Yesterday, at the first Uncommon Ground I gave the opening speech to a room full of arts commissioners, trust fund cheque writers and senior art management knobheads.
You can watch what I said here (16 mins 25 secs) with subtitles. I’ve also included the transcript below. FYI I am dyslexic and I last went to school when I was 13 so if you’ve got some grammar or spellings you want to pull me up on please send them with a stamped addressed envelope to someone who cares...
There’s a trend happening in the arts, a trend that no one dare to call a trend because it might expose them for not really caring as much as they think they do. For not being the publicly funded Lady Di of the arts they think they are - this trend is called ‘socially engaged practice’.
For those of you here today who are more honest with your artistic intentions or the uninitiated, socially engaged work or what theatre folk like to call ‘applied theatre’ cause they’re like that, I think, is the art of making stuff with heart. Enabling a community or individual to work something through, discuss the contentious, sort something out and get ideas above their station through the act of creativity. The good stuff in this sector is for, by and with those who are often not centre stage, who wouldn’t normally step into our elitist world.
Since my first exposure into this arty malarky I’ve made stuff about stuff - from early beginnings as a council estate kid with Camden People's Theatre youth theatre making work about class to Spare Tyre radical elder projects making work with and for those who are often invisible to our youth obsessed society - I was trained and encouraged to create work that meant something to more than just arty lot - for more than just the Tarquins and Gertrudes this sector seems to favor.
The work I saw in the late 90’s as a impressionable teenager and 00’s as a mouthy weirdo by the likes of CPT, Spare Tyre, Duckie, Gay Sweatshop, Tara Arts, Roundhouse, Drill Hall, Diorama, Split Britches, Bette Bourne, Oval House and Clean Break was unashamedly charged - it came from companies who had a long history with occupation of space, community ownership and radical thinking - often all three at the same time - it was underfunded, ignored and written off by the mainstreams as “community art” - oh how those tides are changing.
It now seems that to qualify as an engaged maker all you need is a few hundred colourful sweatshop made t-shirts, the ability be able to coerce the public into them whilst they carry stuff above their heads - preferably carrying it down their high street for extra kudos and for more brownie points it should be with a “hard to reach community” - and by this they mean the working classes.
So, why has there been this move towards pointless flag waving? Numbers - numbers and data. Imagine you read somewhere that I, humble artist have worked with, scrap that - COLLABORATED WITH or our favourite ENABLED 1,000 participants whilst 250,000 people watched, scrap that 250,000 ENGAGED - everyone all supposedly involved, engaged, enthralled - that looks lovely on an evaluation doesn’t it?!
For better or worst that unlocks the keys to public funding, commissioners purses, sector acclaim and so-called success. The work is deemed ‘value for money’ and the cost per head is worked out - a bit like if you were going to a buffet. A certificate sent to the lovely art knobs for thinking up such a brilliant idea that they have literally just copied from the arts organisation down the road.
You can see the philanthropist, corporation and trusts writing the cheques so that more, poor, working class souls like me can get out for the day. However, if you unpick these numbers and you’ll find something far darker - guesstimates, lies, skewed figures, coercion, unethical practice, exploitation and very little ownership or buy in from the people it's supposedly engaging with. No risk, no dialogue, no empowerment just lots of people carrying things.
The days of political risk taking, creative demonstration and honest, punchy engaged work have been replaced by a series of processions, potato stamping and lack lustre carnivals - if I have to see another light up umbrella being shoved into some poor teenagers hands I might just do the gig for them to save them the embarrassment and ridicule.
I got into the arts as being a participant in an engaged project - encouraged to be apart of something led by a radical feminist theatre company. I was encouraged to be honest and ugly with that honesty. I was trained through engaged work to own my queerness, effeminacy, fatness and class - no art school, no War Horse, no scratch performances, no mass-funded art centre, no symposium, no procession down the high street, no city of culture.
The practitioners I was trained by demonstrated how the arts could not only be an outlet, activist, political and useful but they also showed me it could be a career.
If Daniel Kaluuya is the product of arts funding in the UK then perhaps I’ll let my ego tell you I am the product of a series of risky engaged practitioners and companies not taking the easy route. I know, in fact I live the transformation that this sector can offer when it puts the graft in, some effort, some thought, when it's political and actually engaged.
Why are we, as a sector going for this mass appeal pointlessness? I think the truth here is it’s easier to hand someone a flag than to think up interventions or discourse that they can truly shift stuff. It’s easier not to hear how awful life is for many in our country - it’s easier to give them a nice day out and reap the rewards of their data and identities. It’s easier to type out audience feedback forms that say ‘it was fun’ than be confronted with the reality of what it really is to be marginalized in England. It’s just all very ...easy.
I also think there is a fear in this sector of actual engagement (the irony) with many of the prolific faces, the deal breakers, the ones with power in our sector being brought up in the suburbs surrounded by vases, art-in-the-home and an access to an education and a further education and a doctorate - it’s an alien concept poverty, hardship, inadequacy, imposter syndrome, oppression - so of course they have no clue how to engage with real people. The sector hasn’t experienced the problem so they refuse to acknowledge it exists.
What lies beneath neo-engagement projects in England is often ignorance - the privileged setting an agenda of celebration, ignoring the real stuff, what they think isn’t a thing anymore - CLASS.
Time and time again I’ve come across classism in large scale engagement and arts projects across the country. These often present themselves as a debasing or reductive approach when working with those outside the middle and upper class elite. One which I come across almost every time is that to get working class people to engage with work you must coerce them. Free tickets, free coach to the venue, free lunch, stream it to their cinema - they’ll even do the show for you. I agree that making it free helps, but if you are only focusing on financial access and not the work you're making then what your saying it will still be a pile of poo.
When referring to my work I’ve heard commissioners say to colleagues “they like him cause he’s just as common as them”. Commissioners still think I and other working class makers speak a special council estate language that means working class people engage with my stuff. The truth is, those of us who are properly engaged are just not lazy - I don’t expect putting up a poster in my local art centre or an advert in the guardian is gonna bring folk like me, me mum, me nan in... but that route is easy, isn't it?! Its safe. Perhaps the real reason we, the working classes tend not to engage in the traditional arts, in theatre, opera or dance is because to us, it meaningless.
If you carry on creating these reductive pieces of mass-produced Primark processions you fail all the potential makers and audiences of the future. You fail those who engage by not creating something worthwhile, meaningful or life changing - and yes, that is my expectation of your work in this part of the sector - transformation.
At the moment all your are encouraging is a generation of carnival enthusiasts. Whilst endorsing the thinking that the arts is as the tabloids would have everyone believe - pathetic, a waste of money and time.
So, my provocation to you, Uncommon Ground 2018 - when you’re next planning your nice and easy, depoliticized, clean and safe project ask yourself this - does this encourage the next generation of artists, activists, thinkers and doers to be braver, stronger, empowered and more vocal?
Have I lied to the funders, the trusts about what this will really do for folk? Have I embellished the truth at the actual impact the work is having? Is this useful? Should I stop using public resources for the glorification of my art ego?
Who am I creating this for? Do I care enough? Will this create change? Is this a force for good?
...or it this just a memory - a thing that happened for 10 minutes one weekend in 2018?
Must. Try. Harder.