Thinking

Learning some humility

Notes and Interview transcripts - 1
Interview transcripts and notes for ‘A Restless Art’

When I began this project, I thought it would take two years. It’s going to take at least three – and that’s just for this part. Actually, I think I’ll be working on it until I stop working at all, and then it’ll just be for others to carry on. Understanding that has been hard; coming to terms with it harder still. If it’s worth explaining why, it’s not because my struggles are specially interesting, but because of what I’ve learned about participatory art and the human dimension of writing.. I’d imagined distilling the experience of decades into a short, pithy guide to the ideas and practice of community art for the next generation. How foolish, naïve and vain that now seems.

The most important discovery is how little I really know, and how shaky is even that. Ideas I’d developed 20 or 30 years ago were tested by the radically different situations, experience and thinking of young activists in participatory art – tested and found wanting. There is far more work happening than I knew and it is more varied, complex and ambitious too. It responds to a world that is changing fast and that I, shaped by another one, often understand less well than younger people. So far from being able to draw on past knowledge, I’ve had to sit down, shut up and listen, trying to understand not only what people are doing but what it means in and why it comes from their unique context.

My thinking wasn’t useless, but it had become stiff with habit. Being asked for your opinion in conferences, training events and print can lead you to believe that your opinions must be good. You start talking more than listening, but you don’t learn much that way. No wonder I sometimes found my own ideas boring. The best part of these years – apart from meeting so many genuinely inspiring people doing participatory art in different parts of Europe – has been testing, stretching and pushing my own ideas into new, tougher, better shape. It’s not that I now think they’re right but that they are much more rigorous and coherent than they were. That makes them more useful to others, whether or not they agree with them, because they have a clarity you can engage with.

In April, I abandoned everything I’d written so far because I realised that it focused on what I already knew, when I needed to respond, through that knowledge, to what I was discovering. The decision was also personal, because the mistake had come from writing on the threshold of my sixties and the new fears that has brought.  One of the traps I fell into was the need to get everything ‘right’ – and the worst reason for that was to avoid or pre-empt possible criticism. But of course, it’s not possible to write a perfect book, one that everyone will like, and least of all in a contested field like participatory art. It’s only possible to write a book that you like, if only because its limitations are a truthful reflection of your tested experience. Twenty years ago, I was less haunted by perfection because there’d be other bites at the cherry. Today, I’ve had to learn that perfection is no more attainable because this might be my last book.

So the book has slowly, very slowly, changed from the self-satisfied thing it once was. It is an account of participatory art’s theories, history and practice, but neither a complete nor a correct one. The voice has become simpler and more direct: I say what I think, but without believing it to be the only good place to stand in this contested territory. There’s less history because, though we all need to know our roots – especially when some people say we don’t have any – nothing is duller than our parents’ old battles. And the book will have many omissions. It’s already 10,000 words longer than I intended and I have 20-25,000 still to write. I keep throwing stuff overboard as I paddle slowly towards the shore – a section on ‘community’ is teetering on the rail as I write, and yet how important is that? I feel especially bad for the projects I can’t include, but at least there’s this blog for some of that material.

There is a way to go, but the book will be ready in the first half of next year. In the meantime I sincerely thank all those I’ve involved for their generosity and patience, especially the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and everyone who’s read this far. I hope you’ll like the book when it’s done. Now, stop blogging and get back to writing…

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Some books about community art, and pictures by John Fox and Benozzo Gozzoli

Access to the means of cultural production

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Participatory art depends on many things, including some that it is easy, in more affluent parts of the world, to take for granted. Music Fund was created in 2005 by the Belgian music director, Lukas Pairon, to get neglected musical instruments to parts of the world where they would be used. Since then, the organisation has restored 2,500 instruments which have been given to 16 partner projects in countries like Mozambique, Congo, Gaza,  Mexico, Haiti and elsewhere. More importantly, perhaps, they have established permanent instrument repair workshops with trained technicians in the countries where they work. It may not be necessary to have a violin, piano or saxophone to make music, but access to those instruments – and to the artistic discipline they invite – opens very different possibilities for children with few material advantages.

