‘Experimentation is what develops an art form’ – interview with CLAY founder, Jess Sweet

By December 12, 2019

Art & Photography. Leeds.

Ben Bentley

Is it just me or is there a feeling of complacency in the air? There’s a distinct lack of Christmas trees on my street. And despite this momentous moment in British politics, my neighbours haven’t even risen to the usual passive aggressive game of ‘who can display the most prominent election posters in the window’. Disillusionment or just plain boredom, it seems we’re all in desperate need of a shake-up.

Refreshing then to find a new venue like the Centre for Live Art Yorkshire or CLAY as it is known, whose very being is about breaking boundaries and supporting work that prods us out of our comfort zone. Founded by Jess Sweet and Matt Allen, CLAY has picked up where former live arts institution Leeds Art Bistro (LAB) left off. But as Jess explains, the aims have shifted.

“Myself and Matt were heavily involved in LAB but we weren’t the founders, so wanted to set something up which was ours from the beginning,” says Jess. “LAB was much more of a programming team but at CLAY we want to focus on creating an affordable, physical space for artists. We have quite a bold ambition to be a permanent venue.”

CLAY, which is situated three minutes from Leeds Playhouse, runs on a commercial basis with a bar, space for hire and a tiered membership scheme. The basic level gives you early access to tickets and discounts, while hot-desking and permanent studio space is on offer for artists looking for a temporary, or more permanent, home. There’s also a residency programme which includes hire of the main performance space at a reduced rate.

“We’re about supporting artists in the way they want to be supported,” explains Jess. “We’re not here to dictate how someone’s practice should run because that’s not useful to anyone and anyway, how could we know? Everyone’s practice is different. Although we don’t always have lots of money, what we do have is a lot of willing to make whatever it is they’re trying to do, work.”

As well as an election night party with a drag twist, CLAY is also busy planning the evening celebrations for York’s SLAP festival in February. “It’s called DryHump and it’s pretty gay,” she confides triumphantly. They also have NEWK’d coming up this weekend (14-15 December), a two-day event dedicated to developing new work.

Ben Bentley

“NEWK’d is based on the NEWK scratch night, which is a platform to try out new work on audiences. The sort of work we want to support is harder to define than ‘person performs here, audience sit here’, so the tagline is ‘celebrating ten years of NEWK and interrogating what the future of it could be.’ There is a full day of performance with some intimate works with one or two audience members, as well as some stuff which is technologically really interesting. At the end of the day we’ll get feedback from the audience. On the second day we are having a day of talks and panel discussions, where we’ll be serving micheladas.”

Jess and Matt are no strangers to the alternative arts scene. A graduate of Leeds Beckett’s Creative Enterprise degree, Jess studied there at the same time as Matt but the pair didn’t meet properly until they were out working in the ‘real world’. Jess started a guerrilla arts space in her Hyde Park basement, ran immersive story experiences for kid’s birthday parties and managed bars before giving up her ‘money jobs’ to focus full time on the arts. For Jess, it’s vital that things in the arts don’t get stale.

“Experimentation is the thing that really develops an art form. If you don’t allow room for the new stuff to be a bit messy and really interrogate the boundaries of what performance can be, then it just becomes obsolete. It stops working.”

Experimental is all good, but I wonder if there’s anything off limits?

“The politics of what someone is doing is important to us. In comparison to other arts spaces I would say we are quite radically inclusive, so if we brought something into our space that really excluded people we wouldn’t be doing our job very well. Aside from that, the only parameters are making sure that the artist and the audience are safe.”

Live art might not be your bag – you may not even know quite what it means – but Jess insists it’s often just about getting people to try it for the first time.

“I think there’s a perception around live art that it’s not for everyone because it’s high brow. I can understand that because if it’s not like something you’ve ever seen before, then you may not know how to watch it. But you would be surprised. People think they like what they like until they come here. People actually like to be wowed. It’s not unusual that once you get someone through the door, they definitely come back again.”

As a relatively new kid on the block, CLAY could always do with more support. I ask Jess what people can do if they like the sound of it.

“Buy tickets, spend your money at the bar, become a member. We’ve got loads of opportunities and we’re really up for bringing new people in. We love making new friends and it will be us that you’ll be seeing – Matt sitting at the box office and usually me behind the bar. So come down and see a show. There’ll probably be some impromptu karaoke afterwards and it’s bloody fun.”

These days, a little bit of impromptu karaoke sounds like just what we need.