sat 25/05/2019

10 Questions for Brighton Festival CEO Andrew Comben | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Brighton Festival CEO Andrew Comben

10 Questions for Brighton Festival CEO Andrew Comben

Helmsman talks art forgery, politics and the highlights of this year's programme

Andrew Comben (right) with Guest Director Rokia Traoré

The Brighton Festival begins in May. Since 2014 theartsdesk has had a media partnership with this lively, multi-faceted event which takes place over three weeks. This year the Guest Director is the Malian musician Rokia Traoré, who inhabits a position previously filled by cultural figures such as Brian Eno, David Shrigley, Kate Tempest, Anish Kapoor and Vanessa Redgrave.

Overseeing the whole event every year since 2008, however, is Brighton Festival CEO Andrew Comben. A singer and horn player in a previous life, the 45-year-old Comben is now a full-time driving force within the festival organization as well as that of the Brighton Dome venue. He speaks to theartsdesk about this year’s festival.

Thomas H Green: The Brighton Festival always has an international flavour but this year it seems even more so. Is that true?

Andrew Comben: What’s interesting is that as well as bringing a whole range of work from her home, Mali, Rokia Traoré is instinctively international in outlook. That’s influenced every area of the programme. The dance programme alone runs from Tijmur Dance Theatre from Taiwan to Wim Vandekeybus’s TrapTown from Belgium. The latter was one of the choreographers that Rokia first mentioned when we started talking about the festival, an artist who influenced her work hugely. It’s natural to Rokia to be looking right across the world and we’ve tried to reflect that.

How did you connect with her?

She’s between Paris and Bamako, as far as her homes are concerned, and she’s on tour internationally most of the year, so she’s an artist who’s been in Brighton before. Via the likes of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express we’ve come into contact, also the likes of [American theatre director] Peter Sellars who’s worked with Rokia on a number of occasions and is, indeed, doing an onstage chat with her at our festival.

There’s often a political edge to what she does. Is some of the line-up this year about drawing attention to things?

I think political is not too strong a word. She’s certainly socially concerned and that comes through in all her work, both as a musician, when you listen to the lyrics, but also as a human being, and in her position as a UN ambassador. She’s taken to heart the concerns of her community and really tried to represent them, to give those needs a voice. That’s something we’ve tried to talk a lot about; highlighting issues of concern right around the world but giving specific voice to our communities here, finding a way of using the festival as a platform. Whether that be [community-based] projects such as the Storytelling Army, or working with committees in Hangleton and East Brighton, the Brighton Festival is consistently a home for political ideas and social concerns of the time.

I’m glad you didn’t shy away from the word “politics”.

Yes, politics and art are inseparable in some way. People shy away from the word “political” because of its party political connotations. I don’t take that view. We live in a strange era and the festival reflects that.

I hope so. I’d certainly second the notion of a strange era. Rokia Traoré’s work is also about an exchange of ideas, isn’t it?

I don’t think we can reduce all of the artists appearing to a single message and a single voice. A festival is an ideal vehicle because it can be such a broad space for a free exchange of ideas that don’t take one particular position. It allows people to express their take on the times we live in. These being the times they are, it’s no surprise artists are responding and often really powerfully. It makes programming a festival like this a real pleasure.

Would you say the poet Kate Tempest’s Guest Directorship in 2017 had a great and ongoing impact on the festival’s trajectory since?

In a way you’re referring to the likes of [community arts projects umbrella] Our Place and Storytellers Army. They began with Kate’s Festival. I think it’s fair to say those ideas about communication with the community in a different way were gestating. They were something the festival was seeking to do for many years. What we looked for in Kate was the catalysing force to make it happen and she absolutely did. It was really brilliant to see the response. The whole community, whether that be ticket-buyers who were contributing to the Pay-It-Forward scheme, enabling people in the community who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it to come to the festival, or through the steering committees and people engaging in Your Place, as it was called, now Our Place. That impetus was really powerful. [Last years’s Guest Director] David Shrigley also took it forward - he really championed that in his festival. It’s really become a part of the way we think about the festival now, inseparable from the whole.

As much as politics, though, isn’t the Brighton Festival about fun?

That’s the point of a festival, in a way, but then also a festival in Brighton. As other people have quipped in the past, Brighton’s main industry is pleasure and a festival here wouldn’t be true to the place if it didn’t have a heavy injection of fun. Even from the first festival [its Director] Ian Hunter said a Brighton Festival should be all about the seemingly frivolous and the serious side-by-side. Consciously or unconsciously we take that to heart and make it true. Rokia is such an energetic and inspiring performer I defy anyone to hear her and watch her and not be moved, both emotionally and physically, in the sense that sometimes you just want to get up and dance. It’s that kind of energy we wanted to inject across the programme and the likes of [contemporary dance event] Session is just completely infectious. It’s a performance that will grow audiences across its run. As soon as word spreads, everyone will want to experience it.

The film and performance collective Berlin have a piece called True Copy at the festival which looks fascinating; can you tell us about it?

It has its UK premier at the festival and is a piece we’ve co-produced. Berlin are from Belgium so are curiously named. Something that distinguishes them is they absolutely get under the skin of their subjects, spending a lot of time in geographical locations. Zvizdal, for which they went to Chernobyl and which was at the 2016 festival, was a case in point. True Copy is about the art forger Geert Jan Jansen and they’ve persuaded Geert to be part of the piece; he’s a live performer in the work. They’ve really looked at what art is and how we think about beauty and what is great art in relation to, particularly, the visual art world which is so caught up in provenance, ownership and authorship. The fact is that Geert Jan Jansen was one of the most successful forgers, not for copying existing works but painting in the style of artists. In one famous example a work of his was validated by Picasso as a Picasso. It’s a fascinating way into that question, they’ve produced a piece of work in their inimitable style which coordinates live performance and previously filmed work seamlessly.

Another piece that looks unique is My Left Right Foot, which see the National Theatre of Scotland working with Bird of Paradise, a theatre company whose raison d’etre is using disabled and non-disabled actors together. What’s the story behind this one?

It was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival but I’m really thrilled its part of the Brighton Festival this year. It deserves a big up for its completely irreverent but incredibly thoughtful take on disability and political correctness and how that’s so often woefully underrepresented but also misrepresented in the arts. It’s a terrific, very funny piece. The conceit is that an am-dram theatre company wants to be right on and produce something about disability, taking Daniel Day Lewis as their inspiration. Things degenerate from there. It’s a fully integrated performance with disabled performance and BSL [British Sign Language] written into the piece from the start. It makes everyone feel very uncomfortable in a very useful way!

Every year you work with a Guest Director; how much is you and how much is Rokia Traoré?

That’s the question I’m asked most consistently. This year, particularly, it’s really easy to answer because Rokia has been incredibly involved right from the start in a very thorough and thoughtful way. She hasn’t pretended for a moment that she wanted to select every single piece but she has wanted to be a part of that decision-making. It’s been a real privilege to work with someone who wants to give themselves that much to the process because it takes a huge amount of time and thought. It’s always a free exchange back’n’forth and it’s be no surprise to say that the work of her own Passerelle Foundation and the artists coming from Mali – the likes of the Malian Dance Night, [six piece band] Ko Saba and her own three performances, Né So, Dream Mandé: Bamanan Djourou and Dream Mandé: Djata, are entirely from her and conceived by her. But then right across the programme she’s took suggestions from us, looked at the work of suggested artists and said whether or not she feels a connection with them. So I’m quite confident in saying this festival is thoroughly overseen by Rokia and I’m delighted it has been.

Below: Watch Brighton Festival 2019 trailer


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