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INTERVIEW: Outlands' Sam Francis Discusses Upcoming Online Event
Patrick Clarke , February 18th, 2021 13:33

The project producer looks ahead to the gigs, films and conversations that will encompass 'The Joyous Thing', and how they and the UK's experimental music scene have adapted to the pandemic

On the final weekend of this month, the Outlands Network will host the second edition of The Joyous Thing, a series of commissions from across the UK's experimental music and art scene, and the first since the coronavirus crisis forced the vast majority of cultural events to operate purely online.

The team at Outlands, much of whose work before the pandemic involved organising tours for left-field artists across the UK, have taken lockdown as an opportunity to rethink the way they work, with a newfound focus on widening their network and getting practical support to the artists and organisations unable to otherwise get it from public funding institutions.

The upcoming second instalment of The Joyous Thing, a mixture of live performances, films and conversations, will place much of its focus on conversations around these topics, and those behind it hope both to widen the online audience of experimental musicians and encourage fruitful conversation among the UK's fertile network of creative people – who have been battered by the pandemic, but against all odds remain unbowed.

Outlands has commissioned a number of performances to take place across the event's two days with a focus on bringing new names to the Outlands fold, such as multi-disciplinary artist Klein, who's enlisted actor and MC Lamar for a performance and experimental score inspired by references as broad as Japanese toy commercials and Ant and Dec's Gameshow Marathon. (You can see the full programme for the upcoming event here.)

To find out more, tQ caught up with Outlands' project producer Sam Francis to discuss how underground UK music is adapting to the pandemic, and Outlands' plans for a Joyous Thing like no other.

Take me through the challenges Outlands has had to overcome over the last year.

Sam Francis: Just before the pandemic started, Outlands had been funded for two years. For a cultural project, that's quite a long time. We were in the process of getting ready to put another large bid into funding organisations, but when COVID-19 happened we pulled back on that because understandably all the money was being channelled into emergency funds. We were able to get some of that funding, which enabled us to continue doing work throughout last year. In that time, we did a lot of thinking around how Outlands was shaped, what the point of it was, who it was benefiting and how it could benefit people better. We stripped things back and made things a lot simpler.

We've been working towards making the network wider. Before, it was really small; there were only eight partners. The feedback from people taking part and engaging in what we were doing was that what would be most useful is for us to be able to try and support smaller organisations. We're now working towards a new model whereby we have lots of different partners and we're able to offer them opportunities they might miss out on: different funding, commissions, bursaries and professional development opportunities. We're going right back to basics and creating a whole new way of working.

Is this a model that will continue to have benefits after COVID-19?

SF: I hope so. The broader and extended experimental music scene in the UK has always been quite supportive. Everyone's quite well linked up, but what's often missing is opportunities for funding, something that’s a bit of a barrier for promoters and artist-led groups. We're working out how we can get money and disseminate it out a bit.

So it's a question of distributing funding you're able to access where others aren't?

SF: We've tested that out with the next The Joyous Thing. We opened up the membership for people to join up and we offered out three commissions to new members. It's peer-curated and produced rather than Outlands doing the big tours like in the first phase. It's thinking much more small scale and localised. Both localised and national!

The first Joyous Thing took place in a different universe, but are there lessons you're bringing from that to the new edition?

SF: To go back a bit, a lot of the feedback and the conversations that happened at The Joyous Thing last year informed our thinking in terms of reframing our model last year. The first one felt like it was quite talk-heavy, but we wanted it to be more conversation-heavy. Thinking about how we do that in an online context is quite challenging actually. For one part of the programme, we're going to have a number of breakout rooms for people to move between and have different conversations about things with their peers. I'm intrigued to see if it works. It could completely die on its arse but we're hopeful that it could be quite fruitful. An organisation called Attitude Is Everything is going to host a room about accessibility to events. We're going to have one about funding, one about visas and touring, and one about production. We'd really like people to take part in the conversations, that's one of the things we really want to push. We're trying to emulate the 'sitting around a table on a Sunday having a chat' kind of vibe.

Through the whole Joyous Thing programme there's a big focus on breaking boundaries between experimental artists and wider audiences. Why is that?

SF: It's a pressing topic of our times really. It's always been at the heart of what we've done. Even though an online event is really limited in a lot of ways, I think there are also lots of opportunities to reach out to people that might not usually come to anything that's more experimental. We're hoping that by having a more diverse programme we'll have a more diverse audience.

How much has Outlands guided the nature of the commissions, and how much is coming from the artists themselves?

SF: We were just really thinking about keeping it realistic because they weren't very big bursaries. Also, potentially using venues that haven't been used for a while because they're empty, as well as using the opportunity of it being online to test new ways of working out as well. The team at Tor Festival, who are doing an evening programme on Sunday night to close off the event, are doing things locally to them but they're also live-streaming with an American band. It's something they'd wanted to test anyway, so it gave them the opportunity to make it more viable and pay people in the process.

Do you think there's something about DIY and underground musicians that means they're strangely well equipped to deal with the need for flexibility and innovation the pandemic requires?

SF: That's quite an interesting proposition. We've got a talk on the Sunday which addresses this actually; it's called Public Time Not Public Space, about how artists have responded to the limitations caused by lockdown, but still done stuff anyway. How we find ways of still doing work that might not have a live audience but still has potential to be shared. There’s one artist we were speaking to who's been doing improvisations in outdoor spaces with other improvisers, not promoting them, just doing them to do it.

The Joyous Thing takes place online and for free from February 27 to 28, 2021. You can find the full programme and the livestream here

Right now Outlands is actively looking to extend and diversify its network. Find out more and sign up for membership here