The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Helen Medland
Helen Medland (Artistic Director)
Tim Harrison
Tim Harrison (Director of Development)

SICK! Festival
SICK! Festival
Jérôme Bel
A choreographer born 1964 in France and known for his postmodern choreographies. After studying at Centre national de dance contemporaine – Angers, he started his career as a dancer. From 1994, he started choreographing his own works. One of his representative works is The show must go on which instigated mixed reviews at that time for it’s non-dance aesthetics. In 2012, he worked with disabled actors in Disabled Theatre.

Milo Rau
Born 1977 in Switzerland. Milo is a multidisciplinary artist working as a director, playwright, journalist, researcher, conceptual artist and film producer. In 2007, he founded International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM), which combines together various artistic methods in order to reenact historical events. In 1994, he created Hate Radio that depicts the state of the radio station that contributed to the Rwanda massacre. In his recent work Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs, hefocuses on the loss of immigrants’ lives between the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Presenter Interview
May. 26, 2016
SICK! Festival  Addressing the sicknesses we suffer from in today’s world 
SICK! Festival  Addressing the sicknesses we suffer from in today’s world 
SICK! Festival was established in 2013 with the aim of using the artistic perspective in addressing social taboos that impact people everyday within our society. Working in cooperation with an advisory group made up of professionals in the fields of medicine, sociology and psychology, etc., SICK! Festival presents themed programs with a rich variety of works of theatre, dance, film and installations, as well as debates and the like. In this interview we talk with the festival's Artistic Director, Helen Medland and the festival's Director of Development, Tim Harrison.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki, journalist

First, could you briefly explain your roles in the festival?

Helen Medland: All tasks in the festival from office duties to the actual programming are taken care of by just three people, Tim, myself and Siobhan, our programme manager. Being the Artistic Director, I am the one who travels around the world attending theatre and dance performances, exhibitions and other live art presentations researching the artistic programming. Tim is our Director of Development. He’s in charge of more academic events, such as arranging discussions, debates and lectures.

Tim Harrison: Helen and I have been working together for 7 years. I think our brains function in a totally different ways but we complement each other’s skills very well. We both like the same performance work and that is what always pulls us back together.

HM: I was born in a really small town by the sea in Norfolk. I got kicked out of my home when I was fourteen years old, and then screwed up my education because I had no support around me [laughs]. I come from a very different background from Tim.

TH: I was raised in a nice and comfortable middle-class family. I then went on to study Art History at university. I then did a PhD exploring Art, Science and Religion in the 19th century. I am fully aware that I am privileged, and I am really grateful for it.

In 2002, Helen founded The Basement, a performance venue in Brighton. The venue started as a local fringe organisation but expanded rapidly in the following years to become a leading centre for the creation and presentation of contemporary performance with an international reputation. Tim joined The Basement in 2009.

HM: What I wished to achieve at The Basement was clear: I wanted to create a space that presents quality live performances in Brighton. By staying true to this, over the following nine years, I invited national and international artists, as well as providing office spaces and necessary support for around forty artists. I secured a 150-year lease of The Basement meaning artists will continue using the space for a long time. However, the space had one drawback. That is, it was small in terms of [ceiling] height and [space] width. It was basically created out of a derelict basement space which was formerly a local newspaper printing building. It was only 2.5 metres in height with a capacity of 100, but our programme was very ambitious.
We started wanting to present much larger scale art works, and managed to squash many of these into The Basement. From around 2011, we started programming in other venues. We were also becoming aware that our audiences, and arts audience in general are made up of a certain kind of person: normally middle class, educated.… you often see the same faces at events. We wanted to connect with a wider cross-section of society.

TH: We have great networks from The Basement but the society we live in is much bigger than is a small town art world! We were seeing a lot of new work being made that was quite self-referential. People were making quite theoretical work that showed they had read all the right books, but we felt that it often failed to connect with the real issues in society.

HM: This is not a problem only in Brighton. It happens everywhere in the world. For instance, when I was in Yokohama a few weeks ago attending TPAM, I saw the same issue over there. The art world can be such a closed society. Often when I attend performing arts events, I find myself thinking: “Where are the other people?” “Where are those people that I grew up with?” Performances that confront urgent issues in the world really excite me.

I guess that was the main motive behind launching SICK! Festival with the pilot version in 2013.

HM: Yes. For me, there were only two options: just completely walk away from the whole scene, or do something to change the situation. I could say that the motive for launching the festival was very personal but urgent for everyone.
My life experience also affected the decision. From 2010 to 2014, I encountered a lot of death. First, my mother passed away, and together with her death came a huge trauma revelation about our family history. Then, four very close male friends around my age, committed suicide. I remember talking to Tim at the time that these serious issues should be addressed in the art world. Performances should confront matters of life and death much more.

