How familiar is this? You're meeting someone from another organisation. It's a “get to know you”. You're kind of looking forward to it. Their work sounds interesting and, on the face of it, there seems to be synergy in your endeavours. But something strange is happening. You begin to feel that you're being interviewed, questioned sharply and closely about what you do. They're doing all the asking and giving little away.
All the souls of the world stand as grasses upon one, flat and level plain. Each of us equally tapped into the richness of the earth and blessed by the sun in the sky. We are all equal in status and worth.
Or worse still, they're offering unlooked for beneficence. Pointing you by way of unasked for resources or suggesting contacts, taking the role of provider of knowledge and aid. You came to discuss the ways in which you might work co-operatively, creatively, together and suddenly you find that you've been jockeyed into the role of supplicant.
And it gets worse than that ..
Julian Boal in his Notes on Oppression writes beautifully about this. He explains that “oppression is beyond individual relationships”. I believe it has all the hallmarks and characteristics of jealousy; unreasonable viciousness, the need to negate and suppress, but it is what happens when whole social groups do this to others. Jealousy, on an individual level, and oppression, at a societal level, is what happens when we believe resources are scarce and under threat.
You see now why jealousy and oppression interest me so, as an participatory practitioner. I have made it very clear from the start that the place-based, community-commissioned activity of the Squilometre technique is meant to potentiate positive social change. It is profoundly influenced by Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and then of course by Augusto Boal, Julian's father, and his Theatre of the Oppressed. Only by animating communities from within to become aware of the nature of their oppression, they write, can change ever happen.
Oppression is what happens when whole social groups act in jealousy ….
So understanding jealousy and oppression is important. The whole gamut of engagement, community arts and participatory practice depends upon a clear understanding of that fundamental human characteristic. Jealousy is a guttural, visceral reaction to the threat of loss. A reaction that we are ALL susceptible to. So when I'm meeting with that colleague and my ideas begin to threaten the loss of their professional standing, they need to reassert dominance. Nicely, of course, because we're all civilised aren't we? But dominance nonetheless. Hierarchy is the ladder that we use to navigate jealousy and oppression. Someone must be above. Someone must be below.
When we work with our communities we can't afford to be unaware of this. Because unless we understand it and recognise it in ourselves, we will forever be its unwitting players. Constantly suppressed into the role of supplicant or, worse still, acting out the role of oppressor. Even the best designed and most well-intentioned “engagements” have the potential to leave participants identifying themselves as lesser beings; in receipt of temporary beneficence from elsewhere. A boon that must necessarily end when the funding draws to a close.
So what is happening, what is the fundamental belief that underpins oppression and jealousy?
I call it The Invisible Order.
We are not born with an understanding of The Invisible Order. As new borns, all the world's souls are the same to us. Each of us is a tall blade of grass on a vast, flat and above all, totally level, plain. An endless savannah where we, every single person, are all equal in status and worth.
Very quickly however, as we grow, we are taught about the differences. The Invisible Order is ranked vertically and we are brought into the knowledge of where we fit; who is above and below us. Our education, as Freire says, is not intended to make us question The Invisible Order but to compete to ascend it.
That is what is so profoundly wrong with the notion of "Levelling Up" - the implicit acceptance of hierarchy without question. Buying into the damaging believe that we are not already equal in status and worth.
I do NOT accept this.
Participatory practitioners MUST be aware of their own internal beliefs. For my part, here's my new mantra:-
All the souls of the world stand as grasses upon one, flat and level plain. Each of us equally tapped into the richness of the earth and blessed by the sun in the sky. We are all equal in status and worth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. About the Theory of Change for Interwoven Productions CIC and how to design our Impact Assessment. Something kept sticking in my craw though and it’s taken a while to understand it.
I signed up to quite few discussions about impact measurement in the arts and looked at some great example reports but, in the end, I realised my reservations weren’t about how to measure or assess change. It was about the change that I felt under pressure to deliver.
It got messy because, truth is, like most participatory practitioners, it’s not at all hard to find evidence to support the notion that we do in fact improve health, well-being and have a positive impact on the environment. But, it’s like those three things are the lodestones, the go-to, the trigger that all funders are looking for, isn’t it? As I sat with our social enterprise advisor to design our Theory of Change it was variations on those themes that I kept being steered towards as outcomes of our work, but there’s a real problem here for the participatory arts. Let me try and explain …
If we accept that pull towards those magnets of prescribed change – improved health, well-being and environment – then we accept an entire, implicit and imposed worldview. That is, that our communities need to be fixed, improved and upgraded in some way. A worldview that elderly, sick and disabled people are needy – by definition; that if ordinary working-class people don’t present as needy then they have no use for creative expression and no culture of their own; that being green should be top of everyone’s priorities, regardless of their circumstances; that health and wellbeing take precedence over personal safety and self-protection.
