[This is the text of a talk I gave for the Pervasive Media Studio about 34 Bristols, a weekend of events happening in Bristol from 5-7 July]
Bristol Texas is a community of less than 100 people originally founded in the 1840s by a man called Joshua Brock
Bristol Township in Pennsylvania is the home of the United States War Dog Memorial
Bristol New York is not actually named after our Bristol but rather after the city of Bristol, Massachusetts
PART 1: THE PAST
The first Bristol I knew doesn’t exist anymore. It remains buried somewhere beneath the clean bricks and polished glass of regenerated warehouses and new office buildings. By the time I was born my grandparents had already lived here for over a decade, carried from London by work and dropped into a quiet close in Backwell. Neat houses, neater gardens, the whistle of the nearby railway line. I remember how my parents used to drop us off round the corner from their house so that my brother and I could turn up on the doorstep pretending to have walked all the way from Cambridge. We pretended be exhausted and they pretended not to have been expecting us. I remember the journey into town, the fleeting glimpse of the suspension bridge in the car window, cars parked in the remains of an old railway shed, watching fireworks on crowded bridges, the SS Great Britain convalescing in dry dock.
This is a Bristol I have built myself from fading memories and misapprehensions. A Bristol built from an idea of what I thought the city was or what I thought the city should be.
We remember a city by rebuilding it in our imagination. We map its streets, erect buildings sometimes accidentally placing them in the wrong location, making them bigger or smaller than perhaps they once were. Most of these cities never exist anywhere but here, in the unreachable, unvisitable corners of our own heads. Occasionally they might make it onto film or paper. James Joyce’s Ulysses is his memory map of the knotty and impenetrable streets of Dublin. When he was writing it in exile in France, Switzerland and Italy he used to write letters to his mother to clarify whether the geographical details of his Dublin tallied with those of the real place. Ulysses is a city as well as a book. Another Dublin made of paper and ink.
Once upon a time however there were more ways than this to remember a city. Once there was a frontier, or at least the illusion of a frontier, and there you could build your own Bristol out of more than simply words. There are thirty four other Bristols in the world, all of them in the Americas. Two in Canada, two in the Caribbean, one in Costa Rica, one in Peru and twenty eight in the United States. There might be more but these are the ones we know about. It is likely that not all of them were named for our Bristol here in the UK. Perhaps some were named for people. Others we know were named for younger closer namesakes on that side of the Atlantic. But some, many, most, were named for this Bristol. Who did so and why remains largely unknown – where they trying to remake this city? Improve it? Remember it? Save it?
And what about the place that remained? What does it mean to watch these traces of yourself disappear over the horizon? Are we bound to them, or they bound to us, and with what? Blood? History? Language?
34 Bristols is a collective attempt to consider our relationship to these distant places and through them to consider our relationship to the world. For each of these 34 places we have created invited an artist to create a new piece of work. A performance, an installation, a story, bit of text, a picture. The artists were invited to respond to this distant place in any way they want. All these projects will be presented together next weekend as a miniature festival taking place in venues across the city.
The idea is that this project will be a chance to think about distance and time and the chaotic knots that history manages to tie everything into. Perhaps, most importantly, it is an opportunity to consider the many versions of this city that exist; places real, remembered or imagined.
And, of course, it is a chance to build new Bristols made out of words and gestures. Reconstructions of distant places we’ve never actually visited scattered across the city that first gave them their name.
Bristol, Maine was the site of the great colonial Hurricane of August 1635, during which a Galleon called the Angel Gabriel sank just off the coast of the settlement.
In 1950s the famous Baptist Minister Elvy E. Callaway claimed that he had scientifically verified that the city of Bristol Florida was the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
Bristol Vermont’s most famous tourist attraction is a very old rock engraved with the Lord’s Prayer.
PART 2: THE PRESENT
The second Bristol I knew was very different to the first. It is made out of people rather than buildings.
