A restless art

PARTIS - Práticas Artísticas para Inclusão Social (Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa)
PARTIS – Práticas Artísticas para Inclusão Social (Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa)

It’s been a while since I added anything to this site, partly because of the holidays and partly because I’ve been focused on planning a new project about community and participatory arts practice. I’ve wanted to look at what happens between theory and outcomes – what artists actually do – for a long time. A Restless Art will give a chance to do that, exploring not only some of the exciting work in Britain but also what is happening in Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere. I have a sense that there is a new generation emerging, partly because of the passage of time, but partly also because of the massive changes that have been taking place since the 2008 financial crash. The consequences of that are being lived through in very different ways across Europe and the responses of artists are equally diverse.

The project is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundations in London and Lisbon and I’m very grateful to them both for their trust. Actually, it’s the third time they have helped me. My introduction to community arts in 1981 was an apprenticeship funded by the UK Branch; fifteen years later they also supported the work that became Use or Ornament? So this feels like another stage on the journey and I know that some of the innovative work now being funded by them will make fascinating case studies.

In order to concentrate on this project, which will lead to a book about practice to be published in spring 2017, I have brought the Regular Marvels to a close, at least for the present. That site will remain online as an archive where the books can be downloaded. (They’re also available in print – just email me if you’d like one.) This site will also go into hibernation, so that I can concentrate on the new project’s site which will host case studies, resources, think pieces and other materials, but exclusively about participatory arts practice.

So, if you have been following my work here, thank you for your interest: it means a lot. From here on, you’ll find me here: http://arestlessart.com

From Newspeak to Nonspeak

Albert Camus by Petr VorelGeneral elections don’t happen very often so it’s odd that this one should be so dull. The campaign has slipped from the headlines and radio presenters have even taken to reassuring listeners it will soon be over. It’s not as if there’s nothing at stake. The parties are not the all same: everyone will be affected, for better or for worse, by which eventually forms the next government.

The politicians’ refusal to meet the public has sucked the life out of this election. Instead, we have talks to people whose work is interrupted by politicians feigning interest in tyres or doorframes, and speeches to party members designed only to catch the next headline. But the headlines are all the same because political language has been vacuum-packed, emptied of all meaning. In the blue corner is a ‘long-term plan’: in the red it’s ‘a better plan’. This is not Newspeak: it’s Nonspeak. The only candidates who do speak with frankness—or the pretence of it—are insulated by not having to act on their words in government.

It’s partly due to a breakdown in trust between leaders and citizens that was evident in Question Time, a rare moment of real dialogue between them. Politics hasn’t adjusted to the ubiquity of cameras and the speed with which recordings circulate. When any elector can broadcast an unguarded moment that might dominate the headlines, it’s understandable if candidates are on their guard. They will eventually adapt, as they did to newspapers, television and universal suffrage, but for now politicians are caught like rabbits in the lights of the selfie phone. 1429837491525

Artists should be able to disrupt this broken relationship but they seem absent from the ritual of collective self-examination. A few have offered party endorsements, but that is just the act of a citizen: anyone with a little fame can do it. The distinctive creative power of art—much vaunted  when artists defend their funding—is to challenge convention, stale thinking and (self-) deception, blowing air into stale rooms. Where is it? We owe the election’s only powerful image not to artists but to the Amnesty International campaigners who put body bags on Brighton beach to represent the failure of European governments to prevent careless death in the Mediterranean Sea.

Albert Camus, perhaps the greatest French writer of the last century, is a model of how artists can balance engagement with independence. For Camus, it is the writer’s independence that gives value to their engagement. Like George Orwell, he saw writers as custodians of language. In reading the best of them we sluice cant from misused words, and are reminded of what really matters—in life, as well as in elections. So here is a little clean water from Albert Camus’ 1957 Nobel Prize speech:

For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.

That is worth holding onto in the torrent of nonspeak that will crash over us in the coming days.

Sing out your bile

In Finland when a lot of people start complaining they might be called a ‘valituskuoro’, or a Complaints Choir. Two Finnish artists have made a reality of that metaphor, not just once but again and again around the world.

In 2005, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen suggested creating a choir to sing about people’s complaints to various cultural institutions. Curiously, it was in Birmingham that the idea took off. Grumpy bus drivers, dog mess and people hogging the biscuits are among the British complaints shared by the choir in this video.

Since then, there have been Complaints Choirs in cities across the world, each with their distinctive preoccupations as well as the common irritations of urban life: you can read about them here and see them perform here. The most recent project, supported by the Swiss Artas Foundation, involved refugees and displaced people in Georgia.

As the 2015 British General Election gathers momentum, the volume of complaints increases daily on every media outlet. Complaints Choirs show that hectoring is not the only way to be heard. Some artistic flair, a little creativity and a good tune – you can say what’s on your mind and have people want to listen.

Democracy could use a bit of laughter too, these days.

Complaints Choirs 2

Who is the artist here?

What Ali Wore
What Ali Wore – Photos by Zoe Spawton

Zoe Spawton is a 30 year old Australian working in a Berlin café. Ali Akdeniz is an 85 year old Turkish tailor, who also lives in Berlin. Since 2012, Zoe has been photographing Ali on his regular walks past her workplace and posting the portraits a blog called What Ali Wore. When it was named 2013 Blog of the Year by Germany’s Lead Award, Zoe and Ali went together to Hamburg to accept the prize.

