June 2006. Some musician friends of mine had scored a gig at JAMM in Brixton; I went along expecting the usual indie shenanigans at a toilet venue in South London. At the door, a white rabbit greeted me. I wandered to the Ladies to check my makeup (hoping not to disappear through the looking-glass as I did so) and happened upon one of the evening’s performers donning her costume for the night: three pitta breads held together with string and, um, not a lot else.
And then the night took a turn towards the unconventional…
OMSK was founded in 1995 by a group of like-minded artists with the aim of putting on mixed media ‘cabaret-style’ events combining film, music and live performance. Over the course of several years and several homes, including a squatted Barclays Bank and the murky confines of the 333 Club in Hoxton, OMSK as a collective emerged, with its ever-changing lineup developing a manifesto of practice in 2000. The collective itself is London-based, but has connections and contacts all over the world, and draws on a diverse and ever-expanding pool of talent as the word spreads.
Sally, Clare and Hannah, three current mainstays of the OMSK collective, explain more…
Katie Grocott: How did each of you first hear about OMSK, and what led to you joining the collective?
Sally Irvine: Steven [Eastwood OMSK co-founder and current collective member] taught me on my fine art degree. When I was there he showed one of my films at an OMSK event, and later, when I moved to London he sent me an email saying “Do you want to be part of OMSK?” I started as a volunteer, but got thrown into the deep end, and loved it. That was five years ago!
Clare Moloney: A friend of mine was performing with OMSK. I remember going to these railway arches in Bethnal Green, that was my first experience of an event — called ‘Quiet on the Outside, Loud on the Inside’, and it really was like that, like stumbling in across this secret. I enjoyed the event so much — because as an audience member you are implicated, you are suddenly in the space, you don’t feel separate from the performance or the film or whatever is going on. Soon after that I got involved in a project called OMSKROAM. This involved taking OMSK into a street and working with residents on a council estate, and programming an event according to their interests, so this was a different kind of OMSK — kind of outreach, but really just throwing the cards up into the air. We’re normally used to doing what we want, but this time thought we’d just see what the public wanted to do, and get them involved in that way. Like Sally, I had the chance to take ownership of a project right away.
Hannah Metcalfe: I came across OMSK when it was one of the events involved in the first Volcano! film festival, I went along to an event and saw Steven there. He had taught me at art college the year before, so we got chatting and he invited me to come along and DJ at the next event. I spent a few years DJing and performing at various events; OMSK was a much larger group in those days, this as before it had become a collective so it had a bit of a different feel to it. After it became a collective I became more involved in organising.
KG: What’s been the most memorable OMSK event for you?
SI: I’m going to pick two extremes! One is my first ever event, where I didn’t know what to expect and just spent probably five hours thinking “this is complete madness, but I love it!” — I loved the fact that it was an entire building [Limehouse town hall] and there were lots of little rooms and different things happening simultaneously. At that moment I ‘got’ that you couldn’t ever do the whole thing, but you could dip in an out and move around. On the other side, one of our biggest failures, but one of my most personal OMSKs, was an event in Bristol at the Cube cinema a year or so ago. It clashed with a major art event on the same night so we ended up with an audience of a dozen. But the people who did come made it so intimate — Hannah got the chance to perform for a large part of the time, which I’d never seen before… it was a really lovely event that bought home to us why we do this.
CM: Creating OMSKBOOK was a really personal project for me. My work is text-based so that was something that directly correlated with my practice and interests. It was also an opportunity for us to share what OMSK is — by its very nature the events can be quite underground and marginal, and that can be one of its strengths, but I was keen to do a project that said to the world “there’s this thing happening”. Also for people who are at art college, who are maybe making radical and experimental work and wondering where to take it — there is a platform that they can get involved with directly, called OMSK, or they can use it as a model to set up their own collective, their own live art platform. The book launch event at the South London Gallery also bought artists from OMSK’s past, present and future altogether in the same space. We had people who had been involved in OMSK in the early days such as Max Factory, Jigoku and Jon Purnell as well as emerging artists such as Dot Howard and Mary Hurrell.
KG: The events you describe sound very chaotic sometimes, to the point of mayhem! Is this an important part of the OMSK experience?
HM: Yeah, absolutely! We use the term live art, but with OMSK you really do feel that it’s live, it’s happening in a very dramatic sense all about you, and you’re in the middle of it, implicated in it. I think sometimes people think that we go into it and deliberately try to make it chaotic — that’s not the case, we’re trying to control the chaos but it never quite works! Sometimes that’s a great thing and things collide in a marvellous way, sometimes it collides in a disastrous way…
CM: I think it’s really important for artists to have an opportunity to show work that isn’t finished yet, that they have an opportunity to fail spectacularly, because even in art college now there isn’t that opportunity, I think. You’re being forced to look ahead to a career, instead of looking for the boundaries of the practice that you’re engaged in. I think it’s also important for audiences to see work that isn’t finished yet, there just isn’t that much of an opportunity do that. In this country we’re quite risk-averse, if you look at arts funding that’s quite risk-averse.
KG: Are you disillusioned with the world of mainstream art, then?
CM: There are different trajectories to making interesting art. As a spectator, I like seeing beautiful objects just as much as the next person, and I think things in galleries have their place. I do think that now, because there’s so much concentration on the arts as a market, that that sense of process and taking risks has been lost. I do believe that the government and the various funding agencies want to play it safe; if you look at the Olympics handover they had Leona Lewis and Jimmy Page, which is an interesting and bizarre coupling from one point of view, but really— is that it? There was an opportunity to do something exciting and unexpected and a bit of a spectacle, but I feel that there is a tendency to not rock the boat.
As far as more mainstream art goes, someone I admire is Yinka Shonibare, an artist who works in paint, photography and sculpture, and was nominated for the Turner Prize a couple of years ago. Yinka has just started up a Project Space in Hackney on Andrews Road, where he is inviting local artists to make proposals and curate different shows and events for the space. I think it is very generous what he is doing —he is an artist at a certain level, in command of this fantastic space, yet he is opening it up to local artists and giving them an opportunity to experiment with their practice.
HM: In art school, of course there’s always a preoccupation with getting a good grade at the end of it all… How do you grade something experimental? It’s difficult to quantify these things, and I imagine it’s similar with funding applications, and these things where you have to quantify what’s ‘good’ — it always fights against the spirit of experimentation, whereas OMSK has a much freer dynamic, where people can sink or swim in front of the audience and learn from the reactions that they get.
“There is no agenda. . . It is a live event, a meeting point between the mind of the audience and the product of the artist.” Helena de Witt, in ‘Pretentious Proclamation’ (from OMSKBOOK)
OMSK is a mass of sweet contradictions, a group whose collective energy relies precisely on the staunch individuality of its members; a resolutely independent project that feeds into and back from the mass of mainstream artistic endeavour; and an entirely art-and-artist-centred undertaking that maintains a profoundly democratic relationship with its audience, whether they be connoisseurs of the art world or passers-by wondering what all the fuss is about.
OMSK is about empowerment; OMSKBOOK has a ‘how-to’ section for those who are inspired to put on an event but lack the practical knowledge or experience: it is a meticulously thought-out and neatly typeset document covered with the last-minute scribbles of Sally and Hannah. Simultaneously a manual, a call-to-arms and a work in progress: the ever-evolving and beguiling world of OMSK beckons.
OMSKBOOK is available at www.omsk.org.uk.