Devoted and Disgruntled, Paul Mason on Oil, Disability and Comedy (and some thoughts on evaluation…)

This week saw a return to working velocity after ulcerative colitis (or, more graphically, ulcerative colitis) had been in town for a few weeks. It’s a return that, as I remember what can be done with something approaching normal energy levels, is strikingly positive (at times verging towards a steroid supported euphoria) whilst not without disadvantages – there’s a clarity that comes with the halt to life these flares enforce that soon disappears once everyday life gets back into full swing.

So… amongst the preparations for a return to university, the tricky issue of rescheduling The Horse’s Teeth to a date that works for all concerned, and the minor issue of having to make work for said equine dentures, I took a day off to sample the treats of the Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow as it sowed its seeds of questioning and enquiry amongst the spaces it had been invited to occupy in the Unity.

It was a remarkable day, tiring in the way that only being truly invigorated can be.

There was too much said to be able to hope to do it any real justice here, and there’s a whole bundle of reports that can be viewed online, so have a look there if you want a coherent summary.

If you’re happy to let coherence slip and whistlestop be your guide for the next paragraph or two though, then you might be interested to know that my wish list for ‘the way things would be if I had a bit more influence’ has for a while now featured a craving for opportunities to feedback on art institutions from the perspective of the artist. After all – alongside their remit of presenting work to the public – these institutions are funded to support art and the artists who make it.

At the moment, such commentary is – of course – made informally, but, be it for good feedback or ill, it strikes me as a shame that there isn’t a more official conduit for institutions to learn what they are doing right and wrong.

The space and conversations provided by those who came on Tuesday allowed these thoughts to develop a little, along with a sense of other evaluatory possibilities that would encourage us to move beyond what is too often the current practice of it being undertaken as a response to the demands of funding criteria and little else1.

To evaluate and usefully discuss what mistakes have been made is probably one of the most valuable outcomes of any evaluatory exercise, yet for this to happen when self-evaluating, the individuals involved need to feel safe. When evaluation is undertaken in a void, when there is no sense that fruitful conversation is likely to follow, any honest perspective is bound to be distorted. It seems unlikely that someone will critically reflect in any honest or meaningful way upon their practice if they know that they will have little chance of gauging how those reading the evaluation will respond. It’s a situation primed for paranoia.

As a final thought before moving on from this (I’m already dreading the fact that the word evaluation will probably feature in the title of this post; it’s hardly likely to boost my readership…) it’s striking that once we move away from the realm of self-evaluation, the emphasis is almost solely put on to the audience’s perspective of work. Of course, the audience is important – and of course, their opinion counts tremendously – but from Tuesday’s conversations came the suggestion that the reflections of bar, cafe and other front of house staff would provide a perspective at least equally as valuable. These are people that know an institution’s programme inside out and – at least in the case of exhibitions – probably spend more time with the work than anyone else.

Also at D&D, I ensured I spent some time in  the discussion around unpaid work  and, after the online encounters of the last few weeks, relished the chance for face-to-face discussion with some analogue faces. Someone, whose name and company I can’t remember, told how he has started, once a year, to offer his professional PR and Marketing services to one young company that he finds particularly interesting. As he explained, the last few months has been pretty good to him workwise, and in terms of negotiating what to do with the surplus that inevitably arises from such gains, there was something just… nice and more than a wee bit generous in the way he talked about this.

Steph Brocken was fascinating to talk with about the role of contemporary performance in youth theatre (it made me think fondly of the wonderful women in Glas(s) Performance and the work they do on this) and to have a conversation with Jill Godfrey was one of those experiences that leaves you wondering how best to facilitate the next encounter…

*                                  *                                  *

Copies of The Oil Road, the publication from James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello of Platform whose launch event prompted this video, can be bought here.

*                                  *                                  * 

With Friday came a Comedy Trust debate on Comedy and Disability. The well-balanced panel presented from a variety of different perspectives and experiences, and the discussion pendulumed nicely between comedy and disability as distinct areas, moving into the points at which the two intersect without ever sinking into alienating specialisation or surface wishy-washiness.

