by Maro Psyrra
Edinburgh is undoubtedly the city of festivals. The historical, monumental capital of Scotland, though remaining architecturally loyal to tradition, apparently constitutes fertile ground for the development of contemporary artistic creation. Various festivals, some smaller and others larger, take place at the city’s most important buildings and hundreds of artists express themselves creatively through various experimentations and artistic explorations. In this context, the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival claims a special position. It combines a festival of contemporary expression while being based around younger artistic creation, bringing forth simultaneously the strong bonds between the city and its academic community.
Art plus thought which is collaborating with ESAF 2016, today welcomed the founder and director of the Festival, Briana Pegado, with whom we discussed the history, aims and future of the festival.
-Let us begin with a conventional yet essential question. What is the starting point of ESAF? How did it cross from idea into action?
When I was little, I was very creative. We all were. And ‘creativity’ was not reserved for an individual studying the arts – it was open and accessible to everyone. When I got to university, something changed. It felt like my access to the arts – to studios, stages, recording studios and spaces diminished. It became a choice I had to make. Either I made time to be creative or it was no longer a part of my life. I began to prioritise other things. It was so happy to be around friends that ran club nights, did club photography, ran fashion shows, did drawing and painting, and created portraiture pop-ups. I was so inspired by everyone around me.
In 2014, I was elected President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). In the lead up to my election, I had spoken to quite a number of students and I felt a divide between Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh, specifically after the merger between the two institutions in 2012.
ESAF was born in order to bring those two communities together, but when I pitched it to other Sabbatical Officers (which is what I was as President) at all the other universities and Edinburgh College, we decided we would make ESAF city wide – to bring the entire creative community together. We created ESAF in order to build bridges.
The most important tenants of ESAF would be that any student with an idea could participate. It was not up to us to dictate ‘who’ was creative or what it meant to be creative. The second most important tenant is that it would be student run. Similar to the ethos of student unions across the UK that are run by an elected group of officers who are ultimately responsible for representing thousands of students to the university and representing their interests on a local, national and international level.
This festival, we decided, would represent the creative practice of students at all levels across all of the higher education and further education institutions in Edinburgh. We would make decisions collectively and be accessible to all.
-Given that Edinburgh can be characterized as the ‘city of festivals’, due to the dozens of festivals taking place every year in the city, what do you think ESAF in particular has to offer? What are its main aims and how does it contribute to the general artistic creation of the city?
ESAF was created as a direct reaction to the other Edinburgh Festivals that predominantly take place over the summer period. We believe that there are many barriers to entry for emerging artists in creatives in our city even with the other festivals. These barriers include lack of pay, lack of legitimacy, lack of emerging artist voice, poor timing and high expense to live in the city while many of these festivals take place – particularly the Fringe. By participating in our festivals our artists and creatives are given a stamp of legitimacy to showcase their work elsewhere. Our festival is also entirely volunteer-run and completely driven by our artists and creatives. We feel we give them a voice and we aim to represent emerging creatives in city forums like Desire Lines and other work that is being driven by the council to research how they can better support the creative sector.
Our festival is designed to take place at a time when students are actually here in the city and able to contribute some of their work to the festival - namely in their second term when they may have a piece of work ready to contribute.
We showcase all forms of art and I believe that makes us very unique. Last year, we had an talk given by an Improv performer on ‘How to Kick Depression in the Butt’. Some other artists designed an interactive board game that helped guests better understand relationships and space. It was life size and beautifully constructed.
We are a social enterprise. All of our ‘profits’ from the festival go back into the organisation to guarantee we have money for the running of next year’s festival. We are also working with organisations to launch a schools programme so that we can go into local schools. We are also developing a professional development programme so artists can get more practical skills to help equip them for life after graduation.
We provide a platform for emerging artists and creatives to showcase their work to the public. We aim to increase public access to the arts while providing our artists and creatives with skills and career development opportunities. We aim to bring the creative community in Edinburgh together. Our ultimate aim is for every young person in
Scotland to be able to access the creative sector in order to fulfill their potential.
-ESAF 2016 is undoubtedly a large festival, as it takes place across seven venues and the participation of young artists is particularly high. Given that it is only the second year of the festival, how do you interpret the high interest of the participants?
I interpret the high interest of participants as the festival being able to address a need. The need is for more infrastructure and support for emerging artists. The creative sector is worth 70 billion to the UK economy and 3 billion to the Scottish economy. There is certainly an interest in the creative sector in other sectors. Business are taking on ‘creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship’ as a way for them to stay current and relevant to younger generations. It is true that creativity drives innovation, but I believe in order for us to live in a more sustainable and equitable world, everyone must be given the opportunity to ‘be creative’ in all aspects of their lives, especially their work.