The symbolic power of this work is captured in a BBC film from 2015 about the effort of local people to restore the only grand piano in Gaza, with the support of Music Fund. And if you can go to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on 28 October, you can give an unwanted instrument to someone who will get – and give – joy from learning to play it.

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Talking about community

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Community is such a complicated word because it points towards a profound yet contested aspect of human experience. Most people recognise and value community in some way, and that can bring out the best in us, as seen in the humanitarian responses to natural disasters. But communities, by definition, are exclusive too. In defining itself, a group cannot avoid simultaneously defining others, non-members. And our desire to belong can be exploited, for instance by politicians and corporations: rarely have the word’s positive associations been more oddly used than in the job title ‘Community Enforcement Officer’.

The idea and practice of community has always been central in art, especially in the collective rituals of performing arts. The term ‘community arts’ did not emerge without reason, nor did the turn against it in Britain (if not necessarily elsewhere). Community remains central to much participatory art, albeit sometimes implicitly. This week, in two very different place I observed theatre’s capacity to identify a community and enable its members to talk together about key aspects of their lives – including the identification of community itself.

The first was a forum theatre performance in a district of Porto called Lordelo de Ouro. It is one of several neighbourhoods in which Hugo Cruz, Maria João Mota and their colleagues in Pele, have been working in theatre with local residents. The latest piece was performed on a basketball court between the blocks of flats on a warm September evening. It was also set within the broader frame of Mexe, a community art festival that Pele has organised for several years, so there were people not from Lordelo or even Porto there too. They were a lively crowd with all the seats taken and people standing or leaning on the rails: more watched from windows of nearby flats. The actors ranged from teenagers to pensioners and they presented a sharp, funny look at how tourists were changing life in the city, in the housing market but also in supporting a taxi driver’s livelihood. After the performance, the audience got stuck into an animated discussion with the actors, stepping up to try out how situations could be worked out differently in the classic forum theatre process. It was not about reaching conclusions or even making change, but an opportunity to hear different points of view about what kind of city – or community – people wanted.

A few days later, I was in at the restored Barrow Hill Round House to see Down the Line, a community play about the long industrial history of the Derbyshire community around Staveley. This was community theatre in the British tradition, its roots in pageant, with ensemble casting, music and spectacle. It involved six professional and many more non-professional actors, a primary school choir and a brass band. The action took place in and around the old railway turning shed, now saved by community action as a living heritage site, and featured moving locomotives, including the much-loved Flying Scotsman, brought for the occasion from its home at the National Railway Museum in York. Although its perspective was historical, the play dealt with divisive political issues, including the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, the avoidable death’s in war and mining, and the question of how a community shaped by industry can adapt to its loss. The performers sang ‘the promises they made us ring hollow and shrill’ and a powerful speech about liberty delivered from a locomotive footplate was met by spontaneous applause. There was pride not nostalgia and a confidence in how this community was continuing to renew itself today. In the gaps and intervals, I found myself talking with my neighbour about what we each value in the past, how farming is changing and Britain’s recent wars. Without sentimentality, the evening honoured a community and its unique story.

In style, content and resources, these two plays span a spectrum of community theatre practice but each saw a community come together to share – and question – what mattered to its members. The identity or stability of the community is not the point. It needed only to be enough to unite people in a shared belief that they had things in common that were worth making visible, talking about – dramatising. As a result, community itself was strengthened. Whether it is understood as being based on place, interest or identity, community can only exist in people and their actions. Theatre experiences, such as those I saw this week in Porto and Staveley, can be valuable ways both of enacting and of questioning our assumptions about identity, belonging and shared experience.

