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An Interview with Uma Bunnag

It is not every day that you meet such a caring and talented individual with the rare ability to bring others together in such a harmonious, creative and productive way.

In accordance with our mission to support and promote promising young artists and thinkers, The Hippo Collective is proud to present the following interview with Uma Bunnag. Uma is a third year music student studying at the University of York, originally from Spain. She is the founder of the Can Obert Project, a collective that offers yearly artistic residences to a diverse group of creators in three different European countries. In addition to her studies and her efforts with the Project, Uma organizes and runs ‘Demolitions’. ‘Demolitions’ is an event that allows artists to perform improvised acts. We spoke with Uma about her influences and asked for her opinion on the state of the arts in York.

THC: Uma, it’s a pleasure to meet you. So, what do you study? Why are did you create the Can Obert Project? What are your interests?

UB: I study music and am in my third year at the University of York. I am a violinist and a singer. I founded the Can Obert Project two years ago out of heartbreak. My first year was a bit of a culture shock. Moving here, not knowing anyone, I think it was the initial challenge and then going through a breakup that did it. I think I was just lonely and created it out of selfish reasons.

It was meant to bring together all the people who I knew and who were creative and who were doing really good work into one space and surround myself with them.

I was really lucky that my parents bought a massive abandoned building that could host about 30 people. We had about twenty people for one week and ten for the next two weeks. That was the start of the Project. My first idea was that it would just be a festival since I had invited many music people, but we had an actor and a couple of illustrators and visual artists so it was a great mix of talents. We just began working together and hanging out.

After that, I started establishing a solid friend group here at the University. I’m in a band with some of them. I think they push me intellectually as well as creatively. They instilled in me the drive to make the Project into something more than just meeting with artists for a week. I decided to turn it into a massive project.

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We have three residences a year so far. One in Spain, which is the original one and is aimed at all creative outlets. We recently changed the Spanish session’s product. Previously, we performed a concert but now we will be running a 24-hour festival.

The one in York is aimed at spoken word, visual and sound artists. The York residency produced a magazine and a CD that compiled the artists’ work. Hopefully, this year the York meeting will run longer as last year’s session was shortened by logistical factors.

The final event happens in Sicily and is for musicians and composers. It focuses on improvisation and we performed two concerts in Messina as the final product.

THC: How did you come up with the Project’s name?

UB: It comes from my family’s name: ‘House of Hubert’. It later progressed into the house of Obert which means ‘open house’.

THC: You mentioned that there are themes for the residencies?

UB: I try to choose a theme per year but sometimes I can’t choose just one. Last year we looked at entanglement by considering ideas of quantum entanglement and inter-cell connections. I think it’s a very good theoretical topic but when you’re creating physical work, it’s challenging. It worked but probably not as well as I wanted it to.

This year we’re presenting a new theme in November. We’ll focus on the ‘poetics of space’ which is taken from Gaston Bachelard’s eponymous novel. The theme is definitely related to the creative work that I carry out and my interests and evolves accordingly.

What advice do you have for students and young people looking to start out as artists?” “Do it

THC: What is special about the Can Obert Project?

UB: The Can Obert Project is special because it allows the participants to feel as though they are part of a small community it becomes so intense and intimate. People are very attached and love the Project. That said, it’s a lot of work to run three residencies in three different countries for thirty days.

THC: Do you want to expand the Project?

UB: For now, I’m happy with the size. What I do want to do is make it more formal and serious to improve the logistical side. I think that that is the main issue to deal with. Even if it’s a small thing like creating business cards.

THC: Moving onto your other projects, tell me a bit about ‘Demolitions’?

UB: Well, as a side event, I organize meetings called ‘Demolitions’. Demolitions take place either every two weeks or every month. We come together and the attendees can perform anything they like. However, they must perform their piece in three minutes. I find it to be loads of fun and we have crisps and wine. A couple of my tutors have taken part as well. We get a lot of people coming through the door saying that they don’t want to take part but in the end they usually do.