In other words, those outcomes are the worldview of individuals who don’t feel personally threatened all the time, who aren’t totally exhausted, running two or three jobs, who don’t have to balance the immediate lift to be gained from a cigarette or a drink against a life on the streets. It makes a whole set of assumptions about the life circumstances of others and the things that might lead them to, quite legitimately, make other choices for change. And one of those choices, as we all know, may well be to opt out of participation. Are they “hard-to-reach” or simply marginalised by this worldview?
Even worse than this, it takes no regard of their equity of opportunity; the power they have to design and make their own change. I was recently introduced to the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, two academic philosophers and economists who developed the Capability Approach. One of their strongest incentives was to find an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of the quality of life. Go on, google it, read, research and assess for yourself but what struck me profoundly was that these understandings are OUT THERE; being published, taught and discussed at the highest levels. So, why are we all still being pushed towards this trinity of improved health, well-being and environment? Well, I guess, because THOSE ARE THE THINGS THAT COST THE STATE MONEY. actually, as participatory artists, working directly with individuals with all kinds of other priorities we’ve become used to walking that unsteady tightrope between differing worldviews. But I think it’s time to out it, that pressure to conform. It’s time to change our minds about change.
The Capability Approach for measuring quality of life has been adopted by successive international committees including the United Nations and here’s the thing – it absolutely does not say that we should be measuring outcomes for improved health, well-being and environment.
It says instead that we should be taking full account of the capability of an individual to design and affect their own change. That, if we must measure, then it should be evidence of the things that they do, express and become that are meaningful to them. NOT prescribed for them.
Now, that is a measure that I can believe in.
So Interwoven has adjusted its Theory of Change to show that we’ll be collecting and measuring evidence of how we have helped to animate citizenship, i.e. number of individuals actively seeking learning or undertaking investigative photo-journalism (I see people going out to ask questions, filming/taking images to represent their own lives); how many are organising events, solving local problems, starting their own projects, helping neighbours – even protesting!
It’s a shift that shows that there’s a really important stage in “change” that we are far too often encouraged to skip - and that’s asking people what change is meaningful to them!
Preaching to the converted – and how to go beyond
(A talk prepared for Essence of Exeter 6th January 2021)
OK, so we are Interwoven Productions CIC. We are Creative Placemakers – that is we help communities find creative ways to celebrate their place. We do this through the Squilometre technique that employs circular-economy so the whole thing runs on a kind of community perpetual motion.
What I want to talk about here are some of the principles that Interwoven have instilled to preach beyond the already converted, to reach to the “quiet voice” in your communities.
We didn’t set out to create a company that would be resilient in the face of a pandemic, of course. So it’s natural that, right now, people should be asking us and we should be asking ourselves this question. What is it about the way that we are set up that is not only helping us maintain service but is actually opening up new opportunities for us?
Maybe a little history will help. Back in 2011, when we were beginning, we were a socially-engaged performance company. We wanted to make socially relevant work but, if we’re honest, didn’t truly understand the meaning or power of participation. There were clues in the literature, however, to set us on a new path. Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s star theatre reviewer at the time, was writing about the need to develop an “army of advocates”. That theatres needed to stop thinking in terms of audience and more about active participants. In 2011 Charles Eisenstein, in his Sacred Economics, exploded the myths of capitalism by showing us that money itself is just a construction, an agreement that we’ve made. At the same time the music industry was under-going an extreme revolution and in 2013 Amanda Palmer gave her “The art of asking” TEDx talk explaining how she’d funded her new album simply by letting her fans pay for it directly. She showed artists, of all kinds if they were keen to see, how they could cut out the middle man and develop a direct symbiotic relationship with their fans/supporters.
Most influential to us though was Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, republished in 2012 but, in extraordinary prescience, first written in 1983. The Gift is a manifesto, a beautifully poetic exposition of the transformative power of giving something away. It was through Hyde that we came to understand the meaning of “community”. Hyde demonstrated that in order for gift to be transformative, it needed to be passed on. More than this, it needed to be visibly passed on. The giving had to be witnessed.
All about the Place
So, by early 2014 we had made some important decisions. We had started as a socially-engaged performance company but now we would now operate within, and serve, a specific geographic community. A defined area where the gift we offered could be witnessed as it was passed, around and around within one square kilometre of landscape – a Squilometre. It’s an archaeological concept in fact, to place a square metre grid down and to study in detail what is enclosed within. We just threw the net a little wider so that we were capturing the essence of “place”. Its heritage, landscapes - green and built - and of course its people. In all honesty, we hadn’t encountered the term at the time but, thanks to Hyde, we had become truly “place-based” even before the term was in common use in the UK.