TH: To a varying degree, everyone living in society goes through difficulties. And so, when we put on a small pilot festival in 2013 at The Basement, with only a budget of about £25,000 people went crazy for it. If you say you are putting on a contemporary dance performance or experimental theatre, the number of audience is always limited. But when you say you are putting on performances about this issue, or that social problem, the audiences got bigger and much more diverse. That change was directly reflected in the post-show discussions. Loads of people were staying for the discussions, and contributing with very personal comments or questions.

HM: For example, the day before yesterday, we co-presented Bryony Kimmings’ show Fake it ‘Till You Make It at SICK! Lab, a 4-day programme of events leading onto SICK! Festival 2017. The performance dealt with depression in young men, and around seventy per cent of the audience stayed for the post show discussion. Among them, seventy per cent were men. The conversation was really interesting and it went on for a good hour, unpicking the topic with both performers Bryony Kimmings & Tim Grayburn along with Ben Fincham, a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex.

TH: What is interesting with the post-show discussions in SICK! is that people don’t only ask questions but are willing to share their own experiences too.

HM: There are tears and also a lot of encouragement from people around. Being a survivor myself, I know that…, wait, is the word “survivor” also used in Japan?

Yes, but keiken-sha (people who have gone through an experience) and taiken-sha (people who have physically experienced) might be more common.

HM: These terms vary in different cultures, so I know we should be using the terms delicately. But, anyway, being a survivor, I know that actually hearing other people’s experience is really empowering. It makes you feel that “it’s alright”. You can feel assured that there are people around me, who can help, support and understand me.

TH: What I specifically remember from the pilot festival in 2013 is that people came to talk to us after the post-show discussion at the bar. The audience members were also spontaneously talking to each other with hugs and tears. There was obviously a sense of “community” emerging at that moment.

I think I experienced that sense of community myself last night at the work-in-progress showing of Untouchable by Ria Hartley. In the performance, Ria poses a series of very personal questions to the audience: Have you ever been sexually abused? Have you ever been the victim of domestic violence? Were there any members of the family who were alcoholics? Were there any close friends who struggled with drug addiction? After each question, Ria pauses. And then raises her hand facing the audience. She is not encouraging the audience to do anything. Nevertheless, people started raising their hands one by one. They are not easy questions to answer, especially in public. I was amazed by how many people were opening up and sharing their experiences.

HM: Yes, that is exactly the sense of community that we are talking about. The audience spontaneously responds to Ria, even though she is not asking anything of the audience. When people started to raise their hands, a moment of kinship emerges. It’s like everyone is acknowledging one another and asking, “Are you alright?”

It’s a sense of kinship that you rarely experience in commercial theatres in London or in Tokyo. I felt that different kinds of audiences were gathering in that space.

HM: Yes, I think that the audience of SICK! Festival is quite different from other arts festivals. Based on responses from a survey we sent out, an interest in The Arts and an interest in Mental Health & Wellbeing were equally the most significant motivating factors for attendance. People who attend our festival come with their life experiences and they feel empathetic to the subject we address, the artist and the audience become equal participants. With everyone in the space helping and supporting one another.
In an open discussion event called On The Couch, part of SICK! Lab, a mother whose daughter has severe depression was revealing her worries. Everyone was listening to her story, that is, not only academics and medical experts, but also other mothers who have gone through similar experiences. People were sharing their thoughts to help her out. There was the sense of shared experience which is rarely seen in commercial theatres these days.

TH: Through the past few years of SICK! Festival, I have actually noticed how many of the so-called experts also are survivors. It is not like “experts” are here and the “subjects” and “patients” are over there: they cross over.

Can you roughly give me the budget of the past few festivals?

HM: The budget for the pilot festival in 2013 was £25,000. Thanks to the success of the pilot our budget increased significantly for SICK! Festival 2014 to £220,000. In 2015, the festival expanded to Manchester, the budget increased furthermore to £400,000. The festival is funded by various trusts and foundations such as Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England, Brighton & Hove City Council, Brighton University – CUPP (Community University Partnership Programme), Manchester University, The Roddick Foundation and Film Hub South East. The audience figures have significantly grown from 2,200 in 2013 up to 32,000 in 2015.

Last evening at SICK! Lab, Dr. Tuheen Huda, a theatre-maker and an intensive care doctor who works at Central Manchester University Hospital NHS Foundation, was discussing the concept of death. He questioned how and when a death should be addressed to the family members of a patient in a vegetative state. In an ordinary theatre venue, it is less likely that you will meet people like Dr. Huda, that is, doctors, scientists, academics, medical practitioners and people from charity organisations. Can you explain how you initially liaised with these professionals?