We’re making history

This post was written at the invitation of Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty, whose book, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement has just been published. It first appeared on their project website, and minor revisions have been made in this version: texts, like history, are restless.

Community arts exhibition poster (NCAF 1986)

Making history

The early years of community art in Britain are becoming history. The people involved are in their sixties or older and, although many are still engaged in arts practice, it’s natural to look back and reflect on what happened – especially if you once hoped to change the world. The testimony of that generation is being recorded in films and for websites. Attics yield old photos, posters, sketches, plans, press cuttings and reports for the archives of Jubilee Arts, See Red and others. Those projects have gone but others, including City Arts and Mid Pennine Arts, are celebrating 40 or even 50 years of work. Community art has survived better than many expected, albeit by adapting to a changing world. And now the first academic histories are appearing, including Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty’s Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (2017)

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Newark (1985)

For anyone who took part in these events, all this must bring a degree of nostalgia. It’s nice to be reminded of people you knew, in the time of murals, typewriters  and Letraset, tenants’ associations and community development workers. It is interesting to look back, but what’s important is the history being made of it. What story is told, by whom and from what perspective? Do I believe it? Above all, what use does it serve? On such questions, my interest is not nostalgic, even if the subject is now remote. Interpretations of the past matter because they shape how we think and act today.

Take the critical question of whether the community art movement  ‘failed’. The idea that it did seems widespread – I’ve read it twice recently – and it is often based on the arguments made by Owen Kelly in Storming the Citadels. I remember the book’s publication, in the grim year of 1984, when the Thatcher revolution had brought deindustrialisation, unemployment, civil unrest, the Falklands War and nuclear confrontation with the USSR. The progressive defences of the post-war era were being overrun by neoliberalism’s rising tide (although no one yet used that term). Kelly’s book spoke to that world and I shared its commitment to cultural democracy.

1984
Children’s photography workshop (1984)

Still, it seemed a long way from the everyday realities of life as a sole community arts worker on a Midlands council estate. In Kelly’s 1984 analysis, the radical potential of community art had been compromised by theoretical and political inconsistency, linked to the acceptance of public funds. It was a powerful argument, but I had never thought that ‘a revolutionary programme aimed at the establishment of cultural democracy’ (Kelly 1984: 137) was possible or, perhaps, consistent with its own philosophy. What political weight did a few hundred community artists truly have when the power of the trade union movement could not prevent deindustrialisation? Political and economic change since the 1980s has been historic, international and largely against the ideas of the first generation of community artists. But there was little they could do to affect it, even in 1984, when the ascendancy of neoliberalism was not yet assured.

In any case, as Owen Kelly recognised in 1984, the community art movement would not or could not unite behind a revolutionary programme because there was no common understanding of community art’s radical potential and purpose among the people involved. They had a wide range of ideas, commitments and reasons for doing what they did, and they worked with communities with equally diverse experiences and interests. In a cultural democracy worth the name, every one of these people – professional and non-professional artists – had the right to argue for and pursue their vision.

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Community play, Newark 1985

You get a sense of that diversity from the other key book published about community art in its early years, Su Braden’s Artists & People. Published in 1978, it is less often cited than Kelly’s, which is a pity because it is a nuanced and challenging account of community art’s first decade. Braden is critically engaged by the whole spectrum of ideas, motivations and achievements in community art. Her vision is as radical as Kelly’s – they share a disdain for cultural imperialism – but her focus was on how art, not politics, might be changing the world. Braden saw the problems raised by the emergence of the community arts movement, but she also understood the depth of the change happening to art in society that had caused its emergence. Above all, she valued the role played in that by

‘those artists and groups who have the rare talent, stamina and perception to propel themselves out of the tired, brittle, formalistic atmosphere of the art world to work in a variety of community contexts. This is where the future life of the arts will be judged.’ (Braden 1978: 181)

