Piano In praise of LIFT

couple of years back I got asked to write something for the opening of the LIFT Living Archive – a physical and electronic resource collecting materials relating to the London international festival of theatre, starting at its inception in 1981 and moving right up to the present day. Navigating hundreds of database entries for projects both remembered and forgotten, familiar and strange, was an enjoyable if daunting task, especially so thanks to the open brief I’d been given. Indeed, while I’m sure some researchers approach an archive with a clear idea of what they’re looking for, my own experience in recent years – having spent time not just at LIFT’s but also at the Tate and National Portrait Gallery archive collections – has been much more a process of intuitive stumbling or blind seeking. Opening boxes, clicking links, waiting to see.

Unexpectedly, one of the most touching things in all of those collections was seeing boxes of communications and correspondence relating to shows and exhibitions – carbon copies of letters, handwritten notes, typed drafts with pencil additions – arranging the transport of this that or the other, agreeing the terms or the technical requirements, arguing about fees, practicalities or box-office deals for events long gone. Perhaps a favourite of these was the correspondence between LIFT and a manager at London Zoo, agreeing the box-office split for the weekend presentation of Spanish artist Albert Vidal, arranged in an enclosure in a piece called El Hombre Urbano.

There was something amazingly vivid about these pre-email traces, encountering the voices of previous curators and festival directors, watching the care and attention to detail behind the programming, getting some sense of people, of conversation, of the love that goes into making things happen. There was even something faintly nostalgic in those tastes of a time (not so long ago) when a fax machine was considered a marvellous device for communicating with others over distance instead of as a strange antique and silent artefact.

Perhaps what was most amazing in the LIFT archive, though, was how vividly it summoned flashes of shows I’d seen years ago. Digging deep in the archive I became aware of how powerfully a single image, text or even piece of old print could serve to bring things back. Somewhere inside a brochure were a few images from Station House Opera’s construction-site as performance The Bastille Dances in 1989, a work that built and rebuilt castles, arches, columns, cityscapes in a kind of long-durational realtime architectural animation using many performers to shift 8,000 breeze blocks. Looking at those scenes I remembered not just that project, but the conversations I’d begun while watching it, conversations around time, the city and performance which are still ongoing for me. There is a great line in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, referring to “old stone to new building” – you saw that process literally in The Bastille Dances, but I became aware too that theatre itself is part of this process of building forever in its own ruins. A festival like LIFT (or its dynamic younger counterpart in London, the SPILL festival of performance) is part of that unruly conversational international building process in which ideas travel, mutate, reverse and constantly change.