Álvaro Restrepo: ‘Education is useless’

‘If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?’

Álvaro Restrepo is a Colombian artist, choreographer and educator who has run an extraordinary youth dance organisation in Cartagena-de-Indias for the past 20 years. El Colegio del Cuerpo is not just about teaching young often vulnerable people about movement and creativity. It is a holistic educational programme that changes lives because its vision of child development is so profound. Children learn about dance and self-expression in a school of the body that also addresses nutrition, biology, narcotics, violence and sexual health. The effects of Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict are the inescapable background for artists working so that children can ‘be as happy as [they] can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world‘.

I first met Álvaro, his co-director Marie-France Delieuvin, and the rest of the team in 1998 when they invited me to Cartagena and I’ve watched their evolution with huge admiration. Ten years ago, I was able to help in bringing the company to Yorkshire for an unforgettable week (some of the photos here are from that visit). A few days ago, Álvaro published an article in El Espectador, Colombia’s leading newspaper under the title ‘La educación no sirve para nada’ (‘Education is useless’). reading it I understood for the first time some of the roots of his thinking about education. I’m very happy to be able to share an English translation of that article, with Álvaro’s permission, here. His inspiring vision has a universal resonance.

El Colegio del Cuerpo - 12


Álvaro Restrepo – ‘Education is useless’

Several months ago, I received a call from Pedro Medina, a self-described ‘business man, educator and catalyzer’ and an alumnus of the same Catholic private school for boys where I studied—and suffered—many years ago: the elite Colegio San Carlos in Bogotá. Pedro is an interesting and complex character. He successfully introduced McDonalds into Colombia and during 7 years served as CEO of the operation. He is also a university teacher with a lot of titles and degrees and directs a foundation called I Believe in Colombia. I had never met Pedro until recently but found him to be a high-speed motor of optimism and ideas. I once heard a talk he delivered at a conference and had to really concentrate in order to follow his fast-paced rhythm. Pedro is also the vice president of the board of alumni of Colegio San Carlos, my alma mater.

Here’s why Pedro reached out. In the year 2007, I wrote a long and painful article about the eleven years I spent at Colegio San Carlos entitled, ‘Llora et Labora’ (‘Weep and Work: Memories of the Flesh’). It was published in one of Colombia’s main newspapers El Espectador and in Número Magazine. I indeed wrote the piece with genuine tears and blood and maybe because of this, it made a great impact on people. That year, the article earned me the  Simón Bolívar National Prize for Journalism.  The process of writing ‘Weep and Work’ served as both a catharsis and an exorcism for me. In this chronicle I related, year by year, the physical and psychological ordeals and abuses I suffered at this very prestigious training ground for high-class kids in Colombia which has groomed the likes of President Juan Manuel Santos, former  President Andres Pastrana, former Vice President Francisco Santos, Minister of Finance Mauricio Cárdenas, the President of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Alberto Moreno, the President of one of Colombia’s leading universities, Universidad de Los Andes, Pablo Navas, and many other successful men. In my case, I always knew I was in the wrong place. However, eleven years had to pass before I could gather the necessary courage to turn on my heels and walk towards Liceo Boston, the school that saved my life in a moment in which I had been convinced by the guardians of my education that I was a good-for-nothing.

El Colegio del Cuerpo - 9

The article ‘Weep and Work’ fell like an atomic bomb on Colombian society. It was published at the same moment when the Colegio San Carlos was celebrating its 45th anniversary and its  headmaster was receiving the most important award my country bestows upon its citizens: the Cross of Boyacá. My intention was not to ruin the party. However, I did consider that it was important that a voice, my voice, could speak out to give its version of what had happened in this strange, and for me, sordid place.

