Thursday, 3 October 2013

Cerdd/ed Part 2

After a summer’s sojourn in Beijing I’ve returned to Wales, with a little something in my suitcase. I’ve brought Linda Yi with me, a fabulous researcher who I met in China.

Linda and I are perched around the kitchen table at Geraint and Tracey’s house, planning our next steps on the Cerdd/ed project. Sadly, the band I was working with were unable to continue with the project, and so we’ve been revisioning what the piece will look like.

I’ll be taking Linda out to see the town, meet some of the people involved in the project, and see some of the places that the music is based on. She’ll be interviewing people and taking inspiration from walking in the landscape and mixing this all up with the work I did in the primary school last year. Add to this, poet Mark Parry who will be creating lyrics based on these ‘inspirations’ and we have the beginnings of an interactive site specific piece.

Musically, I will create a bed of found sounds, and interview clips, which will be triggered by the children, using miners lamps and a light sensitive camera wired to a sampler which I am building in my laptop. Over this landscape, I will weave an electric fiddle, and acoustic fiddle, to bring together the past and the present of the town, and two voices, one singing in Welsh and one in English. This will be accompanied by local musicians, Geraint Roberts and Tracy Hayles, on Welsh pipes and ‘cello, plus friends from their traditional music circle.

So my role is to rescore the band piece for the traditional musicians, turn Mark’s poetry into lyrics, turn found sound into sculptural noise, select the interview snippets, sculpt them into phrases which weave together, build the electronics patch which will allow the children to control the samples via the miner’s lamps and rehearse the piece with the musicians and children combined.

October is looking like it will be busy but lots of fun!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Challenging homogeneity in culture through creativity. Or - Who? me?

One of the interesting things about being in Beijing is meeting the ex-pat community, seeing visions of Beijing and China through eyes which are non European, comparing my perceptions with theirs – thus, telling me something about where I am from and what I’m carrying around in my head as a result of that.

An interesting conversation last night with two Americans and an Italian has left me thinking about the nature of creativity in society, about our response to our environment. The thesis set forward by American 1 is that the world is becoming more homogenous, so quickly that it is practically impossible for individuals to be individuals - to not just become a media controlled homogenous non thinking consuming beast, stripped of humanity. The argument continued to state that our visions of the future are typically that machines will become more capable of aping humanity, but that actually, it is humans who are beginning to ape machines, incapable of feeling, creating or empathising. I’m not exaggerating this view, these really are words that were used.

While I would agree that there is a huge amount of media, showing an ever increasingly bland output of human creation, I wonder whether this intrinsically leads to a loss of humanity somehow. I think to believe this we somehow have to have lost trust in that beautiful spark inside each person, the spark that loves and allows us to be loved, the spark which wants to share, the spark which is capable of defining it’s own beauty. Can this really be extinguished?

I would also agree that the onslaught of technology may not be something that we are able to adapt to as quickly as it hits us. I’m in my mid 30’s, I did not experience the internet, or video for that matter until I was in my early 20’s. I certainly was not brought up to expect or know how to cope with constant upgrades, software developments, handsets, operating systems etc. It’s something I’m having to learn as I go, like everyone alive. But what’s to say that the generations who are born to this world, will have such a tough time as we sometimes do?

It may also be the case that the humanity has a harder time shining through, as the internet becomes more standardized, it’s no longer a free for all, with no rules of the road, corporations are beginning to definite the structure of how it will function for hundreds of years, in the same way that early car designers had to figure out a standardized way of presenting controls of a motor vehicle, and then governments and corporations had to figure out how to standardise road behavior. As this structure is lead by large corporations in the quest for cash, the windows open to creative networks become smaller, we operate within a framework set by someone making profit.

So how to we support these coming generations in defining their own sense of self? How do we support them in knowing the difference between consuming the world as it is presented to them, and creating the world that they want to? I would argue (and did) that one of the most vital responses to this homogenisation is creative education. In creative activities, there is no right, no wrong, there are only decisions – do I paint this green or red? Then, we review the choices based on our own personal preference – I think I prefer it red after all. In teaching creativity in schools, through the arts, we teach people to think for themselves, to sift information, to make decisions, to reflect on those decisions and to continue their decision making process based on those reflections.

