This week, as part of Kiertoliike 2017 I gave the arts sector in Finland a lecture on the urgency of engaged art. It explored where I saw the problem and who was to blame. Performed in front of an audience made up for programmers, producers, artists and students in a government building looking over Turku. Some of the lecture has been edited (these are marked with page breaks) as it uses devices that are best sprung on an audience and not documented for future sharings.
My name is Scottee, I’m an artist and activist from England, which is part of the so-called United Kingdom
This lecture contains material that is hopefully going to offend and motivate; referencing politics, death, sexism, oppression and racism.
I come from a country and I guess I’m representing a country here today that is trying to divorce you, Finland, a member of the European Union.
The country I live in is controlled by those who don’t fully believe in my civil rights as a queer person, whose ideals are not aligned with my feminism, a government that values the lives of the wealthy over working classes.
The person who represents me in parliament has voted against LGBTQIA* equality constantly for the past 23 years, my Prime Minister also has a bad record with queer and trans* equality; to retain power she’s done a complicated deal with another political party who believe women shouldn’t have the right to abortion and that the rings on my husbands and my own hand shouldn’t be there.
Queer and trans* people have been tortured, beaten and even killed because of their perceived sexuality and/or gender in my country in the last decade. Almost half of all trans* people in my country have attempted self harm and/or suicide because of the oppression and traumas enforced on them. Since the Brexit vote homophobic, transphobic and racist hate crime in my country has become even more prevalent.
It is thought that over 80 people will have died in a fire in central London (bodies are still being recovered). The building was home to people who lived in subsidised social housing, despite warnings from specialists that a fire like this could take place my government opted to ignore them. Thousands of people are living in buildings like these across the UK.
My country is ruled by an unelected monarch whose family profiteers from a cultural identity built on slavery and imperialism.
I live in a country that is dominated by right wing power, who pretend to be centre politics. A country whose exit from EU membership was instigated, fuelled and plotted by radical right wing politics, a politic that believes England should be for the English - to be explicit what they mean is white, British passport holders. An ideology that believes the island I live on is too full, over capacity and at risk of sinking.
I live in a country that has been subjected to multiple terrorist attacks, attacks that we’re told are because we don’t share the same ideology with those trying to kill us, and nothing to do with the fact my country murdered innocent people in illegal warfare; Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo... the list goes on. It also has nothing to do with the fact my country colonised continents, countries and cultures for hundreds of years.
It's safe to say I do not share the same ideologies as those who represent, govern and control me.
So, in response to these systems I have created artworks, theatre tours and social interventions that find ways of having conversations we much rather ignore - I’m trying, I don’t know if they help, but it’s an attempt at being useful.
I’ve created work about class, fatness, gender, maleness, queerness, trauma. I’ve made work with QTPOC and white gay Neo-nationalists, I’ve made work about toxic masculinity presented in male dominated spaces, I’ve explored the oppression queer people and their experience of public space with public artworks - I made work that addresses head on, usually in the place or space the oppressor exists.
They are big and often unignorable. They are called risky by frightened commissioners. They are made to confront.
So, Finland - when thinking about our countries I think we’ve we might see some similarities, right?
We both live under conservative powers,
We both are experiencing the effects of neo-nationalism,
We live under the threat of violence and “terror”
We live in an unequal society,
...and we fear but still silently befriend our nearest superpowers.
So, with all this fear, aggression, oppression and trauma - how do you as a sector; the arts, artists, facilitators, programmers, makers, audiences, how do you respond?
Well, arts and culture are supposed to help us make sense of the world. Arts and culture is supposed to help us understand, critique, develop, progress, right? So, that must mean the work we’re making is about living under conservative powers, neo-nationalism, inequality right? This must mean we are trying everything possible to destabilise these systems? Right?!
No, this doesn't happen, does it?
You decide to make, curate, present, platform and contribute to work about the pretty, inoffensive, boring lives. You decide to ignore whats going on. You make a choice and I think you are making the wrong choice.
You make work about your really special holiday you went on when you were 5 years old, you focus on aesthetics, about nice shit. You tour shows that look pretty but do absolutely nothing. You do shows that you think are good because they make people smile and clap. You surround yourself with other people who believe in you, you convince other people that you are brilliant. You talk about the arts and artists as if they are gurus - we’re not.
You have an ego. You think yourself special, important, valid. You think you are breaking all rules. You think you are really helping.
For those of you sat there thinking I make political work, he is not talking to me ...sorry, you lot are worst! You so-called ‘socially engaged artists’ make little nice shows about misogyny that only the same 5 women see, women who already identify as feminists, those who are already on board with gender equality.
You make art works about global warming made on bleached paper using toxic paints, displayed in galleries that are funded by oil and energy companies.
You create festivals held in government buildings where oppressive law that affects society's most vulnerable are made and enforced.
You make nice ‘social interventions’ that are nice and safe, nice and compliant with law and are a nice way of getting public funding so we can buy nice scented candles that sit on the nice Ikea furniture, for you to eat your nice brunch off, on nice weekends in your nice homes with your nice heretosexual family.
You say you’re politically active, you say you’re fighting against the patriarchy, against capitalism, against global warming, against right wing power, against whiteness, against war, poverty, torture - so why does nothing change? Why has it got worse? Are you doing it wrong? Why are we still fighting the same issues? Many of you say you think your work is radical, you say it's ‘tackling issues’ - so why does nothing change?