Whilst issues of access and self-determination underlay much of what was discussed, there was a marked determination to avoid a simple binarism of disabled and non-disabled; as a wheelchair user in the audience rightly pointed out, she probably has a lot more in common with her parents than the disabled people on the panel.

With that as backdrop, the specifics of the discussion were – especially considering we were only there for two hours – wide-ranging and comprehensive.

As with culture more generally, comedy provides an alternative space in which both the performer and audience are able to experience difficult issues in a manner different to that by which they encounter them in everyday life. As I listened to the panel, I was more than once struck by comedy’s potential as a relocating (if not necessarily distancing) device. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t limits. Laurence Clarke and Paul Betney – both purveyors of good sense throughout the debate – observed how much easier audiences find it to deal with Clarke’s cerebal palsy than the Parkinson’s Disease with which Betney is diagnosed. The reason – Clarke is disabled in a non-threatening way (the audience know they won’t ever find themselves in his position), whilst audience’s are aware that they might have to deal with Parkinson’s disease (Betney’s impairment) themselves one day.

The way in which comics talk about disability took a fair whack of the afternoon (with Ricky Gervais taking perhaps an overly large part of that time). Whichever side of the fence that we fall when a particular controversy arises though, I can’t help but wonder if the most important thing isn’t in fact the discussion and debate that devlops from the initial comment. Of course, people’s views shift because of what they encounter through culture, and if someone makes a stupid joke they should be responsible for their actions, but care should be taken to not overstate their influence. Rather than discussing what can and can’t be said, I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t be focusing on how to ensure that a real diversity of voices are heard in response.

The Footnotes

1 A theme I kept encountering throughout the day related to the pace of working. I don’t want to overstate the case, it didn’t feel like the beginnings of a revolutionary slow theatre movement, and no doubt I noticed it because the topic resonated particularly strongly with my return to work after a few weeks away from it.
Nevertheless, it did come up in more than one conversation and I can’t help but suspect that something is going wrong when the pace at which artists (and the rest) feel they should work means that they are not able to take the time to meaningfully reflect on what they have just done. Of course the demands of financial survival have a part in this – there’s a pressure to begin the next proposal /  funding bid well in advance of the end of the current project – but it would be a shame to use that as a means of absolving individuals addicted to the rush of being busy of the role that they play in permeating such a culture.

On volunteering, Anfield and wolves howling red…

In light of last week’s post (and the fact that there’s been an at times frustrating, always male, but nevertheless thought-provoking discussion in the Ostrich Group this week), I was more than a little eager to see what would come out of this week’s Argument Room discussion on volunteering in the arts.

Pretty annoyingly, technology meant that the live stream of the discussion was more a trickle of something vegetative, but the the archived recording has been uploaded now, and it’s worth a watch.

(I also checked out the first ten minutes of a session with Chris Goode from last year – it was nice to see an ever interesting man being really quite interesting. I’ll be going back to that).

I’;m not going to simply reiterate my position, but something that I did find striking was the emphasis Ed Berman put on arts education to be taught more holistically at a young age. To repeat his argument, maths classes would benefit from a greater sense of practical relevance should a practical analysis of the costs involved in putting on a school play be taught, children would be more involved in the cultural output of their schools, and a sense that art-making doesn’t happen in a vacuum would be cultivated. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve been convinced for a while that artists – both those currently practising and those in training – would gain from access to resources that encourage them to self-assess calls for volunteer labour, and the idea of introducing some relevant ideas at such a young age is exciting.

Less positively, it was depressing to hear the too simple argument reiterated by David Mickelm that large institutions cannot function without volunteer staff. The reductive perspective it promotes ignores the wide range of volunteer experiences that will exist in a large institution like BAC. From volunteers who do it in order to gain valuable opportunities for human contact that their social position would not otherwise allow, to those who volunteer in exchange for ‘the promise’ that they are  gaining ‘valuable’ experience for a future career; from people that are doing work that in other places would be paid, to someone doing a valuable – if not essential – role that would genuinely not exist as a paid role (there’s a lovely older woman in Fazakerley hospital whose chief resposbility – as I understand it – is to wait near the top of the stairs and make sure patients don’t get lost); there’s a host of ethical positions to be adopted within volunteering and to hear blanket statements being reiterated– from either side of the argument – is a particularly depressing aspect of this debate.