This circle of Thesis, Action, Reflection, Thesis, is not available to children in other subjects at primary or secondary level, where what we are subliminally teaching is that “There is a correct answer and the person in charge will usually confirm or deny that you have got it” This mode of thought creates workers, who are told what to do by someone in authority, and generally they do it. Creative teaching creates people, citizens, who take responsibility, look at evidence, make decisions, and get to know themselves and their preferences in the process.

I see this when working with my 9 year old Chinese student. When I first met him, he was struggling to string a sentence together in English, which I took to mean that he was a real beginner. During our first lesson however, I discovered he has a wide English language vocabulary, which is not represented by his ability to communicate. The problem is that he has been taught the information, but not taught how to be creative with it, how to form sentences, how to express himself. He can do what he’s told, but he can’t think for himself. (OK he’s only 9! He’s amazing for a 9 year old, this is more a critique of a teaching style than him personally).

Of course, it is not necessarily in the interests of a government to create thinking, decision making, critical thinking citizens, some would argue that this is the antithesis of what a government is looking for. Which is why it is up to us, the creative people, those who have stepped out of the safety of knowing the answers and live in a world where there are no answers. We need to support young people to develop those skills, and I think it can be as easy as giving them the opportunity.

I take as an example, the project I’ve been lucky enough to work on at Horsecross Arts in Perth this year. It’s a youth band, 13 – 18 playing traditional Scottish music with a big band Jazz feel. As I was collecting feedback for the evaluation soundscape I’m making, one of the young people said to me “The best thing about being in the band, is that now, I listen to music, and I know what I like, I mean, not just One Direction [insert generic pop band here] but real music, played by amazing musicians”. She had learnt how to evaluate what she was hearing, and make decisions about what she liked, and then focus her searches in those areas.

Personally, I felt that American 1 was allowing his view of the world to be more influenced by his personal circumstances than objectivity (don’t we all?) I asked him what his job was – he said “Advertising, tricking people into buying crap they don’t need”. We have a number of levels of choices in the world, we can choose to see the dystopian future, or deny it, if we choose to see it, we can choose to allow it to floor us and retreat into a cave of impotence, or we can try to find ways to protect ourselves and those around us from it. And it can be as easy as joining a local music group, or volunteering to teach English to 9 year olds.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Who's dissing my ability? Being broken, leadership and the attack on equality.

So today I was in pain, and after doing some yoga and taking some pain killers I decided to head out in Beijing with one of my walking sticks. 

One of the things I wanted to look at while I was here was attitudes to disability, so this was not only practical but also an opportunity to do some observing. 

The reason I'm interested in this is to do with the sense of the individual. In the UK, our Equality Act (2010) and previously the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) requires an employer or public service to adapt their premises and modes of working to the disabled individual - as far as is 'reasonable' (which is always wherein lies the rub). This structure is supposed to take the individual at the centre of the decision making, and place the changes in the world around them. (Whether it in fact works in practice is always up for discussion). 

China's cultural focus is on the communal, the responsibility lies with the individual to adapt themselves, to fit in, to change to suit the situation, to become one of the group. The focus on the group is so much stronger here in China, with colleagues sharing accommodation and even sleeping in the same room, your group that you work with are often your social and familial group. In the UK we tend to lead very separate and individual lives, dipping in and out of different ponds all day, from colleagues to various separate friends, groups and acquaintances. 

So with this in mind, how does China deal with the individual who cannot fit in, who is 'dis-abled' who's ability to take part is blocked by the way in which things are structured or built? This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of the subject, and I need to do some serious asking of questions, just as soon as I find someone who speaks English. This is the experience of a day with pain and a walking stick. 

The first thing that happens is that I get a lot of stares. Every single person I walk past on the way to the subway stares. This is compared to not staring normally, sans stick, so I don't think it's a white girl thing, and I check to make sure I haven't tucked my skirt in my knickers or got my coffee all down my top. Nope. It's the stick. 

Next up it's the subway, which is pretty much unnavigable without a lot of steps, a lot of steps. Entertainingly Dong Si station has a very elaborate ramp system to get into the station, and then you are immediately met with a massive flight of steps! 