Circularity within the square
We started by creating a performance on an ordinary suburban street, with a script inspired by the characteristics of that street. We gave the performance away to the residents and 200 of them processed with us, taking time to stop and view it anew, together. They stayed and chatted with us at the end, popped pay-it-forward donations into a hat whilst making nominations for which street, in their Squilometre, they’d like to see celebrated next. Now, five years and nine street-based projects later, they continue to commission and support their own street celebrations. With a little help from local authority small pot grants, the first Squilometre is a completely self-sustaining, community-led, creative enterprise, going around and around their square kilometre in community perpetual motion.
More than this, we took the important decision to be light on our feet. Again, inspired by Hyde who constantly alludes to the deep and spiritual relationship between creativity and the natural world, we understood that we needed to take our performance out of doors. To take it to suburban streets and alleyways. Not only to the green spaces but right there to where people lived – car parks, waste ground and back alleys. If we wanted to make a real social difference we had to help people re-imagine and re-connect with their own spaces.
So, we’ve always fought the pressure to maintain premises for rehearsal or performance. We’ve never insisted that people come to us, we go to them. We don’t keep equipment and we work with our communities to beg, borrow (not steal!) and re-purpose what we need. We’ve always said that if the script calls for a sunset – then go out of doors when the sun goes down! The pressure to have a building of your own is immense of course. It’s a classic sign of success in the old capitalist construct. The bigger your palace, the greater you are. Resisting that pull and becoming inured to the judgement of others takes patience but, of course, we have come to realise that this is one of the most important decisions, for sustainability, that we have ever made.
Taking to the streets in this way, where there really is no barrier between you and your community, teaches you many things – you learn very quickly to let go of the creative ego. If your community is not enjoying what you do, they simply won’t come. Or they’ll walk up to you on the street and tell you – in that sense, evaluation is very easy! You’ll soon know if you’re not doing it right. To get it right, you have to maintain a constant conversation. This conversation is part of your art. This is the other reason that it is so important to define and restrict your community – to make effective two-way conversation possible. Very early on we established an online open forum where we chat daily. Our relationship is ongoing, not timebound. Our communications are open and two-way. Again, in this climate of pandemic, this has turned out to be incredibly important. Our service to our communities (there are now four separate Squilometres – with four separate online forums) has been seamless and uninterrupted.
Releasing the creative ego
You’ve guessed it - we quickly learned too that performance, and certainly scripted performance, isn’t the best way to work within communities. At the beginning we were socially-engaged but we weren’t participatory. In truth we had to learn that. We explored Boal, of course, and tested some of those practices within our communities but, in the end, nothing less than bowing completely into service would do. We came to see at local grassroots, as others had nationally (Fun Palaces, Creative People and Places and the ArtWorks Alliance) that culture already sits firmly within our communities. They don’t need to be taught what it is, they don’t need to be engaged with someone else’s vision of it or to have their stories re-framed and they have every right to express it how they please. Now, when we start a street project we never know how the creative expression will look. Our role is simply to facilitate and, if asked, hook communities up with an appropriate artist or expert to help fulfil their vision. And every once in a while, they ask us to help them perform! Finally in 2019, through Matarasso’s beautifully crafted clarification of participatory practice, we came to recognise ourselves as operating at grassroots “without help and without permission”. We’d slid under the radar and established a direct relationship with our supporters, our communities. In this new world there is a levelling between audience, volunteer, funder, partner and artist. It means releasing your creative ego but it is what some are calling a “Participation Revolution” or “New Power”.
So what of the future?
And what of these “new opportunities” mentioned at the outset? Well, we have long planned to extend our networks online. To create place-based resources that allow people to connect with their neighbours and their neighbourhoods and to give those resources away for free in order to build community, just as we did with our early performances. We also planned to create an online portal, where that gift can be witnessed and passed on and where communities can upload the product of their place-based creativity. More than this, a place where each Squilometre community can connect easily with the product of others. From Beijing to Turin and Adelaide to Aberdeen, a beautiful, open access expression of acting local but thinking global. But we believed that was blue-sky thinking, something for way off into the future. Because of Covid19 though we now have the resources and most importantly the networks to start making this happen. The first two Resource Packs have already been distributed with an online reach of around 10,000. Most extraordinarily, new funding opportunities for the online portal are opening up too. It seems that our blue-sky vision is now shared by others.
Boal, 1979 Theatre of the Oppressed.
Eisenstein, C 2011 Sacred Economics – Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
Gardner, L 2013 How theatres can make everyone fight for the arts
Gibb, N, 2018 The Participation Revolution.
