I've got a vision for the centre of Heavitree, our very own Fore Street. Picture this:-
You stroll to the centre, the heart of our community, to meet some friends. You're going to hang out in the wide and spacious boulevard and share a lunch of home made soup and freshly baked bread. The heavenly scent of fine pastries escapes from the bakery's ovens and drifts over the pretty groups of tables with their brightly coloured umbrellas. So you decide to extend your stay, chatting to more friends as they arrive, drinking hot chocolate and enjoying freshly made delights of all kinds.
There's a band (Dakar Audio Club) playing on the corner and people are dancing. More people come to join you in the late afternoon sun. Together, you watch it settle over Livery Dole, turning the huge open sky pink and lilac. The stall holders start packing away their wares:- surplus from the local allotments, beautiful photographic prints (Fiona French Images), paintings (Kath Hadden Art) locally made jewellery and handmade soaps Soap Daze). And because Heavitree has always been the home of artisans, there are stalls with woodwork, leatherwork, basketry and needlework too. Everything a community needs, all locally made. All this, happily spread out across the grand boulevard and vast pavements of our Fore Street. That's what we could have …. without the traffic.
Compare that with how I find Fore Street now. Everyday I stand patiently, forced to breathe fumes whilst waiting endlessly with my Heavitree fellows for the right to cross our own street. There we stand like second-class citizens giving reverence and priority to the roaring traffic, to people who just want to use our centre as a rapid way through to somewhere else.
Does that first vision sound completely unattainable -
because of the traffic,
because of the weather,
because change is just too hard?
Maybe not. Just maybe, it's not as hard as you think.
We could, as a community, ask for a small, time-shared piece of our own centre. Say, for just one Sunday a month we get to shift the priority back so that Fore Street can be the kind of centre for our community that it was always meant to be. No real infrastructure change, just diverted traffic for just a small portion of time.
Ok, you say, even if that were possible, what about the great British weather? Pavement cafés and stalls are all very well on the continent but not in our unpredictable climate. Well, maybe it doesn't have to be all outside. How about this? Maybe there's room for our local craftsmen and skills-based artists to “buddy-up” with existing Fore Street businesses. Sharing floor and display space for just some of the time. Running workshops maybe, readings, presentations and events to bring people in as well as selling their own locally produced goods. Bringing custom, extra income and interest to our centre in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with existing retailers. How many empty units, spare back rooms and under-used spaces are there, in our main street, just because no one really likes spending time in that traffic-torn place? Looking at it that way, there's no need for things to always be outside – but we can still spread out, like the vision above, when the weather lets us!
That's all very well, you say, but how do you get people to change? That's an interesting one too because actually what I'm describing here is not so much of a change as a reversion to how things used to be. Den Perrin, in his excellent Retailing in Fore Street, Heavitree 1851-1999 quotes the Trewman's Exeter Flying Post for 1851 which describes the Heavitree Annual Fair. The Fair was held over two days and featured donkey racing in Fore Street, climbing a pole for a leg of mutton(!) “and in the evening the dance was enjoyed and entered into with great ardour”. Same place, just no traffic.
And what I'm suggesting is not a gentrification of Heavitree, with lots of little stores of over-priced knick-knacks but a return to what Fore Street always was. A centre for real artisan skills. In 1851 retail outlets in Fore Street included drapers, dairies, saddlers, blacksmiths, tailors, ironmonger, shoemakers, bakers and butchers – all with rooms and workshops at the back where things were made, mended and repaired on the spot. Things that normal, everyday people need.
We all feel it don't we? That something is missing from the heart of our place? Maybe there is something that we could do about it.
Guidance for Associate Artists
As I sat down to write some guidance for artists, to explain something of the concepts that underpin the Squilometres venture, I realised it all came down to a statement of intent. Squilometres is intended to potentiate social change. Not to dictate the nature of that change but to animate a community to a state whereby positive change can happen.
And it felt good to get that out because then the guidance became clear. I even have a text, my “bible” if you like. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift - How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (2012 Canongate) has profoundly influenced the development of the Squilometre concept.