THC: Where do you hold these events?

UB: All over really! Wherever we can find a space that we don’t have to rent. Until recently, we met in the music department at the University. However, recently we have been meeting at Kiosk. Kiosk is Rebecca Carr’s shop on Fossgate. I met her through mutual friends who have a festival called O.U.I. in York. They work with some very well-known and talented performance artists. Rebecca was very excited about the idea and she volunteered to host one. It’s really wherever we can find a place.

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THC: These events must bring together a lot of people. I was interested in understanding if people think that there is a cohesive, united artistic community in York that produces art together. Do you find the community to be united or disconnected?

UB: I think that’s a difficult question to answer. As students, we only do things that students do. We are in a university bubble and a lot of people don’t know about events that go on outside this bubble. I don’t think we know the scene well enough. I’ve been attempting to explore outside the bubble, meeting with people such as Victoria Nathan, or Rebecca. There is a lot going on but each thing that happens is directed to a particular group. The audiences only attend their respective events and don’t really merge. The art students keep to the Norman Rea gallery and the concerts on campus. Some keep to town, the Kiosk and to their Festival. I found that there isn’t a space in York that brings all these creative groups together. Or not at least something that the students have tapped into.

That said, I am the vice-chairwoman of the York Spring Festival this year. Traditionally, it has been a music festival but we’re trying to expand its scope. The people who usually come to the Music Department’s concerts and students are aware of it but we want to create a space where all these different people in York can come together. One issue that I am interested in is interdisciplinary relationships. I want to explore collaboration between art forms and apply that to the Spring Festival.

The fact that I haven’t found this community is exciting because it makes me want to explore and do more things which is always good.

THC: You feel that there is potential?

UB: Absolutely, it is a magical place. I feel extremely lucky to be here in York. I’ve been talking a lot with Gaia Blandina, the girl who oversees the Can Obert Project in Sicily, about how incredible it is to be in this space where you can do your work and to create and explore different possibilities. Both of us are here in the UK because we can’t really study the topics that we are interested in in Spain or Italy.

THC: On which projects are you currently working?

UB: Right now, I’m organizing a pop-up gallery in York. I aim to hold it in a secret space this November. The main structure is that it will run for as many hours as the amount of artists that are participating. For example, if we have eleven artists performing, it will run for 11 hours. That’s my new baby.

We are in a university bubble and a lot of people don’t know about events that go on outside this bubble. I found that there isn’t a space in York that brings all the different creative groups together. But the fact that I haven’t found this community is exciting because it makes me want to explore and do more things.

THC: What is the aim of the pop-up event?

UB: I’m interested in collaborative conversations. Any work that is proposed needs to be part of a conversation between the curator and the other artists that will be exhibiting. They will need to agree on that.

THC: Will the pop-up gallery sell any products or clothing?

UB: No, the performances are the main ‘product’. For the first iteration, I’m hoping to collaborate with a friend of mine called Tilly. She is curating a show in the Norman Rea Gallery. I got really excited when I was talking about this project. My aim would be to acquire large banners. I’ve been speaking with a photographer who makes beautiful photography of space. I want to have the photographs to be printed on the banners and glue them to the walls as a backdrop. I want to cover the walls with these enormous photographs without getting into too much trouble. It will also be a secret show so that people will have to follow social media and decipher clues to find the location.

THC: As a final question, is there anything about which you would like to talk? Could you perhaps provide some advice for students or young people who are starting out as artists?

UB: Do it. I think that as long as you keep at it, that’s what makes an artist. You can’t say you want to be a writer and not write. It’s that kind of idea. If you want to do it, do it. If it falls apart, it does and if it doesn’t, it’ll be amazing. Have trust in yourself and it’ll all work out.

That concludes The Hippo Collective’s interview with Uma Bunnag. Check out the Can Obert Project and if you are in York, drop by the next Demolitions event.

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