I’m not sure how much any of you know about my background. I’m an artist who creates unusual interactive performance pieces – I created an audio piece for two people in a parked car on the top floor of a multi-storey car park that was at Mayfest in 2012, and back in 2009 I presented a piece here at Watershed that invited an audience in one of the cinemas to follow instructions on the screen to recreate exactly what the filmgoers were doing in another nearby cinema. Even before I knew anything about him I think I was probably heavily influenced by John Cage in the sense that I get most excited about forms and structures and the creativity inherent in how you choose to do something as much as what it is you’re doing.
In 2008 I began co-curating my own venue at the Edinburgh Festival with my friend Deborah Pearson. When we started this was as much a creative challenge as a logistical one. We were artists and as such the way in which we chose to run the venue was for us a kind of art. It was run in collaboration with the artists that performed there, everything was totally free and in the early years at least a bit of a mess. But people liked it and it has continued to grow – becoming an ongoing creative experiment between myself, Debbie, the artists we work with and the audiences that we meet doing so.
It was through doing this that I reconnected with Bristol again. It seemed at the time back in 2008 that more than almost anywhere else, Bristol was the place you found really exciting performance work. This was a place where a lot of people had worked very hard to make an environment in which artists would be both challenged and supported. A city large enough to host major international events, but nonetheless small enough to still feel like a single community of people making interesting things; in theatres, galleries, warehouses, old churches, front rooms, parks, forests, shop fronts.
In years between then and now I have come down here again and again to see interesting things. I can remember seeing dozens of performances spilling out of every corner of Arnolfini during I Am Still Your Own Worst Nightmare. A sleepover at the Tobacco Factory organised by the artist-led collective Residence; long, hopeful conversations late into the night. I remember the thrill of In Between Time, fleeting neon messages in dark alleyways. And when in 2010 when my organisation decided to take venture nervously beyond the Edinburgh Festival, Bristol was instinctively one of the first places we decided to come, given the chance by Mayfest to play around in the bowels of the Old Vic. Bristol always felt like a place worth coming to, full of generosity and an infectious sense of possibility.
So when Arnolfini invited me to try and create a new project for the city I was totally thrilled to do so. I knew from the start that I wanted to create something that would rely upon and harness the collective creative energy of the city. Something that encouraged and relied upon collaboration between the brilliant organisations I knew here.
I knew also that I wanted to begin with a simple model of artist producing that I’d first started to figure out for myself through various projects we did with Forest Fringe, wanting to make big things happen without very much money. My favourite thing to do was to conceive of a structure – something adventurous and interesting that invited small, autonomous contributions from a real range of people that collectively amounted to something that felt really substantial. It was originally a useful way of making something for nothing. Such as the Forest Fringe Travelling Sounds Library. But it undoubtedly has grown into something approaching a guiding principal for me – a belief in a certain kind of mutuality and a form of collaboration that doesn’t subsume people’s own imagination and independence within the anonymity of the group.
It was whilst thinking about this that I happened to find on Wikipedia a page that said that there were 35 places in the world called Bristol, including this Bristol here in the UK, and listed all of them. That became the starting point for the project.
We began with the simplest of provocations – to create a different artwork for every place we could find called Bristol – and invited arts organisations in the city to play a part in making this possible. My job was largely to co-ordinate between them, trying to find a way for the various disparate, exciting things people came up with to fit together as a seemingly coherent event.
The people and places that have ended up being involved are a demonstration of the kind of diverse creative vitality that makes this city so interesting. They are theatres and galleries and festivals and producers, big and small, old and new, major international institutions and fiercely independent local collectives. What they undoubtedly all share however is a sense of adventure and a love of this place, and perhaps most importantly an enthusiasm for this unlikely experiment.
Following the meandering trail laid down by this project is not just a journey through the city’s past but also to experience its present. To encounter a brilliant range of the unusual arts organisations that call it home. You will visit places that you probably know and others that you probably don’t. You will see grand architecture and people making do and mending. You will see unanticipated things happening in unlikely places, old docks illuminated up by new artworks, old views considered from a new perspective. Most importantly you will see lots people who work in this city year after year to make it one of the most loved and celebrated homes for experimental performance in this country.
