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…

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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.

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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.

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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 www.timjeeves.com , 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.