"Undershed feels brave, new, exciting and completely obvious for Watershed. We can't wait to share it with you."
In 1982 Watershed opened as the UK's first Media Centre, a cultural venue exploring how society would be shaped by faster communications, new forms of media content and a proliferation of technology.
Throughout the last 40 years, we have continued to reinvent and embrace what it means to be a media centre - combining the best of cultural cinema with new forms of content and new ways of making art. In 1999 that meant closing our photography dark rooms and exhibition spaces to launch DShed the UK's first online art gallery. In 2008 we opened Pervasive Media Studio, gifting space to artists and researchers exploring creative tech and establishing a global community which now numbers over 190.
Today that reinvention means engaging with immersive media, and exploring its potential to tell stories and engage audiences in new and dynamic ways.
What is immersive art and media?
For us it means work that uses technology to engage an audience within it, often with some kind of active interaction or participation and includes film, projections, mixed reality, VR, audio, music and much more.
The Pervasive Media Studio has led the way in supporting immersive practice in the UK and our community has won awards and plaudits around the world - including Duncan Speakman's Only Expansion which won the Immersive Art and XR Award category at London Film Festival and Anagram's Goliath which won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice. In 2019 we supported Limina Immersive to develop the UK's first VR cinema and have presented sold out runs of film-related pieces like Notes on Blindness and Asif Kapadia's VR film Laika.
We think that brilliant immersive work is too often limited to shown only at festivals, or exhibited with an emphasis on the technology, rather than the quality, meaning and relevance of the work. There is a huge body of brilliant work that rarely finds a public audience in Bristol or beyond.
In response to significant demand from creatives, we engaged Amy Rose of Anagram to explore the potential for a Watershed space for showing home-grown and touring immersive works and to develop a curatorial vision. Amy says;
"There is no space or venue in Bristol that pursues any ongoing relationship with audiences to improve their access to immersive work and explore or develop their experience of it. As an artist, this means that the chances of the work being presented and promoted well are slim. If Watershed had a space, it could transform this. We would jump at the chance to present work in this context. Despite making immersive work for 10 years and winning multiple international awards, we have never had any real opportunity to put on work in Bristol - even though this is where we live and work."
After much thinking, researching, visiting other places and talking to creatives from around the UK. we are now ready to announce Undershed – a new immersive gallery opening downstairs in Watershed that we aim to launch in Spring 2024.
What will Undershed be?
We are just beginning a period of testing our ideas with audiences and artists – so the idea is still evolving.
We know that Undershed will be a gallery featuring a year-round programme of immersive work, curated to make thematic links across Watershed’s public programme. Audiences might experience a piece of VR or attend an immersive dining event. They could be surrounded by screens one month, and listening to audio in the dark the next.
We will work with diverse creatives and audiences, and use new technologies to inspire, delight and critique the world we live in and the role that technology plays in it. We will curate and host internationally leading work from across the world, as well as show emerging work from our own community – hopefully building a network of venues to co-programme, share work and develop sustainable practice with.
Although the space itself is modest, it is on the ground floor which means it will be highly visible to people passing by as well as those visiting it intentionally, or going to something else at Watershed.
We are excited by what it will mean to show immersive work that connects with both the cinema programme and the Pervasive Media Studio. We will do this with thematic programming and companion events - with the hope that audiences will experience immersive work as an evolution in storytelling that deepens engagement with ideas.
We have secured funding from AHRC to convert and fit-out the gallery into an accessible, warm and inviting space, where audiences will feel welcome to visit, hang out and engage with new work. Undershed will be next door to the Box Office in the space where we have been running our outside bar from (which will stay open).
We know from many of the creatives in our community that immersive work is not always presented in the way they had imagined it (its often shoved in corners or boxed into tiny spaces in noisy rooms). We will create space for the work and space for audiences to engage with and reflect on what they have seen.
We are also excited to experiment with how to talk with audiences about the programme; we will collaborate with focus groups to build accessible language that enables people to understand what they might be booking and encourage them to take a risk on something new. At tomorrow's First Friday, we will be inviting people into the space for the first chance to feedback on the themes and vision we will be testing out - please come along!
As we have shared elsewhere, times are particularly challenging in the culture sector at the moment, but we have seen significant success with events that contain experiential elements – be that Barbie Karaoke or a Director’s Q&A, so we believe Undershed will contribute new audiences, new partnerships and new ways to share stories. We will start slowly with a modest programme and look for additional funding and sponsorship to grow. We will also rent out the space to corporate clients as part of our events offer, creating a new income stream.
Over the coming months you will start to see building work take place which will create a doorway into Box Office, sound proof the windows and ensure there is wheelchair access throughout. George Lovesmith is acting as lead architect – ensuring the design prioritises access, environmental sustainability and legibility. We will also share more about our programme and how you can get involved.
- The development of Undershed has been supported by Bristol and Bath Creative R&D with funding from Arts and Humanities Research Council.
- Watershed's creative programme is made possible through funding from Arts Council England, British Film Insitutute awarding funds from the National Lottery and Bristol City Council.
Image Credit: The Lantern Room by Raucous being tested at Bristol+Bath Creative R+D Showcase, Photography - Jon Aitken