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.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Flat Earth News

At the end of last month I went to the Real Media Gathering in Man- chester to meet up with fellow forgers of UK's grassroots media. Here are some reflections on the event, as Real Media's first campaign kicks off this week. Originally published by the innovative Independence blog, Bella Caledonia, this is the slightly longer version of the story.

‘It’s tragic,’ he said, staring at the teaser on the front page. The news was all over Euston Station. A huge screen by departures was proclaiming the end of the world as we know it:

Mr Spock is dead!

‘He was 83,’ I responded as we stood by the newspaper rack at WH Smiths.
‘I was shocked,’ he said. ‘I thought he was going to go on forever.' 
‘No one is immortal on this planet!’ I laughed, and went to board the 0800 to Manchester Piccadilly. I was heading towards a convergence of journalists responding to the call for a ‘Real Media’: to cover what is happening on rather more grounded territory - Britain in 2015 in the run up to The Election.

Real Media describes itself as a ‘series of events and actions to campaign against media distortion and for independent grassroots journalism’. It has been set up by RealFare, a project that aims to challenge myths about the welfare system and this gathering is its kick-off point.  In a similar way that UKUncut brought  corporate tax dodging to public awareness and the Occupy movement the corrupt banking system, Real Media wants to expose the hyperreal, hostile nature of the press that distorts rather than reports on the reality we live in.

Aside from this gathering there are two actions this month: a national Anti Daily Mail Week from 13-20th March with online blockades, subvertising, protest and parody, followed by Occupy Rupert Murdoch Week from 22nd-29th March, organised by Occupy The Media. The week will include art and action and is being brought right to Murdoch’s door: his News UK headquarters in London Bridge. A full website will be launched in April.

The gathering taking place at the Friends Meeting House is framed by an opening and closing plenary, with workshops, films and discussions throughout the day. Networking is at full tilt, as I arrive with a bundle of the final issue of Transition Free Press under my arm.

As the speakers open the discussion it becomes clear there are there are two big challenges ahead: one is to call ‘Big Media’ to account, to make the reading/watching public aware that their news is highly manipulated in favour of the five billionaires who own 80% of its production.

The second is to build an alternatively-structured, collaborative media that will include the voices of people who are blocked and left out of the debate. If UK news coverage is ‘shallow and corrosive’ as described by radical US journalist, Glenn Greenwald, our task is to deepen and broaden it, to make our media both people and planet-friendly.

It is a producer problem for sure - subjects such as climate change, social justice movements, the fate of the unemployed or asylum seekers, are commonly bypassed or misrepresented. But it is also a consumer problem. We are addicted to processed news. 

Like junk food, we know junk media is not good for us, yet find ourselves lured into the ghost trains and freak shows that beckon us at every newsstand or website sidebar. Flick me, click me, now! How can we kick the habit and instead feed our minds and hearts with empathic stories and intelligent debate? How can we see the Earth, not as a battleground, but as a common ground for human beings and millions of other species coexisting, all with limited lifespans?

seeding the future


The media, like all British instit- utions, thrives on humiliation. And the prime way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate someone else you consider lesser than you. What would a new media look like that doesn’t tap into the fury that lies beneath an institutionalised powerlessness? That recognises that the pecked chicken in the corner is not the problem, but that we all are cooped up in a  henhouse, and this is not how we are supposed to live?

What would a media look like that is not owned by oligarchs, where editors are no longer ‘content managers’ or  papers ‘products’ and a dead actor with alien ears the headline of the day?

In the hallway and networking rooms of the Friends Meeting House the signs of it are in the air and on the table: new cooperatively-run, people-owned  local papers such as Birmingham’s Slaney Street or The Bristol Cable. The strong intelligent editorial of The Occupied Times, that first went on sale outside St Paul’s in 2011, with its distinctive black and white style. International on-line and print magazines that operate without advertising, such as the New Internationalist. Publications that train people to become citizen journalists like Manchester Mule, or STIR magazine based in Dorset; crowdfunded journalism such as ex-Guardian political commentator, Nafeez Ahmed’s Patreon platform. Independent writers, editors, broadcasters, new wave techs and a few Fleet Street vets, like myself, all happy to share their knowledge and skills and experience.

