A post by Alyn Gwyndaf
I travelled to Salford for the State of the Arts 2012 conference with a few things:
- An artist’s bursary, which I’d been surprised to receive. Although experienced in many things, it’s only recently that I’ve self-identified as an artist in the sense of initiating my own creative projects, or at least identifying them as art.
- An imposter complex, the residual self-doubt and flipside of surprise at getting the bursary.
- Experience of the corporate world, some very, very dry meetings and conferences, and an awareness that most people there would much rather talk about their weekend or boyfriend.
- Experience of Open Space, with some very exciting and energised collective conversations, and an awareness that everyone there really wanted to talk about their work.
- Little experience of engaging directly with the main institutional infrastructure of the arts, whether organisations or ACE itself.
- A great love of people and conversation.
So, essentially, I arrived with a certain fascination to find out more about the whole institutional machinery and what it looked like up close. Having started out as an engineer, it remains an enduring trait to take things apart and find out how they work. The reality was, as with any organisational machinery examined closely, that it’s made up of people. Many people wearing the mantle of their professional role, certainly, but essentially a big bunch of people in a big room.
I’ve been in many organisations, small and large and it’s always seemed that small ones (maybe under thirty people) still feel like the sum of the individuals involved: all sharing a purpose and focus, but retaining a sense of individuality and personality. Bigger than that, and the organisation itself starts imposing an abstract, dominant identity, which somehow informs and constrains the personality of everyone working in its shadow.
Why this detour? Partly, that’s what I do. My narratives do tend to bump up against other topics, look them in the eye, shake their hand and maybe even hug or kiss them before connecting with the next. That is to say, few things are really so simplistic and compartmentalised that they can be treated in isolation. Sometimes it’s necessary for practical purposes to treat them this way, but the risk of this utilitarian approach is that it becomes normalised and we start to think in discrete terms. It seemed to be a recurring point of many speakers that we need to avoid thinking in binary terms, so clearly there was a recognition that there’s a pervasive risk of fancying the reductive because it makes the messy easier to deal with. So it remains important that we retain the ability to see the messy as messy before considering how to address it, rather than leap straight into an easy bifurcation.
But, more fundamental seemed to be this notion of utility. We (bursaried artists) had been welcomed at ACE’s offices in Lever Street, and one of the points that stuck in my mind was the hint that justifying arts funding in terms of economic return was an argument less likely to find favour with the government. This didn’t seem especially new and I’ve seen many arguments that we need to address the debate on our own terms, rather than fitting it to an economically-driven political agenda. But for this to have been signalled from above was perhaps a new departure.
That said, there seemed little indication of this thinking in Ed Vaizey’s speech (or the signposting was just too subtle for me). Every initiative, in terms of what was coming to the arts, was couched in terms of financial benefit. That’s fine, and I’m sure others will scrutinise those, but little reference to what was expected from the arts. Quite a bit on organisation and economic contribution, but nothing of art itself. Or perhaps there was. Tucked away at the end of his speech was a quote from Robert Frost: “The artist [is] the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state…the artist’s fidelity [strengthens] the fibre of our national life…I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist”. So, is this what the arts are expected to deliver: a legitimisation of the individual over the social? This, when the popular climate seems to be increasingly rejecting that notion and searching for forms of connection, community and collective action, whether in terms of protest, festivals or simply stitch and bitch circles. Is the aim that the arts should somehow bolster a dying political assumption that focuses on the individual, on competition, and on the free market as the sole begetter of all things great?
There were many comments about the elephant in the room. It may be that we had a delegation of them to cover each of the smaller breakout sessions. Smaller in number, but still ‘large’ in organisational terms, these sessions’ working model directly echoed that of the conference hall: a few expert speakers on the podium, followed by a little time for questions and comments from the floor. In the ‘Artists in [a] Changing Society’ room, Drew Hemment seemed a bit radical by standing up and walking about to present, though I’m unsure whether this democratised the space, or created a more Jobsian messianic presence; fascinating stuff, nonetheless, as were Gavin Stride’s reflections, especially on the concept of ‘folk’ and art as popular, social practice. But what seemed missing was conversation. I realised that the way it was set up invited comments, not so much to the topic on the card, as to the speakers’ thoughts on that topic, so the discussion was already mediated. Interesting mediations certainly, but probably unnecessary. There was enough thought and opinion in the rooms I was in to inform a great conversation, so it felt like the speakers just cut into this time.
Why this format was chosen, I don’t know: perhaps it’s just a default assumption about the way these things are done; perhaps it’s a fear that the people who’ve come wouldn’t be passionate, thoughtful or opinionated enough to start the conversation ourselves. I suspect it’s the former, and it’d be great, especially with these sessions, to learn from the Open Space model, and create a more conversational exchange, which could go to unexpected places, throw up unpalatable ideas, but essentially be a far more creative space. This does beg a fundamental question about the purpose of the conference. Conferences are often for outward show, for profile-raising, and from that point of view it’s enough to get lots of people together with enough high-profile headline points to feed the media. But I rather felt there wasn’t a clear purpose as to why we were all there together in that room at that time. For practical purposes, the communication media we now have at our disposal mean we don’t need to all get together to be handed down the tablets (other than for this to be seen to be happening); what we can gain is the collective energy and synthesis of ideas bouncing off each other in the immediacy of the moment.