Dong Si's helpful ramp

Dong Si's less helpful stairs.

These photos were taken back to back, spinning on a sixpence. Ho hum. Down I go . Ouch Ouch Ouch slowly Ouch. 

I guess that people with mobility issues take cabs a lot … 

On one of the trains one young chap offers me his seat, but on the other 3 everyone stares fixedly at their mobiles while I stand. I can't pre-empt the thought process here, perhaps it's "well if she chooses to get the subway she's probably fine standing" or maybe it's "I can't be bothered, I'm sure someone else will offer" or perhaps even "if she needs a seat she'll ask someone". To be honest I don't even know what the etiquette is on the London Tube, most people avoid eye contact and stay seated. Should I ask? Or just wobble and glare at them? It's a minefield. For example, a woman sitting in the 'disabled and elderly' seat on a London tube … she doesn't look disabled, but then, without my stick, neither do I … do I challenge her or just hope she feels the guilt? Or maybe she's pregnant, in pain, or partially sighted … how do I know? Minefield. 

Which brings me to a slight tangent, about how we categorise disability. During the para-olympics I witnessed some incredibly fit and strong, brave, tenacious individuals compete and win medals. The irony is that all the wheelchair users, these strong, fit, humans with incredibly rewarding lives are entitled to Disability Living Allowance, on the basis that they cannot walk 100m. I am not entitled to this benefit, because, most days, I can walk 100m.

However, I also spend days, weeks and sometimes months in bed, ill, with pain, nausea, and my earning and social potential ripped away from me, my life is reduced to abut 25% of what a 'normal' person would do, achieve, learn, and enjoy. Surely this view of dis-abled which focusses on 'can you walk' is outdated by now? It smacks to me of being designed by some well meaning but clueless 'walkie-talkie' (Ian Dury's term for the non disabled) ... "are they in a chair? Right then you're in".

Back to today .... I wasn't out long, the pain increased to a point where home and tea seemed like the best option. I'm very glad to be back here listening to some lovely music and full up of wonderful painkillers, basking in the aircon (I know it's evil - sorry) writing to you chaps instead of wobbling about in pain. 

But while I was out, I started to think about the term 'disabled' and what it actually means. Starting off with the term invalid, it's pretty rough to describe someone as in-valid and I can't believe it's only a few years since we decided that might not be on. So then on to the term 'disability' to say 'he/she has a disability' confers the inability onto the bearer, she has something different, strange, it's her problem. Disabled however is a sightly tricksier beast, it infers that something has dis-abled me, like being dis-armed, dis-proved, dis- organised, it takes someone or something to do the dissing. It's a more active more powerful term.

So what or who is dissing my ability? We could argue that it's the illness, my ME disables me, it takes away my ability to do, to take part. We could also take the view that it is the way things are which dis-able me. It's not that I can't do things per-se it's just that I can't do them on 'normal' terms. This is where the term 'differently abled' comes in. It's fairly new and been quite slow to catch on …

I had a long and tedious conversation with an organisation I once worked with about this, and without going into too much detail, they said I could not do my job, and I argued that I could do my job, but not according to the infrastructure of commuting, parking the car, walking to the office, lifting stuff, etc. It wasn't that I was unable, but there were structural (and easily changeable) things which made me unable. 

Since I've been working for myself,. I build my working day around my health. I have fairly easy to follow rules which enable me to be flexible and I work when I can (not always 9-5). Those I do work with are given clear information about my illness and things I need in terms of work style (i.e. I don't do last minute, because I don't have magic energy that I can pull out of nowhere to stay up late to finish something before a deadline. If you need something from me, give me a couple of weeks so that I can do it when my illness lets me). It all works remarkably well and remarkably easily - which to me at least proves, that it's not me that is unable, it's the structure which insists I must live my life in a certain way, it dis-ables me, it undermines my validity and seeks to make me in-valid because I cannot and do not play by those particular rules. 

And this is the crux of all equality for me. It's about systems. Systems which are usually designed by leaders, leaders who, up until recently, usually were white, male, wealthy, literate, straight (or pretending to be) and not disabled. So, we had structures designed to fit those people… because that's all they knew. (Think about pickled onion jars … the lids are so wide that I can't get my hand across to grip them, my guess is, designed by men, think of the leany-standy-uppy seats on the tube. I'm a fairly reasonable 5' 7" and they're too high for my arse, my guess is, designed by men. I could go on). 