TH: Tons of research came first. We would contact individuals who seemed right for our thematics within the festival and then the network expanded rapidly. We were introduced to all sorts of people. As our subjects of interest expanded, our network accordingly developed. Starting with medicine, then, on to psychology, sociology, genetics and so on.

HM: For example Jackie Stacey, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Manchester and Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical and Biomedical ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School are both wonderful researchers and speakers who support us with their immense knowledge within their fields.

TH: The subjects of the festival in 2013 were “adolescence, mental illness, aging and death”. We tried to find a single academic who could cover all topics. This worked only to a limited degree because on one hand the discussion evolved efficiently around a single thread however the discussion also lacked a variety of viewpoints. To overcome this issue in 2015 we organised an advisory group consisting of members with various backgrounds. For example people working in sexual health, former sex workers and academics from different disciplines such as psychology, gender studies and sociology. This way the thematics of SICK! Festival 2015, Sex & Sexuality, Abuse and Suicide, was approached from various viewpoints. Our network grew significantly from advisory groups. In 2015 when the festival took place in two cities, Brighton and Manchester, the network spread even more. Now, we are fairly well connected with a variety of specialists such as professors of law, psychology, sociology and so on.

Even in academic settings, that kind of diversity in discipline is rarely observed.

HM: Yes. It was interesting when the advisory group gathered for the first time, everyone in the room, from famous professors to artists, all felt the excitement and nervousness of being outside of their comfort zones [laughs]. The discussion brought together people from all these different fields, who normally would not professionally cross paths with each other.

TH: There was great deal of humility and generosity. When we held the meeting exploring the possible thematic for the festival in 2017, everyone in the room, from sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, geneticist, psychoanalyst and artists, were all completely on an even field. The conversation was democratic and everyone was listening to what others had to say. We had a very open conversation and the thematic of SICK! Festival 2017 gradually materialised. The theme of the SICK! Festival 2017 is “What makes me, me?” focusing on identity and trauma.

HM: One thing I always instill when all of these specialists meet is to follow one very simple rule of speaking in simple language. Members of the advisory group are invited for their professional capacities but we are not academics. We want to discuss not only academic ideas but also personal experiences. I never want anyone in the room to feel alienated because of professional terminology. As a person who does not come from an academic background, it drives me crazy! It really makes me want to scream, “What are you talking about?!” But as soon as we apply this very simple rule, everyone participates in the discussion on an equal level.

Obviously, there are various ethical issues attached to physical, mental and social challenges. For example, presenting a talk or a performance dealing with rape, a certain ethical protocol should be met in order to prevent distress or a trigger to the survivor. When dealing with these very delicate topics, do you ask professionals for advice?

TH: Yes, of course. We speak to a variety of specialists about how to approach delicate topics and get advised on how we can support the audience. The advisory group is also organised in order to discuss those sensitivities.

HM: For instance, if we decide to talk about suicide, we would form an advisory group around the topic. We learn everything, starting from the usage of correct language. We ask people from the charities dealing with the subject matter to be there at the event wearing a T-shirt that indicates where they are from. By doing so, anyone who is distressed or triggered by the event can go and be supported at any point. We make sure that there is always an organisation that can professionally support them. It is very important that everyone feels safe.

How do you decide the theme of the festival each year?

TH: It’s not like you go around festivals with a theme in your mind already. From seeing multiple performances, gradually, a common thread emerges.

HM: Also, it is very important to network with people abroad. For instance, when I went to Japan recently, I was told that the suicide rate is very high in the country. These things do not come out in front page news. You have to go and see for yourself. You learn from talking to the local people. I am not only talking about people in the art world; you should be talking to taxi drivers, people working in restaurants: ordinary people. Because of my own background, it is very important to talk to real people and listen to their personal stories when deciding the theme of the festival.

At the beginning of the interview, you said how different you two were in terms of the upbringing. As your personal experiences seem relevant to the motive behind the development of SICK! Festival, can you talk about your personal trajectory: your upbringing, career, and how you came into the art world?

