Conversation / Helen Nisbet

Curator Helen Nisbet reflects on The Driver's Seat as well as Art Night UK and it's arrival in Dundee this summer.
Cubitt A
Photography by Maxim Northover, courtesy of Cubitt Artists.

June 2023

The Driver’s Seat was a two-day programme of performance, screenings, talks and readings taking inspiration from women writers throughout history, celebrating friendship, collaboration, herstories and defiance.

The weekend event, held at Cubitt Gallery, London, in February 2018, was organised by curator Helen Nisbet in collaboration with Panel during her time as curatorial fellow at Cubitt from January 2017 – July 2018.

Helen is currently Artistic Director for Art Night, a UK-wide contemporary art festival which presents ambitious work by artists in civic spaces. On 24 June, Art Night 2023 is coming to Dundee.

How did the concept and structure of the From Glasgow Women’s Library ‘Reading List’ T-shirts inspire The Driver’s Seat programme?

The project began through a series of conversations with Catriona and Lucy, which ended up linking into their existing project with Glasgow Women’s Library. I am incredibly inspired by Glasgow Women’s Library and my programme at Cubitt often foregrounded the voices of women, trans and non-binary people. We wanted to develop an event that brought a range of wildly different and brilliantly talented artists together and allowed The Driver’s Seat to act as a spur, but not to give a firm theme or set of ideas to respond to.

The Driver’s Seat was held during the centenary year of Muriel Spark’s birth. How did this inform your approach, and those of the contributors?

Muriel Spark’s was the second centenary I marked during my time at Cubitt. My first exhibition in the space – Houses Are Really Bodies – took place during the centenary of Leonora Carrington’s birth, in 2017. That exhibition focused on her writing, with a series of artists, writers, young people, people who knew Leonora and even my cousin Kristian in Orkney, giving voice to her stories.

I also held an all-day reading of her triumphant novel The Hearing Trumpet. So, this spirit of celebration, gentle reverence, contemporary re-thinking or

responding informed both. I describe both Carrington and Spark as feeling extremely ‘contemporary’ in their style and approach, and also in the way they continue to inspire a new generation of artists and writers today.

What did the physical and aesthetic presence of the From Glasgow Women’s Library ‘Reading List’ T-shirts bring to the space?

Kaisa and Maeve’s t-shirts were just so gorgeous. They provided a really beautiful backdrop to the programme. And, of course, people could buy them, so it became a lovely way to mark such a special moment. We all wore our t-shirts (my choice – Sisterhood is Powerful) and I loved seeing people, sometimes years later, wearing theirs.

Are there any moments from the weekend that stand out for you?

It was an entirely magical weekend. But there are memories that feel particularly profound. Lucy, Catriona and I started the weekend listening to a Scottish Dance Band version of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” which set a joyful tone. I remember each of the acts and the way the ever-growing audience responded to each over the course of the busy Saturday programme. And sitting next to Ali Smith on the floor of Cubitt, while she kicked off the all- day reading of The Driver’s Seat on Sunday was one of the most mesmerising moments of my life.

Art Night 2023 will take place in Dundee, the first time it has fully done so outside of London. Can you tell us a little about how Art Night and Dundee came to align?

Since I took up the role of Artistic Director for Art Night in late 2018, I always hoped to make the festival national. The first four editions took place in London and then, during the pandemic, I had a moment to pause and reflect. This resulted in a pilot national festival, which took place in 2021 with partners across the U.K. – including CCA Derry; Peak in Abergavenny and importantly – Glasgow Women’s Library in Glasgow (with a project by the Guerrilla Girls).

2023 is the first opportunity we have had to return to the original structure of Art Night – one night in one location. I always knew that I wanted this to be in Dundee. My brother lived there 10 years ago and through spending time in the city with him the city worked its magic on me and lingered in my mind. When I began my research for this year’s festival in late 2021/ early 2022 the city’s wealth of political, industrial and cultural history; the beautiful Tay; its walkable scale and inspirational group of museums and galleries and the women who lead them became clear reasons to host the festival in Dundee. I also need to mention how brilliant the artist-led spaces and artists, curators and producers who work with them are.

We’ve had a tough slog fundraising to make the festival happen this year, but the partnerships and friendships we’ve developed in the city have given life to the project.

We love that the curated programme for Art Night 2019 took inspiration from the pop group East 17’s 1993 song, “It’s Alright”! Can you tell us the story behind this? And what is your inspiration for Dundee 2023?

I was a big East 17 fan as a kid growing up in Shetland. I dreamed of the boys, and I dreamed of the postcode. So, to use their lyrics to frame the festival in Walthamstow, E17 felt only right.

As you might notice, I don’t tend to use themes. I prefer to give a flavour, inspiration or prompt to artists. They are then free to completely ignore these if they prefer to. For Art Night Dundee I spoke to artists about the joy and tenderness of people gathering socially after a long time apart. I referenced house parties, and the way various rooms function at these events – dancing in the living room, meaningful conversations in the kitchen, snogging in the

passage, crying on the doorstep. I gave artists passages from Boccaccio’s 1353 novel The Decameron which tells of 10 people from Florence who take refuge in the Italian countryside after the horrors of the Black Death. Music was also an essential prompt – it is so integral to the politics and romance of the city. With that in mind these two lyrics became key:

“Says I, ‘My young lassie, I canna’ weel tell ye, the road and the distance I canna’ weel gie, But if you’ll permit me tae gang a wee bittie, I’ll show ye the road and the miles to Dundee’” Traditional folk song

“I’ll have a shower, And then phone my brother up, Within the hour, I’ll smash another cup” “Party Fears Two”, The Associates, 1982

Does hosting Art Night in Scotland hold any special significance for you?

Entirely. I’m from Shetland (and Orkney), I studied and worked in Glasgow for years and I’m a super-fan of Dundee. Bringing this phenomenal festival, which is so much about and of the city it takes place in, to Scotland is... emotional.

Helen Nisbet is a London-based curator and writer who is originally from Shetland. She is Artistic Director for the national contemporary art festival Art Night, which takes place on 24 June in Dundee. She was a jury member for the 2023 Turner Prize.

Interview by Laura Richmond

The Reading List

  1. Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Angela Phillips & Jill Rakusen (Eds), Our Bodies Ourselves (1978)

  2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

  3. Ellen Malos (Ed), The Politics of Housework (1980)

  4. Robin Morgan (Ed), Sisterhood is Powerful (1970)

  5. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

  6. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (1977)

  7. Ali Smith, How to be both (2014)

  8. Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (1970)

  9. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

  10. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

All of these books (and many more!) are free to borrow from Glasgow Women’s Library. Reading List T-shirts are available to buy from Glasgow Women’s Library website.

Read more about The Driver’s Seat here.