ISAN Member in the Spotlight:
Mikey Martins, Freedom Festival
Mikey Martins is CEO and Artistic Director of the Freedom Festival in Hull.
(First published: August 2016)
Who are you?
I am Artistic Director and CEO of Freedom Festival Arts Trust. Before this, I was a practising performer, artist, director and creative producer in the Outdoor (street) Arts and circus world travelling all over the globe for almost twenty years. As an artist I was very much educated on the street (beginning as a street performer in Covent Garden) and a spell of training in circus skills at the (then named) Circus Space, various physical theatre and clown workshops, this was after several failed attempts at traditional Further Education such as A-levels and BTECs, following a very happy and relaxed schooling in St Ives, Cornwall.
How did you first get involved in Outdoor Arts?
As a young man fresh to London town, I was really into circus and street theatre and spent an unhealthy amount of time hanging around places like Circus Space and Covent Garden, and before I knew it I was running a juggling stall in the market, writing books and applying for a license to perform on the west piazza… and the rest is – as they say history – a twenty year career touring the world with some hugely successful shows of all scales in Outdoor Arts and cabaret. Working collaboratively with so many different cultures, learning so much from others, being eternally inspired by audiences, artists and the evolution of cities and how arts and culture affect this.
My work now is to create the most interesting and diverse arts festival with the majority of it being presented in public space and free to access. A festival which is bold and ambitious spectacular, yet intimate and one which has an underlying message to bring: a message of extraordinary and inspiring creativity, a truly international voice and a truly multi art form offer and, most importantly, a festival which is relevant to the place where it exists.
What is one of your earliest memories of Outdoor Arts?
Watching street performers performing to hundreds of people on the west piazza of Covent Garden and thinking: ‘wow that’s a thing, a really amazing thing, and you could probably have a really fun and interesting life if you could nail that thing!’ Then I started working in Europe and the work just got so much more interesting, imaginative and inspiring, seeing Cie Quidams and Five Angry Men at my first French festival in Libourne changed everything.
So I tried and am still trying to nail that ‘thing’ and I have had an amazing, inspiring and wonderful twenty years along the way whilst still trying to work out what this thing that we do is… ah, yes I get it now: it’s about ART and it’s about society.
What performance or Outdoor Arts experience has made a big impression on you?
There are genuinely so many amazing performances I have seen and experienced and continue to do so, I am so lucky to be able to travel to many festivals all over the world to seek brilliant work and meet with extraordinary artists, I’m still being delighted, moved and touched by so many extraordinarily talented artists.
I don’t have a ‘favourite’ as the context is always changing along with my tastes and experience. But if I had to pick out a few moments, my ideas and imagination of what Outdoor Arts could be all changed after seeing companies such as Alamas Givres, the Desperate Men, Compagnie Jo Bithume, Walk the Plank, Transe Express, Five Angry Men, Teatr Biuro Podróży, Boukje Schweigman, Swoolish, Cie Bistaki, Les Trois Points de Suspension, Aswarm, The World Famous, Compagnie No. 8, Ray Lee… and that genuinely is to name but a few, because they just keep on coming.
Different ways of presenting/creating arts festivals keeps me fresh and inspired; the Oerol Festival (Holland), for example, is always somewhere between a professional and spiritual experience for me, cycling around a beautiful little island seeking out amazing site specific theatrical, musical and artistic experiences with thousands of other like-minded folk, what’s not to love about that!
I think my first performing gig at a European festival was a huge influence, as I realised then that anything was possible in Outdoor Arts as I saw such a rich variety of work presented.
Before that I’d just been trying to survive, just to make a living and was focusing too much on that. Think big, expand your horizons, travel and always ask questions. We are always learning…
What’s the best artistic advice you’ve been given?
Stay true to what you believe in, work hard, and learn to fail better.
Where do your ideas come from?
I think my ideas come from being inspired by others, whether that be other people’s festivals, the way they create them and programme them, the way they create an actual sense of place and relevance, or from artists inspiring me to do things differently.
And as I get older my ideas are definitely becoming more influenced by politics and the reality of the world we live in. There is so much to say, so much to challenge, so much to discuss and the narrative we often hear really has to change and I believe artists are the best people to change this narrative… right, sorry, emotional rant over… and my ideas also sometimes come from unicorns!
What’s your best advice to someone wanting to work outdoors for the first time?
Understand the context, don’t ignore it, play with it, and accept it and it will be good to you. Get out there and see as much work as you can, talk to artists, to producers and always be brave and nice to people, and remember with the right collaborators around you, absolutely anything is possible.
What’s your funniest or most bizarre Outdoor Arts experience?
Too many to mention… ask me at the bar next time we meet.
Describe a current project or future piece of work that you’re really excited about.
Of course I’m very excited about Freedom Festival: the team we’re building and the plans ahead. We’re creating a large scale Outdoor Arts event that is spectacular, beautiful, surprising and has so many art forms represented; it’s musical, funny, resonates with stories of the city, plays with public space and has a very real and pertinent human theme woven through it which explores notions of freedom and emancipation – both historically and in modern contemporary times such as these.
