JOYCE MCMILLAN on UZ EVENTS – TWENTY YEARS AND COUNTING for Scotsman Magazine, 6.12.14. ________________________________________________
IT’S A DARK WINTER afternoon down at the Briggait, next to the Clyde. Yet around the upper balcony of this magical old market building, lights are glowing in all the little offices of the arts companies based there; and nowhere more so that in the headquarters of UZ Events, Scotland’s leading company in the commissioning of art for outdoor spaces, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this winter.
The company was launched, back in 1994, on a wave of enthusiasm for the kinds of large-scale city arts initiatives that were pioneered during Glasgow’s year as European City Of Culture. UZ’s artistic director, Neil Butler, had been working in Glasgow for several years, with his street theatre company Streetbiz; and when the then Glasgow culture boss Bob Palmer suggested that the city should have its own company capable of creating large-scale outdoor events, Pete Irvine’s Edinburgh-based Unique Events came together with Butler’s Brighton-based Zap Club to create the new group, UZ.
And for more than a decade, after 1994, UZ was most closely associated, at home in Scotland, with the kind of major set-piece outdoor theatre that became an essential part of many public celebrations during those boom years. The company masterminded Glasgow’s Millennium celebrations on Hogmanay 1999. It was a lynch-pin of the much-lamented Big In Falkirk outdoor art festival, which ran from 2000 to 2009, and featured spectacular shows like Improbable Theatre’s Sticky, in 2002. When the Forth And Clyde canal reopened in 2001, UZ created a barge-based sculpture, Millie the Fish, to delight the crowd; and this year, when Falkirk celebrated the coming of the great Kelpie sculptures, UZ was there again, co-ordinating the show, and creating a series of intimate theatre experiences around the Helix Park site.
Because of the nature of its work, UZ is peculiarly vulnerable, of course, to changes in public policy. Big In Falkirk has gone, and austerity is decimating municipal arts budgets across Europe, where UZ has played a key role, since 2002, in the 18-country Insitu network of companies involved in outdoor arts. Butler notes that there are far fewer big, spectacular shows being created and toured across Europe than a decade ago, and he recognises that UZ’s own work is adapting to meet changing times; UZ is also coming to terms with the death this year of one of the company’s main Scottish-based artistic partners, Ian Smith of the Mischief La Bas street theatre company.
Yet Butler remains immensely positive about UZ’s future. Just last week, he was in Brussels for the announcement of a new 2 million euro fund to help Insitu artists travel, study and train across Europe and beyond; and later this month, he leaves for Sri Lanka, where UZ is suppporting an arts centre and a complex new performance project in a community profoundly affected by the great Pacific tsunami, ten years ago this month.
“It is a complex business, art in public space,” says Butler, “and it is affected by political change. But our policy has always been to start with the artists we want to work with, and then to work outward into the kinds of public spaces that seem relevant to them. So increasingly, we find ourselves involved in work based on some kind of public engagement, on long-term interactions between artists and places; there’s also more work involving a range of agencies, like schools or hospitals, rather than a single local authority.
“Essentially, we see ourselves as providing a patform for artists who want to work in public space, and a link between them and sources of funding. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that in these relatively tough times, we have never been busier.” And Butler strides off to “cram in a few more Christmassy things,” before he flies to Sri Lanka on the next lap of a remarkable international career in creative production, marked by huge enthusiasm for the job, and an impressive ability – for himself and UZ – to adapt, reinvent, and survive.