So there we have it, Squilometres has a statement of intent - and at this point “I” becomes “we”, because I cannot do it alone. We aspire to potentiate social transformation. And we want to do this by developing relationships of all kinds. Particularly with artists, both individuals and small companies. So, it is time to be explicit in our intent and to provide some guidelines for current and prospective associate artists. The best way to do that is to return to our original Four Cornerstones of Community Commissioned Performance, and to explain them in Lewis’ terms:-
1) Be Authentic - know your art and bow into service to it
Your creativity is a gift. It’s important to know it, acknowledge it, clear the decks to “identify with the spirit of the gift, not with its particular embodiments …” (Hyde, 2012: 151). And your Gift may not have a name. In our society creativity is sidelined, compartmentalised and commodified. It took me three years to discover that my creative label is Animateur - “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind”. I couldn’t find the label because there are no jobs but the fact is, it is what I am. It is my Gift and having discovered it, I feel the real work can begin.
So take time to know your true nature as an artist
and when you join us, bring your authentic, creative self.
2 ) Be Mindful of the Earth - enhance, not deplete, the world around you
Hyde refers to the artist as an “enthusiast”. When one is a creative “enthusiast” in your relationship with the real, physical and spiritual world it is an act of reconnection, or, as Hyde calls it, reunion. “When the poet is in the gifted state, the world seems generous ….”, so, with Squilometres, when we celebrate places, in reunion, we’re offered a wonderful opportunity to be mindfully creative.
Instead of stage lighting, watch the skies and seasons to see what effects they offer; instead of constructed props, consider the trees, fallen leaves, forage the hedgerows. The very places that we celebrate are the canvas, the set and the subject. The people who dwell there are our community. We encourage artists to create beautiful, unique things from what the earth provides. There is a profound link between the arts and environment. Artists have the gift and privilege to reconnect the broken.
“Natural objects - living things in particular - are like a language we only faintly remember. It is as if creation had been dismembered sometime in the past and all things are limbs we have lost that will make us whole if only we can recall them.” (Hyde, 2012:177).
As a Squilometre artist, be ready to be an agent of reunion.
3) Gift It - Find a beautiful use for money
Being paid for your art is both a political and spiritual act. It’s important.
We are not advocates of artists working for free
However, we do believe that there is a better use for money than commercial transaction. Hyde explains that when a gift is freely given, the increase in its worth stays with the ‘object’ and increases as it is passed along. Gift bestowal can create an “empty space into which new energy may flow” (Hyde 2012:148). As it works its way around a community, it grows and grows, building relationships and enabling change. In contrast when a service is exchanged for an agreed price, the transaction nullifies the relationship and any further emotional connection. We believe that is harsh, jarring world in which to create art.
So we will not charge our audience a fixed price up front but will ask them to pay-it-forward for the next show, after they’ve seen the performance. And it will be some while before we can guarantee a fixed rate for artists. So, in the meantime, we’ll keep our productions and our casts small, minimising the individual commitment. And,
we will welcome you into a community in which gift flows
There will be remuneration in cash. There will also be unlooked for returns, taking many forms. If you’ll dwell for a while within our community, rather than closing the transaction down after the performance, then we believe you will be amazed at what an increase in worth means.
4) Connect - love and cherish all
This seems like a big ask but, in fact, becomes much simpler when seen in terms of community. Any performance happens at the centre of a community - all of the individuals that have contributed, in any way, to the happening. Whilst, holding the broader aim of loving all in your heart, the people of your community should be the focus of your attention and care. Be particularly grateful for those who arrive with fixed views, ulterior motives or challenged minds. They present the best opportunities for growth and change and “where we stumble, often treasure lies” (Bayo Akomolafe).
It is particularly important to identify your community and by that we mean know them as people, not contact details. Know their views and interests so that you can facilitate the passing on of the gift. For gift to grow in worth and potentiate change it must be passed on and those in receipt of the gift must be in a position to do so. The mechanisms for this need to be clear.
This is why we operate within one square kilometre (Squilometre) of landscape
So that the members of that community can see for themselves the benefits of passing the gift between them.
As an Associate Artist you are invited to join that community too
What a strange thing to say. Of course, it’s the answer. Isn’t it? There simply aren’t enough salaried jobs, are there? So, if we want to make performance art, we have to get funding, whether its lottery/quango funding or trust/charity funding. That’s how it’s done. Alternatively we provide teaching, training, workshops and outreach. We share our skills and sometimes we’ll get funding to do that too. These are the options, right?