Which brings a third challenge into play: finding ways to cohere our different outlets into a meaningful and stable network. In a media monoculture news is easy to co-ordinate. McMedia can be sold anywhere. It looks and tastes the same: the same press releases and think-tank reports, the same agency photographs, the same levels of antagonism in columns and headlines, just reworked into different house styles.

However a diverse, cross-cultural media doesn’t look or feel like this. It might be grainy instead of glossy, but its headlines don’t scream at you or twist your guts. In conventional media, the reader is irrelevant, except as a consumer, mostly of the advertising which keeps its papers, websites and channels financially afloat. In Real Media however the reader is a key part of the communications system: they are the story that is being written and, in many cases, they also fund the paper or platform they are reading or listening to.

The only free press, as OpenDemocracy states, is one paid for by its readers.

Paying the piper


No media outlet is cheap to run. In-depth investigative reporting is expensive not least for the legal fees it can incur. Most people are unaware of how much journalism costs to produce both in terms of effort and finance, and give it a poor level of value or trust.  

Conventional journalists however don’t have to think about where their salaries or readership come from. Unless they bump hard against the system, as the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne did recently regarding HBSC, reporters rarely consider the pernicious influence of advertising on editorial, or the dissonance that arises, for example, when companies like Unilever sponsor environmental pages in The Guardian.

In alternative media you have to think about these relationships: you become an entrepreneur as much as a reporter. You have to juggle the demands of sourcing ethical advertising, subscription schemes, crowdfunding and funding from progressive charities, such as Network for Social Change. None of these are secure outlets. Most ‘alternative journalism’ doesn’t pay either its contributors, or its editorial staff.

So the way forward for many publications, both on-line or in print is through donations: to build a dynamic economic relationship with their readers, which is how the new media platform, Common Space, launched through Common Wheal, has been able to fund its team of reporters. In England, we are highly aware that the Independence movement has radicalised a large section of society that had never had been involved in political discussion before. It has helped to redefine democracy as a people-led movement, rather than a battle for power and privilege in the corridors of Westminster. - and Common Space can be seen as a direct reflection of that engagement.

But how can a left-leaning press alliance get this kind of new thinking out to people who may lean in other directions? ‘We don’t want to be in an echo-chamber, talking to ourselves,’ Common Space’s editor Angela Haggerty stated.

Answering questions from the floor about dealing with disenfranchisement among fracking protesters, or within Muslim communities, she advised: ‘You have to confront the argument and be prepared to explore it properly.’ Most of all you have to listen and allow enough space and common ground for everyone to be included.

This is a very different position from conventional journalism which stands apart from the subject it is reporting on. It is a stance that demands far more than an ability to ask awkward questions and make the deadline. To stop sliding into the Us and Them rhetoric that typifies Big Media, we need to ask ourselves those kinds of tricky existential questions that have been arising in the backrooms of the Friends’ Meeting House on this rainy afternoon. 

Who are you reporting to, and for whom?

Whose side are you on?


Everybody knows the boat is leaking


Everybody knows , as Leonard Cohen once reminded us, but few of us speak with one another as if we all know. Everyone knows the system is rotten but carries on reading papers that say that the shiny world they showcase is going to last forever. One of the reasons for the Big Media clampdown on dissent, explains Ahmed, is because of the systemic crisis we are facing – political, financial, environmental, social – is signalling that the system itself is dying.  

‘Fundamentally our planet is owned and controlled by a tiny elite of people who are exploiting the commons for their own benefit.’

If everybody knows that fracking contaminates water tables, that Amazon doesn’t pay its taxes, that ‘divide and rule’ is the tactic employed by all bully-boy Empires, a key move we need to make as citizens and communicators is to speak to each other from that knowledge, and frame our media likewise.

One thing lies in our favour: what drives every journalist, no matter who  they work for, is neither money, nor corporate control; it is the story. And if that story is no longer illusion or propaganda, but  embedded in the real lives of people, reporters will have no choice but to go out there and find it.

Everybody knows the captain lied.

That story is us. Time to start writing it. 

Find out more details at the Real Media website. Occupy the Media website can be found here, with details of events and the Charter For a Free Democratic Press.

Photos from Real Media Gathering by Fields of Light Photography;  issues of Slaney Street; poster for The Bristol Cable's first annual meeting