Hyde, L 2012 The Gift – How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.
Matarasso, F 2019 A Restless Art: How participation won and why it matters.
Palmer, A 2013 The Art of Asking.
Timms, H & Heimans, J 2018 New Power – How it’s changing the 21st Century – and why you need to know.
... of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads
"Authentic marketing". It is a phrase I’ve used before. I’ve used it when I’ve been trying to convey the importance of finding the joy in what you do as performance artists and colouring your communications with rainbows of that joy. I’ve also encouraged artists, when trying to project their work, to dwell for a while on real examples of the things that have worked, because these are the clues that describe your authenticity, who and what you are. Often those clues lie in the unplanned and unexpected successes that every project reveals.
I’ve just experienced one of those – big time! And I’ve got to share …
The Squilometre concept is finding its place now on the park bench of performance arts endeavour. It’s wriggled its bum into a little space between psychogeography and ambulatory performance and found a natural partner in Placed Based Education (who knew!). All of these realisations are indeed joyful. It’s fun to find out where, or indeed if, you fit. But that’s not the particular joy I discovered.
No, I’ve found out that when you define a place, in the way that Squilometres does; that is through land and sky, trees and water … all the things that we commonly own. When you create with those ingredients, then the people who inhabit and share it, they become an integral part of the mix.
So instead of “targeting an audience” you get to meet with them.
Instead of “developing an audience” you share with them and cherish them.
Instead of “putting bums on seats” you get to talk to faces!
And the depth of this glorious revelation really became clear to me when I decided to deliver invitations to the Sweetbrier Lane performance through all of the 879 letter-boxes myself. This was partly because I didn’t like to ask anyone else to do it but mostly it was because I’d made the decision to create the first Squilometre project in my very own neighbourhood. It was so convenient, it made sense. But, yes, it was a little bit scary. These were, are, my neighbours. If they really don’t like what I’m doing, they literally know where I live!
I slowly realised though that I was completely loving it! I was braced, to tell you the truth, for brusque no thanks yous and angry scowls. At first, I skipped quickly down paths, after delivering, to avoid confrontation. But it wasn’t like that at all. Turns out that people in the big, scary, outside world are really nice. Pleasant, friendly, ordinary people who, if caught at their door, politely take an invitation with a smile.
It was more than that though. I was thoroughly enjoying the physicality of it. I was out of doors doing something useful. Normally, for me, useful is defined by a chair and a keyboard. This was different. I could feel the muscles of my legs responding to the journey and the cold of the gathering evening shrinking my ears and nose. As I watched a startling range of greens, purples and every shade of orange in the western sky I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun set.
And the scents! Do you remember, when you used to play out, that wet pavement had a smell? I found myself, as I made my deliveries, transported suddenly back, by the sharp and herby scent of a shrub, to endless hours of just being out of doors. Of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads, to examine exactly how the paving stones fitted together and work out how many stones you could actually fit in that gap at the bottom of the wall. Taken right back to a time in my life when being out of doors was just what you did and you didn’t have to rush on to anything else until your mum called you in for tea.
Glorious, glorious revelation indeed. So, this was marketing was it?! What’s more, I found as the week progressed, it got easier and my legs complained a little less. The ridge of landscape I’d chosen to fashion my first Squilometre performance to was paying me back, actually rewarding me, for taking the time to walk it.
And now, when I stroll down my street, I know a few more faces. Where I used to pass without a smile, I now lift my head and nod. Where I would have smiled, I stop and talk. My Squilometre is rewarding me in all sort of unexpected ways and I can’t imagine anything more wondrously authentic than that.
As I sat down to write some guidance for artists, to explain something of the concepts that underpin the Squilometres venture, I realised it all came down to a statement of intent. Squilometres is intended to potentiate social change. Not to dictate the nature of that change but to animate a community to a state whereby positive change can happen.
And it felt good to get that out because then the guidance became clear. I even have a text, my “bible” if you like. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift - How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (2012 Canongate) has profoundly influenced the development of the Squilometre concept.
So there we have it, Squilometres has a statement of intent - and at this point “I” becomes “we”, because I cannot do it alone. We aspire to potentiate social transformation. And we want to do this by developing relationships of all kinds. Particularly with artists, both individuals and small companies. So, it is time to be explicit in our intent and to provide some guidelines for current and prospective associate artists. The best way to do that is to return to our original Four Cornerstones of Community Commissioned Performance, and to explain them in Lewis’ terms:-
1) Be Authentic - know your art and bow into
service to it
Your creativity is a gift. It’s important to know it, acknowledge it, clear the decks to “identify with the spirit of the gift, not with its particular embodiments …” (Hyde, 2012: 151). And your Gift may not have a name. In our society creativity is sidelined, compartmentalised and commodified. It took me three years to discover that my creative label is Animateur - “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind”. I couldn’t find the label because there are no jobs but the fact is, it is what I am. It is my Gift and having discovered it, I feel the real work can begin.