Which is why, universal free higher education has begun to create a much more equal society, because in the 40 years since working class, non white, female, disabled and LGBT people started to get degrees (and be out, in the case of LGBT), they have become leaders, and they know what it's like to live in a world which doesn't fit, and they start to incorporate other people's difference into structures they design. Since we have had women in positions of leadership we have seen access to child care increase, maternity become more flexible etc. 

Which is why tuition fees are a disaster for equality. 

In 40 years, 50 years, 60 years from now, the people in positions of power will again be rich, mostly white, mostly non disabled - yes there will be women and probably LGBT people too (both of whom will face barriers and struggles to get these positions). But the economic grouping of decision makers will be less diverse than we have now. The introduction of tuition fees is not just about debt, about focussing students on subjects which deliver an income at the end of study, not just about reducing education to a marketplace, where you get to buy yourself a future. Tuition fees are a huge challenge to developing true equality leadership, and the design and implementation of appropriate systems. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

How do we rekindle a tradition?

Yesterday I went to the National Art Museum of China. The exhibition there was around one of my favourite subjects, the transformation of art in the 20th century. I found myself drawn, as always to the art of the 1930's and onwards, where communist block futurism prints begin and woodblock carvings of revolutionary fervour depict strong heroes. The work before this era is traditional Chinese ink painting, on vertical scrolls depicting nature scenes. These scenes have a language of their own, through the imagery and brush strokes. 

Once the 1930's begins, there is a noticeable shift to more 'western' forms of visual art, printing, oil painting, depictions of the human form, bold use of colour. Following this on, I started to see Chinese art following a theme of western art history, with some abstract works and texturised paintings.

As I was ambling around, in a semi daze, I was stopped by a young woman named Coco, who asked if she could ask me some questions (in very good English). She explained that she worked for the Central Academy of Cultural Administration and was interested to know what westerners thought of the exhibition.

She asked me if I understood the traditional ink painting, which I had to admit, I didn't really, I had just been looking at it as an amateur. She explained abut the Chinese relationship to nature in art, and how this tradition had been overwhelmed by a desire to paint in a western style over the period of the early 20th century. I was curious to know if this had been a choice, or a political decision. Did the artists have the freedom to make the work that they desired to make? Did they intentionally shift direction from their Chinese roots? Or was there a need to conform, to be seen to be supporting the state, the revolution and communism through their art?

Coco's reply was that this was a choice that artists made, as they felt that western visual representations were more sophisticated and powerful, (although I have to admit to thinking that it is unlikely that I would hear anything different in this context.). I think the best that I can say is that artists were influenced heavily, whether through their own eyes, the surrounding artistic community or the state.

As we continued to chat, Coco asked me if I thought it was important for the Chinese to support traditional painting. This threw me a little as I had had been thinking of it as a development, in the way that we no longer paint in the style of the 1900's. As far as I'm aware, we don't really have a 'traditional' visual arts culture and so it had not occurred to me. But as she said it, I realised that it is more than an artistic movement, it is the loss of a tradition, a loss of a language specific to this culture. It made me think of the way that Scotland has supported the traditional music scene over the past 30 years, with investment in the Mod, the Feis, and all kids of youth and community activities, with some very key players driving this development. Compare this to England's attitude to traditional music, which has been very investment poor and it is clear to see that infrastructure support is key to making things 'popular'.

Coco speaks about the loss of traditional painting as a 'disaster' for Chinese visual culture, and I can see that she is right. As I had been blithely enjoying the more westernised art that I had a visual language for, I had neglected how damaging that could be. I rewalked the first few galleries, and sure enough, there is a sharp downturn in ink painting from 1930 onwards. This is about the time that China began to open to change, to throw off it's traditional hierarchical structures. I can see why this form of art was moved away from, as it embodied a school of philosophy and politics that were being ripped away so thoroughly. But now, can we disassociate it from those meanings and rediscover the art form in a contemporary context?

