Thursday, 26 March 2015

Making Art as if the World Mattered

Today the long-awaited book about the arts and social change, Playing for Time, will be launched at the Free Word Centre in London. Published by Oberon Books, it is the lifework and inspiration of theatremaker and Transitioner, Lucy Neal. For the last two years I have been working with Lucy to help edit and shape this essential guide to moving ourselves and our communities into a downshifted, more friendly future. So on the day it arrives from the printers, here is some of what went into creating its 400+ pages.

"Did you just say Joseph Beuys?" I asked incredulous. We were in a Totnes teashop, in 2011, in a breakout moment, wolfing down beans and baked potatoes, after a hard morning defining Transition culture.

"I did," she laughed. "I was talking about social sculpture and how it fits into the book I'm planning to write."
"I love his work," I said. "Your book sounds really interesting."

It was our first meeting. Lucy and I were working with 20 or so other dedicated Transitioners, wrestling another composite book into shape, The Transition Companion. Meetings with local councils, food hubs, draughtbusting workshops were the focus of our attention. It was a long, long way from the city where the artist had once planted 7000 oaks and held a conversation with a dead hare, but his appearance in that old-worlde Devon teashop galvanised what would become an extraordinarily creative partnership. It was what Lucy would describe as an 'intervention', and I might call destiny. One of those rare moments when you cross the tracks.

Transition can also be an intervention, but with a rather more puritan effect on your life. You find yourself in a utilitarian zone, full of facts and figures: stats, economics, policy, climate science and all the kinds of 'boysy' subjects you never put your hand up for at school (at least I never did). If you are 'arty' in Transition you can find yourself strangely sidelined, doing useful things for the serious hard people, like designing posters or coordinating events, making the room look nice- you know like the ladies who do the flowers in church halls. Fluffy, with a low carbon twist.

You do need to know the dry stuff of course in order to understand how to transform a top down corporate-run world into a grassrooted sustainable one. You need to know about land grabs and zero waste, wake up about the fossil fuel industry and global finance. But what is not often realised is that a different world has to have a different arts and culture base. There need to be new scripts, new voices, a different look and feel in the way we reflect on our lives and everyone else's.Art can't just stay in the Empire's theatres and galleries, distracting those who can afford the entry fee with its kings and wizards and celebrities. It has to break out, go walkabout, run up into the hills, into the community gardens, into the river Thames, fall into everyone's hands. The story about another way of being human on Earth has to be told differently with an planet-friendly, (real) democratic power base.

Months later when I started up Transition Free Press I got in touch with Lucy and asked her to write about her residency at Battersea Arts Centre, and the Four Levels of Narrative she had worked on there with the playwright, Sarah Woods. The levels were to be one of the structural beams of the book, she explained. Green Books however were selling up, so she no longer had an editor or a publisher.

'Do you know anyone who might help?' she asked..
'Yes,' I said, 'As a matter of fact I do!'

the show

You can do the show anywhere. Every artist knows that. That's what gives us our strength and resilience. We are not dependent on outer circumstances: we will dance, write, cook, sing, create come what may. In a good time, we get rewarded, we get prizes and appear on television and on people's lips. And in a bad time we get nothing, we get called names, or are forgotten. Still we work: we get up everyday and we hone our craft. We're not doing it just for ourselves, we doing it for the world. Because it matters. Because life matters. We are the ones who remember. Come what may.

Why the arts are crucial for the future is because they create a culture in which everyone matters. In the future everyman is king, said Beuys. Working on Playing for Time I realised that in Transition's university of hard knocks, it is not so much about creating an art department, but about framing and supporting what the artist does In Playing for Time, the first section of the book, Drivers of Change, showcases those tough big pictures most people don't want to look at, so the rest of the book can make sense. When you read the subsequent sections, The Projects and Recipes for Action, you realise the arts is the only medium that will lead everyone towards a future we might actually want to live in. Some of us have been holding out for it for centuries.

the blueprint

Tonight at Free Word, Lucy has conjured a great party, or maybe I should call it a happening. When Lucy unveiled her plans I gasped:
"Lucy!" I said, "This is mega."
"I know," she laughed, "It's a festival!"

25 years in the theatre business can make you blithe about complexity. Tonight there will be delicious food and speeches and games and music and performance and a giant cake. It's a generous and joyful celebration of almost four years' work. Some of the book's 64 contributors are standing up and doing their thing for five minutes EXACTLY (timed by master theatremaker, Fabio Santos). I am taking a long roll of lining paper and doing what is known as A Reveal.

Here is that roll of paper in the garden of Oberon Books, with Andrew (Senior Ed) and James (Designer) looking on. You can't see it very well in the pic, but this is the books' blueprint. I made it so our core contributors and editorial board could walk through its territory and see the map of its contents, without having to read everything that at that point lived in Dropbox and in a huge blue file. If you are pulling over 80 projects and practices into a whole, you have to have a structure that allows them to connect and yet be distinct (Oh, and a serious word count).