Despite my trepidation on the train from London, the tram to Salford brought a certain excitement. I realised as the conference approached that I had a fairly clear sense of purpose. With the bursary, I’d effectively got about £300 of public money on my back. Maybe it speaks to class, but money brings a great clarity. Give me money to do a job, and I’ll rise to the challenge and take that responsibility seriously. In this case, it overwhelmed imposter syndrome and gave me a great freedom to get in there, talk with people, be opinionated and, indeed, share my outsiderness to discover that I wasn’t alone in this. And dancing. Credit for this really goes to Gemma Paintin from Action Hero, but we did initiate some moving physical activity at an otherwise rather static and cerebral drinks reception in the Whitworth Gallery. This is not trivial. For a conference foregrounding artists and social change, we did succeed in getting the whole room dancing. This should be qualified: the numbers left dancing in the room by the end of the night were about half those standing there previously. Perhaps this is an acceptance that change is not for everyone, but it does testify that we have the power to achieve some.
Dancing. Not trivial. A celebration of life, and humanity. That seemed to be the elephant that I kept glimpsing. So many comments and conversations seemed to touch on this as a quality that artists bring. Yet rarely (where I was) did anyone seem clearly to address the other side of the ‘artists and x’ formula that defined each breakout. I didn’t hear all the discussions, and from the transcript if looks like Andy Field (amongst others) argued that ‘x’ was not simply a variable to be observed, but a dimension that should be acknowledged and factored into the very practice of our work. In that case, ‘x’ was the environment, but we could (and did) equally argue that artists can’t properly address ‘community’ or ‘society’ without fully participating and accepting that we too are part of, and affected by, the same concerns as everyone else.
That is, we have to embrace our own plain, simple humanity, as artists and administrators, not as a part-time activity, an off-work leisure process, but as essential and intrinsic to what we do. For those in organisations, we need to escape the shadow of the overbearing organisational personality; for those in conferences, we need to use our own voices, informed by our passions and concerns, our communities and our children (and maybe a creche next year to bring some noise into the conference); alongside, but not rendered invisible by, our professional mantles.
The setup of the breakout sessions meant I didn’t manage to articulate this thinking there and then, but it evolved through various excellent conversations between the formal discussions. It increasingly struck me that we are seeing a general social dissatisfaction with the dominant language of economics, of functionality or utility; that society is treated like a compartmentalised machine, observed from a great distance. Art gives us the close-up, the view that articulates and addresses the messy humanity that makes up what we have increasingly seen described only in unsatisfactorily mechanical terms. There was much talk of artists’ separation, but whether we have Chaplin’s perspective as director of Modern Times, or that of his tramp actually being wound up by the cogs, what the arts can bring to the current social and political vacuum that’s been left unsatisfied by the language of economics or functionality, is a language of humanity.
That felt like a nice ending. Lots of seeds planted and grown into other ideas, threads laid and an overall rather meandering, fluid sort of course, all gathered up nicely by the end of the day; a proper folk idyl. Quite linear, for all its deviations. Warm and smooth: all pretty analogue, that is, even to the point of recycling a metaphor from a silent movie, which itself seems very 2012. But I’m still troubled by a nagging loose end from planting the word ‘binary’ and its obvious invitation to address the digital. It’s not territory I’m uninterested in: I was doing data some fifteen years ago, in the days when people couldn’t tell information from data from computers, and seem to have volunteered myself to help open up arts data. It’s simply that ‘digital’ itself is just too general. Talking about how we use digital is like talking about how we use thought. It’s not a form or a medium; the prevailing sense of ‘post-digital’ seems to assert exactly this, that it’s intrinsic to everything we do now. Ed’s speech clearly thought not, and advanced many utilitarian ways in which the arts could ‘use’ digital in a very functional fashion, which seemed little more than saying “get hip to what other industries are doing to reach their markets.”
I think we’re doing better than that. Rather than simply treating this as an administrative tool, it’s being taken apart, bit by bit, and rebuilt in exciting new ways that interrogate and challenge its functional use for increasing efficiency or monetising human relationships; that create new forms of story; that create genuine surprise, delight or bewilderment. Meanwhile, knowing this is at their disposal, some artists are consciously making the choice to create work that’s manual, physical, interpersonal and visceral. Whether we call these approaches ‘past-digital’ or ‘anno-digital’, it’s a refusal to accept digital as a homogenising orthodoxy. Not a resistance, but a transcendance: looking more broadly and judging where it serves and where it doesn’t; a will to pull apart the threads and actively explore how we can make better messy.