As Bill Aitchison rightly pointed out, if an arts institution can’t function economically without using unpaid labour for what should otherwise be paid positions, then they should shrink their programme. Stretching oneself too far in anything – no matter how noble, and whether as an individual or an institution – does not then bestow the right to exploit others as compensation.

*                      *                      *

'Tinned' houses in Anfield After my disappointing Friday date with technology, I went along to the Anfield Home Tour on Saturday morning. A performance that takes the format developed by open top buses and Duck Tours (i.e. a cheeky soul with a microphone provides cheery patter pertaining to the view out the window), this tour – collaboratively devised by director Britt Jurgensen, writer Deborah Morgan and performer Graham Hicks – puts a somewhat unusual spin on the format by taking the audience on a journey through the Anfield and Breckfield Regeneration Zone, recounting various perspectives on what has been happened here in the name of ‘regeneration’ and ‘housing market renewal’. As Carl Ainsworth (the tour guide sumptuously played by Hicks) points out, the emphasis has always been on renewing ‘the market’, not the area – with the assumption being that once the money is flowing, everything else will fall promptly into place.

But of course, it hasn’t. With changing governments, money streams have been redirected; streets are boarded up, and people that have lived in the area for generations have been forced to sell up and take loans off the council in order to buy new properties (£30,000 seems to be typical, with the responsibility for the debt shifting on to the borrower’s children when they die). Neighbourhoods that were repeatedly told that they were deprived in order to tick boxes on EU funding criteria have inevitably started to feel that way and yet, when you step into someone’s home, as we were privileged to do on the tour, even now any sense of deterioration is instantly transformed.

The Tour
(credit: Carl Ainsworth)

It’s criminal what has been done here, and this tour – with its delicate and subtly theatrical handling of what are, in some ways, rather blunt issues – turns a much needed light on the area’s recent history by facilitating  local residents’ active participation in what is happening. Anfield has a reputation in Liverpool for being downtrodden and a conversation around the reasons why that sense has arisen has real potential to start changing things. You can engage with the conversation by signing up to the tour here.

The tour was developed to act as an introduction to the 2Up 2Down/Homebaked bakery and housing project that was initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk two years ago for the current Liverpool Biennial. There’s always the potential for significant problems when artists from outside an area are brought in to address social issues, and – although I only arrived in Liverpool in the middle of the last Biennial so don’t feel able to judge from personal experience – it’s apparent from conversations I’ve had with more than a few people that the Biennial’s practice isn’t always exempt from such criticism.

Often, short-term engagement with an area can lead to shallow interactions and presumptuous assumptions around what is needed, but here, two years of regular contact and the fact that young people from the area have been integrated since the earliest stages in designing the project have tackled these issues in admirable fashion.

Additional problems arise though in the very manner by which we understand art and the artist. Talking with another audience member after the tour – a woman from Cardiff whose name I didn’t get – we talked about ownership of an art work and how naming an artist as the author automatically imparts this status on them. The degree to which they react to that (and potentially abuse that position) is very much up to the individual artist and, in the case of van Heeswijk, it is worth saying that she is genuinely very active in divesting herself of that authority. Nevertheless, with this as the tradition for understanding art, it’s not easy for anything more nuanced in terms of ownership to be succinctly discussed1.

This can be a problem, and it’s important to emphasise that – systemically – this can cause real issues.

In this instance, the artist’s role has been to begin a process in which people from the surrounding community, staff from the Biennial and others from the architect firm Urbed, have come together and given people an opportunity to direct what is happening in their community. As the originator of the project, the artist does of course deserve a particular form of credit, but so do many, many others.

