Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On the value of doubt, reflection, uncertainty and not knowing (quiet people especially welcome)

These are notes from a session I called at Improbable's 2012 Devoted and Disgruntled event...

I place a lot of value on spaces for reflection and doubt - and listening. And by Sunday morning, I hadn't really found a way for those spaces to be present at D&D, so I called this session.

What I didn't do was think much about how I might actually create the kind of space I was craving within a very loud room where lots of other conversations were happening simultaneously. I'm really grateful that so many people showed up and stayed present with the discussion - and can only apologise that the idea didn't occur to me earlier, when I might have come up with some brilliant way to create a more conducive space where we didn't have to shout. Nevertheless, we talked of...

Not knowing as a process in life

"There is so much we're supposed to know"

Engage with 'not knowing' as a process of moving forward - our constant movement between spaces of knowing and not knowing and how we might allow the value of each affect the other - the value in consciously putting oneself in a space of not knowing - but also needing a clear sense of self when valuing the space of not knowing. Which can feel tricky!

Relationship to Failure

Someone pointed out that uncertainty and doubt are always present in a rehearsal or making process - so what's the big deal?

Perhaps those spaces are always present, but at some level we are hardwired to think of spaces of uncertainty as spaces of failure. What transformations occur when we continue to inhabit these spaces instead of moving through them as quickly as possible towards a resolution?

What is the relationship between placing oneself in the unknown, and listening or empathy? What if leaving my own certainties allows me to be more in the world?

Thinking about timescales (and referring back to Simon Bowes' session on "It's going to take years") - what if something that appears to fail in the short-term eventually represents a really important shift in thinking?

Long timeframes towards change.

Again, how do we allow this kind of thinking to be something a wider audience can relish?


There's no lack of makers interested in addressing these questions - but how do we respond to these spaces as audience members?

What does it mean to create a piece of work where the audience is free to be reflective and journey into a space of not knowing? How can we avoid slow, reflective spaces being antagonising or boring to audiences? Especially within a theatre context (as opposed to live art, for example, where this is more common)

Maybe we need to think more about how a piece of work is framed/introduced, how an audience is prepared for a piece of work. Thinking through audience expectations that are set up through the medium and its traditions (different in visual arts / live art / theatre), through the space (theatre, gallery, page, browser) and how the audience move through it, and therefore also the way that time operates within that space.

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass - Anne Carson


Someone spoke of the importance of re-educating. My notes aren't great on this bit - but I think this relates back to the idea of frames, of thinking about the wider frame of presenting a piece of work, and acknowledging the notion of re-educating within a creative thinking process. If I want to really change the way audiences watch this work, what can I do to let them know?

Slowness as Resistance

Slowness is a resistance of narrative / expectation / speed / knowledge.
Sometimes that resistance hits the wall of a fast world. Matt spoke of not being able to engage with my show, Glorious, not because of an unwillingness, but rather an inability.

Transparency and withholding

Theron noted the difference between work where artists and audiences are entering a space of not knowing, and work where the artist is in a place of knowing and the audience is entering a space of not knowing.

We talked about transparency, and the extent to which knowledge is withheld from an audience - and how this is handled.

We didn't (but I wish we had) talk about manipulation of audiences, and whether this is desirable or unattractive or inevitable.

Gentleness can be counterproductive

Simon proposed the idea that maybe we're too gentle and worried around creating these alternative spaces. Maybe as audience members we sometimes want to be faced with an obstacle we can't get around. How do we create a culture that acknowledges that audiences can feel grateful for challenge and having been pushed?

We talked again about spaces before or after a difficult performance - the space for audiences after Internal by Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Geod, for example, or the lead-in to Coney's works.


We went for a walk at dusk.

Monday, 20 February 2012

State of the Arts

Here are some small notes from the Arts Council England State of the Arts conference on Feb 14th 2012 in Salford. I had some beautiful conversations around and outside of the conference, but here are a few thoughts on the structure of the event itself, and why it left me a little sad.


There was much talk of "putting the artist at the centre". Everyone seemed agreed that this was a good thing. Part of this was the creation of 50 artist bursaries, of which I was very happy to be a recipient. This meant that our travel, accommodation, and conference fee were covered - excellent, as in previous years I've been unable to afford the conference. There were also plenty of artists on panels during the day, there was a short film by straybird that opened the conference, a live poetry response to the day by Contact Playback, and an evening of excellent art organised by the Manchester International Festival (MIF) the night before the conference. All of these were great.


Everything is segregated.
Don't let the art infect the conference. 

Yes, I'm sad to say there's a 'but'. I don't want to underestimate what it took to put all of the above in place. I enjoyed it all. But whilst perhaps there was more of an effort to involve artists in the online presence of the conference and whilst the bursaries did allow more artists to be physically present during the conference, I didn't feel that art or artists were really at the heart of the actual event.

three frustrations

1. The MIF programme was fantastic, but it all happened the night before the conference, as if we were to take our entertainment and food and then, safely recovered with a good night's sleep in the Holiday Inn, to return for the serious business of the conference itself. I know that there were practical reasons for this (the MIF programme took place in Manchester whilst the conference was in Salford) but it nevertheless felt frustrating to me that the two were separated in this way. Perhaps some of the questions of the conference could have been introduced into the evening event, perhaps some footage from the MIF programme could have been shown as part of the debate the following day. Instead, the art seemed only to celebrate itself, and the conference, separately, to celebrate its organisers.

2. The film by straybird opened the conference by offering us artist responses to the question "what matters?" including:

"It's long term investment. You need to spend money for quite a number of years. But if you did so for ten or fifteen years, you'd have a generation who've been grown at such an educational level that it comes to be very productive. The only problem (is) that you need to really invest for about ten or fifteen years constantly - and elections come every four years." - Vasily Petrenko
"We're now at a place in this recession where we're being forced to face false choices. People set up binaries which are completely untrue. So they say, it's the arts of the health service, as though those are equivalents ...  I'd like to see a situation where we're honest about funding... There's tons of money and there's tons of waste in this country. Those sorts of things need to be looked at first ... and I think a priority is being a human being, and if you're a human being, you need art." Jeanette Winterson 

But none of the issues raised here were addressed by the main panel directly after it was shown. Again, I would suggest that we were encouraged to applaud the film, which was fantastic, but no-one had the space to really engage with any of the difficult issues it began to touch upon.

3. All 50 bursary artists were listed as "artist" in the delegate pack as we had not been asked how we might like to be listed. So whilst all other delegates had under their name some detail of their organisation, their artform and even their twitter ID, we were kind of lumped together as one. This might seem like a small gripe, but I think it speaks volumes about how the programme was conceived, and reveals an intention towards artists that is well-meaning but ultimately just not joined up.

what art can do

Contact Playback - now this was really interesting. Baba Israel and two other members of the company gave a live response to the day - and everyone went wild for it. I think this demonstrates exactly what was lacking: art that inspires us to think differently, to celebrate and criticise the world, to debate. 

There is so much available to us as people who work in the arts - and if the artist was really at the centre of the day, involved in planning the event as well as delivering it, I think we could have come out of there ready to shape a whole new world. This is why I was disappointed - not because it wasn't a solid conference with some very interesting speakers. But because it could have been so much more! Because I do believe that art can change the world, and ACE should be the first in backing me up on that. Yes, Robert Wilson and Baba Israel and all the other artists were amazing. But a conference about the state of the arts should not just star artists - it should be creative in its very structure.