Helen Scarlett-O’Neill

Kensington and Chelsea’s site-specific arts festival, InTRANSIT, is returning for another year. Its curator Helen Scarlett O’Neill tells Alexander Larman what to expect

When one thinks about the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s commitment to culture, one thinks about such world-class museums as the V&A and such fascinating places as the Leighton House museum. You might, however, be forgiven for thinking that the focus largely lies upon past glories. That’s why the annual series of contemporary arts events, InTRANSIT, has proved such a vital and exciting part of the area’s cultural focus. Last year events included the aftermath of a UFO crash-landing in Notting Hill, a ‘noise opera’ called The Ballad Of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing, and many smaller site-specific events. And this July things have got even more ambitious, thanks to the appointment of performance and production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill as curator of the event, along with producer Harry Ross.

It’s up to her to see that the whole series of weird and wonderful events succeeds, but if she’s showing any pressure when we meet at the Acklam Village off the Portobello Road, where she and Harry have set up camp, she’s not showing it, instead professing enormous excitement at what lies ahead. As she says, ‘we love the spaces that we’re going to be dealing with, and it’s going to be enormous fun to make sure that visitors manage to see parts of the borough in a completely new light.’ There has been a huge amount of interest from artists and performers wishing to be part of this year’s festival – ‘I think that we had 160 applications’ – meaning that the ones chosen really will be the crème de la crème.

As someone who’s both produced a show last year and also spent years working with Secret Cinema, Helen knows exactly what she needs to do in order to help her fellow artists, but is the first to praise the council for their ‘amazingly forward-thinking’ attitude towards site-responsive arts. It is, she says, all part of the way in which London has shifted its approach towards the kind of exciting, innovative work that she creates and promotes. ‘When I first moved here, I was studying at Central St Martin’s, and I briefly lived in a flat that my uncle owned in Kensington, and I felt ‘This isn’t where I belong, there’s nothing for a 19-year old artist’, and so emigrated East. But when we came across InTRANSIT, we were looking for a venue for Secret Cinema, and nearly worked with the Commonwealth Institute, which became a gateway to meet lots of other performers and designers, and it completely reinvigorated our love of the area.’

Acklam Village may be the festival hub, but Helen is keen to emphasise that the entire borough is going to be involved in events and performances. ‘We wanted people to be able to navigate the festival easily, but also so that there was an element of surprise, even if events were right next to them.’ Although I’d have assumed that curating the festival would be a logistical nightmare, Helen – who was responsible for designing such iconic events as Secret Cinema’s productions (‘screenings’ is too petty a term) of films such as Prometheus and Brazil – seems entirely unfazed by it, saying ‘I’ve always liked working on a huge canvas best, as it doesn’t seem quite as daunting in a way. And what’s so great about this is that it really allows me to indulge my love of architecture – if you look at the area around here, it’s such a melding of buildings, everything from the Trellick Tower to grand Georgian houses. But I think that it’s fitting that we’re experimenting with unlikely connections, as the theme of this year’s festival is ‘How good it is to dwell in unity’, a reference to the English translation of the borough’s motto.’ 

If all goes well this year, Helen hopes that she and Harry will be returning for an encore in 2015. As she puts it, ‘I’d love to see it develop further, as I think it’s a pretty unique festival. It’d be lovely to see it stretch a bit longer than the 10 days that it’s on for this year, but we’ll see how it goes, because obviously we’ll still want to carry on doing our own productions as well’ – currently, a much-acclaimed site-specific staging of the Jacobean tragedy Venice Preserved in Deptford – ‘but we love the idea of mixing cultural institutions together and inviting artists to come here and work with each other. As with Secret Cinema, we love finding locations, and then seeing how an artistic interpretation of the space can make it really exciting and fresh again, so we’re looking forward to that.’


A still from InTransit’s 2013 performance of The Ballad of Skinny Lattes and Vintage Clothing

Culture vultures can be assured that July 18th – 27th will be a truly thrilling time to be in the borough. Just remember that the next time you see something utterly unexpected, it’s as likely to be spontaneous cultural goings-on as, say, a crashed UFO, so don’t be alarmed – it’s just art.


InTRANSIT highlights

1. Live Without Limits – ‘We’re doing a new piece with Silent Opera, which is going to be like a lot of their previous work – innovative, and ideally reaching out to people who either don’t know much about opera or are put off by what they see as expense and elitism.’

2. Hip-Hop Shakespeare – ‘an adaptation of Richard II, again with the idea that we’re going to go away from the traditional RSC/National Theatre school of performance in favour of a more modern and contemporary approach that’ll appeal to a new audience, and will really engage with the musicality of the language.’

3. Music Jelly – ‘We’re trying to take tiny pieces of music from lots of different institutions and artists from across the borough. The idea is that lots of recordings are taken in the same key, and then we manage to manipulate a digital orchestra out of all of the various places within Kensington and Chelsea. It should be lots of fun!’

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