Most interesting and revealing to me after the publication of my article were the different and very acid reactions that were sent to the mailboxes of El Espectador, Número Magazine and to my own mailbox: alumni, teachers, writers, journalists, young students of San Carlos and ordinary people wrote very polemic reflections. Some alumni insulted me and classified me as mentally weak; other people expressed their solidarity and thanked me for my courage; yet others said that my story was a pale reflection of what they had lived or were living at the moment at the institution. In response, the school decided to maintain a total and very mysterious silence. I had been expecting—indeed,  I was almost hoping—that the school would sue me for defamation. That would have helped to cast some light over a serious debate on the very sad matters I was denouncing. Yet apparently, the decision was to let matters be and to wait until the storm passed.

El Colegio del Cuerpo - 8

Several years later, Father Francis Wheri, the school’s headmaster for more than 45 years, declared in an interview for Semana Magazine  at the time of his resignation, that the most difficult moment in his career had had to do with my case: a talented and misplaced artist, whom the school had not been able to deal with because he (I) didn’t fit in one of the school’s accepted ‘boxes’. In his interview, he recognized that my failure at San Carlos, had also been a failure for the institution. It was a vindication, of sorts.

But let’s go back to Pedro Medina and the alumni association. A recent series of suicides and deep depressions of students and alumni of San Carlos students had raised serious alarm bells at the school. Pedro wanted to have my opinion. He had read my article and had closely identified with it. In a recent conversation he had had with Father Francis about this crisis, the former headmaster recognized that the school prepared the students very well for traditional success, but not for failure, nor to be artist, nor even just an average professional-citizen, anonymous or even mediocre. I remember that while I still was part of the school’s pack, the message was very clear:  the world is divided in two types of ‘hombres’ (a very North American classification and very much in the line of the present ‘Trumpian’ sensitivity): winners and losers. Success and most importantly, economic success, were the only means of measuring achievement and fulfillment. I rejected and still reject this premise.

El Colegio del Cuerpo - 3

Very often I say that my decision to establish my socially-oriented dance centre El Colegio del Cuerpo (The School of the Body) was an act of resilience, a loving way to come into terms with my own educational process and with education in general. In recent times, I have been giving talks about what I consider should be the main and most important goal of education: to help us discover who we are and why we came into this world. I’m convinced that education is useless —absolutely useless—if it does not help us in this discovery to find our mission, to enhance our talents and our gifts. I’m convinced that we are all geniuses for or at something—and that our education should help us to be as happy as we can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world. If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?

There are no tests, no evaluations that can measure our degree of realization and fulfillment when are doing and being what we love. This is a new notion of wealth and of success that a good (new) education should instill in us. I will never tire of quoting Gabriel García Márquez’s magical formula for happiness: ‘work in what you love, and only in that’.


Mathematics, science and language are the three main axes education is based upon today, a very rationalist and square education that we are consumed with delivering and measuring. The arts, humanities, creativity, intuition, imagination, perception are considered minor, ornamental and accessory dimensions. We are preoccupied, indeed obsessed, by quantity indicators of an education that is concerned in over-developing just one of our mental hemispheres, as well as just one type of intelligence, as if our mind was solely confined to our poor brain and not as if our body, our whole body (physical, mental, spiritual body) was not the channel and the vehicle to incorporate knowledge, as a whole. When we speak today about educating a ‘complete child’, we should be speaking about a thinking/feeling individual who is able to deal not only with concepts, but also, to use the term of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, with ’percepts’.

Are success, failure, fulfilment and/or or frustration related to a short-sighted education that only contemplates and respects only one type of human being? Today, rational intelligence (related to the studies of mathematics and to science, serious and ‘virile’ subjects) is considered more important than felt or sensed intelligence (related to the arts, humanities, creative imagination and to those subjects that are regarded as ornamental, or effeminate). This can’t continue.


At the time when I was studying at San Carlos, artistic careers were reserved for women and sissies.  Engineering and hard sciences were made for real men, true machos. Education for financial and political success, the one Colegio San Carlos has been adept at delivering for nearly half a century, is surely not answering the questions of those beings that are looking for other notions of fulfilment, of happiness and self-respect: what I consider real wealth and plenitude. It is very likely that  had I not had the courage and the clairvoyance at my 17 years to give myself another chance on earth, I would today be one of those sad cases Pedro Medina came to talk to me about, with authentic preoccupation and compassion.

