Utterly terrifying, essentially Oxford: The Big Tent brings research, arts and conversation into the limelight

Originally published on the Oxford Arts Blog. More information about the TIDE Salon can be found here.

Anything can – and very often does - happen in Oxford’s ‘Big Tent’, where academics emerge from research and teaching to engage with the public, work with creative artists and discuss major issues of today.

The Big Tent was supposed to be a...er big tent with live events and activities happening throughout the year. Organisers were actually poised to sign for a massive marquee, on the site of what will be the new Humanities Centre, when the pandemic struck. And, as with everything else, the Big Tent had to transfer online. This had obvious problems for a series of live events, but the pandemic led to the instant availability of people who might not have been available, had it actually had been under canvas.

Backed by the Humanities Cultural Programme, since last April, the Big Tent has seen almost 30 events, involving conversations with internationally well-known performers (such as Ben Whishaw) and special musical performances (for instance, of a recently discovered piece by Delius) – and some very big issues and ideas being debated (it is a university, after all). And, because it was online, it is still available, no tickets required.

The academic impresario, who was ready to put the final touches to the in-real-life Big Tent, is Dr Victoria McGuinness, head of cultural programming and partnerships at TORCH (the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). She says, ‘We sent out a call for ideas, expecting a few, and 30 quality projects came forward...but when we saw what was happening in Italy [in terms of COVID], we knew we would not have the literal big tent.’

It was a huge shame after everyone’s work, but, says Dr McGuinness, ‘We tried to find the opportunity. Everyone is at home. We were able to get world-leading performers and creative people and we also maintained the live element with our ‘Live From’ events.’

But why is Oxford, the world’s leading research-based university, putting on shows?

According to Professor Wes Williams, TORCH Director, it is an obvious move.

‘It is an essential part of being Oxford,’ he says.

‘At TORCH we make it possible for research to benefit a wider audience. Some things obviously lend themselves better to public engagement than others,’ he maintains. ‘But both knowledge and understanding can be exchanged in all sorts of unexpected ways.’

The latest Big Tent event is the launch this week of the ambitious TIDE Salon – a collaboration between the university’s researchers on Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 – 1700 (TIDE project), the novelist Preti Taneja and six internationally-acclaimed musicians and spoken word artists.

It is ambitious, it is imaginative and it has brought deeply-academic research into a new open space, giving access to creative artists and members of the public. Intended to evoke the creative atmosphere of an early European or Mughal salon, the project was inspired by Professor Nandini Das, whose research focuses on travellers’ accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘It was utterly terrifying,’ says Professor Das. ‘It is not often you get to talk about early 16th century political theory with contemporary artists and musicians... and find that your throwaway reference to the Tudor ‘Register of Aliens’, which recorded immigrant presence in the country during the times of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, was picked up by the artists and has inspired some surprising and amazing work.’

As part of her research, Professor Das and the ERC-TIDE team has put together a list of 40 key words, found in the sources of the time, which show how contested issues of identity and belonging were in this early period of British imperial ambition. The artists, working in pairs, were invited to choose three and create works for the Salon. But the academics worked closely with the artists in the early stages. The six, working in pairs, chose the words: Alien, Traveller and Savage.

‘It was entirely up to them how they used those words’, says Professor Das, ‘they had carte blanche.’

As Professor Das explains, the artists working on the word ‘alien,’ for instance, reflected on TIDE’s research into the term (which meant foreigner in the 16th century), with their own memories, of growing up as a person of colour in late-twentieth century Britain and taking refuge in the diverse world of sci-fi literature.’

The result of these conversations was the creation of three musical pieces, in collaboration with curator and creative producer Sweety Kapoor, and critically-acclaimed filmmaker Ben Crowe (ERA Films). Preti Taneja produced an entirely new piece of writing to frame the work, presenting each collaboration as fragments of archival records puzzled over by a traveller/researcher of the future, trying to make sense of history.

‘This is one of the most radically experimental things we have done throughout the project,’ says Professor Das. ‘The installation reflects the process of collaboration but also the views of the artists...they chose their own adventures and the Salon visitor is invited to take their own journey, creating their own narrative ‘.

Dr McGuinness reflected, ‘Even in these difficult times, the Big Tent has been an amazing example of what people can do when they all come together. Originally, it was going to be a one-off thing, but it is fundamental that we will continue to welcome everyone into our Big Tent.’   

"Big Tent! Live Events!" logo on cream and red background