One of Joseph Beuys' most striking 'sculptures' was known as Honeypump in the Workplace. This was a space he created in the middle of an exhibition in Kassel, surrounded by pipes of flowing honey and warm fat. He then hosted a series of discussions about the future within its ambient technology. The warmth and movement of the honey and fat, he stated, made the space warm, inviting, friendly, social, intelligent, so a higher level of engagement could happen. The blueprint was like those pipes, a container for a new kind of exchange.

the crucible

All great works are conceived in small spaces. Playing for Time was initiated in Ted Hughes's old house at Lumb Bank and signed off from Lucy's study in Tooting, but its fiery crucible was a tiny caravan known as The Puck, which held its own midsummer dream at the bottom of my garden for a year and a half. Over the months Lucy would come down for a few days, and we would wrest the material in the mornings, working our way through the blueprint: discussing each of the book's core subjects in depth from reclaiming the commons to rites of passage. We looked through texts, photographs, worked on commissions, went off topic, swore a lot, and laughed more.

In the afternoons, I would edit, Lucy would write and in the evening we met for supper (one night around her tiny work table, another round our rather larger deal one). She served wine in coloured glasses and cosmopolitan dishes in bowls from Tooting and France; we served foraged salads and Mexican beans and damson and blackberries from the hedge. In the summer we swam in the sea before breakfast, in the winter we gathered by the fire. Lucy told stories about her travels for the LIFT festival, Mark sang songs, I reminded everyone about the deadline. We had a lot of fun.

You don't often get a chance to know people well when you are older. Social occasions or Skypes are not the same as shared daily life: tripping up over everyone's shoes in the corridor, swapping  recipes or lending each other a brolly when the rain pours. The community exchanges that can come through Transition can help you break some of that isolation, but nothing beats working on a creative project with people who are as dedicated and focused as yourself. Especially when you are paid for your skills.

Most of my life is spent working with people on line and there is rarely any time to meet each other - maybe once a year for an hour or two. Playing for Time however had lots of time in it: for real encounter and conversation. That's when I realised that real change can only happen in a warm and friendly physical space which has time in it.

A defined space and a limited time. Just like our ever-changing and interacting presences on Earth.

the practice

Core to Playing for Time is the concept of the Practice, You could say it was the thing that brought both Lucy and I together: artistic practice is something we share. When I was young I learned that practice is something you do frequently to master any art or skill. I learned it with ballet shoes on my feet and holding a cello bow in my hands, and then poring for hours over a host of notebooks. At some point you realise that having a practice is more than scales or barrework, or wrestling with sentences or god, it is a way of engaging with life, with the fabric and meaning of things: practice is what brings spirit and beauty into form.

Eventually I came to see Transition as a practice - a social or com- munity practice. Because we all need to practise thinking and working collaboratively if we are to shift out of our culture's individualistic mindset. Working on the book meant dovetailing some of those different approaches - both artistic and social - and cohering them into what Lucy has called 'transitional arts practice'.

The book contributors were already well versed in this kind of participatory work, but not necessarily professional writers. So one of my key tasks as the working editor was helping the artists shape their prose, making it zesty and informative for a reader (as opposed to a funding body). Writing from the work, rather than about the work, become our mantra. Some commissioned pieces needed a major rehaul, others just a tweak or a polish. Nearly all of them needed a cut. Playing for Time is a big book in its scope and in its content, so a stern hand was needed at the tiller:

'You have to kill your children,' I said to Lucy and laughed. She looked at me shocked.
"That's what the subs used to say on Fleet Street,' I told her. 'And you did, because on a deadline newspapers cut your copy from the bottom.'

We started this collaborative writing process in March 2013 at Arvon's Lumb Bank. 12 members of the PFT core crew were given the task of writing up their practice in a 1000 words and three of their projects in 500 words. By the time I was working on Playing for Time I already had years of practice working with people who were not writers by trade or inclination, but had a great story to tell (first in the Social Reporting Project and then Transition Free Press). Sometimes people had to be persuaded they had a story to tell, that just being the person who holds the space Beuys was talking about is an art and a story in itself.

What we both wanted to show was that the future is a composite narrative: many voices, many strands, many hands. There is no one official story that can be conveniently 'rolled out' across the globe. The future is collaborative and collective. It belongs to the grassroots people doing on the ground work, doing it in many different small groups and configurations, interacting and exchanging ideas and skills like any other eco-system on the planet. In Playing for Time 64 artists and thinkers show and tell their story and each of those stories are just a fraction of a much larger body of work, and each of those works often involved hundreds of people in communities all around the world, in bio-regions, cities, woods, mountains, with bees and wolves and trees, rivers, children, clay, bacteria, all things on Earth.

I have come to see that one of the crucial actions of transitional arts practice is to host and gather people in the spirit that Beuys once envisioned. I like to think the book will go out and ferment those kinds of cross-tracking moments across a teashop table when you think you are there to finish one book but in fact you are there to work on another one completely. I like to imagine that all its macro and micro attentions, its intelligence, beauty and integrity, will inspire people to look forward, take action, and be generous and inclusive in the way so many artists and writers have been with their knowledge and experience, not least Lucy herself.

I won't be able to write here about everything that made Playing for Time happen: there is not enough room for the times I traipsed over Tooting Common en route to Lucy's house past the Lido and the oak trees, or the early mornings I walked across to The Puck through sopping wet grass, notebooks in hand, or the glasses of Mark's herbal refresher we drank as the sun went down on another day in the crucible, except to say that all of it mattered.

Because all of it really does.

Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered is published by Oberon Books, £16.99. Images from the book include: Beuys' Acorn by Ackroyd & Harvey (Art and Climate Change); G8 Clown Army (John Jordan's intro to Activism);  Dursley Encounters shop (Ruth Ben-Tovim in Street); crocus from Honeyscribe (Amy Shelton in Home) Lucy introducing Playing for Time at the Free Word launch.

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