So take time to know your true nature as an artist
and when you join us, bring your authentic, creative self.
2 ) Be Mindful of the Earth - enhance, not deplete, the world around you
Hyde refers to the artist as an “enthusiast”. When one is a creative “enthusiast” in your relationship with the real, physical and spiritual world it is an act of reconnection, or, as Hyde calls it, reunion. “When the poet is in the gifted state, the world seems generous ….”, so, with Squilometres, when we celebrate places, in reunion, we’re offered a wonderful opportunity to be mindfully creative.
Instead of stage lighting, watch the skies and seasons to see what effects they offer; instead of constructed props, consider the trees, fallen leaves, forage the hedgerows. The very places that we celebrate are the canvas, the set and the subject. The people who dwell there are our community. We encourage artists to create beautiful, unique things from what the earth provides. There is a profound link between the arts and environment. Artists have the gift and privilege to reconnect the broken.
“Natural objects - living things in particular - are like a language we only faintly remember. It is as if creation had been dismembered sometime in the past and all things are limbs we have lost that will make us whole if only we can recall them.” (Hyde, 2012:177).
As a Squilometre artist, be ready to be an agent of reunion.
3) Gift It - Find a beautiful use for money
Being paid for your art is both a political and spiritual act. It’s important.
We are not advocates of artists working for free
However, we do believe that there is a better use for money than commercial transaction. Hyde explains that when a gift is freely given, the increase in its worth stays with the ‘object’ and increases as it is passed along. Gift bestowal can create an “empty space into which new energy may flow” (Hyde 2012:148). As it works its way around a community, it grows and grows, building relationships and enabling change. In contrast when a service is exchanged for an agreed price, the transaction nullifies the relationship and any further emotional connection. We believe that is harsh, jarring world in which to create art.
So we will not charge our audience a fixed price up front but will ask them to pay-it-forward for the next show, after they’ve seen the performance. And it will be some while before we can guarantee a fixed rate for artists. So, in the meantime, we’ll keep our productions and our casts small, minimising the individual commitment. And,
we will welcome you into a community in which gift flows
There will be remuneration in cash. There will also be unlooked for returns, taking many forms. If you’ll dwell for a while within our community, rather than closing the transaction down after the performance, then we believe you will be amazed at what an increase in worth means.
4) Connect - love and cherish all
This seems like a big ask but, in fact, becomes much simpler when seen in terms of community. Any performance happens at the centre of a community - all of the individuals that have contributed, in any way, to the happening. Whilst, holding the broader aim of loving all in your heart, the people of your community should be the focus of your attention and care. Be particularly grateful for those who arrive with fixed views, ulterior motives or challenged minds. They present the best opportunities for growth and change and “where we stumble, often treasure lies” (Bayo Akomolafe).
It is particularly important to identify your community and by that we mean know them as people, not contact details. Know their views and interests so that you can facilitate the passing on of the gift. For gift to grow in worth and potentiate change it must be passed on and those in receipt of the gift must be in a position to do so. The mechanisms for this need to be clear.
This is why we operate within one square kilometre (Squilometre) of landscape
So that the members of that community can see for themselves the benefits of passing the gift between them.
As an Associate Artist you are invited to join that community too
What a strange thing to say. Of course, it’s the answer. Isn’t it? There simply aren’t enough salaried jobs, are there? So, if we want to make performance art, we have to get funding, whether its lottery/quango funding or trust/charity funding. That’s how it’s done. Alternatively we provide teaching, training, workshops and outreach. We share our skills and sometimes we’ll get funding to do that too. These are the options, right?
No. These things are not enough. There’s a better way.
Perfectly poised ….
As performance artists we are already naturally blessed with the answer. The very expression of our art-form is communion with others. Performance is always a collaboration of many parts, including audience, artists, other professionals, supporters, benefactors and interested parties. Even solo artists cannot create and express their art alone. The act of performance is a blessed conjoined gift and therein lays its ultimate strength. We are in fact perfectly poised to make a real difference to the future of arts funding.
It works like this. Every single performance of every single type happens at the epi-centre of a community, like concentric rings in a pond. The make up of that community may shift and reform but a performance is always at the centre of its ring. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of that as a whole and been encouraged, often through the funding application process itself, to compartmentalise our community. We’re asked to address audience development as a separate issue from fundraising; to fully describe projects before we’ve had a chance to liaise properly. Worst of all, we have come to see our relationship with our community as something separate from our Art. It is not and can never be.
