by Chris Bailey
[Written as part of the Vespertine's exhibition programme, York St Mary's February 2016]
It's not easy to say because each Vespertine is unique and rarely predictable, though it's always free to enter and takes place roughly in the twilight hours, depending on the season.
If you were there for VESP#05 on 11 November 2015 perhaps you spotted the glowing sign at the foot of the entrance stairs to Stonebow House and decided to investigate? You might have made a blue glowing badge to wear for the evening before you went up the top floor. Here you found art installations by Fine Art students from York St. John University and admired the extraordinary views across the city from this unloved Brutalist concrete building that has recently been home to several of York's leading creative businesses. A trail of street musicians and stalls offering original prints led you down Fossgate and into Walmgate, and then to the National Centre for Early Music, where a sound installation by Lewis Thresh greeted you in the foyer. In the main hall the evening ended with a joyous and engaging performance of a newly commissioned work by the assembled crowd and the Bramble Napskins.
On other occasions Vespertine has sprung from an existing production. Close by the urban drama of Clifford's Tower, on a dark night in late October, Pilot Theatre's production in collaboration with York Museums Trust, A Restless Place, presented the stories of a number of people from around the world as they reflected on their arrival in York. The central theme was taken up by Hondartza Fraga in visual form. Her flights of butterflies animated the cramped spaces of the gaols of the Castle Museum where the performance had taken place, and beyond into the prison yard, where musicians Aby Vulliamy and George Murray, The Print Project and light projections took the testimony of the performers we had heard into other realms.
Adept as York's cultural organisations are at collaboration, the spark that ignites Vespertine is often supplied by the series co-producers, Lucy Barker and Yvonne Carmichael. Their experience in visual arts and in spectacle and festivals, and their extensive network of regional contacts, means that the whole event is more than the sum of its diverse parts. Although it's out of the way, even for natives of York, the Bunker is one of English Heritage's most atmospheric properties. In its subterranean rooms observers were to focus and channel intelligence about attacks from Cold War enemies but, despite its chilling purpose, the rooms exude an uncanny domesticity. The counterpoint for Vespertine on 22 July was provided by contemporary footage from Yorkshire Film Archive, soundscapes created live by Game_Program, and a sober introduction from James Hill. Most remarkably members of the Royal Observer Corps, formerly stationed at the Bunker, were on hand to link the present with that eerie half-remembered past. Many visitors, moved and impressed by what they had seen and heard, promised to return another time.
Who's involved in Vespertine?
The idea for Vespertine sprang from a conversation between York@Large and Visit York about how the apparently separate audiences for music and theatre on the one hand, and museums and 'attractions' on the other, could be encouraged to cross over to mutual benefit.
In 2014 the Vespertine partners began to meet and to exchange ideas, inspired by the potential collaborative projects that would entice York residents or visitors over the threshold to look again, or to try something different. It was reassuring that collaboration is something that York excels at, from the Mystery Plays, the York 800 celebrations, to Blood + Chocolate and Illuminating York. Under the leadership of York Archaeological Trust an Arts Council application to the Arts Council was successful, and Make It York and City of York Council also pledged support. There are now twenty partners involved, taking turns and working in together supported by Lucy and Yvonne, to plan and deliver each Vespertine.
Why are we doing Vespertine?
Many of the seven million visitors to the city each year are drawn by the beauty and resonance of our monuments and surroundings. But when thinking of a city only as an historical artefact it is all too easy to overlook its working life in the present day. In a city that has more than 2000 Historical Listed Buildings there are also over 250 creative media companies employing over 3000 people, three of Arts Council England's National Portfolio Organisations and a Major Partner Museum, among many others. Many of the creative businesses are internationally successful, bringing a cosmopolitan depth to the cultural debate in the city and enabling us to win accolades such as becoming the country's first UNESCO City of Media Arts.
As York's population continues to grow, the demands of families and individuals for more varied choices to fill their leisure time, grows with it. Visitors, too, have expectations quite unlike their predecessors in the 1980s, when the city began to promote itself as a destination. They plan longer stays taking in more aspects of the city's cultural life, couples and family groups arrive by train or car rather than in the day-tripper coaches of old, and many are more attuned to the distinctive character of a place. Residents and visitor alike are enjoying, exploring and celebrating the city in new ways.
In response Vespertine has broken down the old boundaries; artists are working in historic buildings, musicians are collaborating with printmakers, and the venues that would normally close at 5pm are attracting audiences that otherwise would depart for home, or only arrive in time for the show to begin. The mix of activity in the evening, which can all too easily become focused only on alcohol consumption, remains more diverse, and the presence of parents, grandparents and children, calms the mood. In a truly convivial city, people go out to enjoy the city in many different ways that can coincide without conflict.