what was Nest on Sunday 24th February 2008?arrow

I made the mistake of talking about Nest recently with some undergraduates I teach, without having planned how I was going to discuss it. "It was in a primary school, near Basildon. The school had been transformed into an installation – a number of 'nests'. Artists had worked with staff and children to create the nests. Erm … it was amazing." Not surprisingly, they didn’t ‘get it’. It is - quite possibly - hard to ‘get’ - unless you were there.

The reason I went to Nest is because it captures something of an area of performance work that preoccupies me: the performance of place. Nest fitted the bill. A number of artists (visual, sound, installation) had worked in Briscoe’s for nearly three years as part of ‘re-viewing’ the school through artistic practices. I knew very little more about Nest but that was partly deliberate so as to come into the work without preconceptions. Before travelling to Basildon, I reflected on what I knew about the place, both in terms of the Essex town and also the school.


‘Place’ is a tricksy word. It’s lost some of its traditional meanings in the last fifty years with significant global people-movement (enforced or otherwise). Few of us have long established relationships with ‘our local place’. Not many can say, even should we wish to, ‘our family has lived here for generations’. The Basildon area itself was known for its ‘plotlands’ - patches of ground newly acquired by city dwellers for holidaying. Originally used for allotments or summer houses, there’s almost a hint, here, of people intent on swiftly creating a ‘place’, perhaps, to compensate for long term inhabitation. We do make places quickly, though – homes, shops … and schools. Briscoe Primary School and Nursery is, of course, a ‘familiar’ place to pupils, staff, parents and carers and has doubtless become part of its inhabitants’ everyday operations for some long time now. Yet, the school itself is hard to find, tucked away behind a car park and health centre, a humble low-rise building without much signage, far back from the road.

So what happened to Briscoe Primary School and Nursery as a result of Nest? I was just a visitor interested in this kind of stuff and wasn’t party to the long creative background to the project or the discussions no doubt held between artists, school and the Creative Partnership commissioners. But what was going on here for this visitor or outsider?

For me, Nest was an example of community and artistic process resulting in one of the most remarkable ‘performances’ I have seen in a school. It was an ‘experience’, an immersion into a much altered environment. As a new visitor, of course, I was in the interesting position of imagining the norm (the school) behind the ‘interruption’ (the performance installation) as well as admiring the ‘interruption’ for its own creativity and artistry. I was re-viewing without having viewed the original.Fern and the soil words

Two moments summarise my experience of Nest. I sat next to a girl with beautiful hair in a bomb-shelter structure, itself within a dimly lit classroom. Sounds and whispered voices came from a machine that she floated around in front of her as if urging us to hear these echoes from the past. Second, I was standing in a gymnasium watching a woman iron, seeing another form words in soil on the floor and admiring a costume for a third made out of pages from a Jane Austen book. Along with many other parts of Nest, both these moments were, somehow, profoundly moving but I wasn’t sure why this was so at the time.

Retrospectively, I think it was to do with a combination of factors. First, these were aesthetically undetermined installations: you were left to make many of the meanings for yourself and not told exactly what it was about. This is a privileged position to be in. The creators of the work trusted us to make up our own minds about ideas that they had developed. That was an honour. Second, the new interpretations of familiar places catapulted us into different territory, which was unsettling - although not at all in a negative way. (The classroom and gym are replicated across the country so even as a newcomer to Briscoe, the sites were generically familiar.) To be unsettled somehow leaves you emotionally vulnerable. Third, the work appeared to deal with powerful themes. Sitting tightly packed in an air raid shelter, matters of loss, pain, struggle and – frankly - humanity aren’t too far away from your mind. In the gym I found heartfelt questions about the acrobatics of a woman’s life wrapped up in a playful setting. Fourth, each was a powerful performance of place. The participants of the Briscoe ‘community’, had engaged with a familiar environment and turned it into something special and I was excited by this. Perhaps this, too, left me emotional.

That is not to say that finding something profoundly moving is a ‘good’ thing, of course, but it is a sign of admiration and appreciation and that is what I am left with feeling.  Nest was extraordinary artistic and community work. It was a privilege to be there.... back to comments page »

Sally Mackey

Sally Mackey is Deputy Dean of Studies at Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.
She has written and practised in the areas of performance, place and community.

book detailsarrow

A full colour, illustrated book documenting some of the images and ideas generated by this event, authored by Sarah Cole, illustrated by Talya Baldwin and published by Creative Partnerships is now available.

If you would like to find out more about the book, please feel free to get in touch.


Documentation Photographs: Andrew Whittuck, KevinDutton and Sarah Cole. Lighting Design: Adam Povey and Jake Bennett. Creative Partnerships Thames Gateway, Director: Sue Lawther. Creative Partnerships Thames Gateway, Programmer: Serena Abbott. Performers: Thomas, Lucas, Phoebe, Josh, Bobbie, Kayleigh, Zack, Bradley, John, Brooke, Hayley, Jade, Emily, Sian, Lewis, Tommy, Sarah, Clare, Josh, Alex, Casey, Pat, Jan, Karen, Christian, Aaron, Hope, Sophie, Summer, Jason, Jordan, Rachel, Paige, Connor, Lizzy, Charlie, Vissey, KerryAnn, Dean, Courteney, Karan, Caitlin, Ethan, Taylor, Jake, Abbey-lee, Jac, Katrina, Jordan, Georgia, Ben, Jordan, Iain, Charlie, Jordan, Alicia, Kelly, Ian, Debbie, Charlotte, Tammy, Nina, Fern, Diane and Vicky. Artists: Sarah Cole, Mark Storor, Jules Maxwell, Helen Lowe, Julian Walker and Rachel Anderson.