Artists Make Places: Kitty McKay

The fifth and last in our series Artists Make Places, Kitty McKay sidesteps bricks-and-mortar interventions and rejects the hostile engineering of the placemaker to instead propose a new citywide festival. Invoking the ghost of AV Festival and bringing in exemplars and conspirators from across the UK, they argue for the community-first, generative, distributed framework that perhaps only a festival – networked, co-operative; at once temporal and temporary – can provide.

I propose a city-wide festival in Newcastle and Gateshead: a free public programme bringing together the city’s practitioners with transnational initiatives, grassroots cultural venues and local, national and international audiences around contemporary art, music, performance, social change and politics. 

Exploring ‘place’ through exhibitions, performances, club nights, lectures, discussions, study sessions, workshops and participatory activities, the festival will shine a light on politically-invested grassroots-led art and culture in the region, as well as bringing in new and innovative practices from beyond. It will connect venues and cultural activity; encourage collaboration and interdisciplinarity; and ultimately promote and provoke exciting thinking through programming, to help reimagine Newcastle and Gateshead as groundbreaking cultural destinations. 

Newcastle and Gateshead host many vital grassroots, DIY and cultural venues and equally exciting activity emerging from the margins. I’m worried, however, that these places, initiatives and practices are becoming increasingly unsustainable from my own experience working in and around a handful of them. Since the failed bid for City of Culture and subsequent waves of austerity which disproportionately battered the north of England, cultural imaginaries and alternative futures feel hard to conjure. 

The North East’s cultural identity seems to have become restrictively standardised and stereotypical, predicated on its ‘nightlife economy’, its hen and stag parties, a sense of post-industrial malaise and, in my opinion, a stagnant and lingering machismo. The continued displacement of many DIY cultural organisations at the hands of cash-strapped councils and wealthy developers – a resonant example being the dispersal of Commercial Union House and the surrounding areas around Pilgrim Street – has sustained a feeling that Newcastle and Gateshead’s cultural scenes are constantly on the back foot; pulling it off against the odds, but for how much longer?

I relocated to Newcastle in 2019, from the notably elitist, inaccessible and gatekept London art world which, in the end, priced me out and saw me migrate up here. I much prefer it: I enjoy the warmth and collaboration and generosity of this scene. More feels at stake – I don’t know if that’s good – but it means people are sincere and committed in a way that feels genuine. The often violent ‘placemaking’ exercises we’ve been at the centre of, which lure creatives into earmarked zones to then move us on just five years later, have cemented active solidarities across the sector.

I think drawing comparisons between London and ‘the regions’ is unhelpful for so many reasons, but the one thing I can’t help missing is the endless diversity of programming down there: the fact that no touring cycle, whether a theatre show, a high-profile exhibition opportunity or a world famous DJ, ever missed the capital. I miss London’s exhibitions, London’s conferences, London’s club nights. So I am interested in how festival programming, on a large scale, with an emphasis on commissioning local and international practices, can potentially shift a sense of what is possible in a city, while still retaining a commitment to cooperative, community methods for doing so.

This proposal would see venues and practitioners in the city be funded to work together across disciplines to programme activity and develop an exciting, experimental and collaborative festival in response to the theme of ‘place’. Some areas of interest would include climate collapse, migration, diasporas, the housing crisis, gentrification, meanwhile spaces and sustaining grassroots cultural economies, as well as the roles and responsibilities of cultural workers in urban environments and beyond. The festival itself will be a placemaking exercise, defining Newcastle and Gateshead as important cultural locations, places where exciting culture can emerge through co-operative and collaborative means. It will consider the creativity, accessibility, ethics and sustainability of placemaking, how it might be done differently through and from the ‘grassroots’, and what effect bringing inspiring practices from beyond the North East can have on the region’s sense of cultural identity. 

The festival programme itself will be designed through funded professional development strands, enabling local producers, promoters and curators to be involved in programming parts of the festival, providing an ‘artist-led’ approach to programming (see, for example, The NewBridge Project’s Programme Committee). There will be opportunities to invite, commission and programme activity from beyond the North East, furthering possibilities to cross-pollinate and exchange approaches to programming, whilst bringing groundbreaking practices to Newcastle and Gateshead. Similarly, artist development strands will be established to support local practitioners to develop works and projects which would be showcased during the festival. These new works would sit alongside large-scale commissions from beyond the North East. 

I’m interested in the other ways people can feed in and engage and the structures which might support those who aren’t directly involved with programming. Coffee mornings, regular site walks, cross-venue open studios events, dinners and trips to meet other similar projects, can all help establish and sustain collaboration between practitioners, organisations and venues across the city, creating more opportunities for new voices to enter the conversation. 