The French Revolution ended, for many people, with Napoleon’s seizure of power In 1799. What no one could see at the time was how its new ideas would reshape the world in far more profound ways than which system of government would briefly rule in one country.  In 1984, it looked as if any revolutionary potential the community art movement had once nurtured was vanishing. Today, as Owen Kelly reflects in his contribution  to Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art, it is clearer that

The impetus that fuelled the original community arts activists did not die, but rather lives on in a number of surprising ways. (Kelly 2017: 223)

I share that assessment, not the earlier one. The British community art movement (1968-1986) was as much a symptom as a cause of change; as such, its existence was always more important than its achievements. It was the current expression of a struggle for cultural equality (now reimagined as cultural democracy) that has been fought since the Enlightenment – and probably not even the most successful. That struggle is slowly, often painfully but, I believe, steadily being won because the social, political, economic and technological conditions favour its success. Seeing it in those terms, rather than as another romantic failure of radicalism, is empowering. It also makes clear the need to continue the struggle.

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‘Este Espaço Que Habito ‘ Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (2016)

As I approach my sixties, I too have been thinking and writing about the history of community art, but I’ve realised that I don’t care about the past as much as I thought I did. It interests me, of course, and it’s a pleasure to read this new book. It’s a valuable gathering of voices and evidence about a field that is often misunderstood, but whose influence on cultural policy and practice has been profound. Bringing Owen Kelly’s current thinking into the discourse is just one of its many gifts, and I will continue to read and learn from it. At the same time, I feel that what I lived through is now history, like the history I inherited – Jennie Lee’s White Paper, Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace, the founding of the Worker’s Educational Association and the rest. Once I’ve organised my own thinking about it, I’m content to let it pass.

I want to learn about tomorrow’s history. It’s the people who are adapting and renewing community art for the 2020s whose work excites me. They don’t think like me. They weren’t shaped by the same events.  They don’t know (or care) about my history – and I couldn’t be happier. The work I see them doing is radical, urgent, brave, imaginative and beautiful. It’s often far better than anything I ever did. Sometimes I don’t understand or agree with their choices, but it doesn’t matter. They are doing what makes sense to them, and their right to do that is what I’ve always worked for. This is how the struggle for cultural democracy is being fought now, and it’s brilliant.

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‘You Are Here’ Restoke (2016)

They are writing history, in the best way any of us can. By making it.

It is noh mistery
Wi making history
It is noh mistery
Wi winnin’ victory

  Linton Kwesi Johnson (Johnson 2002:63)

 

References

Braden, S., 1978, Artists and People, London.

Johnson, L. K., 2002, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, New York

Kelly, O., 1984, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, London.

Kelly, O., 2017, ‘Cultural Democracy: Developing Technologies and Dividuality’, in Jeffers, A., & Moriarty, G., eds. 2017, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement, London.

Jeffers, A., & Moriarty, G., eds. 2017, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement, London

Watch your language

‘The critique of language cannot evade the fact that our words commit us and that we must be true to them. Wrongly naming a thing is to add to the misery of this world.’

Albert Camus[1]

Language is fundamental to what human beings are and do. With it we construct, share and contest different versions of reality. It is a key to holding and transferring knowledge, as I’m doing here. There are other way of doing that, of course: knowledge can be experiential, and there are languages without words, like music. Art is fundamental to human beings because it is a language system open to all our senses and therefore all available ways of making and communicating meaning.

Art has its own language, or rather languages. Visual artists share much professional and technical language, but some terms and concepts are meaningful only to sculptors, engravers or graphic designers. Participatory art also has a language that reflects its practice and preoccupations, and which is therefore constantly evolving alongside the things that it describes. It influences and is influenced by other languages it has contact with and words are carried from one sphere to another, changing their sense in new contexts. Where I began my life in community arts, people generally understood a ‘workshop’ as a building with tools where cars were repaired. Since then, the word has become familiar in other uses and most of us now interpret the word according to context. ‘Come to the workshop’ can mean several things.