We talked about this, about how infrastructure can support the reemergence of 'traditional' art forms and how bringing it to young people and allowing them to find a creative space between 'gatekeepers of tradition' and 'imaginative innovators' might create a wide rate of responses and a textured and interesting culture. I don't know how Coco will be able to use this discussion, I'd like to think that she can provide evidence to a cultural board somewhere who will support a programme of youth engagement, but how these things work in China is a mystery to me right now.

As we went our separate ways, we exchange numbers and I'm hoping to get in touch with her again, there is so much I can learn from this woman, about the way China changed artistically through the century in line with political shifts, and the way in which her infrastructure works now. I am interested to know what she will use her research for and what difference it might make.

I suppose the difference between a visual traditional culture and an oral/aural one is that those old paintings still exist. Pre-recording era, players had to keep playing the old tunes, in the style that they were taught in order to pass the tradition on. Now that we have recordings, younger players are freer to interpret the music in a contemporary or more personal way, knowing that those records of how they were once played will be preserved digitally. Perhaps this is a spring board for the development of Chinese painting, to take the old tradition and use it in a new and creative way, to say something about China as a country, to speak about China's current political and social landscape?

As I continue through the exhibition, I do find the occasional bit of fusion work. For example an ink brush painting but of figures rather than nature, ink brush nature paintings but on large canvasses instead of scrolls. It seems that there is a small niche of aisles who are looking at fusing traditional ink brush painting with contemporary visual arts practice, so perhaps all is not lost. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The best that we can be?

A theme is presenting itself to me this week, which reflects both personal practice and arts policy, a theme which refracts through our attitudes, assumptions and choices as artists.

I’m thinking about time, about the best use of our time, and how we measure the best use of our time. On a personal level this comes from balancing projects against income against contribution. Several of my projects are not getting the level of concentration I would dearly love to give them, and this jitters at me, because I know I have a lot to learn, and I know, that these projects are a perfect opportunity to learn this stuff, if only I had time to spend exploring, engaging and giving everything I have to give them. So why don’t I have this time? Why have I been so poorly organised? Is it a case of taking on too much? Overestimating my capacities, promising the earth or a pure a simple economic conundrum?

It is, possibly, all of these. As an ‘emerging’ composer (I picture myself crawling out of a hedge, covered in cowslip with a wry smile and smudged eyeliner), I am learning what I can do, how many hours it takes to do each thing, how to factor in unexpected delays (projects which eat your time regardless of how many parameters you put on them). In addition to this is our ‘lottery’ of a funding system, you apply for 10 projects, thinking you’ll get 3, and you get 6 (if you’re lucky) or 9 (if you’re superhuman) or none. None of this makes for easy planning.

Add in a chronic health problem which is pretty unpredictable, can eat up months at a time, stop you being where you should be when you should be with the appropriate amount of preparation, and this is one tricky balancing act.


Overall, this is an economic problem. Once I factor in 2 or 3 days in bed each week from illness, there is simply not enough income in what I do for me to have the time to learn from it. I am so busy churning out stuff to survive, that there is no time to take risks, think differently, make mistakes, start again, go for long walks, figure stuff out or just let it come to me when it’s ready. I am exaggerating of course…. I do all these things, but not as much as I would like, not as much as I need.

And I expect that I am not alone, not by a long chalk. Whether artists, academics, teachers, public sector workers, private sector workers, everyone I know is singing this same hymn, a hymn to busy.

We would all like more time to do our jobs properly, instead of just firefighting before charging on to the next deadline.

But why is our system set up like this? Why do we set up organisations, infrastructures and job descriptions to undermine the quest for brilliance? (Aside from our underlying cultural principles of work ethic, and an ever developing desire to point the finger of failure at those who don’t join in with this madness… of course?)

Well, my sense is, that the answer is capitalism. The need to profit, the need to do more, make more, sell more, eat more, buy more … all this undercuts our ability to think more, care more, create more, breath more, share more, grow more, learn more and love more.

So my question to me, as a self employed person, is ‘do I want to buy into this cultural madness?’ Actually the question is ‘can I buy into this cultural madness’. And luckily, in a strange way, I am not healthy enough to do this, the temptation has been ripped away from me by a particularly pervasive and unpleasant form of ill. In some senses, this has saved my life. It has enabled me to see this game which we all play, the chasing, the running. My answer to both the above questions is no.