If I went to a mechanic who said he could make my car work again and after 50 years he still hadn’t made the car work, despite millions of pounds of public money, despite 1000’s of his colleagues trying to fix it, you’d give up on the car and the mechanic, right? So, why are we still going? Why do we think we are still able to solve the world’s shit?
You are great liars. Although, more frightening, some of you actually believe your own lies.
Your friends and peers amongst you will say this change doesn’t happen because these systems are bigger than us, that we are just one voice, ‘what can I do?’ ....but after all this investment we’ve collectively failed for years to push things forward.
Perhaps the truth is the work we are making isn’t good enough. Perhaps it's time we admitted we cannot change a thing in the world with our version of art. Perhaps it's time we stopped using up so much public and global resources. Perhaps we should stop making work - perhaps it's time to stop ignoring the problem.
How much are we willing to risk for equality?
How much are we willing to risk for others?
How much are you willing to risk for equality?
How much are you willing to risk for others?
Earlier when I said we’ve got some stuff in common, that we lived lived under conservative powers, that we both are experienced the effects of neo-nationalism, we lived under the threat of violence, that we fear and befriend our nearest super powers.
When I said ‘we’ I didn’t mean ‘we’ as nations, Finland and England - I meant you and I. We live under right wing power, we experience neo-nationalism, we fear and befriend the enemy.
OK, so, we can all agree there is a problem with oppressions, inequality etc. We know that we (you and I) don’t want to be treated in the way we know how other people are treated but because we are the ones who are not living with the effects of oppression, we decide to do nothing,
we are complicit.
So if we know there is injustice and we say we, the arts, are there to fight for injustice - why isn’t this injustice present in all of the work we make?
We know it exists, but still we make art, dance, theatre about stuff that ignore it. We create creative smoke screens.
It is time we stopped telling audiences everything is OK, that they will live happily ever after, that in the end we will all will be OK.
Before that we need to acknowledge us, we, you and I.
We think we are not the problem. We think the problem belongs to someone else. I’m here to remind you - you are also the problem, we are also the problem and it’s yours to fix not somebody else.
Like it or not - you and I are responsible for illegal wars, you and I have killed innocent humans in Afghanistan, you and I profiteer from racism, slave labour and misogyny. You and I elect, give platform and endorse nationalism and conservatism as a means of control. You and I are both complicit in complex systems of racisms, sexism, misogyny, ableism, colonisation and capitalism.
We are the problem. Why? Again, we accept it. We shrug our shoulders. We turn our head to the side and pull a face. We allow it to happen. We say we’re powerless - but we’re not, it's just easier not to do something. We are useless, pathetic, apathetic, pointless, gutless, contradictory, weak. Knowing this, admitting this, embracing this might finally help you make some fucking good work that is useful.
Let’s break down what I mean when I say ‘we are also the problem’ and ‘it’s yours to fix not somebody else’. I want us to look at who the arts is for, who makes the decisions and who makes the work.
Why is this a room predominately white, able bodied, educated people? Well, the uncomfortable truth is because we want it to be that way.
If we really wanted to break down barriers, if we really wanted to make room for other we would, but we don’t. We like it to feel safe, to be familiar, to be white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied because that doesn’t pose a threat, we understand “normativity” - it's safe.
So, again - we are the problem. The problem is not elsewhere.
You might still be sat here thinking - this isn’t about me. You might think that everyone here is an ally, signed up to the same political agenda. Wrong. The problem is not elsewhere.
In the arts we like to think of ourselves as left wing, liberal, good people. We like to think our peers, colleagues or co-workers as being politically aligned with us, sharing our collective values. We like to think our sector is free from right wing radicalism - unfortunately that's completely untrue.
At the last election in Finland 227, 297 people in your country voted for a party that opposes same sex marriage and adoption, opposes multiculturalism and the intake of refugees and aims to outlaw begging. Thats 9% of the vote. So, for instance, 9% of the audience here this afternoon could have voted for that ethos - would anyone in the room like to admit for voting for that ideology?
You see as much as we, the arts, like to think of our sector as being a safe haven for the right sort of radical ideas - it’s highly likely you work alongside, collaborate with and are funded by the so-called enemy.
So, not only are you the problem, not only is the problem not elsewhere but the sector you work within is populated, maintained and funded by the enemy.
Like most capitalist commerce our sector is dominated by heterosexual, white, able bodied, educated, cis* gender men from affluent backgrounds. They hold positions of power, they dictate the advancement of people’s careers and on average they are paid 15%-18% more than cis* women in the same positions in both of our countries. Why? Cis* men allow it to happen. They are complicit in the oppression of women.
So, not only are you the problem, not only is the problem not elsewhere, not only is the sector you work within populated, maintained and funded by the enemy but those in power don’t want to hand their power over.
If art, our currency, our means of communicating with and to the world; critiquing, debating and questioning mainstreams, status quo and normative behaviour isn’t critiquing, debating or questioning whilst the world becomes a more violent place then should we just give up?
I present this lecture with urgency. The world, our world, our nations, you and I, we - we are on the brink. The shit is hitting the fan - you can either help change it or you can carry on as you are pretending the problem is elsewhere.
So, Finland, I leave with with these provocations…
Who sees your work?
Who funds it?
Who holds the power?
Who are you trying to impress?
Who do you think you are?
Who the fuck are you?
What is your work saying?
What is the problem?
What is going to help?
What good is your work doing?
What use are you?
How is your work helping, destabilizing, aggravating and enabling?
How is your existence meaningful?
How are you contributing?
How will you help topple the patriarchy, racism, sexism, poverty, violence?
Why do you make work?
Why are you listening?
Why do you feel powerless?
Why are you here?