A (by no means comprehensive) list of such people might include:

  • Andrea Jones (future resident of one of the 2Up 2Down flats) – community activist and chef
  • Angela McKay (local resident) – Membership secretary for the 2Up 2Down community land trust and Homebaked cooperative
  • Britt Jurgensen (local resident) – Secretary of the Homebaked board (and director of the tour)
  • Franny George (Participation Officer at the Biennial) – brokered many of the initial contacts and active member of the board (in her own time)
  • Fred Brown (local resident) – community activist and active member of Homebaked and the 2Up 2Down community land trust
  • Jayne Lawless (international artist who grew up in the area) – someone who ‘rocks and makes things better’
  • Jessica Doyle (local resident) – active member, baker-in-training and responsible for much of the online presence of the bakery
  • Kealey Puckering (future resident of one of the 2Up 2Down flats) –  youth worker with local young people on many aspects of the project (including the design of the flats and bakery)
  • Laurie Peake (director of public art at the Biennial) – the curator responsible for bringing the Biennial’s support to the project
  • Lynn Tolmon (local resident) – active member, writer of the (thoughtful and very readable) project blog and often the person who opens up the bakery for passers by to come in for a coffee and a chat (the bakery isn’t yet open commercially, though will be in the next couple of months)
  • Marianne Heaslip (architect from Urbed) – the architect responsible for bringing the community consultation to fruition
  • Maria Brewster (freelance project manager) – employed by the Biennial to manage the project
  • Sue Humphreys (local resident) – Chair of the board of the Homebaked bakery.2

As I say, there are of course, many, many people that have made valuable contributions that I will have missed. My apologies to those that have been omitted, though hopefully they will appreciate the attempt I am making here to challenge the mistake we all too easily fall into of prioritising those with significant stores of particular expertise or financial capital as the key movers behind projects such as this. Yes, these people count, they obviously have a significant role to play; but so do people like Lynn when they physically opens the doors and all the others who have dedicated literally hundreds of hours to making this inspirational project happen.

It is a real shame if what is happening here is too quickly reduced to being ‘by van Heeswijk as a part of Liverpool Biennial’3. As mentioned in a previous post – our culture wants to understand things as being accomplished by individuals (it’s a great motivational device) and it’s going to take a while to shift that understanding4.

*                      *                      *

I also encountered some theatre in a theatre building (I still do now and then, you know). On Saturday, I experienced the pleasure that is Tmesis’ new piece Wolf Red at the Unity. Their first for a single performer (with Yorgos Karamelegos directing his co-artistic director Eli Randle), it’s left me with a diffuse but definite tingle about where this new direction will take them. The stark set, sunken into the stage floor, gave a real sense of claustrophobia that never obscured the clarity of the multiple representations of female personality informing the show. The poetry of the movement (and parts of the text) was both brutal and beautiful, taking us on a journey that – though simple in form – never patronised or hesitated in taking us to some quite difficult and contradictory places. It took ten minutes or so to find my way into the piece, but looking at the structure retrospectively, I find myself thinking this period of acclimatisation was necessary.

The shows leaving Liverpool to go on tour, if you can catch up with it then do5.

*                      *                      *

It’s also been something of a relief to see that this week’s Doctor Who started to improve in its story-telling from what had been a pretty dreary series so far.
(Spoiler Alert)
It would’ve have been quite hard to mix the Weeping Angels with the death of Rory and Amy and not create a tear-jerker of a tale, but Steven Moffat didn’t mess it up.

And for that I thank him (if not him alone).

The footnotes

1 Although there have been a variety of different challenges to this by practices that obscure or play with this notion of authorship – the three Slovenian artists who all changed their name to Janez Janša in 2007 (the name of the  Slovenian Prime Minister),  the Luther Blissett phenomenon of the mid-90s and – in a shameless plug of a project that I am currently working on – The Horse’s Teeth*.

2 Though it’s tempting to create a polarity between those that are paid for their involvement, and those that aren’t (and such difference shouldn’t be completely ignored), it’s also worth blurring this distinction by acknowledging the vast amounts of unpaid overtime that is worked by those on a wage.

3 I’m not arguing that van Heeswik should be credited identically to all other parties, nor am I saying that hers isn’t a significant practice that deserves recognition; of course it does. Rather I’m wondering about the possibilities by which people can be credited appropriately according to the different ways in which they contribute to a particular project.

4 To be fair, on the Biennial website, the artist is credited as ‘Jeanne van Heeswijk, Britt Jurgensen, Debbie Morgan, Graham Hicks and present and former residents of Anfield’. However, it’s almost guaranteed that much of the press, public and (especially) the art world will, when talking about what is happening here, credit van Heeswijk alone (along with perhaps the rather generically described ‘residents’).