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Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society


Last year I spent some time looking at the work of Tandem, a partnership between the European Cultural Foundation and MitOst that connects cultural actors within and close to the European space. Tandem marked its fifth anniversary last autumn, and they asked me to reflect on what they’d done and what might change. The essay below is the result of that review, and it looks at how, practically and theoretically, participatory cultural action can contribute to civil society.

It was a great opportunity to meet artists and activists working in very different, often very difficult situations. At the moment, three of the programmes are active in Turkey, Ukraine and the southern mediterranean countries – all places where art, civil society and democracy are under threat. The courage and resilience of the people I talked to was impressive, but so was their sheer optimism and love of life. We may live in dark times, but there are so many people making light, including those I write about in this essay .

Download the essay

Dancing about migration

Joli Vyann, Stateless - Photo, Gigi Gianella 4
‘Stateless’ – Joli Vyann (Photo Gigi Gianella)

It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve never been convinced. Human beings are not locked into silos. They are not fixed in place like trees.  Translating experiences from one form or language or culture to another is an everyday necessity. Like all translation, it’s creative. It brings into being something new. And being creative, it leaves the source untouched, just continuing its adaptation to a changing reality.

The phrase came to me as I watched a film of Joli Vyann’s performance, Stateless. I met Jan Patzke and Olivia Quayle a few days ago after seeing them perform a different piece in Norfolk. Their mix of dance, acrobatics and theatre is breathtaking but never intimidating, perhaps because they communicate so well with the audience. The piece I’d seen was about the strength and frailty of relationships. By turns witty and moving, it was perfectly suited to the physicality of their performance language. Stateless was an altogether different work, addressing migration and the experience of refugees. As they told Theatrefullstop:

‘We were very interested to make a political piece. We feel that the subject of immigration is often spoken about broadly along with all the problems associated with it and we wanted to delve into the subject on a more personal and human level. […] This led us into more research about the individual people, their stories and their physical and emotional journeys.’

Communication technology has made us spectators of suffering. If the political challenges of globalisation are hard, the moral ones seem worse. What do you do after watching the news? People make different choices, for different reasons. These artists chose to make a dance piece about it. They talked to Counterpoint Arts, who put them in touch with migrants and refugees now living in London. They read (including Bread & Salt, which was how we came to meet). They began to explore how to translate those stories, experiences and feelings into the language of their art. Stateless, an hour long performance whose soundtrack includes the voices of some of the people they met, was the result.

What will it change? I have no idea. Art doesn’t work like that. It isn’t a political programme – we have politics for that. Audiences will be affected but who knows how? To bear witness is a moral position though, not turning away even when you have no help to give, no answers to bring. Artists can help us look at what we usually turn away from, and see it differently.

Dancing about migration? Why not…

Joli Vyann, Stateless - Photo, Gigi Gianella 5
‘Stateless’ – Joli Vyann (Photo Gigi Gianella)

Worlds within words

Trinity Laban - 1Yesterday two short conversations reminded me of the pitfalls that make words so elusive, so fascinating and so important.

The first was a question after I spoke at the Teach Through Music conference in Deptford. I’d been asked to give a talk about the value of music that I wrote for Sage Gateshead last year. In it, I’d made a distinction between the value of participation and the value of participation in the arts. It’s an idea I first wrote about in Use or Ornament? and it simply recognises that many benefits linked to taking part in arts activities are also associated with taking part in other social activities, such as joining a cycling club or being a member of a church. (There’s a good account of that in the late Michael Argyle’s book, The Social Psychology of Leisure.) This being so, it seems vital that artists thinking about the value of their work with people give attention to the particular value of being involved in an arts activity, such as music, in order to understand and explain their practice.