This compartmentalising and separation of relationships is what has left many large theatres stranded and struggling. They thought the building itself was their asset, their resource. They were wrong. It was always their community, in the widest sense. Lyn Gardner speaks of this separation between artist and audience 05/02/14, and how, if we address this, we might create an “army of advocates” for our work 07/05/2013.
In this context, it’s an interesting sign of our times, how rarely you see positions for Animateurs in the arts today. In this country we’re more used to seeing the Animateur in the music industry. Music Jobs UK describe them as helping “audiences to appreciate musicians and music in new ways and helps them to enjoy music that they may not be familiar with. They also help the musicians as they develop techniques for reaching out to their communities and encourage as many people as possible to engage with music and music related activities.”
However, in France and Italy in the 1960s and 1970s the role was seen to encompass a broader artistic remit. An Animateur or Animatore was “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind” (Smith 1999, 2009) – “animation” was to breath life into a thing and do all that was required to allow it to happen, including marshalling the necessary resources and funds.
To me, this moves us closer to the kind of holistic community development that all performance needs. As a performance artist/organisation you have a community which is your greatest strength and continual communication within it should not be an extra task but should be part of your Art. You need to employ or to think like an Animateur. You need someone who can resist the imperatives to segregate and compartmentalise, someone to love and nuture your whole community, including audience, sponsors, benefactors and interested parties, in all the ways that are needful to create your art.
Still not sure, well then let me prove it to you …
The South West is seething with talent and creativity in this regard …..
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The inspiration is right here in the South West performance landscape, just look around you.
You can see it in the action at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. The dynamic direction there of David Lockwood and latterly of Fin Irwin has meant that they haven’t relied on the theatre itself to generate income. What they have created is a beautiful community of performance artists, audience and sponsors; a hub of developing practice that supports local, and indeed national, talent. Through their Framework Programme and Residencies they’re continually growing and nurturing their community.
It's right there in the promenade, open-access, landscape-involved work of Burn the Curtain.
You can see it in North Devon too. Multi Story Theatre have taken years of experience of working with young people, into schools but not as an add-on, or an outreach extension – but as an integrated way of creating and developing their performances. And in the inspired work of Viva Voce whose mission is to “create artistic experiences from the words of real people” in excellent verbatim theatre.
And in a myriad of smaller enterprises such as Theatre Rush’s Story Exchange, and indeed Interwoven Production’s own Squilometre community-commissioned performance concept.
I’m not saying that none of these organisations has received traditional arts funding, or that they won’t in the future. I am saying that because of their community integrated approach, they are better positioned than others to survive without it in the future.
And the beauty is, the real gem of glory is, in changing in this way, in wholly embracing and animating your community to fund and shape your art, you’ll be playing an active part in changing the arts landscape forever. So, if you’re hurting from another rejected funding application, finding your talents and enthusiasms blunted by having to provide endless “evidence” of your worth, take heart. The answer is already here. And the more we operate in this way, the less we will need arts funding.
As performance artists, in the sharing, the grace and the communion of your art – we are uniquely and perfectly poised to change the world.
Smith, Mark K. (1999, 2009) ‘Animateurs, animation and fostering learning and change’, the encylopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/mobi/animateurs-animation-learning-and-change]
It’s a driving question and it’s about more than just subsistence because it also tends to be the way we judge the success of our art. One of the first questions you’ll get asked by another artist is “do you do this full-time”? So few of us achieve that heady goal that its very scarcity makes it all the more desirable. But it is a very divisive tendency and one to be avoided. It just generates envy and discord amongst artists, whose natural tendency otherwise would be to collaborate and co-create.
It is also, I’d like to demonstrate, a very old school way of looking at things. The economics of scarcity is well recognised and deeply embedded in our thinking. Apparently, we will all pay more for something that is rare. But economics is not a pre-scriptive tool. Things don’t have to be that way. It is a de-scriptive tool. It simply tells us that most people, in most circumstances, will behave in that way.
So, it is extremely interesting to note that there are many voices now; many artists, environmentalists, theorists, in fact people in all walks of life, who are succeeding in persuading people to behave differently! It is aided by, but not exclusive to, the internet and social media. It is strongly linked to the revulsion that many feel about how we exploit and despoil our planet and comes from the camp of holistic ecology and environmental responsibility.
It has been coined by Charles Eisenstein, as Sacred Economics but in fact many of its characteristics were laid out as a kind of manifesto for artists as early as 1979 by Lewis Hyde (The Gift).
Hyde argues strongly that to exchange or barter something for a fixed price is to “kill” the cultural, artistic and spiritual value of the “thing”. It is cancelled out, removed from universe, from the common good. Whereas, when something is given freely, each transaction will increase its worth, value and benefit. And it will continue to increase as long as the gift keeps moving. Both Eisenstein and Hyde therefore argue strongly in favour of Gift – giving your services away.