Participatory artists need their own professional language (others might call it discourse or jargon) to talk about their work. It enables them to understand, interpret and share their experience in the context of the ideas that motivate them. This website is an example of that language in everyday use. It’s written principally for people who already have some familiarity with the practice, concepts and therefore language of participatory art. People involved in the same professional work need a language in which to debate ideas and experiences, so they use terms that are unfamiliar or confusing to outsiders. They make assumptions and use short cuts that can sound like code. To anyone who has to applying for funding from Arts Council England, the phrase ‘the NPO Portal opens tomorrow’ is essential, but to everyone else it sounds like science fiction. Still, every professional language has its limits. However carefully I try to write in an open, accessible way, this text will be understood differently by every reader, according to their own experience and their familiarity with the discourse of participatory art.

It becomes more difficult when people try to speak about their practice to people who may know little or nothing about it. Then the professional language that facilitates an internal discourse can become misleading or alienating. It can prevent rather than enable communication. I’m sure the problem arises in other professions, but it is especially tricky for participatory artists because they are often having simultaneous conversations with completely different groups. On the one hand, they talk with donors and policymakers about the value of their work in relation to various socio-cultural objectives. On the other, they talk to people who – almost by definition – are not familiar with the language of art and who might also be vulnerable or otherwise disempowered.

Participatory artists frequently stand between the powerful and the powerless and face both ways. It is an ambiguous, delicate position dangerously open to hypocrisy. It also confers a good deal of power because only those in the middle see the whole. The language they use to describe it is very important. It was this power, facilitated by a slippery use of language, that I had in mind when I wrote 20 years ago, about the need for clear ethical principles.

Unclear, unexpressed objectives allow a projec­t’s sponsors and managers, consciously or not, to speak of different values to different constituencies and work to unstated agendas, with the ef­fect of disempowering participants.[2]

Whose language is being used, when, where and why, are therefore fundamental issues in participatory art. I’ve discussed before how problematic the terms ‘impact’ and ‘delivery’ can be, but knowing that is not enough. As the philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote, our words commit us. Artists working with people, more than most, need to be aware of their commitments.

 

Sources

[1]      ‘La critique du langage ne peut éluder ce fait que nos paroles nous engagent et que nous devons leur être fidèles. Mal nommer un objet, c’est ajouter au malheur de ce monde.’ Albert Camus, ‘Sur une philosophie de l’expression’ Œuvres complètes, Volume 1, page 908, Paris 2006

[2]      Matarasso, F., 1997, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud, p.88

‘Have I got to go somewhere?’

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Photograph taken by a non-professional artist supported by Ross Boyd and participating in the East Midlands Shape project, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ Derby (UK) 1989-1991

‘Care in the Community’ was a flagship policy of the third Thatcher government at the end of the 1980s. It proposed the replacement of residential hospitals caring for people with mental illness and learning disabilities by small community-based facilities and homes. This was a huge change. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people would have to leave places that might have been their home for years. The wider community had concerns too, with prominent media coverage of some incidents involving discharged mental patients.

At the time, I was with East Midlands Shape, a community art organisation working with disabled people and people living in hospitals, care homes and prisons. It seemed important to do something on this policy that affected the lives of so many of the people we worked with. The result was a project called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’, in  which residents of one hospital scheduled for closure could use art to reflect on their changing lives.

Over eighteen months – half at the hospital and half away from the site – writer Rosie Cullen and photographer Ross Boyd worked with members of this disintegrating community. Supporting people to write or make photographs was a painstaking, one-to-one process: gaining trust and working through people’s illness or disability, as well as the emotions raised by this enforced life change. Ross sometimes spent days with people before they decided what image they wanted to make. In all that time, fewer than a hundred photographs were finished, but each was like a diamond of compressed meaning. As time passed, people gained confidence and insight into their own creative work. More and more of them became involved, and the pile of poems, stories and memories grew steadily.