No. These things are not enough. There’s a better way.
Perfectly poised ….
As performance artists we are already naturally blessed with the answer. The very expression of our art-form is communion with others. Performance is always a collaboration of many parts, including audience, artists, other professionals, supporters, benefactors and interested parties. Even solo artists cannot create and express their art alone. The act of performance is a blessed conjoined gift and therein lays its ultimate strength. We are in fact perfectly poised to make a real difference to the future of arts funding.
It works like this. Every single performance of every single type happens at the epi-centre of a community, like concentric rings in a pond. The make up of that community may shift and reform but a performance is always at the centre of its ring. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of that as a whole and been encouraged, often through the funding application process itself, to compartmentalise our community. We’re asked to address audience development as a separate issue from fundraising; to fully describe projects before we’ve had a chance to liaise properly. Worst of all, we have come to see our relationship with our community as something separate from our Art. It is not and can never be.
This compartmentalising and separation of relationships is what has left many large theatres stranded and struggling. They thought the building itself was their asset, their resource. They were wrong. It was always their community, in the widest sense. Lyn Gardner speaks of this separation between artist and audience 05/02/14, and how, if we address this, we might create an “army of advocates” for our work 07/05/2013.
In this context, it’s an interesting sign of our times, how rarely you see positions for Animateurs in the arts today. In this country we’re more used to seeing the Animateur in the music industry. Music Jobs UK describe them as helping “audiences to appreciate musicians and music in new ways and helps them to enjoy music that they may not be familiar with. They also help the musicians as they develop techniques for reaching out to their communities and encourage as many people as possible to engage with music and music related activities.”
However, in France and Italy in the 1960s and 1970s the role was seen to encompass a broader artistic remit. An Animateur or Animatore was “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind” (Smith 1999, 2009) – “animation” was to breath life into a thing and do all that was required to allow it to happen, including marshalling the necessary resources and funds.
To me, this moves us closer to the kind of holistic community development that all performance needs. As a performance artist/organisation you have a community which is your greatest strength and continual communication within it should not be an extra task but should be part of your Art. You need to employ or to think like an Animateur. You need someone who can resist the imperatives to segregate and compartmentalise, someone to love and nuture your whole community, including audience, sponsors, benefactors and interested parties, in all the ways that are needful to create your art.
Still not sure, well then let me prove it to you …
The South West is seething with talent and creativity in this regard …..
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The inspiration is right here in the South West performance landscape, just look around you.
You can see it in the action at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. The dynamic direction there of David Lockwood and latterly of Fin Irwin has meant that they haven’t relied on the theatre itself to generate income. What they have created is a beautiful community of performance artists, audience and sponsors; a hub of developing practice that supports local, and indeed national, talent. Through their Framework Programme and Residencies they’re continually growing and nurturing their community.
It's right there in the promenade, open-access, landscape-involved work of Burn the Curtain.
You can see it in North Devon too. Multi Story Theatre have taken years of experience of working with young people, into schools but not as an add-on, or an outreach extension – but as an integrated way of creating and developing their performances. And in the inspired work of Viva Voce whose mission is to “create artistic experiences from the words of real people” in excellent verbatim theatre.
And in a myriad of smaller enterprises such as Theatre Rush’s Story Exchange, and indeed Interwoven Production’s own Squilometre community-commissioned performance concept.
I’m not saying that none of these organisations has received traditional arts funding, or that they won’t in the future. I am saying that because of their community integrated approach, they are better positioned than others to survive without it in the future.
And the beauty is, the real gem of glory is, in changing in this way, in wholly embracing and animating your community to fund and shape your art, you’ll be playing an active part in changing the arts landscape forever. So, if you’re hurting from another rejected funding application, finding your talents and enthusiasms blunted by having to provide endless “evidence” of your worth, take heart. The answer is already here. And the more we operate in this way, the less we will need arts funding.
As performance artists, in the sharing, the grace and the communion of your art – we are uniquely and perfectly poised to change the world.
Smith, Mark K. (1999, 2009) ‘Animateurs, animation and fostering learning and change’, the encylopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/mobi/animateurs-animation-learning-and-change]
It’s a driving question and it’s about more than just subsistence because it also tends to be the way we judge the success of our art. One of the first questions you’ll get asked by another artist is “do you do this full-time”? So few of us achieve that heady goal that its very scarcity makes it all the more desirable. But it is a very divisive tendency and one to be avoided. It just generates envy and discord amongst artists, whose natural tendency otherwise would be to collaborate and co-create.