But how can this work?!! How does this make the artist’s subsistence any more tenable? Now, I’m aware that, being a recent convert to these ideas I’m behaving like an AA “two-stepper”. I’m all excited about the revelation and now want to go and tell others all about it, before I’ve done the hard work and all the steps in between. I haven’t proved it can work yet. But I’m also aware that many people are making it work and I’m conscious of wanting to emulate some of the openness and vulnerability of Amanda Palmer, one of the most successful proponents of this approach.
Amanda, a musician, is famous for having cut out the middle man and for her profound and direct connection with her audience through social media and crowd-finding. That is, if she has one, her business model. She just asks her fans for their help.
So, I’m sharing my thought process with you, just like Amanda does. I want to keep the conversation open as I continue to research, explore, discuss and trial how this might be.
Here are some of the things that I think are important to developing a Gift approach and a Sacred Economy, particularly in theatre and the performing arts:-
1) I think it is ‘sacred’ and important to give your work away but to ask people, in an easy, fun way to return the gift if they can/want to. This means extending your performance into Q & A or some other activity that includes the audience. It means not sending them away at the end of the show but, rather, finding some way to celebrate their participation and facilitate their gift. Afterall, if your performance is a gift then their return gift should be part of the performance.
2) I think it also means finding new and interesting ways of Asking. Sometimes things will have to be funded up front or you simply won’t be able to move forward. Amanda Palmer famously raised over million dollars through KickStarter crowd-funding for a planned tour. The successful norm is for much smaller amounts though and often projects fail to meet their mark all together. The difference that Amanda makes is her direct and profound connection with her audience. She gives herself up to them entirely, that connection and communication is part of her art.
3) It means changing your view of what success is. Like many artists, I’m interested only in making enough to continue being creative. Profit and excess have very little meaning for me. But as I’ve mentioned many will measure your success as an artist by your income. It’s hard not to feel pressured by this. I find that the concept of “Right Livelihood” helps. This means finding a livelihood that DOES NO HARM. It allows you to be the artist you need to be but also requires that you make enough return not to do yourself or your loved ones any harm – in other words, to gain a reasonable and responsible income. Right Livelihood feels like a worthy and achievable goal.
4) It means being aware of your own Gift. It’s no mistake that artistic talent is referred to as a Gift. We are all familiar with those moments when we’ve created something that seems to come through us, rather than from us. In order to successfully share your Gift and ask others to help you support it, you have to know it, explore it, develop it and bow into its service. This means not changing or corrupting it to someone else’s vision. James Stenhouse tackles some of this in his excellent blog How to make a living as an artist where he exhorts us to never “… let ANYONE tell you what kind of work you should be making. EVER”.
5) Finally, I think it requires a community; a minimum number of individuals who understand and value the concept of Gift enough to keep it moving, to return it and gift-it-forward so that we can all then know that we are part of the whole. The greater that community is, the more successful the approach will be. I may be wrong in this. I’d be interested to know what you think.
That seems like a great place to end. But I’d love to keep the conversation open. Please leave your thoughts and comments and I will endeavour to answer each of them.
Eisenstein, Charles 2011 Sacred Economics. Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition. Evolver, Berkeley, USA.
Hyde, Lewis 2012 The Gift. How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland.
If the following questions have been vexing you then you may find these musings interesting:-
"…. I could happily engage in my work whilst doing no harm to myself or others".
Rather than bashing my head against the perennial problem of finding different ways to make a living in the arts I thought I’d start again, from another angle, and design what my own personal “success landscape” looks like.
In the course of my researches I have encountered the concept of Right Livelihood from the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. I’ve used this to identify the factors that, for me, mean that I could happily engage in my work whilst doing no harm to myself or others.
“Do myself no harm”
“Do no harm to others”
I have recently encountered the work of Charles Eisenstein and particularly his Sacred Economics. He argues in favour of a Gift Economy.
“Indeed, to charge a fee for service, or even for material goods, violates the spirit of the Gift. When we shift into gift mentality, we treat our creations as gifts to other people or to the world. It is contrary to the nature of a gift to specify, in advance, a return gift, for then it is no longer giving but rather bartering, selling. Furthermore, many people, particularly artists, healers, and musicians, see their work as sacred, inspired by a divine source and bearing infinite value.”
I was stunned by how closely this seemed to fit into my own idealisation of a Right Livelihood. In this context I could create work and “do no harm”.
"…. the Gift Economy is so new, so different from our ingrained mindset that we all have to find our way"
But how to ensure that I “gain reasonable return” so that I can make a “responsible contribution” to my home?
