I just returned from participating in a meeting convened by the Edmonton Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council that had fifty of us discussing the future of arts research, advocacy and topics spreading out from there. It's the beginning of a conversation. Here are the notes I spoke from.
Who has a relevant voice for the arts and why? (What’s next?)
There’s no one answer to these questions, of course. And I can only bring myself and my context in Toronto.
For me, The key is in the “relevant” –
since relevance might be a path way to power. When we talk of getting the “relevant people” on board, I imagine we’re often talking about people currently with power.
(Power to me, equals direct influence and decision making.)
In our times, power is largely driven by money and access… the bread and butter of North American lobbyist democracy.
Those aren’t the “relevant people” – at least not for the arts I want to make or to attend Not for the world I want.
The people relevant to me are my friends and family, our neighbors and their friends and families and the friends and families of friends and families and so on.
The people relevant to me are also people who don’t participate in the Formal arts, in political debates, in elections. People who feel alienated and disconnected from (formal) “Civil” society and don’t imagine the Arts (as we in this room talk about them) are for them (and largely, they’re not wrong.) And even if they wanted to participate in what we call the Arts – they can’t afford to. Also, they have their own forms of participation and aren’t missing us as much as we’re missing them.
# I suspect I’m here, along with others, to be the outsider, a good position for an artist and I thank the organizers for including that role - I’m glad it was considered.
Small Wooden Shoe is named for the tools French workers would use to jam the machinery when they went on strike. Their “sabot” – small wooden shoes – gave us the word “sabotage.” Like them, I often want to disrupt the machinery of everyday operations in hopes for justice.
2 Speaking for the arts to the people with power in these times – is not something I’m suited for.1
Parts of me - let’s say the community organizer part, gets the appeals for the “adjacent possible” and dealing with the governments that we have. I understand the pragmatic do-what-works. I get that the strategies used by our lobbyists aren’t for convincingme.
But I’m not suited for it because, as a person in this country and as a maker – I’m not ok with it. I’m too angry, too impatient. – not about the arts, but about what’s being done to this country to this planet and the people who live in it.
And because the culture of media-manipulation, money, and lobbying, has destroyed democracy in the US 2 and threatens to do the same in Canada. and I don’t think we can fight War for Peace.
I don’t know how to get out of the pragmatist bind in this, Which is maybe why I make theatre.
3 As an artist - I work with the values: Admit what’s going on. Try to help. Which doesn’t mean accepting, “Just how it is.” I try to see the world as it is and intervene to make it better. I try to create moments – in product, process and experience – of the “world that could be.”
I hope to counter the numbing alienation I feel in our times With delight, respect and connection. I use the world around me to do that – Its technologies and trends, The connections and zeitgeist I try to attend to.
I don’t think I’m so special, so I think other people feel this way too. The art that I hope to make, is work that speaks with3 the people most relevant, if not yet receptive,
The People who might come to the show. The people who have the power to change our government.
This is, of course, idealistic and knowingly naive - But the alternatives strike me as short sighted and cynical.
In order to make this naive utopian vision happen Lots has to change – and not individually or incrementally.
The way art is funded and supported, the way it’s presented, the cost of it, how we talk about it - in language and in form – and most exciting – the art we’re making is going to change. It has to get better.
It is easy (and mostly true) to say that all artists want to make good work – Nobody sets out to be boring or banal. Few companies include “alienate the public” in their mission statement. But we do it.
All the time. We do it with high ticket prices and a lack of neighborhood options. We do it with terrible graphic design and worse mobile experiences. We do it by only taking to the streets when it’s us they want to cut and only courting the rich and powerful. We do it by silo-ing the “professionals” from the “amateurs” and the “communities.” We do it with unwelcoming spaces and disheartened Front of House staff. We do it when we diminish, ban and prosecute different or emerging modes of expression and engagement.
Access is a financial and geographic issue but it is also an issue of humour and pleasure, of politics, charm and entrance points. I’m going to keep hammering the “good night out” drum until I have a few in a row.
For my own work I think about 4 categories of practice – Research, Intimate, Community, and a Populism I can stand behind. I can talk more about these, but I want to be clear: I believe in the vital importance of Research and Intimate work, Work that may be difficult, if not impossible, For a curious stranger to access.
Public and institutional funding must support this work in the way that public funding is needed to fund primary research in science. And it has to be protected from strict quantitative evaluation and Creative Capital instrumentalism.
Qualitative evaluation and understandings must be developed – we are not the ones against evidence and reflection on causes.
In constellations, networks and wandering bands Making work for and with the people relevant to them. This is the hope I have for myself and the ever shimmering group of irregulars I’m blessed to be involved with. There are dangers and needs – but there is also strength, and I’d rather start from those.
To talk flexible tactics along with bigs strategies. Store fronts and community halls Art in every neighborhood. More access to public space for public use.
Art doesn’t change the world (except when it does) - but It can increase the chance of solidarity and provide a shared experience over which strangers and families and lovers and neighbours can meet and be glad of.
These people will then speak for the arts. In the voting booth they will speak for a world they want and that they treasure - and art will be part of that.
The potential for radical change needs to be assisted and defended from the top – but it will emerge from the grassroots & frontlines.
Otherwise it’s not a change.
- As a person in this country, I can’t flatter or soft sell the Harper or Ford Government on the need to support the arts until scientists are unmuzzled, until everyone, regardless of wealth, can challenge our government in the Supreme Court, until the right to dissent is protected, street nurses are hired and wet shelters opened. Until anti-terrorism laws aren’t aimed at the civilly disobedient, until there is meaningful recognition of our home on native land and historic systemic oppressions are addressed. As a person, with the right to vote and speak in Canada, I can’t applaud the Harper Government until it is headed out the door. ↩
- See Lawrence Lessig and his (US focused) TED Talk ↩
- We don’t “empower” people (give them power.) We don’t “speak for those who can’t speak for themselves” – because we can speak for ourselves and we do have power and saying otherwise is part of the problem. At best, perhaps, we facilitate people understanding our power. We use our privilege, skills and access to clear blockages. And it’s not enough to do this on a solely personal level (“I have the power to make different choices, to express myself, to claim my strengths as strengths” etc..) – because our personal power is often diminished and restricted by systemic barriers. Questions of access and wealth, education, gender, sexuality, practice, ethnicity, politics, language and culture (chosen and historic) all have systemic impact. With these barriers, I as an individual can’t do much - I can barely speak to them. ↩