It was probably around then that I first saw Zoe’s blog, and its extraordinary photographs have lingered in the back of my mind ever since – one sign, I think, that this is a good art work. But whose art work is it?

No one looking at Ali’s pitch-perfect dress sense or his performer’s stance could miss the artist in him. It’s no surprise to discover – in the excellent NPR interview with Zoe and Ali – that he was once a circus artiste. But he is a recently-retired tailor. Zoe, on the other hand, is a food and documentary photographer, though she also works as a waitress. She saw in Ali something that countless other passers-by didn’t, because she looks at things as an artist. And yet, without him, What Ali Wore could not exist.

It seems to me that, as in all good participatory art, both enact the artist’s role, albeit in different ways. Indeed it is the difference that makes the creation of new work possible, because each person brings something the other cannot contribute. Neither Zoe nor Ali could make alone what they have made together. That is the importance of the product and the importance of the process. Of course they had to accept the Lead Award together.

Zoe is now planning a book of the photographs; it will be another chapter in the rich, intriguing story of her friendship with Ali and their shared creativity. I’ll be ordering a copy.

Zoe Spawton and Ali Akdeniz with their Lead Award, September 2013

A Masterclass in Participatory Art

I was thinking about you guys yesterday. I’ve been here three times before and I think I understand a little bit about how you feel about some things. It’s none of my business how you feel about some other things – and I don’t give a damn about how you feel about some other things. But anyway I tried to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way that I would feel about San Quentin…

‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…’

Johnny Cash at San Quentin is one of the most celebrated records made in the 1960s and, like many famous artworks, it seeps into the culture of its time so that it’s easy to think you know it when you don’t. I’ve heard bits, of course – I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, A Boy Named Sue were on jukeboxes when I was growing up. But yesterday I listened to the whole concert for the first time and was shocked by its crackling energy and danger. Above all, I heard a great artist connecting with an audience so viscerally that the result is a kind of shared creation. Johnny Cash At San Quentin 2 Cash achieves this with very limited means – a couple of guitars, bass and drums and the trademark beat he’d established 15 years before, in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. His other tools are a gravelly bass-baritone and some old songs forged in hardship by working people. But his material is reality.

He accepts that this is prison and that many of the men cheering his bitterest lines will never leave its walls. He doesn’t pretend they share more than this moment and a similar upbringing. His life has worked out better and he accepts the difference of their position, but he wants to speak for them as well as to them. Hence the opening lines of his new song, San Quentin, which follows that introduction:

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me

And its closing:

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.

May your walls fall and may I live to tell.

May all the world forget you ever stood.

And may all the world regret you did no good.

Speaking truth

After songs evoking murder, jealously and the final minutes of a condemned man, here is the real challenge to the system which is the reason why the concert is happening at all. It takes courage to tell an audience of inmates, guards and public officials that prison does no good. The response is so great that Cash has to sing the song again immediately, pausing only to ask ‘Hey, before we do it, if any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?’. Later he thanks the guards and the governor for allowing the concert to happen, arguing with the audience when they boo. Johnny Cash Concert San Quentin 1969 Cash does not fall into the cheap posturing of taking sides, or glossing over harm done. He faces – and sometimes faces down – both sides of his audience. He offers empathy and some moments of pleasure that might strengthen a prisoner in troubles to come, because those are real and can be offered. He does not pretend to be anyone’s friend or to have solutions for the insoluble.

He draws on ancient wells of American stoicism, humour and cussedness because any more would be a lie. And out of the dialogue between him and his audience he creates an artistic experience that is entirely the result of relationship, of the active participation of everyone there. Acknowledging both his audience’s wounds and his own, accepting the limits of what an artist can do, he did more than most simply by being true to himself and to everyone in the room. It’s a performance, of course – art needs artifice. But it’s a performance of complete integrity because the artist never lies to his audience or to himself.

Mitigating harm

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine a prison service willing to welcome Johnny Cash today, to tolerate his freedom of speech, or to risk his truths. The UK has a long and honourable tradition of arts in prisons but the creative people who dedicate their lives to this field of participatory arts are more often tolerated than welcomed by a system that sees a guitar as a privilege to be earned not a path towards creativity, hope and renewal.

Johnny Cash At San Quentin

Art across borders


It is in the nature of artistic work to reach beyond the boundaries of language, culture and context. You don’t need to know anything about Japan in the Edo era to be captivated by the prints of Hokusai or Kuniyoshi. You cannot respond as a Japanese person might, and still less as a Japanese person of the 1830s (how would that even be possible?) but that wouldn’t make your response less true, valid or interesting. There is no right response to an artwork, though there are wrong ones, in the sense of being so determinedly driven by the responder as to silence the artwork itself.

This trailer, no more than a snapshot of a community theatre production created for the Temporada Alta festival in Girona (Spain) last November, reaches across all sorts of boundaries. Supported by ‘la Caixa’ foundation – to whom I owe thanks for the subtitled version of the film – it is one example of the imaginative, committed community arts work now happening in Iberia. I have watched it many times now, and it continues both to move and suggest ideas, despite my limited knowledge of the language, culture and context.

Migranland: Direction of play and dramaturgy by Àlex Rigola; documentary film 
produced by Nanouk Films and Fundació LaCaixa, with the support of Temporada Alta and Ajuntament de Salt, directed by Salvador Sunyer.