Well Eisenstein has built his self-employed practice as a writer and speaker on this basis. He makes his writing available via the internet for free but people can also buy the book. In other words they can choose to make a return Gift.
He goes into more detail about exactly how your practice might look with some interesting examples:-
But he stresses that, actually, the Gift Economy is so new, so different from our ingrained mindset that we all have to find our way. I see the perfect manifestation of my Right Livelihood as being a self-employed writer/community animateur/speaker who offers all of her services on a Gift basis. Maybe your Right Livelihood looks different.
It's scary though isn’t it? A risk? It depends upon others valuing my Gifts enough to allow me a reasonable and responsible income. How can I get myself ready to take such a risk?
Well, the first part of my answer to stage the transition. I know what my Right Livelihood looks like now, I have some of the tools to get there – particularly Eisenstein’s Gift concept – but in order to be responsible I may not be able to get there all at once. I’m going to try some things out, learn as I go, grow it slowly.
"But when the performance itself is a Gift then surely the return Gift, made in recognition, is also performance?"
The second part of my answer is to consider where the Gift part of the process sits in the artwork itself. Currently, when we pay a fixed fee before we see a performance the act of payment is thoroughly removed from art. It is not part of the process, it is an evil necessity to be got out of the way in a dark box-office where no one can see.
But when the performance itself is a Gift then surely the return Gift, made in recognition, is also performance? It is part of the art. Maybe the audience should be invited on stage to make their gift in the light, directly to the performers. Maybe they should be invited to make a short statement of critique or gratitude?!
A terrifying concept. But I would like to explore it. I am ready to take my first step to Right Livelihood as an independent artist and I am offering my first show Vega on a Gift basis at the Bike Shed Theatre on 14th January 2013 at 7.30. Pre-booking advised!
Measuring the Arts? That's like telling a spanner to be more fragrant. It's a nonsense because it ignores the essence of what things are. And yet, every time we apply for Arts funding that's exactly what we have to do. We have to apply outcomes to our endeavour and to fully quantify those outcomes; tickets sold, people of this or that group helped, number of ethnic minorities involved.
We live in a world of project planning, goal-setting, objectives and targets. The evaluation of our success then is “measured” against those targets. For decades now it's all we've heard, at work, in our health system and our schools.
The problem is that, in this quantification, there is no room for non-conformity or greyness. The only choice it leaves those on the margins is to change or drop out. If that feels like a harsh or revolutionary view just look around – expulsions from our schools are soaring, the homeless fill our streets, the elderly live in decimating isolation. They don't fit the matrix, they're squeezed out of the quantified whole.
The Arts really don't fit of course. In tough times Arts funding goes first. We kind of accept it. Communities get used to living with no music, performance or beauty in their midst. As individuals, we understand that if we want to make a living we have to turn to something more “useful” or “saleable”.
So artists do their best. Oh, you can tot up audience figures, calculate demographics and social groups reached but how does that really measure that moment when a youngster from the local estate discovers Art for the first time and knows in searing recognition and hope that an artist is what he truly is. Or the shining glow of visibility bestowed on someone properly heard and integrated into a community happening. These things are not subject to measure and, worse still, the attempt to quantify potentially corrupts and negates them.
Let the Arts BE
Instead, consider instead the fluidity of this alternative vision.
Let's allow Art to be supported, created, commissioned and developed by the people it serves. You could see the continuum as a kind of creative water-cycle. High up in the rapids it's the artists job to jump on and enjoy the ride. When community energy wants to meander and soak up influences from elsewhere then, dear artists, lie back and float. When it becomes ethereal, vaporous and rises into the heavens then spread your own arms, turn your face to the sun and rise with it - and then rain down the product of your co-creativity in glory, without discrimination and in Gift. Feeding the whole cycle, allowing it to go around again.
That's how a community-led arts project should happen. Let it BE, Funders. Stop dredging, diverting, culverting the flow with your directives, strategies and objectives – that is not Art.
So, yes, I will continue to ask our community to gift-it-forward into their own square kilometre (#Squilometre) so they can watch the transformative power of their gift as it goes around and around and I won't be applying for large-scale funding any time soon.
Take a look at what you think is meant by economic sustainability. Glance again at your project plan, your targets and objectives. Especially if you are an artist, take a moment to reflect upon the constraint of measure-ability upon your practice. Embrace instead the opportunity to bow into service, join the flow of community will. It doesn't mean you have to agree with everything you see and hear. An an artist, it's your job to highlight, reflect, focus and define – good and bad – so that positive change can happen. That is why your community needs you!
BE an artist. Embrace the flow.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community animation. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community and working in the gift,