Get To Know: Brainchild Festival

On the face of it, it’s not a great time to be young and creative in London. Arts funding has been cut nationwide by £56 million since 2009, property prices are skyrocketing, and schools and universities are systematically dismantling their arts programmes. But where there’s tragedy, some creatives are finding opportunity aplenty.

Platform is a community arts space in Southwark run in part by members of the Brainchild community. Brainchild, in its best-known form, is an arts festival held in East Sussex every summer. Its remit is broad, offering live music, spoken word, DJ sets, film, theatre and installation, and is the two time winner of the AIM Award for Best Independent Festival (2015 and 2016).

I met with Marina Blake, co-founder of Brainchild, and Saul Rohr, co-founder of Platform, whose projects have been intertwining over the last few years. To get a better handle on how their ventures have grown together, I ask them how it all started.  

Marina tells me that her love for spoken word was a galvanising force in her earliest conception of Brainchild. She had first tried to introduce poetry into the line-ups of club nights she was running in Camden, but this early attempt to bridge socially-conscious art forms and club nights was unsuccessful. Undeterred, she devised another way to bring spoken word together with a multitude of other forms to an audience of her own peer group. That it ended up as a festival is “just the form that it took”. Marina describes the event as “a celebration of everyone’s brainchild”.

At around the same time, Saul had co-founded an art collective that was appropriating disused business spaces in Soho and turning them into exhibitions “with an interdisciplinary angle”.

So one had the community and one had the spaces, but how did they end up working together?

When specialist property developer U+I plc put out an open tender for use of a three-storey industrial space in Southwark, Saul’s collective stepped forward with a vision of regenerating the building as “a community arts space at the intersection of visual and performing practices.” What was then a dilapidated squat was reborn as Platform, with what Saul calls “crucial support” from the developers.

Platform Brainchild Interview Culture Art Theatre Music The Tung Magazine

I learn that Saul and Marina met in the music community of South East London, hanging around the same venues and club nights (like STEEZ, then at the Amersham Arms). Many of these same artists and bands have gone on to form the thriving creative core of Brainchild. In early 2016, after the dust from the previous year’s festival had settled, Marina and her crew joined forces with Saul and his team at Platform, and Brainchild started managing Platform’s events and residency programmes. This base has allowed it to grow (out of) the inherent time constraints of a three day event - a lifeline, given that the team are as yet unpaid and volunteering their time for their community.

They give me a guided tour of the open and communal space – art installations “cork” holes in the walls (a nod to the building’s former life as a cork factory) and broad spaces are open for events, meetings, and mixers. The building is a physical embodiment of their collaborative ethos, and this spirit of commonality is unmistakable even over the course of our meeting. They speak freely and animatedly of each other’s projects, every now and again finishing one another’s sentences. When Saul questions a point Marina makes about the potential for artists to find property to lay down roots, they hash it out between them quickly and easily, both coming to the same conclusion by slightly different routes.

This person-to-person interconnectedness is at the forefront of every project at Platform. Asking Marina to reflect on what she’s learned over the last five years, she tells me that one of the key lessons for her is “how important community is. People need to come together more often” and that “the difference between entering industries through established routes and doing it yourself is the kinds of people you meet.” This is a sentiment reflected in Saul’s initial motivation for Platform: “the big idea was just to give as many opportunities to as many people as possible”.

The Tung Magazine Culture Art Music Theatre Brainchild Platform Marina Sean

So what’s next for the space, and the collectives within it?

Saul tells me that the team has started up a programme of residencies with “visual artists, theatre-makers and other performers”, “facilitating crit-sessions to develop our practices, [and] connecting people”.

As for Marina and Brainchild, now that she has the infrastructure in place to be able to execute the festival (while remembering to do really inconvenient things like eat and sleep), she and her partner Jerome are taking the time to ensure that the festival truly embodies their ideals: “We’re pushing forward the conversations we think are important” she says, including “taking a stronger political stance” and sticking to a line-up that focuses not on big headliners, but on providing opportunities for talented acts who either haven’t yet had their big break, or aren’t particularly interested in the mainstream at all.

The DIY ethos is central to their aims to create a collaborative network, and it’s clear that for both Saul and Marina, Platform is fundamental in enabling that ethos to continue. The space has given them the flexibility necessary for growing their projects. Essentially, says Saul, the focus moving forward is to broaden their communities ever further: “We’re living in an age where distance, technology, and the [inundation of] things to do has created a nebulous society. Projects like these are keeping those creative communities together.”

Seems like a good idea to us.