5 It will also be one of the last chances you’ll have to see the hand of the much missed Nigel Charnock in a new work (he acted as consultant to the initial process).

*(Yup, I nearly used the possessive tense at the end there …)

Cultural capitalists and the fair (non) payment of artist fees

The issue of artists’ fees and payment has felt particularly topical over the last months. As the Big Society revealed itself in the form of unemployment, Workfare and cuts to social services, the question of working for free was never likely to be too far away. Within the arts, issues around funding are often further complicated with a false correlation between investment in the arts and cuts elsewhere being made.

Before discussing why artists should be paid though, it seems appropriate to make a defence of the amateur (a word – lest we forget – that shares the same Latin root as the French ‘amour’). There’s something unsettling about a call for fair artistic payment that moves too readily into a call for all artistic work to always be paid. Being paid changes the nature of the work, it brings it into a capitalist frame and shifts it away from a place where the work is done for reasons other than money (perhaps as a favour to a friend, because there is a political pertinence to the work, or maybe even just because it feels good).

In a world where a price is readily paid for pretty much everything already – there is value to be found in those arguments that assert that work should occupy a place outside that1. As a thought experiment, it’s interesting (and perhaps slightly concerning) to wonder what art would be made if the average wage of an artist was on a par with a banker.

There are occasions on which artists perhaps shouldn’t be paid a wage for their work; for that which is made at such times will sidestep the affects of market conditions and funding criteria. As Michael Sandel remarks, ‘Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives.’

 *                     *                     *

Of course, the issue with which we’re concerned with here is not one where we need to worry about artists being paid too much. Rather, it’s the opposite that I am concerned with; the lived experiment that deals with the practicalities of living as an artist in a capitalist society, one in which the demands of rent and food aren’t going to be satisfied by making art in an absolutist vein2.

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the question of whether artists should be be able to make a living from what they do or not. That is an argument to be made in another blog post by someone else (and not by Winston Churchill). In summary though, if we are to have a diversity of people in a position of being able to dedicate their time to making art, then systems need to be put in place that ensure that it is not just those wealthy enough to have access to alternative sources of income that are able to do so.

 *                     *                     *

In the mid-eighties, Pierre Bourdieu published a remarkable text called The Forms of Capital. In this he presents a model for understanding the ways in which power is both transferred and maintained in society. He acknowledges the significant role money has to play in this dynamic whilst also acknowledging the more subtle conduits of power; those channels that funnel relationships between people that operate in a less easily quantifiable manner. Of particular relevance to what I’m writing about here is that which he describes as ‘the institutionalised state of cultural capital’.

To do Bourdieu something of a disservice and define cultural capital simply as that which gives an individual status, academic qualifications are a prime example of the institutionalised form. In other words, to receive First Class Honours from Cambridge will give a person a particular position in society (a position of some power, aside from any expertise or knowledge they may have gained) whilst even those less formally associated with such an institution will have something of its status conferred on them3.

Understanding this system of transferral goes some way to explain artists’ willingness to work for free in return for being able to list a performance on their CV at Late at Tate, or to say that they have performed in an ensemble for an artist held in particularly high repute4.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering Bourdieu’s use of language, there is a potential for similar problems to arise in the operation of cultural capital as there are to be found in the mechanisms of financial capital (in fact, the interaction of the two forms of capital would suggest that what might appear as two issues, are in fact one problem). In a nutshell, under capitalism those with a lot are in a position to get a lot more by paying others to work for them. Through their work, the overall store of capital (be that money or cultural capital) is increased, but when it comes to dividing up the profits, the fact that the lead artist / institution ‘risked’ (or alternatively ‘was privileged enough to hold’) their original store of capital is used to justify a disproportionate share of the return.

A key question to ask is who benefits most from the artist giving their work for free. The institution/lead artist or the volunteer? Or to put it another way, who loses out more – the venue if they should pay the artists, or the artist by working for free?

Although closely linked, the mechanisms by which cultural and financial capital operate can’t be conflated exactly, not least because cultural capital – unlike money – cannot be quantified into discrete units and measured, whilst it is also  important to observe that – as Bourdieu himself commented – a world in which we reject any notion of capital at all would be one in which social position is dictated by either chance processes or absolute uniformity. My intention here is simply to draw attention to some of the processes that are in operation when artists agree to work for free.