I come from a Sustainable Development background and I strongly believe we are helping to support the next generation of creatives who will be social innovators. They will help us solve the world’s problems. By expressing themselves and sharing their interpretation of the world around us, artists allow us to see the world with a fresh perspective.
-Talk to us about this year’s programme. From what we’ve seen it includes a wide range of artistic expression, from performances to musical exhibitions and events.
Our programme is structured in way that allows for the audience to experiences our artists work to the fullest. Our visual arts exhibitions remain open for the entirety of the festival and are invigilated by our artists who have great insight into the work they have produced. Our performing arts programme runs for three days across three venues. It is a showcase of everything from dance, performance art, traditional theatre, musical theatre and comedy.
On Sunday 14th of February, we are doing something very special. We are partnering with ASCUS, an organisation that brings the arts and sciences together, for a Valentine’s Mad Scientist Day called ‘For the Love of Science’. We will be running our stall market from 11am-4pm, our performing arts programme from 2pm-6pm with a brilliant piece performed by Amateur Culture called ‘The Boy Who Calling the Kettle Wolf’ written a produced by recent graduates from the BA Contemporary Performance Practice programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
There will be three other performances by local playmakers along with an evening music showcase by four emerging musicians. Earlier in the day ASCUS, will be running experiments and workshops around the arts and sciences in the adjacent histology lab and we will close off the evening with a scientist and artists speed-dating event.
The following Monday our workshops, talks and creative partner series launches. There will be improve workshops, comedy workshops, bookmaking and coldpress writing events. Our creative partners including Edinburgh Printmakers, Lyon & Turnbull and the Biscuit Factory are running events that are open houses, a mock auction, and a discussion on Democratic Regeneration, respectively. Another highlight is Creative Edinburgh’s famous Creative Corporate Love focusing on the theme of ‘partnerships’, which always bring together a unique and dynamic audience.
-How hard is it to coordinate such an endeavor remembering that everyone involved is voluntary?
The answer is tricky. It is a labor of love. I set up the organisation as a company limited by guarantee (not-for profit) and currently undetake about 4 jobs. I am the accountant, HR manager, director, business development officer, and operational manager. That said, everyone on the team is going far above and beyond their job specification. However, that is the reality of running a startup and more importantly, the reality of the creative sector.
The creative sector is filled with people passionate about what they do. They put their hearts and soul into everything they do and are often unpaid. We would like to help raise awareness and help to better value the creative sector. Often what the public pays for an event does not even cover the costs of putting it on. Why is it we are willing to pay the full cost and then some for other products but not for the arts?
Working with volunteers is wonderful. You just need to make sure it is a consensual process. The team needs to feel they are valued, you will support them in any areas they are not as familiar with and that they are happy with the role they are given. Once that mutual agreement is established, it is really golden. I try to respect the fact I am the only person working on the festival full-time and that everyone else has other commitments like university, college, full-time or part-time jobs.
I am grateful to have such a wonderful, dedicated team of talented artists, products, event managers and creative people that put their all into making sure the arts festival happens.
-It is interesting that the festival brings forth artists from all the academic institutions of the area. How do you see artistic education in Scotland?
It is no secret that artistic education in Scotland is valued but the creative sector is currently facing massive cuts. People are having to be much more creative about how they can deliver artistic education. Teachers are often overworked and underpaid, so the idea of doing something ‘extra’ to make sure their students get an artistic education is often out of question. We aim to work with the council, which already has a creative learning programme, to help improve artistic education in Scotland. However, I believe we need to think beyond ‘artistic’ and look at ‘creative education.’ How do we make our schools more creative giving students the power to express themselves, take risks and be themselves. I think more widely the education sector is changing internationally. With a shift towards problem-basing learning, more creative ways to engage students especially at university and college level, we are looking past educating young people in silos and looking at how to better integrate and engage youth. The internet provides us with so many opportunities but we need to give our educators the tools to utilise all of this technology in ways that allow them and their students to be more creative.
-How do you imagine the future of the ESAF? What can we look forward to from this particular artistic institution?
My vision for ESAF is to deliver a series of year around events for our artists and creatives that give them the practical tools to be successful outwith their degrees. On a community level, we want to help young people in Scotland access the arts so I hope we will be working with the council and a number of community groups to realise our vision. Eventually our aim is to become the 13th major Edinburgh Festival and enable students in other cities across the UK to start their own festivals, initiatives, collectives and cooperatives that give them a voice, a platform and a community to collaborate and share their work. In short, watch this space.
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