace, managing to look both backwards and forwards to help us understand.

What do you think the audience can expect from salt.?
Kate Yedigaroff: I don’t know quite what to expect and that in itself is thrilling. This is our first time working with her, we’re putting faith in raw instinct, the idea, the quality of her as an artist and the distinctive way she considers her work and her role as an artist in the world right now. She is full of care and rigour

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Do you think you both as arts organisations have a key role in helping a city and its community come to terms with its past?
Katie Keeler:
I believe that art makes the world a better place, so our role at TB of supporting and celebrating artists is a total privilege. Artist is a tricky word – perhaps cultural worker or theatre/live performance-maker is better but anyway – the brilliant people who help us with our past, present and future are utterly essential.

Kate Yedigaroff: I’ve probably never overtly looked at this as a role or responsibility because it feels a bit grand, but actually yes I think it’s a complex and important thing to consider. If we believe that essentially all live performance is storytelling ( literally/abstractly/conceptually) then it is the case that the choices we make as programmers and producers about the stories and the tellers we invite to make this connection, is in some way an act towards a deconstruction and an understanding of ‘past’. Because through listening to and experiencing the perspectives of others now we make sense of our own stories, which are profoundly rooted in memory. Personal and political memory.

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Why should the audience come see this show?
Katie Keeler: Give yourself a precious bit of time in the company of someone charismatic, thoughtful and funny – to really think about history and identity. To understand something you did not understand before. Or to feel something you did not know you felt. Enjoy the beauty and simplicity of a personal story – so vital to our future.

Catch salt. at the Arnolfini as part of Mayfest 12-13, 18-19 May. Book tickets here.

Images by Richard Davenport.