HM: Wow that is a big question… So, I will give you a quick snapshot of my life. When I was growing up, my father and mother separated when I was eleven months old. He ran off with my mother’s best friend. Afterwards my mother, who was a nurse, married a man who became stepfather to my four sisters and I. He was an alcoholic who physically abused my mother and I on a regular basis. When I was fourteen, I was kicked out of my house and got into drugs. I lost six friends through heroin overdose and misuse. Around the age of nineteen, I got into nursing. No particular reason behind why I had chosen to become a nurse. It was only because all my sisters and my mother were nurses. When I started working, I realised that it wasn’t for me. I was going through various mental health issues and I couldn’t care about other people. It wasn’t a great career back then. Nursing wasn’t my vocation.
We all know that no matter what you do, you have to love it. Or else, you are not going to be good at it. After two-and-a-half years of nursing, I quit it. Soon afterwards, I had my daughter, which is, and still is, the most beautiful thing in my life. The relationship with her father didn’t last long. Maybe there is a pattern repeating from my mum. Around five to six years ago, my mother died after suffering from dementia. She also lived with depression for many years. On the day of my mother’s funeral, we found out from talking to other family members that my stepfather was sexually abusing not only myself but also my mother. From that point, I went into depression. Although it never occurred to me before, I started to think suicidal thoughts. I think it had to do with the fact that many of my friends took their own life around the same time. I was saved because of an amazing counselor. I still live with depression, but I’ve learnt how to manage it. I say to it: “you stay over there in the little box while I’m out and doing all this. Then, at night, you could come out and eat me to death” [laughs].
Alongside all this, I had started working in music. It was what you call indie-punk anarchist approach. I was working in a recording studio with people who had angry things to say. It was in the seventies in the UK; everyone was angry about something [laughs]. It’s not like I was specifically interested in music. I didn’t have any music education but I was always politically engaged. I think all these things that happened to me in my upbringing made me question many things, and that organically led me to art. Okay, so now it’s your turn, Tim. You’ve got all this incredible academic background that I haven’t got.

TH: Yes, so my background is very different from Helen. First, during my early-twenties, I did a PhD in Religion, Art and Science in the 19th century focusing on the relationship between arts and science. I then became severely mentally ill for about four years and I was getting counseling. It’s nothing compared to what Helen has gone through. I was just drinking all the time, and being in a really stupid relationship, so it is completely my own doing. It’s true that everyone has some kind of a mental illness on a sliding scale, and I see myself within that. Whenever I listen to Helen’s story, I think that people who have gone through really serious stuff should be treated appropriately.
Anyway, after graduation, I got interested in live arts through a relationship. From 2005 to 2008, I worked as a Live arts and Dance Coordinator in a place called Arnolfini, which had a really great experimental programme in Bristol. From 2008 to 2009, I was working at Arts Council as a Live Arts and Dance Officer. I then met Helen and joined The Basement team 2009. Helen and I are indeed very different but we like the same art, it’s just the way we articulate what we like is different.

Are there any specific criteria when choosing performances for the festival?

HM: First, there has to be integrity. Then, it has to have the depth of a great performance.

TH: Even when you strip away the theme of the festival, the performance has to be top-notch international quality. In this country, there is “therapeutic art” where the main function is about helping people with critical problems. That work is incredibly valuable, but we sit in a slightly different position. We choose works that could stand out for purely artistic reasons.

HM: For the 2017 festival, which addresses the topic of “What Makes Me, Me?” we will be inviting artists like Jérôme Bel, Milo Rau and Young Jean Lee.

In 2014, you invited the Berlin-based theatre collective Gob Squad. In the production called Before Your Very Eyes, children aged between eight and fourteen were secluded in a space surrounded by magic mirrors, and portrayed their aging process in fast-forward action. Why did you think that performance was suitable for presenting at a festival focusing on sickness?

TH: Helen and I had discussed a lot about whether or not we should invite that specific production. Ultimately, we agreed.

HM: The piece is about aging, society and adolescence through performance by maintaining the artistic quality. I thought that we should definitely invite that piece.

TH: Without doubt, after inviting that production, the conceptual capacity of SICK! Festival expanded.

Lastly, I’d like to ask about the definition of sickness. In society, anything from shopping to politics could be described as “sick”. How do you stipulate the notion of sickness in your festival?

TH: What I could say is that we like the ambiguity of the word “sick”. Also, it is very important to acknowledge that all sicknesses are rendered from the relationship between an individual and society. The two are indivisible. For example, the mental illness that is caused by domestic violence is deeply rooted in social deprivation. Another thing we should consider is that the concept of sickness is constructed by shifting our moral values. In the UK, homosexuality was considered a sickness until quite recently. In short, many of the things that we regard as sicknesses are those things that we want to exclude from the morally correct society.

HM: We deliberately programme performances of those things that people don’t want to include, don’t want to see and don’t want to talk about in society. We ask people to not be afraid of them, but rather take control of them. People in society are now scared about everything, from the environment, illnesses, food… But if you observe, care and love those things that you fear and wish to exclude from your everyday, your life might be a little bit easier.

TH: The word “festival” suggests jubilation and celebration, but we had combined that word together with the word “sick”. So, SICK! Festival is in itself contradictory [laughs].

HM: Yes, and it is interesting precisely because it is contradictory.