The walk down from the station to London Road one evening a couple of weeks ago was surreal. A few scurrying people, a couple of joyriding cars and no buses. I swear I saw tumbleweeds blowing down the pavement. This was nightlife 2020 style, where the peak of excitement might just be the freedom to walk in the middle of the road – without interruption – for ages. But this evening promised more, the chance of seeing a real live performance, ‘Raising the Spirits’, in the cosy wonderland of the Rose Hill.
Created by the outsider artist Jim Sanders, producer and sound designer Abraham Mourhrabi, filmmaker Iloobia and creative technologist Benedict Sheehan, this immersive audio-visual installation shifted the Rose Hill’s space into a shamanistic chamber of swirling sights, sounds and smells. Sadly COVID regulations had limited admission to one person (or bubble) at a time, but in a way the imposed solitude added intensity. Sitting there alone on a small stool in the middle of the room, surrounded by shadows, skull masks and primal rhythms, there were no other reference points but myself. Immersion was promised and for that short time I did get lost somewhere.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that the Rose Hill team were able to find a way that used the current restrictions to their advantage. The venue was saved from the grasp of the developers in 2015, and it’s that survival instinct and committed vision which has made this place one of Brighton’s most vibrant arts and performance places. A venue, recording studio, creative hub and home to the Beatabet collective of musicians and creators, it showcases work beyond the mainstream, the adventurous, original and individual. If anywhere is going to come through the other side of these alien times it is the Rose Hill – it has innovation running from the floorboards up.
A few days after ‘Raising the Spirits’ closed its well received, sell-out run, I heard from Kas and Jules, the venue’s owners. Before grappling with the hot topic of coping in the COVID wilderness I wanted to get their take on what made the Rose Hill that little bit unique:
“For starters, it is fully independent and not-for-profit (we are a ‘community interest company’). Probably more importantly, it was set up and continues to be run entirely by musicians and artists. We are dedicated to supporting adventurous music and performance and want to put on cutting-edge work in a non-wanky way where a diverse community can still feel welcome, even though it can be quite experimental sometimes. We are equally interested in hosting any community and charity events that want to use the space. The main thing that sets us apart though is that we are not simply a space for hire: we carefully curate all events, turning down potential gigs that do not fit with our programme. We have built trust with our regulars so that they will take a punt on tickets for artists they have not heard of before because they trust that we only pick interesting gigs to host!”
You pick up on that sense of connection from your very first visit to the Rose Hill. It’s a community that extends its welcome to everyone and which generates a vibe that Kas and Jules recognize has a particular effect on the performers: “Visiting artists are always instantly relaxed and in their element, plus we always look after people that play here like we would like to be looked after when we are on tour! We are all keen improvisers and risk-takers, we enjoy experimenting without taking it too seriously and that atmosphere rubs off on them too.”
Given that the Rose Hill thrives as a people place we do wonder what the impact of lockdown has been and what the future holds. The owners admit that from the outset the situation has been daunting with no regulars coming through the doors and income streams “drying up overnight”. But the team has used the time to take stock and re-evaluate.
Kas and Jules explained: “It’s been an opportunity for us to concentrate on some of the activities we’ve always wanted to do but not had the time. We decided to shift our focus from audiences and gigs towards artists, residencies and the creation of new work, looking to arts funding to help support us… Each month we invite a different ‘associate artist’ to come in and use the venue and recording studios to develop a project. These artist residencies are to create something new in the space and then share it with our audiences online (or in the space where possible), with potential new material offered up to our record label for release.”
‘Raising the Spirits’, which developed from the new approach, shows that this could be a shift in the right direction for the Rose Hill. However, the team have also been busy with other projects: transforming the posterboard outside the venue into the ‘Three-by-Three Gallery’; building up content for the record label and YouTube channel including a series of ‘Live at the Rose Hill’ compilations, selected from various gigs over the years; and launching what Kas intriguingly describes as “a new online channel called Channel 0 hosting performances and artistic content in a house party format using Zoom”.
But despite all the innovation and positivity the team is remaining realistic in the face of such uncertainty: “To be honest I can’t see us opening fully until summer next year. I imagine that in the meantime we will have a dual focus where we run both as an arts centre and as a venue of sorts. We will continue artist development, host residencies, make full use of all our facilities AND put on shows, workshops and events. The events may have to be super small capacity and we would sell the other tickets online to make enough money to cover band fees, etc”.
Of course, a lot will depend on the financial support venues like the Rose Hill can secure. It seems the much hyped £1.37 billion handout from the government didn’t trickle down that readily to the cultural grassroots, so Kas and Jules are focusing on Arts Council applications to “keep the financial dogs at bay”. It’s also up to punters to do more than just wait for the lights to come on. The people at the Rose Hill want us to sign those petitions for more subsidies and to support the Music Venue Trust campaigns.
But above all Kas and Jules say that small venues and local scenes need people to stay connected and not walk away: “Stay in touch with what your favourite venues are up to, if there’s an online show please pay for tickets to help make it happen. If venues are fundraising then contribute and help spread the word where possible. If there is an event happening that you can safely attend, then please do.”
Back in the 70s the blues rock performance poet Pete Brown reckoned “Things may come and things may go, but the art school dance goes on forever.” The time has come to make sure that it does.