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Interview: LIFT 2014 - Mark Ball, Artistic Director talks to Diana Damian-Martin about where the city meets the stage

LIFT 2014 - Where the city meets the stage - Book Now

Two years ago, LIFT gave us Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, a participatory project in Croydon with Unfinished Dream, Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, work from Gob Squad and Rimini Protokoll, performances from across the Middle East and a Rio Artists Occupation. Since then, they’ve co-curated a day of talks with activists and thinkers on The Arab Revolutions, presented a half-day of discussions on culture and crisis in Europe as part of a wider project examining the relationship between theatre, economics and performance; and developed a residency in collaboration with the V&A. Founded in 1981, LIFT aims to not only bring global stories to London, but also present cultural experiences.

Post- Olympics, London reveals itself as a fragmented and complex context for a festival presenting international, intercultural work. From legislations governing public space, challenges to immigration and hidden communities, London is an urban landscape thick with layers of history and politics. We spoke to Artistic Director Mark Ball about the city as cultural experience, this year’s festival and its diverse projects, from an exploration of World War I to Zombies in Greenwich.

Run-Riot: Since its inception, LIFT has been committed to bringing global stories to London; in recent years, you’ve not only widened your own practice by introducing public spectacles, immersive performances and a range of live work into the programme, but also engaged in topical debates such as climate change or the Arab Revolution, the relationship between theatre and economy and the role of digital technologies in social and performance practice. Do you think it is a festival’s responsibility to engage with such debates, and what has informed this diversification and social engagement in LIFT’s work throughout these past years?
 
Mark Ball:
Much of what I know about the world I know through theatre. We understand the world around us and see things differently through the eyes and imaginations of artists. Throughout its history LIFT has always engaged with artists whose work is political, who question the status quo and shine a light onto some of hidden or unheard stories of the world. Recognising that we live in the world's most culturally diverse city,  I do think that we have a responsibility to give a platform to artists who represent the culture of the world. We know too that our audiences are highly curious about global issues - and that LIFT has become a place where they can meet artists and talk to others about what's going on in the world around them.
 
RR: The term “international” carries a lot of different implications that are very much shaped by place and context. Given the range of debates on immigration, globalisation and cultural accessibility that have governed so much of the public and political debates in the UK over the past two years, how do you feel LIFT positions itself in this discourse? And have there been any challenges to this in curating this year’s festival?
 
MB:
LIFT has always been interested not just in international work but also in the intercultural work that explores the relationships we have between the cultures and communities in our cities. We can of course explore issues of internationalism and interculturalalism not just by looking outwards but by looking at what's happening in places like Tottenham, Hackney, Brent and Barnet. LIFT has always championed the freedom of travel and movement and the festival itself is the best advert for the richness and depth of understanding about the world that other, non-British voices bring. There are of course operational challenges in getting people here but I have a brilliant team at LIFT who are very experienced at enabling artists to visit the UK.
 
RR: London becomes a site of occupation this year; you are bringing work into theatre venues, cultural organisations, museums, public areas, art galleries and most notably, a football stadium.  What do you think London offers as a scene for cultural practices, and what has inspired this varied engagement with place?
 
MB:
It's the most exciting city in the world. I travel all over the world and every time I return I'm aware of our amazing, diversity, tolerance, history, architecture and built environment. And we have dozens and dozens of genuinely world class artists and institutions here. London is the most extraordinary playground for artists and audiences.
 
RR: This year is the celebration of the start of the First World War; it’s a rather silent centenary, one conflicted by history, shifts of boundaries and current political tensions. As part of LIFT, you’ve invited Tim Etchells to curate a series of works that engage with WWI in different ways, titled After a War. Can you tell us a bit more about the micro-season, its engagement with the subject matter and some of the works contained within it?
 
MB:
We know that in this year of the centenary of WW1 there will be a lot of focus on looking back at the history. Tim and I were interested in looking forward and understanding how one of the most catastrophic events in human history continues to define global relationships and politics. And we were of course interested in getting a wide range of international voices to reflect on the centenary. So we have work that looks at how the mechanisation of killing that began in WW1 changed the nature of warfare - so that now we see much of war itself enacted not by soldiers but by drones; we've commissioned work from Africa that explores how WW1 acted as a catalyst for the African independence movement and work from Lebanon, whose people are still profoundly affected by the arbitrary division of territory in the Middle East after the war.
 
RR: Your programme of talks continues this year under the name Change…for a tenner? with an emphasis on sociality, open to a range of themes. Can you tell us a bit more about the thinking behind this programme, and its role within the festival?
 
MB:
With the world as a backdrop and not afraid to grapple with some of the big ideas of our time, it's important for LIFT to reflect on and critique the underlying themes across the Festival. The companies we work with are responding to these issues artistically and allowing us to engage with some of the stories they hold but we also want to provide a platform for a more contextual reflection. 'Change…for a tenner' will bring together theatre-makers and performers with other experts - activists, comedians, philosophers, geeks, educators, politicians and musicians, where together, with beer in hand, we can dig down and ponder the ideas of change through conversation, film, debate and melody.
 
RR: A project stood out for me as taking a different engagement with questions of participation and locality- a parade of The Gede in Greenwich.  Can you tell us more about that?
 
MB:
As night falls the Zombies come out to play on the streets of South London as the French and Haitian company Rara Woulib take us on a communion with the dead. It's a beautiful and at times surreal promenade performance full of the music, singing and energy of Haitian street culture. And as well as entertaining us it's also a gentle meditation on how Western cultures both literally and metaphorically bury the dead, rather than continue to celebrate them amongst the living.
 
RR: Can you tell us about how LIFT 2014 will take the festival into the digital realms?
 
MB:
Artistically Longitude is a project that harnesses the potential of using free to access digital platforms (Google Hangouts) to create new, collaborative international performance across several continents at the same time. Connected by the 0 degree line of longitude viewers can log on to watch a live performance develop simultaneously in the UK, Europe and Africa.
 
It goes without saying that social media has transformed the nature of the dialogue we can have with our audiences - it's enabled us to have an ongoing conversation. Oh, and on the technology front we are for the first time in our history, running our own box office at liftfestival.com - allowing us to have an even more direct and immediate relationship with our audiences.
 
RR: For the LIFT novice – what three ‘experiences’ would you recommend?
 
MB:
Dmitry Krymov's Opus No. 7 at the Barbican is stunning and epic visual theatre – it’s a type of work that you just don't see made in the UK and will be a delight for audiences. I’m thrilled with our World War I inspired programme After A War, that explores the ongoing impact of a war that defined the 20th century through the eyes of artists from 4 continents.
 
And the Brazlian choreographer Bruno Beltrao's Crackz at Sadler’s Wells is incredible dance; I've admired his work for 15 years and have never seen anyone who creates contemporary dance work that is informed by hip-hop and street culture in quite such a sophisticated and mesmerising way.

LIFT 2014
2 - 29 June
at various venues
liftfestival.com