Poem for a Nurse © the author

Texts and images were collected into two books, one about life in the hospital and one about life outside, and a photographic exhibition that toured the UK. That show was installed for several weeks in the lobby of the Department of Health’s London headquarters. It was a symbolic way of ensuring that the voices of the people affected by the ‘Care in the Community’ would be heard where the decisions that transformed their lives was made.

Nearly 30 years later, the words and images of that community art project still move me. Some have an aesthetic quality equal to that achieved by professional writers and photographers. Even the least accomplished – and there aren’t many – have truth and authenticity. But the project wasn’t easy for anyone involved. There were tensions and controversies, such as the management’s objections to a patient’s account of treatment. We were told that the piece shouldn’t be published since mental illness made the person concerned an unreliable witness. But the facts were not the point: everyone has the right to tell their own story. The text stayed. Another decision still troubles me though. After much discussion, it was decided not to include some particularly disturbing images. There were good reasons for the choice, but I still don’t know if they were good enough.

Note: the photographs used to illustrate this text all come from the project, but I decided not to include any here that show people, or to name the photographers and writers: the people who made this work may feel differently about their privacy today. 

Art outside the art world

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In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.

Anyone can do it

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This guest post was written by Julia Rone, a Bulgarian friend who has been researching social activism in the wake of the financial crisis. She describes how the Spanish activist group, XNET, are prosecuting fraudulent bankers and politicians in the courts and in the theatre. While the legal proceedings continue, ‘Become a Banker’, has been seen by almost 10,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, A Coruña, Girona and Tàrrega, helping ensure that the truth is understood and remembered.  (It’s also available online, in a version with English subtitles.) The story is not over, but through this citizens theatre, XNET are keeping attention on the true causes of the hardship undergone by Spanish people. 

Banking, creative activism and theatre: the Hazte Banquero story

Imagine being one of the most powerful bankers of Spain. Imagine experiencing the financial crisis, witnessing millions of people going to the streets after losing their savings, their mortgages, their future. See them shouting, marching, occupying.  And then imagine someone leaking to the public all your professional emails with details of lavish spending and misdeeds. Imagine a court trial and someone brave enough (artistically and politically) to make a data-based theatre play out of all this.

The play Hazte Banquero (Become a Banker)is ‘a true story and, as such, it is dramatic but, most of all, it is absurd and atrociously comical’, as the producers from X-net describe it. XNET is an activist collective that deals with topics such as free culture, technopolitics, network democracy, and citizen journalism. They have been very active ever since the Indignados protests in Spain, and this is how I got to know their work. But when I entered Teatre El Musical in Valencia to watch their play I had my doubts about what I was going to see. Would it be one of the many naive and moralistic tales of bankers that flooded Hollywood screens after the crisis? Would I have to like it just because I agree with the political message? As a social movements researcher, I’m used to exploring citizen action on the streets and on squares, on mail lists and Facebook pages – but theatre and social movements? The combination made me uncomfortable.

 

And yet, from the very first moment, the play engaged me, dispersed my doubts and filled the empty space with data. Director Simona Levi and the XNET team read thousands of leaked emails to choose the most striking ones and set them as drama. With the help of a big screen, interactive graphics, and several great actors representing the key figures in Caja Madrid  – all male, of course – XNET guided us through a complex scheme of corruption, self-enrichment, and revolving doors between politics and finance.

In Greek tragedy, the characters suffer irrational divine curses and cannot escape their fate. In contrast, Hazte Banquero tells the story of a modern, man-made crisis that could have been avoided – had the protagonists shown any moral constraints. The plot is so gripping because all the events described really took place, although, the more details emerge, the more unbelievable it all seems. Yes, bank supervisors and top employees of Caja Madrid did have ‘black’ credit cards for unlimited spending. Yes, the bank did transfer money to ‘charitable’ foundations of all political parties in Spain, including the far left. Yes, Caja Madrid did sell floating rate stocks to thousands of inexperienced customers, making them believe they were fixed-rate. All this really happened. All theatre audiences have to suspend disbelief, to accept the ‘reality’ of the play. Watching Hazte Banquero, you had to suspend disbelief to accept reality itself as real.

