Sam, I am.
The November day I sit down with artist and curator, Sam Trubridge, it is a beautiful Wellington day, the kind that glistens. Piano music wafts in the background from downstairs. It quietly fills the wide, white room of 30 Upstairs Gallery on Courtenay Place where we are conducting our talk. Sam is currently acting as curator for The Performance Series at 30 Upstairs, a teaser for The Performance Arcade 2016.
If you have never heard of The Performance Arcade, you may well have run into it. Each year shipping containers are filled with installation or performance art on the Wellington Waterfront, in front of Te Papa. The Arcade programme breaks down into three series; the Container Series - works housed in individual containers on Wellington Waterfront; the City Series - works that travel, or occupy spaces along Wellington Waterfront and City; and the Live Music Series - live music and bands from afternoon to evening. I have encountered The Performance Arcade several times. It is a magical, transporting experience. Similarly, as Sam talks in his softly spoken English accent, and describes how he came to Wellington and the evolution of The Performance Arcade, I am transported by his words. Sam is some kind of magician, transforming the familiar, the everyday into an unfamiliar, curious experiences, persuading you take a second look at the city and at art.
"Our family sailed on a boat from England - that's how we arrived in New Zealand. We spent our first years living on the sea, on the ocean"
Sam has been involved in art and the arts as long as he can remember. His parents are artists and designers of different kinds; his mother is an artist; his father, David, moved into design and craft through his work as a furniture maker and a designer in the north of England. “I’ve always existed in a creative, artistic environment, with that kind of thinking. It’s very natural for me extend or develop those interests” Sam notes. The sea was another early influence on Sam. “Our family sailed on a boat from England - that’s how we arrived in New Zealand. We spent our first years living on the sea, on the ocean”, he remembers “I was interested in doing something with that - my brother has remained interested in, and is still very much part of that world (freediver William Trubridge)”
Sam arrived in Wellington 11 years ago from London, having studied in the esteemed theatre course at the Slade School of Fine Art. He had left New Zealand because there was nothing that offered this teaching creative theatre design. Having already applied for some jobs in New Zealand while working in the UK, he returned to pursue a newly offered Master’s Degree at Massey University, studying performance design. This opportunity was a call to return to the antipodes and marked the beginning of the formation of performance design in Wellington and New Zealand with a Bachelor’s in the subject being offered jointly between Massey and Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. Sam’s study led to teaching this course, which led him to develop The Performance Arcade. “It started out with the students having a brief to design a performance in the spaces of the boat sheds, next to the port Nicholson Yacht club. That was the original space.” It seems fitting these boat sheds were the original inspiration - not only are the boat sheds next to the sea, but also their imagery is synonymous with Wellington. However, when Sam started to realise his idea, using the shipping container became the clear front runner. “Mark Westerby (current Chief Executive of creative agency Cuba Creative) and Robert Appierdo (Storybox) were working with them at the time. The space, the versatility - it just worked.” The first Performance Arcade was held in 2011, with 9 containers. They have been held each year ever since.
Exhibiting on the Waterfront
Every instance of The Performance Arcade is different, and affected by the turbulent Wellington climate. Each year all works stand firmly together, weathering the elements, come rain or shine. There is no hierarchy to the performances and spaces because Sam feels they work collectively, and no one can, or should, be specifically singled out. “An arcade” he notes “is about a range of experiences, brought together. As an architectural form it goes back a couple of hundred years as a contained space of diverse nature”. He does however particularly remember a storm in 2012, which affected the number of visitors. It created a violent, volatile experience on the waterfront which made people intrepid and persistent. “One of the experiences was the adversity. That year we had a shipping container in the Water, floating. It made it through the whole Arcade, being swept by the ocean. It was poignant after the recent wreckage of the Rena”. Other Arcades have been more upbeat - a man living in a container in Auckland, containers stacked vertically, and live music performances that would fire up the night.
The Value of Public Art for Wellington - “I think it is a political action”
Sam is part of a wider local and international context that is changing how the public treat performance art in public spaces. The Performance Arcade imposes art on the city. Normally, as Sam notes, when you encounter art in an art gallery, it is controlled and disciplined. At 30 Upstairs Gallery, where the Performance Series was held, is, Sam feels, different from a typical gallery, due to the different rooms and its location on Courtenay Place. With The Performance Arcade, people often don’t decide to encounter the work. Most people are just walking on the waterfront. They haven’t chosen in. It is a transformative experience and changes the city. It allows the audience to decide how long they want to experience the work for.
“If they just walk past, that’s fine. They can respond though - and some people spend 2 hours there.” Sam says “It reanimates the city space and it changes the scale of the space, where streets and car parks prioritise the machine over the pedestrian.. I think that working in this way in the city is a political action and it’s a really significant thing to do, like developing the laneways. Creating an arcaded space that is open to the public.”
The Performance Series ran in 2015 between 20 - 28 November. The Performance Arcade will be held between 2 - 6 March 2016.