Compass Festival: Live Art in Leeds

'Forced Entertainment', one of the shows at this month's Compass Festival

An orator reciting the words of both great statesmen and the general public from a platform at the Town Hall for twelve hours straight without so much as a break to visit the gents’? A domestic goddess baking cakes wholly inspired by the stories of others?

What about a man and a woman recording and re-presenting images of the city from Leeds Bridge on the canvas of their very own bodies? Or a chance for Saturday shoppers in the Kirkgate Market to drop their bags and spend a minute of their time to be recorded in a private booth saying, shouting, singing, doing whatever they want?

All of this and more makes up the exciting, quirky, downright odd programme of the Compass Festival of Live Art, blazing a trail as it thunders into Leeds throughout the last weekend of November.

The festival is the latest project from the minds behind Compass, made up of East Street Arts, Sarah Spanton and Annie Lloyd. As festival curator, it is Annie who has brought together this fascinating spectacle. She describes the principles at the heart of Compass’s work in this festival weekend in wide and abstract terms: intimacy and generosity; sensing the city; intentions and un-intentions; the politics of access.

But what this is all about ultimately is the place of art in our everyday lives, as these “exhibits” or “shows” (or whatever else you might want to call them, for any attempt at a standard definition of “live art” invites few answers but plenty more questions) invite people to look with new eyes at the city around them and the places that set the scene for their regular routine.

This week I met Peter Reed – originally from Headingley and now, having been in London as a student for the past three years, producing live art and performance projects which take him all over. As well as the Compass festival, he is currently working with local artist Ellie Harrison, whose compelling ‘Grief’ series is touring the country and also coming to Leeds this month.

For Peter, picking out just one show as a highlight is a predictably hard task. Seven different events will take place across the weekend which passers-by and real-life culture vultures alike can come and enjoy at no cost. But the billing is led by two set-piece ticketed shows: an intimate storytelling performance over dinner at the Playhouse, and a series of stories presented over six hours by performers dressed as kings and queens at the Howard Assembly Rooms.

“Live art”? “Shows”? “Exhibits”? The programme promises sheer good fun more than anything else!

Though the artists and organisers are all seasoned hands, Peter admits the festival is something of a gamble. So much depends on the reactions from and the interactions with the “audience”, whoever they may be. This is not art made in a lonely studio, exhibited in a safe environment in front of a committed set; this is performance on the streets, across the squares, and in the markets. Peter says Compass has been fortunate to have the full support of the council and the civic community in making the festival happen; let’s see now what the people have to say.

It will be fascinating to watch how this eclectic bunch presents their work and what their punters make of it all. And, closing an autumn season which has brought the city of Leeds another mesmerising Light Night and an International Film Festival, it will be an eye-opening experience to see the city through the dazzling and colourful and varied lenses that Compass are laying ahead of us to gaze through.

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