It is also, I’d like to demonstrate, a very old school way of looking at things. The economics of scarcity is well recognised and deeply embedded in our thinking. Apparently, we will all pay more for something that is rare. But economics is not a pre-scriptive tool. Things don’t have to be that way. It is a de-scriptive tool. It simply tells us that most people, in most circumstances, will behave in that way.
So, it is extremely interesting to note that there are many voices now; many artists, environmentalists, theorists, in fact people in all walks of life, who are succeeding in persuading people to behave differently! It is aided by, but not exclusive to, the internet and social media. It is strongly linked to the revulsion that many feel about how we exploit and despoil our planet and comes from the camp of holistic ecology and environmental responsibility.
It has been coined by Charles Eisenstein, as Sacred Economics but in fact many of its characteristics were laid out as a kind of manifesto for artists as early as 1979 by Lewis Hyde (The Gift).
Hyde argues strongly that to exchange or barter something for a fixed price is to “kill” the cultural, artistic and spiritual value of the “thing”. It is cancelled out, removed from universe, from the common good. Whereas, when something is given freely, each transaction will increase its worth, value and benefit. And it will continue to increase as long as the gift keeps moving. Both Eisenstein and Hyde therefore argue strongly in favour of Gift – giving your services away.
But how can this work?!! How does this make the artist’s subsistence any more tenable? Now, I’m aware that, being a recent convert to these ideas I’m behaving like an AA “two-stepper”. I’m all excited about the revelation and now want to go and tell others all about it, before I’ve done the hard work and all the steps in between. I haven’t proved it can work yet. But I’m also aware that many people are making it work and I’m conscious of wanting to emulate some of the openness and vulnerability of Amanda Palmer, one of the most successful proponents of this approach.
Amanda, a musician, is famous for having cut out the middle man and for her profound and direct connection with her audience through social media and crowd-finding. That is, if she has one, her business model. She just asks her fans for their help.
So, I’m sharing my thought process with you, just like Amanda does. I want to keep the conversation open as I continue to research, explore, discuss and trial how this might be.
Here are some of the things that I think are important to developing a Gift approach and a Sacred Economy, particularly in theatre and the performing arts:-
1) I think it is ‘sacred’ and important to give your work away but to ask people, in an easy, fun way to return the gift if they can/want to. This means extending your performance into Q & A or some other activity that includes the audience. It means not sending them away at the end of the show but, rather, finding some way to celebrate their participation and facilitate their gift. Afterall, if your performance is a gift then their return gift should be part of the performance.
2) I think it also means finding new and interesting ways of Asking. Sometimes things will have to be funded up front or you simply won’t be able to move forward. Amanda Palmer famously raised over million dollars through KickStarter crowd-funding for a planned tour. The successful norm is for much smaller amounts though and often projects fail to meet their mark all together. The difference that Amanda makes is her direct and profound connection with her audience. She gives herself up to them entirely, that connection and communication is part of her art.
3) It means changing your view of what success is. Like many artists, I’m interested only in making enough to continue being creative. Profit and excess have very little meaning for me. But as I’ve mentioned many will measure your success as an artist by your income. It’s hard not to feel pressured by this. I find that the concept of “Right Livelihood” helps. This means finding a livelihood that DOES NO HARM. It allows you to be the artist you need to be but also requires that you make enough return not to do yourself or your loved ones any harm – in other words, to gain a reasonable and responsible income. Striving for a Right Livelihood feels like a worthy and achievable goal.
4) It means being aware of your own Gift. It’s no mistake that artistic talent is referred to as a Gift. We are all familiar with those moments when we’ve created something that seems to come through us, rather than from us. In order to successfully share your Gift and ask others to help you support it, you have to know it, explore it, develop it and bow into its service. This means not changing or corrupting it to someone else’s vision. James Stenhouse tackles some of this in his excellent blog How to make a living as an artist where he exhorts us to never “… let ANYONE tell you what kind of work you should be making. EVER”.