For the questioner, who was a teacher, I had seemed to be making a simple distinction between participation in music as a player and listening to it. It was a good question but it sprang from a different understanding of what participation might mean. In my answer, I explained that I see listening to music and playing it only as different kinds of participation. It was only later, as I listened to two music teachers presenting their work, that I understood how the curriculum could separate performing, composing and listening/critiquing in such a way that ‘participation’ might not be seen as applying to them all.

Action Space - 1

The second conversation was with the artists Ken Turner and Amanda Ravetz, whom I met at the gallery where they have been contributing to a film by Huw Wahl about the origins of Action Space and community arts. It’s a fascinating and valuable project, which I’ll return to another time, but for now my focus is on words – in this case, the phrase ‘community art’. As we talked I saw that the three of us were using the term with quite distinct ideas of what it meant. The differences I glimpsed have given me lots to think about but in themselves they highlight how difficult it can be, even for people who have spent decades professionally engaged in a subject to share their ideas. We can be deceived into thinking we understand one another – even that we agree about things – if we interpret words as we use them not as the person who spoke them does. It’s not that one meaning is ‘correct’. It’s how easy to think they are the same.

Action Space - 2

As a writer, I’ve become used to people telling me what my words say, knowing that what I’m hearing back was not what I intended to communicate. It’s true of all the arts because the person who sees, hears, looks or otherwise experiences what an artist creates is an active participant in that process: a re-creator. This is unavoidable, and it would be pointless to complain about it. But for anyone who invests heavily in shared understandings of experience, including artists, it is essential to stay alert to these multiple interpretations.

Physicists and philosophers debate the idea that there may be not one universe but an infinite number of universes in which all that can happen does happen. Whatever the truth of that idea, a version of it seems already to exist in the alternative versions of existence that we each hold. We need words to communicate, but each one contains worlds. We may be on the same one, but see it from different sides. It’s not that human understanding is impossible, just that getting closer to it requires constant vigilance about what we mean when we speak and when we listen. If that’s not active participation, I don’t know what is.


Dancing in a shared world

daCi 2015 Twinning Labs - 2The 2015 daCi World Congress is taking place this week in Copenhagen, bringing together over 700 young dancers for an intensive exchange and celebration of dance. The theme is ‘Twist and Twin’ and it picks up a daCi’s growing commitment helping dancers from different cultures to work creatively together. On Tuesday morning, I was lucky to be welcomed to one of the ‘twinning labs’ where young dancers from Finland and the Netherlands were working on a new piece which will be presented tonight. It was extraordinary to observe the process of choreography happening so fast. It was also a joy to see the happiness of 15 young dancers excited by their shared creativity; (the photos from daCi Youth’s Facebook page give a glimpse of that).

The Congress also attracts many dance educators and academics. On Monday I was at the launch of a new book about their practice in different countries and cultures. Edited by Charlotte Svendler Nielsen and Stephanie Burridge, Dance Education around the World promises a fascinating overview of current trends and new practice. Earlier in the day, I gave the opening keynote, on the idea and value of twinning through dance. The text of that can be downloaded here or from the talks page.

daCi 2015 Twinning Labs - 1

On the futility of comparing experiences

City Arts Imagine Programme

It’s a genuine shock when the soprano hits her first note. The contrast between the purity of the sound and its location is disconcerting. To hear such a voice in the functional environment of a residential home day room rather than a concert hall seems bizarre at first. There are thirty elderly residents, perhaps half of them using wheelchairs. The young singer, accompanied on an electronic keyboard, chooses well from the classic musicals, mixing familiar and less obvious songs.

She moves gently through the audience, singing directly to each person, touching hands, making eye contact. Old fingers dance to accompany the melodies. Lips move softly. As each song ends, the applause is generous. When she begins to clap, I see that someone I’d thought was asleep had simply closed her eyes to enjoy the music. When the singer announces that her last song will be by Gracie Fields, there’s a good-humoured groan and ‘Oh dear’. But they enjoy it all the same and join in with the chorus. Someone remembers the old joke turning If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake to …I’d have locked the door.