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In fact, unlike most foreigners, the general public in Spain is familiar with many of the facts around Caja Madrid and its successor Bankia, presided by Rodrigo Rato. But one of truth’s weaknesses is that it’s easily forgotten, set aside while we deal with more urgent everyday duties. Hazte Banquero reveals the truth in the data  – and it helps prevent it from being forgotten. The play reenacts truth in front of us, makes us laugh, feel shocked and outraged, and this emotional connection is what guarantees that truth will not be forgotten any more.

Hazte Banquero has a double goal. First, it shows what happened, so that it will not happen again. This is the awareness-raising task. Secondly, it seeks justice and exposes people who should assume responsibility for their actions. The members of the audience change from being passive witnesses of their personal crises to being active participants in a quest for justice. The play functions as a record and a warning sign, a forensic analysis and a protest march.

hazte-banquero-sobre-preferentes

Leaking data is a risky political act. Performing that data, turning numbers and words into feelings, is politically and artistically dangerous. Hazte Banquero manages to be a powerful, entertaining play with an serious message. It succeeds both in its artistic and political goals. But ultimately, the XNET artists do not distinguish between the two. As citizens we need to act in order to prevent corruption and irresponsibility. This is why XNET organized a crowd-funding campaign to finance  their continuing prosecution of bank executives. As citizens, we too must act, in the sense of perform, and reach out to others and make our causes known. Theatre becomes a form of political action, a way to bring together people and inspire them to act on their destiny.

By seeing the bankers as protagonists on stage, citizens understand better the real-life bankers who, in a famous ad campaign, encouraged them to “become bankers” – and then defrauded them. Stripped of their illusions and armed with information, citizens can identify with the bankers on stage. Stripped of their impunity, once-untouchable bankers identify with ordinary citizens in real life. They are put to trial and they face the consequences of their actions. This change of roles is not welcome to anyone involved. But it is necessary.

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The trial and the play are two faces of one process of citizen engagement initiated by XNET. On the 23rd February 2017, Miguel Blesa was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Rodrigo Rato to four and a half, on charges related to the black credit cards scandal. They both appealed to the Supreme Court and are currently not in jail thanks to their ‘exemplary’ conduct during the trial. We still don’t know whether self-organized citizens will manage to change the end of this play of privilege and impunity we all know too well. But whatever happens, the premise of the play has changed. From secondary characters in our society, citizens have become protagonists and taken centre stage. Who could imagine this?

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Julia Rone is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, Florence. Her research explores social mobilizations against free trade agreements, with a focus on framing and diffusion of ideas. In addition, she studies hacktivism, digital disobedience, and struggles in defense of Internet Freedom.

With thanks to Simona Levi and XNET for permission to include photographs from the production. 

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Paying attention

Flying away

Yesterday, I sat in a shady garden, watching a blackbird hen splashing about in a bird bath. I was drinking tea with Isabel, a dancer and musician, and Biant, a tabla player and social worker. We’ve been friends for nearly 30 years, but hadn’t seen each other for a while, so I was listening to them talk about their recent work.’White Cane‘ is a site-specific work led by partially-sighted performers, in which participants listen to a public place in audio description, music and text they receive through headphones. It was inspired by Isabel’s experience of caring for her late father, who was blind and increasingly deaf. Despite these disabilities, he had loved and practiced art throughout a life shaped by music, touch and the Welsh language. I have rarely met a person of more intense feeling and generous spirit.

Isabel’s work, like Biant’s, with whom she has so often worked, developed in the territories where art, disability and wellbeing intersect. We worked together sometimes in the 1980s, when these ideas were less developed than they are now, and we all benefited from the freedom we had to explore and learn. Recalling those experiences, we recognised a similar pattern.

