Saturday 31st October 2015. Our pilot Out There Challenge dawns on a crisp autumnal day. 16 nervous University of Leeds students are welcomed into Leeds City Gallery before opening time. They have daringly signed up to the challenge with just two assurances. They will get their hands on an exclusive, high-profile creative brief in partnership with a leading arts organisation. And they have one day to complete this challenge.
The students are shown to their green room, behind-the-scenes in Leeds City Gallery. They start to get to know each other. Most are first year students, already being creative with their comfort zone by signing up to a challenge that will get them out of the university bubble and into the city. Impressive!
On the table in front of them are welcome packs - one each - filled with tools to help them complete the challenge. They are told not to open the packs until the brief is revealed. Beth, the Out There project coordinator, hands them the first clue: personalised name badges with the title 'Junior Art Doctor.'
Nervous, excited looks are exchanged…
Natalie Walton, representing our first Out There Challenge creative partner, introduces herself. She is the City Coordinator for the British Art Show 8. Everyone sits up a little bit in their seats...
Natalie explains that the British Art Show is an exhibition that happens once every 5 years and travels to 4 cities in the UK. It is like a snapshot of Contemporary Art, because it shows us the trends and tensions artists are dealing with at this moment in time. It happens every 5 years so that we can catalogue the changes in art over the decades.
In other words, British Art Show is a way of taking the temperature of art every 5 years.
She lets words sink in for a moment. 'Taking the temperature of art' - 'Junior Art Doctors' - you can almost hear the cogs whirring as the students try to fit the clues together…
Finally, Natalie unveils the brief.
"It is your job to take the temperature of the exhibition today. Art is always up for debate. An art work that moves me may in turn have no effect on you. BAS8 wants to understand what people think of BAS8. What are the hots and colds of the show for you, as students, and for our visitors?
Your challenge is to use the artwork you are given to develop a debate in pairs. One student must be positive (hot) towards the artwork and the other must be negative (cold). Be outrageous and have fun! Your performances will be filmed by the media students amongst you."
The media students have been briefed before Challenge Day. They have complete creative control over how they choose to capture the day's events.
Natalie asks how everyone feels about the brief. Does anyone want to run screaming for the gallery doors?! The students look a bit terrified… but with a glimmer of that daring, up-for-it attitude that convinced them to sign up in the first place.
And so, the exciting creative process - from briefing to performance - begins...
The students go on a tour of the gallery, exploring the British Art Show. Each team narrows down the artwork that will will inspire their debate and add real spark to their final performance. The students jot down the names of pieces that capture their imaginations, or stir up disagreements between the team-members.
Once they have chosen their artworks, our 'junior art doctors' venture into the October sunshine. Outside the gallery, they meet the Art Doctors, Liz Sterling and Alison McIntyre. Their mission is to get more people excited about contemporary art. Brilliantly in character, the Art Doctors 'prescribe' artworks to passers-by. They encourage people to create their own playful responses using crayons, lego, and chalk.
Over the next few hours, the students engage with visitors to the gallery, chatting to people about their chosen artworks. They start to come up with arguments for and against the pieces. Some of the works are controversial, some are bemusing, and some are literally made out of poo!
Chatting animatedly, the students rush back upstairs to their green room. They are just in time for their mid-challenge training session. By now, the atmosphere in the group is warm, friendly, and creative. Each group talks about their chosen artwork, and we can really see the conflicts between the team-members as they debate their pieces. We have purposefully weighted the group so that some of the students are 'art fanatics', whilst many have never been to a gallery in their lives. There is an inspiring buzz in the room, as different points of view are sounded, answered and developed.
Natalie Walton gives some tips on debating art and, in doing so, she highlights all the values of the Out There Challenge. What the students produce does not need to be perfect. The point is to have a go, put their all into the argument, and think creatively within a challenging scenario. Natalie suggests that each group simply starts by describing the artwork exactly as it is. "What do you see in front of you?" This is a great place to start, because, in Natalie's considerable experience, nobody describing a piece of contemporary art can resist questioning it in some way!
After the students have honed their arguments, Mary Cooper, our drama facilitator for the day, gives a creative workshop on how to turn a debate into a script. The aim is to be outrageous and opinionated, without being too theatrical. The scripts should be adapted and revised until they sound like a real, naturally occurring exchange between two casual gallery visitors.
Boosted by these mini training sessions, our Out There Challenge students seem really confident and keen to start practising their pieces. What a transformation from their nervous anticipation this morning!
After a welcome lunch on us, the Challenge teams get stuck into the creative process. It is amazing to see how they have grown in confidence come since we first unveiled the brief! As we go from team to team offering our support, the students sheepishly stop practising and tell us to wait until the actual performance... That's us told, then!
But, as we wait for 3pm, we sneak a few glimpses of the debaters' dramatic gestures and listen to the rise-and-fall of animated speech echoing through the gallery. Something tells us we have some really engaging performances to look forward to.
The filmed performances are underway! Each debate is only about three minutes long, but the process of capturing them takes a bit longer. It's great to see job satisfaction and smiles being shared between students from different departments. The media crew is fantastic - professional, calm, and fun to work with. The Out There Challenge teams have even thought about how they want their pieces to be filmed. One team directs the crew to capture them over-the-shoulder style as they walk away from their artwork…
The performances take place in front of the artworks that inspired each debate. As the media crew's cameras attract attention, bemused gallery visitors, students and staff members form a mini audience around each performance. The students look a bit nervous before their turn, but you can see them enjoying the feeling of being creative on camera!
We are seriously impressed by the results. Everyone has risen to the challenge and put so much energy into the creative process. One team has chosen to perform twice: once in English and once in Mandarin. Even in a different language, you can tell from the performers' body language who is 'for' the artwork and who is 'against'!
All of our performers have their onlookers laughing, nodding in agreement, and thinking deeply at the same time. Now that is a real skill.
Each performance ends with an interview. The teams explain their creative process and reflect on the day's challenge. All of the teams seem exhilarated by the pressure of performing something really powerful, after a brief window of preparation time. They have learned that they are more resilient than they thought. Overall, they have had a difficult but rewarding experience of the British Art Show, via the Out There Challenge.
And so, after a day of controlled panic and crazed creativity, the very first Out There Challenge draws to a close. We all get together one last time to crunch biscuits and chew over the day's antics...
Reflecting on the brief, the students are bursting with positivity. Sara tells us that she would not have come to a contemporary art exhibition before today - but now she is completely hooked! Polly admits that if she had been told what the challenge was before-hand, she might have been unsure about signing up. But she's so glad that she did, having gained some really beneficial new skills. During the brief, the students had to think deeply about the world of art. They learned to channel these ideas into clear, entertaining outputs under time pressure.
Everyone agrees that the challenge was surprising, interesting - and loads of fun!
Congratulations to the students for launching themselves into this brief. Nobody legged it for the gallery doors! In fact, every single person was full of inspiration, energy and ideas. This comes across in the social media buzz that built up throughout the day. After a lot of thought, we present our first Out There Challenge social media engagement award to Rebecca Daniel.
Thanks to Tom Bailey from Arts & Minds and Natalie Walton from BAS8 for making the first Out There Challenge so memorable.
We can't wait until the next stories unfold on the 28th November Challenge. Our second exclusive brief will involve even more adventuring than this one...
We leave you with a bit of wisdom from Dr. Seuss. All of our amazing challengees and challenge partners will agree that:
"Out There, things can happen,
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And, when things start to happen,
Don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too!"