It’s the second part of this afternoon’s concert. Children from the local primary school have shared their first steps in choral singing and later there will be a chance to hear and play a set of pentatonic chimes. The event is organised by City Arts as part of a three year programme to bring the arts closer to the estimated 400,000 elderly people who live in residential care. Funded jointly by Arts Council England and the Baring Foundation (on whose behalf I’m here as a trustee) this concert is all but invisible in the arts world. Next to the work seen in theatres, concert halls and galleries across the country, it could seem very slight, insignificant even. Some might think that it is (just) the ‘for everyone’ part of Arts Council England’s mission, not ‘great art and culture’.

But since none of us can know what other people experience, we have no basis on which to judge its value. There is simply no evidence on which we can assign a higher merit to what one person may feel listening to Verdi at Covent Garden as compared to what another may feel hearing Harold Arlen sung at a residential home in Nottingham. Transcendence, if that’s what we imagine this is about, does not discriminate. Actually, the comparison is meaningless although, with limited funds available for the arts, choices have to be made and we want them made on the basis of explainable, defensible reasons.

The best reason I see today is the pleasure this music has brought to lives that are often difficult and limited. The happiness in the room is almost tangible, as people of dramatically different ages interact and move one another. Its value is simply that of living in a society where people matter, from the beginning to the end of their lives.

Optimism is a valuable resource


Jubilee Archive Exhibition - 1

Jubilee Arts was a pioneering community arts project founded in 1974, in West Bromwich, an industrial town west of Birmingham. It thrived for more than 20 years, making imaginative and serious art with local communities. Then, during the ‘aspirational’ New Labour years, Jubilee Arts was crushed by the effort to establish a permanent place for its values in the town’s urban landscape. The arts centre that embodied that vision, The Public, was never a simple idea, and all sorts of mistakes were made during its long gestation. It opened in 2008 and was becoming a valued part of West Bromwich’s cultural life when public spending cuts ended its story in 2013. The adventure’s financial and human cost was high, not least in the end of Jubilee Arts. More happily, many of the people who were part of Jubilee’s story have since gone on to create wonderful community arts work in other places and ways.

The building is now a sixth form college, with a small part retained as a gallery. By a sad irony, it is currently showing a temporary exhibition from the Jubilee Arts Archive, a project created by Brendan Jackson and other Jubilee stalwarts. The photographs depict a vanished world of council estates and youth work, pickets, protests and poverty. Some of the art is also of its time—murals, play projects and carnivals, made with recycled materials and little money. But other aspects of the work seem very contemporary. Jubilee’s documentary photography put established ideas into new hands, creating an important body of work that can now been seen online. Its digital work in the early 1990s—like Sex Get Serious (1993)—took the original pioneering spirit into the emerging world of computers.

It would be easy to feel nostalgic about this work, especially, if like me, you lived through those years and were involved in similar projects. Memory can be kind—and deceptive. But the activities documented in the Jubilee Arts Archive are inseparable from their time. They emerged from and reflect the last days of collectivist Britain, swept away in the neoliberal hegemony we now inhabit. As I walked round the exhibition, I could see the new designer stores and coffee shops that now surround the erstwhile Public. I was also conscious of the busy street market and discount stores on the other side of the building.

The Jubilee Arts Archive is a wonderful portrait of a first generation community arts organisation. It might be the most comprehensive resource of its kind yet produced. But if the ideas about cultural democracy that it helped define remain valid, as I believe they do, they need new forms of expression and new approaches to practice that belong to the world as it is now. The past can be an inspiration: but the present is where we can act. In the exhibition hangs a banner that says:

Work as if you live in the early days of a better society.

I came away feeling that optimism too is a valuable resource.