We began knowing nothing. Sharing creativity with other people who usually had far more life experience than we did, meant listening, to them and to our own hearts, trying, listening again, adjusting. After a time, we did know something. We had a practice, ideas, experience. We had resources to draw on. We started to think – perhaps because others expected it – that we knew what we were doing. We became, each in our own small way, expert. And then, in our fifties, we began to understand how evanescent was that expertise, fading as morning mist in the sunshine. We began to understand how little we knew, and how unwise it was to rely on it anyway.

The confidence of grand gestures seems alien to me now. I’m interested in the personal gesture, contact, vulnerability. I want to make space, not take it. Isabel spoke about the intimacy of the artistic and human experiences she shared with her father in his final, confined years, and I saw how Hamlet might be bounded in a nutshell and yet count himself a king of infinite space. This art is invisible. It exists only in a meeting of minds. You have to be present, not observing but participating.

So, because we live in a culture that discounts what it cannot see and touch, assess and quantify, it is not just undervalued – it is invisible. In their ignorance, the books are silent. Like us, when we mistook ourselves for experts, they don’t know what they don’t know. Never mind. What matters is still the touch of daughter’s fingers on her father’s hand and the sound recordings she brings to connect him with his family, friends and the world.

Undisturbed by our conversation, a robin basks in the sunshine.

Rural touring and cultural democracy

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Rural touring is not a participatory art, but it is participatory culture. Why the distinction? Because in rural touring participation occurs not in the creation of art but in its management – and that, in its way, can be just as important to cultural democracy.

I first heard of rural touring 15 years ago, when Ralph Lister (of Take Art in Somerset) and Ian Scott (then running Artreach in Dorset) asked me if I’d be interested in undertaking some research for the National Rural Touring Forum. NRTF brings together independent arts organisations working across the UK to support live professional performances in rural areas. There are about 35 of them, some small, some large, working with communities from Cornwall to Scotland. In 2014, they helped 278,000 people see theatre, dance, music and other art in 2,400 different villages and rural towns.

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The shows, which happen in local halls, churches, pubs and schools, are always good, often powerful and sometimes extraordinary. That’s partly because the small scale suits certain kinds of performer – experienced companies making work specifically for rural audiences, young artists with fresh ideas and seasoned ones with their own following. There are also NRTF commissions (recently in contemporary dance) that extend that offer. But seeing a show in a village hall is also about community. The audience is small, and people tend to know one another, This intimacy can be risky – it’s painfully obvious if the show isn’t working. But the experience can also be very intense, and many performances that stay in my mind today I saw in these rural venues.

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What has this to do with cultural democracy or participation? It’s about how the shows are put on. The rural touring schemes have invented an approach to promoting that gives local communities real power over what they want to see. The shows are programmed by volunteers – often village hall committees, sometimes informal groups – who also choose the venue, publicise the performance, sell tickets and host the artists and audience on the night. They share the financial risk and keep any surplus to invest in the next event. Most promoters – and there are about 2,400 in the UK now – put on two to six shows a year. They choose what they think the community will enjoy from a menu selected by the touring scheme, which handles the contracts with the companies and other practicalities. The result is a local arts programme that is valued in the communities where it happens because they make the important decisions about it.

Between 2004 and 2014, rural touring audiences, promoters and performances all grew by about 45%, despite cuts in public funding. Today, rural touring managers, voluntary promoters and artists gather in Nottingham for their annual conference, which takes its theme from Robert Frost: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’. One mark of that boldness is the launch of the Rural Touring Awards, which recognise the dedication of just some of the thousands who make the arts part of everyday life in rural Britain.

Not participatory art then, but a genuinely participatory culture and one more strand in democratic social life.

To read my past work on rural touring, please click on the links below:

All the images on this page are by Rosie Redzia and taken from ‘A Wider Horizon’.

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