 *                     *                     *

Our current position is one in which arts funding is in crisis, significant changes to how the arts are funded appear almost inevitable, and with artists and performers often operating as non-unionised individuals (particularly performers working outside traditional theatre), it is they who are the easiest targets when money needs to be saved. With stories doing the rounds like that of the Arts Council officer who advised that budgeting to pay performers properly would have little effect on the potential success of a Grants for the Arts application5 and reports of institutions offering space and marketing support in return for a percentage of any future income arising from work developed, there is a palpable sense that anywhere where money can be saved, it must be.

Artists must also take a share of the responsibility for negotiating a way through this, for the assessment of the potential for abusive practices in any given situation also sits with them. As perhaps is growing apparent, it is hard to define a clear code of action (other than to call for ACE to more rigorously enforce its guidelines), and yet perhaps we can begin to develop a checklist of questions that need answering at times when volunteers are called for:

  • What is being given back in exchange for the volunteered labour? Is it the promise of future returns of cultural capital that may never pay off (being able to list a particular association on your CV) or will an experience of tangible benefit be provided (for example, the experiences of those who volunteered for Nic Green’s Trilogy have been – in all accounts that I’ve come across – incredible).
  • Is there any budget involved at all? If there is, who is getting paid and how does this relate proportionally to others? Is there any talk of how profits will be shared should money start coming in?
  • How is the cultural capital distributed? As a society, we have a tendency to focus on celebrity and genius, and such focus on individualism makes it hard to accurately credit all those involved in a work’s development. As I keep emphasising, is a line on a CV that very few people are likely to read sufficient payment?
  • How much like paid work is the volunteering? There’s a difference between being a responsible volunteer and and unpaid worker.

Further debate can be found though the online and face-to-face meetings of The Ostrich Group – a collective of artists, producers and other arts professionals that is rapidly becoming something of a hub for these issues – and has acted as a stimulant for many of the ideas in this writing.

1 I’m reminded here of Michael Sandel’s first 2009 Reith Lecture in which he discusses the effects of markets on morality – making the argument that if we pay children to read books, or nations to accept increased immigration then, although we might increase childhood engagement with literature, or raise the number of asylum seekers that are resettled, such marketisation can act to obscure the joy that comes from reading for its own sake or risks transforming the plight of people in need into something calculable as part of a revenue stream.

2 In the short-term at least (the utopian in me demanded this footnote).

3 It is perhaps worth emphasising that it is not just conservative institutions that operate in this way. The beauty of Bourdieu’s theory is that it is equally applicable to a range of different societal groupings that an individual might move in. Association with any institution – a football club, an anarchist group, a particular bar even – can give a certain status. The example of educational establishments has a particular resonance however since such association is marked with an institutional ‘stamp’, the qualification.

4 Of course, it is typically felt to be a little crude to want to work with an artist simply to gain the benefit of association with their name. Voluntary work in these instances is usually presented as an exchange; one in which the lead artist’s knowledge and experience is passed on to those volunteering their time and energy to facilitate the work. Though great in theory, there is always the risk that what is described as a workshop will be little more than a devising process for developing finished work or even a straightforward rehearsal of ideas already developed by the lead artist. The differences between a workshop, devising process and rehearsal are incredibly subtle, yet key to understanding the potential for abuse.

5 Despite the section of ACE policy which states ‘Applications for grants for touring should ensure that, in addition to adequate fees, subsistence payments are in line with the relevant trade union agreements’

For those that are left behind

Time passing

1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4

As the intelligent reader (whom I love) I’ll let you deduce your own reasons.

Listen closely and you’ll hear the sounds of my new home in the background…

Videos to remember after the apocalypse (Number 1)

Tim Jeeves is an artist and writer who, at certain junctures, in particular contexts and amidst a myriad of other inclinations, will turn his attention towards the flexibility of identity.
Aware that these words may invalidate such investigations by being read as a statement of a constant self, he has embarked on a project entitled 'Artist’s Statefragment'.
Viewable at , this work, written in hypertext, enables an increasing number of artist statements, each addressing a different aspect of his practice, to be viewed non-linearly and with fluctuating priority.