At the Heart of The Arts
Lee Henry meets Royce Harper, the man behind NvTv's The Artery
If you haven’t been lucky to enough to catch The Artery, NI's only dedicated arts features and reviews programme, then chances are you won’t have heard of its magnificently-named creator, Royce Harper.
On the other hand, you may have seen him lurking in the shadows at various live music venues or art galleries throughout the province, toes tapping along in time with the music, digital camera poised to shoot. Royce Harper is an artist on a mission.
In 2001, disenchanted by what he describes as 'the lack of any discerning arts programmes in Northern Ireland willing to critique and publicise art outside of the mainstream', and frustrated that his home country should be unjustly considered a 'cultural wasteland', the pragmatic Harper decided to do something about it.
A practising artist himself, adept in photography, poetry, sculpture and performance art, Harper set out to create his own arts review programme, christened 'The Artery'.
First broadcast on Northern Visions Radio, its mission was to bring Northern Irish arts closer to the people, and Northern Irish people closer to the arts.
Inspired by Matthew Colling’s This is Modern Art for Channel 4, Harper wanted to make a programme that would be intellectually stimulating as well as entertaining, providing an outlet for local and international artists which helped to promote the arts, in all their forms.
The Artery quietly established itself as a viable alternative to Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra, and set Harper up as one of the busiest broadcasters in Belfast.
We meet on a Tuesday morning in the Northern Visions Media Centre, two days before this week's instalment of the Artery is due to air. Given that he writes, directs, films and presents the Artery himself, it is no wonder that Harper is munching on a bowl of cornflakes as he works at his computer.
Featuring interviews with the likes of Ken Loach, live poetry readings, music videos, film, stage and performance reviews, The Artery also prides itself on showcasing the work of little known NI artists who might otherwise struggle to make their voices heard.
‘Including less well-known artists in the programme is a big incentive for me,’ reflects Harper.
‘At the end of the day, I don’t care whether it’s a top film director or someone that nobody has ever heard of before.
‘If I think it’s really happening, if I think it’s vibrant and exciting, I’ll have it in the show. The Artery isn’t elitist in any way.’
‘I’m a big film and television fan,’ Harper replies, when asked how The Artery came about. ‘But I was always disappointed and intellectually dissatisfied by the majority of programmes made in Northern Ireland.
‘I found arts coverage in particular to be embarrassing. It was embarrassing because journalists were sent out to cover things that they knew very little about, and consequently they would ask pretty dumb questions. There was no insight.
‘As an artist myself, working in cross-media, my reasoning was obvious. I thought that a show devoted to the arts could be best made by an artist, an insider, someone who knew the artists and their work well enough to explain it properly to an audience.
‘Thankfully David Hyndman, Director of Northern Visions, gave me a window of opportunity to do just that, and I’ve been here ever since.’
With two years producing an hour-long show for radio under his belt, the jump to television was something of a challenge for the relatively inexperienced Harper.
‘I did a lot of training here at Northern Visions,’ he explains. ‘I had to learn pretty quickly, because there are a lot of necessary jobs involved in making a programme like this. But I enjoy the freedom of working alone.
‘I like the fact that within half an hour of hearing about something - say a new exhibition or an impromptu gig - I can be out with my camera filming it, whereas other stations perhaps aren’t so mobile and immediate in their reactions.’
Recently awarded a production grant by the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission, Harper faces the future with renewed energy and vigour, determined that his cause is worth fighting for.
‘Historically, arts and culture in this part of the world have been plagued by lack of funding, lack of good quality coverage and a lack of belief. But I firmly believe that the arts in NI are not only exciting, sexy and entertaining, but also incredibly civilising and socially cohesive.
‘The fact that there are very few outlets by which people can learn about our arts scene without having to trawl through the internet is one of the reasons why we’re so backward compared to the rest of the UK and Ireland,’ he hypothesises.
‘But NVTV gets approximately 50,000 viewers per week, and that’s more people than visit any local gallery in a year. The Artery offers the chance for the public to see what great stuff is happening on their own doorstep. That’s a fantastic step forward.’