5) Finally, I think it requires a community; a minimum number of individuals who understand and value the concept of Gift enough to keep it moving, to return it and gift-it-forward so that we can all then know that we are part of the whole. The greater that community is, the more successful the approach will be. I may be wrong in this. I’d be interested to know what you think.
That seems like a great place to end. But I’d love to keep the conversation open. Please leave your thoughts and comments and I will endeavour to answer each of them.
Eisenstein, Charles 2011 Sacred Economics. Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition. Evolver, Berkeley, USA.
Hyde, Lewis 2012 The Gift. How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Musicians, painters, actors, directors, performers of all kinds; there are more of us than there are regular, paid jobs. This is a fact, so how can we survive and make art that we can be proud of at the same time?
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I've been scrabbling along my shelves looking for my copy of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet because there were thoughts crystallizing about work and about the way I lost my public-sector job this summer due to ill-health.
I've been having one of those weeks where everything seems to be trying to tell me something. You know, when a TV programme, or magazine article and even something you're reading in the latest Terry Pratchett (I learn a great deal from Tezzer) all seem to carry the same message, all on the same theme.
This time it's about work and, of course, my cross-artform piece, Severance. When I first started writing it, the monologues were very personal statements. Completely non-political, thoroughly self-involved. I thought, if they had broader meaning, it was in the context of cuts and austerity in general.
This week, the sub-conscious has finally broken through and I realise they are all specifically work-related. What happens when you are trapped and unhappy at work? What happens when you're thrown out of work? How does it feel when your work seems to have no value? Why have we all become so thoroughly accepting of these things as the norm?
That's what brought me to Gibran. I knew I'd read something in the past that had spoken to me about the value of work. And there it was - Work is love made visible. If we value the sweat of our brows and if we can see our work as valuable then it is the very expression of love for ourselves and for our world. It's a deep, deep need. Forged of course through countless millennia of prehistory when the product of our work, of our love, was clear.
I'm thinking of the obvious examples of the collaborative effort required to erect stone circles and rows. I'm also sure, though, that the divisions between art, spirituality and subsistence are modern ones and that we've lost a great deal by thinking in that segregated way.
For instance, where has the loss of spirituality in modern farming practice led us? Why is there so little room for art and expression in the ordinary working person's life? Where is the beauty in the design of practical, everyday things? This is all very Arts and Crafts, I know, and I throw the appropriate nod to William Morris and his “Lesser Arts”. But, right now, in the loss of my identity as a working person, I'm feeling these things keenly.
I feel disconnected from the flow of the world, that I have love, meaning and expression to share but it has been sharply truncated – severed. The loss of income is hurting me, yes, but much worse is my separation from the world. My work was my love made visible and now I have to hope that my writing can find another way.
How important is place? After the Arts Council Theatre in Exeter event on Saturday 23rd July 2011 I've been thinking more and more about rural and urban theatre.
I was lucky enough to have a rehearsed reading recently at the New Theatre in Exeter of my first play Unchosen. It was fascinating because the play was specially written to be played out of doors. The stage directions show that it should be seen at that special time of day when the sun disappears and each of us, if we pay it mind, gets that little tingle in the spine that registers the passing of another day. I envisaged moths getting caught in footlights and random happenings of cloud and wind that could be incorporated into the performance. The script shows that some of the players should have a personal light source that gradually becomes apparent to the audience as an aura, as the sun dips.
Yet, of course, the players and director at the reading made it work indoors, on stage with no auras because that's their business. Recreating the tingle in the spine that the natural landscape gives us, right there, through expression and performance. Beautiful.
So it's left me confused. I still believe Unchosen is an outdoor piece, deeply rooted in my love of Devon's prehistoric landscape but the truth is theatre can be created anywhere. That's its strength and its purpose. It belongs to the theatres in the city of Exeter. To Cygnet for the excellence in training, to The Bike Shed for exciting and innovative new work and it belongs to Creative Cow whose touring brand stands always for quality.
We have it all here right now in the urban and rural landscapes of the Westcountry and there is nowhere I would rather be.
(Photo - view of Peak Hill from Woodbury Iron Age Hill Fort, Devon)
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer deeply in love with her landscape and her life!
"Thank you very much for joining me here. Please read on to explore more about Working in the Gift and my joint passions of participatory arts and the Devonian landscape." JoJo :)