Traditional culture and community art

There was a time when I dismissed traditional art as a medium for socially engaged practice. As a young community artist, I thought only contemporary forms could explore current issues. Like all prejudices, this was rooted in ignorance: I knew almost nothing about traditional arts. It was researching the Scottish fèisean movement that opened my eyes to their riches and potential. That was nearly 20 years ago, as a case study for Use or Ornament? It was the first external account of a Gaelic arts movement that had begun in the island of Barra and spread quickly across Northern Scotland. The fèisean introduced children and young people to Gaelic language and culture through summer schools, and then through regular music tuition and performances. There was much to admire—you can read the report here—especially an open-hearted confidence that welcomed all youngsters, whatever their heritage, and gave them traditional music as a living practice they could add to, not simply replicate. I began to understand how inconsequential was the medium of community arts, compared to the values, purpose and practice of the artists involved.

That experience came back to me last month in Kyrgyzstan, when I met the people of UstatShakirt. The group’s name combines Kyrgyz words for ‘master’ and ‘apprentice’ and symbolises its goal of reviving traditional music among young people. Founded in 2005, and supported by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and the Swiss Embassy in Bishkek, among others, UstatShakirt has developed a cohort of young masters who are now passing on what they have learned to the next generation. The latest stage has been to train teachers in music education so that 30 schools now offer traditional music and drama classes.

During the trip, I visited schools in towns and villages where I met many young people and watched them perform music and drama. Their happy confidence in talking with strangers about their culture said volumes about the work’s value. Here, as in the fèisean, was an optimistic openness to the world—jokes about mobile phones found their way into ancient stories. They were equally engaged with other cultures, playing of Kazakh and classical pieces alongside Kyrgyz music. UstatShakirt wants to nurture respect for the diversity of culture not some narrow nationalism.


In one remote village, close to the Chinese border, I watched a class of seven year olds show what they could do with the komuz, Kyrgyzstan’s iconic instrument. Boys and girls in traditional costumes sat side by side, contributing equally. As I watched them play—and compete to show off their knowledge—I remembered what I’d been told a couple of days earlier about the rise of conservative religious values in the region. The quiet commitment of these musicians, teachers, parents and supporters was protecting a space of tolerance for the next generation. No one was making grand statements about gender equality, self-expression or creativity. They were simply enacting those values in everyday life. Art is before it does; perhaps most human things are.

Although UstatShakirt’s Facebook pages are in Russian and Kyrgyz there are some great photos:

Theatre and community

Kanibadam Theatre Team

It’s been a while since I last added anything here, partly because I’ve been meeting artists whose work is supported through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Central Asia. As ever, I came back inspired by what people do in very challenging circumstances, and how much it matters to those involved; I will write about some of those experiences in the coming months.

For now, here’s a brief account of the work being done to revive the town theatre in Kanibadam (Tajikistan). The performance I saw there was moving and exhilarating in equal measure, and I drew on it when I gave a talk at a community theatre festival at the National Theatre Mannheim yesterday. Here are the first paragraphs of that talk, which you can download in full by clicking here.


Kanibadam is a town of about 50,000 people in the east of Tajikistan, close to the borders of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like many parts of the former Soviet Union, it has experienced great economic, social and political pressures since 1991. Today, as many as one in four Tajik citizens have seek work abroad, especially in Russia.

Kanibadam Theatre

Two weeks ago, I was lucky to see the première of a new production in the town’s State Musical Theatre named after T. Fozilova. The building is almost 100 years old and in desperate need of renovation: there are earth toilets at the back of the yard. A first, crucial step has been made, with support from the Swiss Cooperation Office in Tajikistan, with the installation of modern light and sound equipment. The play I saw was the first presented with up to date technical facilities and the auditorium was packed for the afternoon performance. There were mothers with children, pensioners, teenagers at the back: only the working age men were few.

The play, ‘Mother, Tomorrow I’m Getting Married’, was adapted from a Russian text and told interlocking stories of families whose young people wanted to marry. Such romantic situations are the stock in trade of theatre, but this play focused also on the risks of early marriage, domestic violence and debt, as families overspend to show Tajik values of hospitality. This is such a problem that it is illegal to invite more than 150 guests to a wedding in Tajikistan.