So how do I create a working practice which allows the space to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to take time over something? Especially in a cultural funding framework which could end up with no work, or too much work at any given time. I have no answers but it is something which needs careful consideration.

Looking at this reflexively, I am struck by two of our cultural leaders, who have embodied these questions on a macro scale recently. Maria Miller’s speech, demanding that The Arts and Culture justify themselves economically (note to Maria – we have been, for years, the data is all there) was a dog whistle, a set up, building a picture in the minds of the public that Cultural spending is something which can be cut, something which doesn’t pull its weight (note to Maria – it does by the way, we generate much more income than we are subsidised).

The arts reduced to a commodity or an economic output doesn’t make sense. It does not quest for brilliance, it does not enable us to learn, share grow, shine, make and show. It is the dead eyed chasing of profit in the form of an entertainment product.

Contrast this to Fiona Hyslop’s speech on Culture in Scotland, as something which defines us as a community, something which contributes on so much more than economics.  It’s heart, it’s community, it’s history, it’s stories, it’s learning, it’s language, it’s landscape, it’s our framework, how we see the world, where we come from, where we are going, it’s our values, it’s our identity.

One of the key thoughts I will be taking to China with me is ‘Why are we not allowing ourselves to build infrastructures and organisations which support our creativity, which make our artforms the best that they can possibly be?’.  Perhaps because we are constantly being told to learn from ‘business’ models – which are, ultimately, chasing a different dream from us. Perhaps it is time to set out our shop, identify what is really important to us and build a society and sector which enables us to be the best that we can be?

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Bursting the Banks of Creativity

There is a popular mind that says that it takes 10,000 hours to be a master at your skill, but in this ever diversifying world, where we all run our own businesses, which skills should we focus on? Which of our skills can we devote development time to and which will just chip along, growing through our doing?

As a freelance musician there are so many skills to master it’s difficult to know which to focus on. Projects can help structure this, for example, in September I will start a new work which has significantly more tech in it that I have been using this year, so I need to spend the next few months focusing on getting my mind back into tech mode. But while this is happening I still need to work hard on developing my flute tone and technique, developing my leadership skills (whatever that may mean) and general composing, including notation, scoring, and harmony. In addition to this I must keep on top of my financial accounting, project manage, figure out how to make the most of my social networking, undertake a bit of press release writing and of course there is always the fundraising to be done, building partnerships, designing projects, writing bids, drawing up budgets.

I suppose this is the same sort of skillset as other small business owners who must manage their time as well as sweeping up after themselves. But with music, the amount of time it takes to master something is immense, compared to learning to be a plumber, barista, even lawyer or doctor.

Interestingly, (and I feel a reflection on our culture,) there seem to be more opportunities to develop ‘leadership’ or ‘management’ skills than musical skills. Tell a funder that you want to sit on an island playing flute for a year and they may well ask what the benefit is, but tell them you intend to undertake an intensive project management course and you might find a more positive response. (I’m basing this on my experience of working in England, my relationship with Creative Scotland is not developed enough for comment thus far). All of which brings me back to our cultural assumptions about art and the artist.

Artists spend a considerable amount of time mastering their skill, it really is an incredible commitment to learn to draw beautifully, play the cello, perfect a pas de deux or nail a soliloquy. And yet, we rarely dwell on this fact, preferring to think that art is something which can be knocked up with a dream and a bit of luck. We also like to assume that because they enjoy their art, we don’t need to support them in this development, the practice, the hard work; or even pay them for the finished product. I know that his argument has been made before, but I’ll say it again just for clarity’s sake. Other people enjoy their jobs. Doctors, Journalists, Politicians, CEOs, Bankers, all get paid and I bet a fair number of them enjoy what they do.

Somehow in the arts, the hard work is forgotten, and only the business end of the work seems to garner real financial support. A colleague and I discussed this very point, and he said to me “but I run an organization, I have to do accounts, and make things happen, and manage people and do publicity, so of course, I should get paid for that, it’s not what I want to do, it’s a job”. Well, so do I. As mentioned above, I do my website, my social media, my accounting, funding bids, project management, networking, business planning, GANT charts. It’s not what I want to do necessarily, but it’s a part of the business I run, the business of trying to make a living as an artist.