Imagine starting the day on a botanical walk with TopSoil along the Tyne, in collaboration with local growers and community gardens in the region like Scotswood Garden and The Comfrey Project, followed by a food waste workshop with foraged goods at The Lubber Kitchen with Cooking Sections. Then onto a high quality, BALTIC-spec exhibition in Manors car park with Forensic Architecture in collaboration with local architects– Harper Perry, for instance – thinking about how power is organised within space, before a lecture on queer place and space with, say, Jack Halberstam. This could be followed by a cross-discipline study session or roundtable with DIY organisers based in Newcastle and beyond about how to sustain and develop cooperative DIY scenes. Then a series of live performances by Diasporas Now artists, bringing together art, DJ sets and live music at Dunston Staiths; before finishing off the day with open decks and dancing, with music provided by the Heart n Soul DJ Crew at any of the city’s nightclubs.  

The project takes inspiration from other similar festivals and organisations and hopefully could emulate successful parts of each. In the North East, we already have Middlesbrough Art Week, the largest annual contemporary arts festival in the region which champions Middlesbrough’s heritage, industrial past and creative scene. Liverpool Biennial, with its cross-venue contemporary arts programming taking place across Liverpool, is another reference point. Growing up in Liverpool, I felt first-hand the cultural impact of the Biennial, especially in a comparable post-industrial context, by bringing exciting exhibitions and projects to the North West. However, the high-art, top-down model of the Biennial, coupled with more maligned commitments to culture-led regeneration in a wealthy and affluent city centre at odds with the poverty of its immediate extremities, would provide a guide for ‘what not to do’ in regards to this proposal in the North East. 

The World Transformed, which operates to support and deliver political education, is a further example, as is Arika, a political arts organisation concerned with facilitating connections between artistic production and social change. I attended one of Arika’s ‘Episodes’ in Glasgow back in 2019, and its programme’s interdisciplinary curation – encompassing academia, politics, music, performance, and, weirdly, maths – was invigorating. CTM Festival provides another visible multi-discipline approach to hosting experimental art and music across Berlin though it is worth noting that CTM is currently being boycotted by many cultural workers as part of Strike Germany in support of Palestine).

More locally, we have The Late Shows, Newcastle and Gateshead’s annual late-night culture crawl which, for one weekend, animates and maps together our own incredible scene through a diverse and inclusive programme of events and activity. There’s also GIFT Festival, a Gateshead based contemporary theatre festival, committed to presenting contemporary and experimental practices that otherwise wouldn’t be seen in the North East. Its model is somewhat similar to the one I’m proposing, with ‘artistic experimentation and collaboration at its core,’ and being ‘international in scope and interconnected in approach… a carefully curated conversation, providing a meeting point for meaningful exchange between artists and audiences based in North East England, and the wider world.’ 

Then there’s AV Festival, a former international art event which presented visual arts exhibitions, film programmes, new public commissions and performance across the region. I never attended AV Festival, but the scale of its programming with international commissions, and the utilisation of the city and its many venues, all feel pertinent. 

Beyond the festival event, which would both draw people to the North East and engage audiences already based in the region, my hope is that the festival would work to sustain and stimulate the production of new and experimental practices locally. It would reactivate existing and establish new creative connections between organisations and practitioners, presenting the region as a centre for grassroots and DIY culture— and in so doing, develop a rejuvenated cultural identity for the North East.

About the Author

Kitty McKay is an artist, researcher, DJ and facilitator from Liverpool, now living, working and studying in Newcastle upon Tyne. Their interdisciplinary practice embraces politics of community and encompasses social engagement and social impact research, moving image, sound, installation, sculpture, collage, live works, and writing. Embedded in grassroots collectivity, Kitty’s work looks to spark hopeful imaginaries for the future and produces formats for gathering. They are especially interested in queer, crip and feminist frameworks for exploring space and place. 

Kitty often works with other people to produce live and socially-engaged works, and they are often part of collaborations with other artists, academics, community groups and collectives. They are co-founder of Incursions, a collaborative art and research project which uses group walking to explore space and place. 

While studying for their MFA at Newcastle University, Kitty works part-time at The NewBridge Project, an artist-led, DIY art and community venue. They are a resident and committee member with Slack’s Radio, a Newcastle-based independent radio station, and are a former member of School of the Damned. Kitty works with More Than Meanwhile Spaces, looking at long-term futures for artist-led spaces and workspaces in the North East of England. They have exhibited with and been supported by Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, ICA London, South London Gallery, Northumbria University, Newcastle University, Farrell Centre, National Trust, and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, amongst many others.