The audience loved the play. It’s a cliché but the atmosphere really did feel electric as the drama unfolded its alternating layers of comedy and tragedy, and the applause was long and enthusiastic. Everyone stayed to hear the President of the City Council praise the theatre for the excellence of the performance and particularly for having raised urgent problems faced by Tajik society. Then the director, Muhiddin Juraev, spoke passionately about his desire to revive Kanibadam’s theatre and place it at the heart of the city’s life. Fervent applause frequently interrupted both speeches.

Muhiddin Juraev

Afterwards, I spent some time talking to Muhiddin Juraev and Dilbar Sulaymonova, the manager, about their hopes for the theatre. Juraev was born in the city and it was here that he discovered what drama could be. After his studies and an intensive, life-changing stage director’s lab at Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, he accepted an offer to come home and revive the theatre in his home town. It was an exceptional chance for a director still in his twenties and he knows its value; he knows too what he must do to succeed. His task, he told me, is to win back the trust of local people. What I saw on stage and the plans he outlined give confidence that Muhiddin, Dilbar and their colleagues will indeed renew the contract between this theatre and its community and so play a vital role in how the city meets its challenges.

Owning your language

London Bubble - From Docks to Desktops
London Bubble – From Docks to Desktops

This week has been spent at arts conferences and training days in different parts of the country. Each was rich in ideas and shared experience. In Devon, North Yorkshire, London and Cardiff, I met many gifted, passionate and inspiring people. I came away with renewed confidence in the arts, despite the pressures they face with falling budgets and rising obligations – or perhaps because of the cheerful resilience with which they’re meeting those pressures.

I was also struck by how differently people used language to talk about their work. Each day included lively and constructive group discussions. In small groups, people spoke directly and had lots to say about art, the situations in which they worked and their ideas about how to make things better.

But in the more formal moments they seemed to fall back on the abstract jargon of public policy, as if it were somehow expected or the right way to address a group. When the subject was participation, that seemed especially jarring, since the people who were intended to benefit from the work under discussion would not have understood its language.

I remembered being a child on a rainy day, watching the blurry world from the other side of a pane of glass. I hear what’s being said; I understand the words; they just run down the window that separates me from the speaker.

On one of those days I met Shipra Ogra, a producer at London Bubble, who shared how the theatre has found in food a metaphor for its creative process. I had described the five stage project cycle about which I’ve written elsewhere. There’s nothing original about this in itself – the project cycle is consistent across many fields. All the difference lies in how it’s imagined and how that is expressed in language. My terms (which I’d been childishly pleased to get all starting with the letter C) are:

Conception – Contracting – Coproduction – Creation – Completion

London Bubble’s terms, inspired by the fundamentally human activity of gathering, preparing and sharing food, are:

Foraging – Prepping – Writing the recipe – Cooking – Feasting

The basic metaphor and the concrete terms in which it is articulated are brilliant because they communicate so well what the company is doing when it creates theatre work with non-professional performers. You get an idea of what might be involved at each stage and, perhaps, you already feel drawn to contributing to the process.

London Bubble D2D Steve Hickey 4083
London Bubble D2D Steve Hickey 4083

There is a wider lesson here about artists and the arts world having the confidence to use their own language to talk about their work. It can seem that other languages – scientific, political, academic – carry more weight in today’s world, but if they do, it’s often only a crushing weight, the kind that stifles questions, discussion and interest.

I imagine the coming election campaign as being like the Western Front, with politicians laying down ever-more thunderous, expensive and ultimately pointless barrages of verbal artillery from Staff HQ – while the rest of us cower in dugouts praying for it to end.

Artists don’t need to play that game – indeed, it’s one of their great qualities to be able to disrupt dead thinking through their use of such resources as metaphor, symbols, ritual and language. As I write, arts organisations who have been awarded National Portfolio Funding – what does that phrase mean? – by Arts Council England are polishing the business plans on which that funding depends. They don’t have to be unreadable.