And here we end up in a paradox, because I sometimes get paid for the musical bit (leading a workshop, teaching the flute, writing a commission) but not for any of the administrative leg work that goes into all making all that possible. And sometimes, I find funding bids where the project management is the only bit where there is any real money, with the artists expected to pull brilliance out of the bag for a respectively low fee.

In fact, we have hundreds of jobs in the arts, programme manager, development manager, curatorial assistant, theatre manager, arts administrator, orchestral booker, box office assistants… All of whom have their role to play in a wider organization and know with a fair amount of certainly where their next pay check is coming from. And yet… we don’t pay artists in the same way. The only people in the arts who are not regularly supported are the artists.

For example. I put a project together recently, and in the development phase, there were perhaps 8-10 of us around the table discussing partnerships, roles, models for the project, budgets, funding bid drafting etc. About 6 of those people were on a salary, and were being paid to be a part of the project thus far. The rest of us, were there for free. All the meetings, the e emails, the drafting of minutes, not a cent for the artists. When did we decide that this is OK? I know the argument, that self employed people charge a higher daily rate to cover these ‘unpaid’ activities, but I think we all know that this is a nonsense. At least a third of what I do is unpaid, in the hope of getting funded at some point later in the project.

In fact, there’s something strange about having to rejustify your right to do your job every time you apply for funding. And when the funding does come it, it feels lucky, like a blessing. It’s not that I’m not grateful for funding which I receive, I love getting that yes. But isn’t that a bit weird in a wider context? Isn’t it weird that we feel grateful that we are allowed to do our jobs? We could argue that it’s public money and so it needs to be accountable. I totally agree, I’m not in favour of a free for all, with artists entitled to public funds on the grounds that they are a bit ‘special’. But, other roles are funded publicly, on a regular and secure basis, they are reviewed annually, and that job exists to the public benefit (arguably). What is it about the arts that we are constantly questioning about its benefit, it’s demonstrable benefit, it’s outcome and objectives. We demand the facts and figures so that we can defend money spent on the arts, we can prove that it’s worth it, in economic terms (sadly). Everything must have a price tag.

This is something which came into focus recently in China. In the UK, everything is discussed, negotiated, pinned down, aims, objectives, partners, artistic goals, all carved into a funding bid at least 6 months in advance of anything happening. And although from a business point of view we might say this is necessary, from an artistic point of view, it makes little sense. The creative mind is a fickle thing, and it takes time, connections, inspiration, and connectivity to fire and start something beautiful. Responding to a spreadsheet very rarely swells my heart to bursting point and triggers a creative space where beauty can speak.

I arrived in China and with my UK head on, I asked “So, what are we doing? Who are we working with? What’s the venue? What sort of piece do we want to make?” and was met with baffled mumblings. Eventually, after several days of misunderstanding and frustration I am told. “Just be here, be you, and something will happen…. Give us whatever you carry inside you, when it feels right”.

And my thinking around my creativity collapsed into a beautifully sea-desecrated sand castle, all fortification, which I had assumed kept me safe, was destroyed and the gorgeous sparkle came flooding in.

That week I wrote three new pieces, all of which have more resonance than anything I’ve written under a structure recently.

So what can I learn from this? On a personal level I must remember to step outside of a structure of spreadsheets and go seek the beautiful, to give my heart something to respond to. And, when under pressure to create, ignore the pressure and escape, let go of expectation, of the structuralists who tell you that creativity must be planned.

On a wider level, there is something about the bureaucratic nature of funding which artists deal with in the UK. I have little doubt that the most exciting artists know what I have learnt… say the right things then just follow your heart, and then even up all the blurb at the end of the project. But is there a better way? A way which understands creativity, that encourages risk taking, that trusts artists? There is a schism between money people and makers, who cannot speak the same language. And, because the money people have the money, we, the maker people have been told we must learn to speak their language. But like all minority languages, when faced with operating in a more dominant culture, our own culture is under threat, misunderstood and devalued.

For now, I must learn to juggle the two spaces, the two languages, the heart language and the head language and resist the domination from the spreadsheets. But long term, can we think of a way to support our creative practice on it’s own terms?