Bristol Indiana’s opera house is said to be haunted by the ghost of a former handyman
The area around Bristol, New Brunswick was originally named Shiktehawk, from the Maliseet for “where he killed him”.
I couldn’t find anything out about Bristol, Louisiana.
PART 3: THE FUTURE
I want to imagine future cities.
First what this city will look like next weekend when this event is actually happening. If you walk down college green late on Friday or Saturday night you might see a shop window filled with smoke and somewhere lost in that smoke a figure in a headtorch wandering back and forth, a response to the ghost town of Bristol, Nevada. On Saturday afternoon at Bristol Old Vic there is an event called Duelling Bristols, a radio show with live music celebrating Bristol Tennessee and Bristol Virginia – two cities separated only by the width of the state line – both known as the birthplace of country music. On Saturday night there is a special dinner hosted by artist collective Residence for 34 guests. They will be eating Peruvian food and then sending the dinner cloth to Bristol, Peru where a sister dinner will take place. And on Sunday the artists Jo Hellier and Yas Clarke will be attempting to recreate the time it would take a single sound to pass from this Bristol to the lighthouse at Bristol Maine using a team of twenty drummers positioned at fifty metre intervals around the harbourside, striking their drum once every three seconds for four and a half hours.
Next I want to imagine another week further one, when we have all packed up and gone home, the last traces of this project perhaps still lingering on a lamppost or the cobbles of the dockside – a lost drumstick, a missed instruction, a hand written letter. A copy of the book we’re producing for the event discovered in a rucksack and leafed through idly on the bus into town. A sudden memory of a performance interrupting an otherwise ordinary conversation. A dream of some distant place that you’ve never visited in Peru or Rhode Island or New York State; your own intimate performance of the distance between here and there. These are the ways in which we have to rewrite this city – slowly, quietly, one distraction at a time.
Or perhaps a Bristol five years from now. The organisations involved presenting new work by different artists, continuing to do their best to surprise us, to entertain us, to steal the breath from out of us. There will be new brochures in lobbies and new posters on the walls. Perhaps some of the artists involved in this event will now have much larger projects happening that contain within them fragments of the events of this weekend.
How different will this city look five years from now? New shops. New developments. A renovated monument or a bridge or a station that seemed to take forever in coming and then suddenly one day was just there. I can never figure out if it is easier to imagine the past or the future.
And what about those further away places around which this whole event is constructed? Some are already under threat of disappearing, consumed by their ever-growing neighbours, transformed into a suburb of somewhere larger or simply disappearing from the map completely. Others are forever growing, transforming from towns into cities, perhaps one day expanding beyond the size and population of the our own Bristol.
This project wouldn’t have been possible ten, or perhaps even five years ago. The basic tools that we and the artists have used to learn about and encounter these distant places simply didn’t exist. You couldn’t read the proceedings of town hall meetings, calculate the exact distance between this city and another in a matter of seconds, visit a tiny township’s website, send messages to its inhabitants on facebook, speak to them on Skype, wander quietly through the digital facsimiles of streets we most probably will never walk down.
All of this was only possible through the seemingly insatiable advances of the internet. You can still find the traces of decade-old websites belonging to people who attempted a similar mapping of Bristol’s namesakes, but to do so back then required endless journeys back and forth across an enormous foreign continent. For this project we didn’t have to leave the room, let alone the country. Is something lost in this translation to digital? Probably, but that is perhaps in part what this project has become about – the limitations on the ways in which we are able to know these places from here, and how those ways of knowing are constantly changing.
If we were to do this again in five years time, or ten years time or twenty, how differently we might be able to see and know and encounter these places. How different our remaking of those places might be.
Bristol, New Hampshire was the summer home of Thomas Watson, the first man to ever receive a telephone call.
Bristol, Connecticut is the home of the television network ESPN.
Little Bristol, Barbados, is off the map.