Brunel 200 Legacy Polar Produce – Taking Ground.
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Taking Ground

Founded in 1996, and based in Bristol, Polar Produce is a multidisciplinary group which creates interactive media and live art experiences. The group's work explores the interface between virtual and real environments with particular emphasis on real-time, site-specific and locative experiences, marrying traditional and new conventions within the arts, performance, music and emerging technologies.

They are currently working with the BBC, Nottingham University, Bath University, British Telecom and Blast Theory on developing a mass participatory and pervasive experience, which explores democratic, public engagement in environmental issues. The company is also working with STEIM Amsterdam and Ivan Franco and Restart, Lisbon to develop a series of touring workshops and public performances.

Their project, Taking Ground, took place on an isolated swing bridge, underneath a flyover and surrounded by water, and reflected on two hundred years of travel and one man's obsession with innovation and fame. Taking Ground examined how our lives have been affected by the acceleration of speed in transport and communication.

It was a site-specific performance piece on 1 and 2 April 2006, created by five live-art/theatre practitioners: Teresa Dillon, Tanya Steinhauser, Dom Fryett, Mary Southcott, Swen Steinhauser and Kathy Hinde, which took place on and around Brunel’s Tubular Swing Bridge.

Inspiration was taken from authors and artists who had commented on travel, speed, and innovation, as well as from the Brunel Archive, the ss Great Britain and time spent interviewing 12 senior citizens at Windmill Hill City Farm, who reflected on how transport had changed over the last 50 years in and around Bristol. As a result of this project, the group would like to continue their relationship with the senior citizens interviewed and work with them on a future project.

Each performance lasted 75 minutes, and 140 people attended the performances over two days. The performances were divided into ‘chapters’, each of which was introduced to the audience.

Polar Produce – Taking Ground.

Each chapter of Taking Ground invited the audience on a journey though the Cumberland Basin and the work of Brunel. Weaving together the facts and fictions of the site, with tales from far away lands, they created handmade communication devices, said their goodbyes to loved ones and celebrated with unknown strangers and passers by:

Chapter 1: Arrival
Audience members greeted by performers, asked how far they had travelled and led to the central site.

Chapter 2: Health and Safety
Given the nature of the site, this was necessary but delivered informally.

Chapter 3: Brunel’s Bridge
Audiences were given an overview of the bridge, its functionality, innovation and relation to other bridges in the area. Audience participation included reuniting the end parts of the dis-used bridge with string and cheering on the proceedings.

Chapter 4: Leaving
Reflecting on the notions of departing, performers read texts reflecting on a visit to the ss Great Britain, accompanied by the brass band.

Chapter 5: Lanes
Audiences were led to the centre of the site, and were encouraged to ‘get active’. Using bunting, they were asked to move in the slow, medium or fast lane alongside music.

Chapter 6: Chapter delay and Tea Break
Taking place by the Dockmaster’s Office, a performative device used to change the pace of the show, a chance to chat, have refreshments and prepare for the next chapters.

Chapter 7: Cable Laying
Audiences were told of how the Great Eastern was used to lay cable across the Atlantic. Supported by the use of tin cans and string, which the audience were encouraged to use to communicate with people on the other side of the lock.

Chapter 8: The Departure
Audiences crossed the inner lock to watch a video installation, showing footage collected from a moving train augmented by the moving traffic on the bridge above, to create a feeling of travel. Audiences were given streamers to let go of, the brass band played, a mast was hoisted on the bridge turning it into a ship. The artists moved up into a hut and the audience received a departing card and an airmail letter to send to someone they hadn’t been in touch with.

Polar Produce – Taking Ground.

On reflection, Polar Produce remarked that the chapters featuring audience participation were very well received, and those that attended complemented the group on how beautiful and emotional the piece was, and how well they worked with the site:

“Very original way to celebrate the deeds of Brunel. Instead of praising his achievements the performance looked at how history developed from the first sparkles of the age of speed.”

“A good way to celebrate 200 years, and how we are shaping the future.”

“A witty and engaging performance. The way the audience could take part and reflect about the subject was at the same time humorous, playful and thoughtful.”


Photography: Mark Simmons.