We’re creating an organisation committed to artist development and creating incredible opportunities for artists to develop their work and practice. We’re widening perceptions of Outdoor Arts and working hard to attract extraordinary artists and creative partners to the streets of Hull. The festival grew out of bicentenary commemorations in Hull in 2007 of William Wilberforce’s Act of Parliament, which led to the abolishment of the slave trade in the British Empire.
And in 2017 Hull is also UK City of Culture, which is such an exciting year to be part of, and will give us so much opportunity to pick up from in 2018 and really take our festival and organisation to another level.
This year, the festival will happen 2-4 September. Check freedomfestival.co.uk for the full programme, but allow yourself some reading time as it’s a beautiful beast of a thing (shameless plug done).
What are your impressions on the current health of the Outdoor Arts sector?
Generally, I think things have improved hugely since I arrived in the big city of London all those years ago and saw street performers for the first time (bear in mind I grew up in Cornwall). Street Arts became Outdoor Arts, the sector became acceptable and more eligible for funding, the work got more and more imaginative, many new artists took the streets and are still doing so. UK Outdoor Arts became hugely popular across Europe and beyond, many festivals are now so much more connected and supporting touring and co-productions, there are excellent opportunities for artists, more and more opportunities for commissioning and touring e.g. Without Walls, Global Streets, Coasters and the EU InSitu Network. I think we’re in a very good place.
But of course there are always issues around funding, and these issues can have a huge impact on the way we work. On the positive side, things are a lot better than they used to be, many awesome individuals continue to work hard to support outdoor arts… so let’s keep working hard and concentrate on supporting artists to make great art, and supporting cities to understand why an artistic culture of this kind is fundamental to wellbeing. That’s all we can do and that’s what we should always focus on.
And a call out to artists: we need more excellent proposals on the table. Please keep them coming, be imaginative, bold and brave don’t write what you think we want to see, write what you truly want to do, dream big!!
Where do you think the sector will be in 4 or 5 years?
There will be more work which explores the relationship between digital technologies and performance, interactivity and apps for example. I think the sector will be more influential on urban planning and architecture, we’re seeing this happen a lot already. And I think there will be more and more DIY festivals that pop up and move around, more one-off happenings that are an event in themselves. Pervasive gaming will be more commonplace and won’t need a festival context to exist. Live performances will become increasingly popular, actual well written plays will become increasingly cool! Big music festivals will struggle to survive in such a competitive, homogenised and increasingly expensive market.
I think Outdoor Arts festivals will continue to be popular, more political and become even more resilient whilst working better with a wider range of partners and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be trying to get out of a big glass dome covered city to find oxygen… oh wait, that’s further ahead, right!?
Notice I didn’t mention funding in that bit, because I imagine ACE will have secured multiple funds from a lovely fluffy new government and unicorns will be in positions of power and therefore made everyone realise how important that Outdoor Arts are to our wellbeing and mental health and as a bi-product will make us all rich. Best to be optimistic!
What do you see as the biggest challenges and how do you plan to meet them?
A decrease in public funding for arts and culture in the UK. We will meet these challenges by working better in partnership with other organisations, by supporting independent producers, working better globally and bringing new partnerships and investment into Outdoor Arts.
The second challenge I see coming is age and a lack of energy, and for that I am building a special cocoon in the woods, and what I do there is nobody’s business.
Who inspires you in your work?
The amazing team of people I work with and all the extraordinary artists that come to the festival and all the other people who make festivals, it’s a crazy thing to do, I salute you! Oh and Arnold Schwarzenegger when he tries to get out of that glass dome covered city, and has that poppy out eye moment, but is then ok, phew!
How do you follow what’s happening in the Outdoor Arts and cultural sectors – what blogs, tweeters, websites, organisations do you recommend?
I travel a lot to festivals to meet peers and colleagues; I listen to my colleagues and ask them a lot of questions.
ISAN newsletters are very useful (increasingly so); InSitu , Circostrada and Arts Council England publications and following other Outdoor Arts festivals on twitter and suchlike.
What’s a favourite book/film/concert that you’ve encountered in the past 2 years?
Book: The Wild Sheep Chase – Huraki Murakimi; Film: Boyhood; Concert/Performance: Klanghaus
What non-Outdoor Arts cultural experience has made a great impression on you?
De la Guarda at 3 Mills Island many years ago; Ontoerend Goed – A Game of You; Wildlife at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2016 and the ground-breaking film Total Recall (the original one).
Who would you have at your dream fantasy picnic?
Johnny Cash, Jack White, MIA, Akala, Nick Cave, Yotam Ottelenghi, Bill Murray, Tom Waits and Mbongwana Star.
Any final top tips for Outdoor Arts practitioners?
Remember that what festival programmers are looking for is great original work, be brave be unique and take your time making work… be thorough and get a great team around you and never ever underestimate the general public.