Whales of South London

I decided to take up the #inktober challenge and make a drawing a day in October (I’m a bit late but maybe I’ll catch up) and to add an additional challenge to that of making each drawing about something I have learnt about Courtenay Street, Kennington or Lambeth from the work I have been doing on my Artist in Residence in My Own Street project.

Prince of Wales or Whales?

I came across this passage in Clowes ‘History of the Manor of Kennington’ at the Lambeth archives:

“There are several bones of the whale in the neighbourhood, including two ribs on the site of St Anselm’s Church which were until lately, set up in the form of an arch. A similar arch formed the back entrance to Cuper’s Garden, and several large pieces of bone, one of which is now in the garden of 284 Kennington Park Road, were unearthed in Courtenay Street in 1912. Perhaps the Tradescants brought a whale’s skeleton to Lambeth.”

It caught my eye because I do the occasional Duty Manager shift at the Garden Museum and I was aware that they were fundraising to add to the Tradescant ‘Ark’ gallery a crocodile and a whale. They had been offered the skeleton of a whale that had been discovered at Greenwich in 2010 but was thought to be the whale noted in John Evelyn’s diary as being beached there in 1658.  Later historians of the Tradescant’s had noted that they did indeed have a whale arch at their property in South Lambeth (the old boundary of which is marked by Tradescant Road) and this was clearly a theme with visitor attractions of the time as Clowes notes (Cuper’s Gardens operated from 1686 to 1753). Why there should be a similar arch in front of St Anselm’s is a bit more of a mystery! A brief whaling industry in London was centred around Greenland Dock in Rotherhithe from the 1720s to early 1800s so perhaps some of these bones were simply bi-products of that industry or brought or bought by people involved in some way. The bones in Courtenay Street are equally mysterious although it is perhaps possible that they are connected to the ones at St Anselm’s and relate to an earlier property? They were uncovered during the building works of 1912.

In my drawing I have shown St Anselm’s as it is today – the current church was built in the 1930s so the one Clowe’s talks about almost certainly wouldn’t have looked like this. On maps of 1636 and 1725 the parcel of land on which both Courtenay Street and St Anselm’s stand was all one attached to what had been the Black Prince’s Palace, so it’s possible that the building that was there in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted the fashion for whale arches and one remained in front of what was to become St Anselm’s and the other (in Courtenay Street) fell in a ditch!

In 2006 a bottle nose whale swam all the way up the Thames from the estuary to Battersea Bridge – causing near hysteria in the population of London (and you know how difficult it is to get Londoners excited about anything). The whale did not survive its visit and became a symbol for environmentalists – its skeleton and a symbolic quantity of its oil were exhibited to the public.

The owner of the Manor of Kennington has (since the time of Edward II) been the Prince of Wales and Prince Charles as the Duke of Cornwall is still the owner of much of the land around Kennington including Courtenay Street. Prince of Wales and now Prince of Whales.

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Is Westworld more feminist than it looks?

I’ve only just caught up with Westworld, I had put off watching it based on my experience of the original movie, which I didn’t like. It turns out I loved Westworld the TV show!  I was at a meeting recently and it reminded me a little bit of Westworld, there weren’t any robots but it went something like this:

In Westworld:

Human shows something to an android that would challenge their world view if they actually understood what it was (a photograph of a car for example, or the blue-prints that made them) and their response is always “that doesn’t look like anything to me at all” – they simply can’t see what it is not in their interest to see, anything that would shake their view of the world, their understanding of themselves as ‘people’ living in a Wild West context.

At the meeting I was at:

I was suddenly struck how ‘Westworld’ could so easily be ‘West(ern democracy) World’.  People were talking about improving diversity in the cultural sector and yet the two chairs (of different parts of the meeting) were both white and male and, even if they hadn’t started out privileged, privileged by their current positions in the world.  We were joined later by another privileged white male who gave a speech and then wasn’t particularly interested in answering any questions that challenged his already set world view. It felt like all three of them were saying ‘that doesn’t look like anything to me at all’ when they shut down dialogue around anything that challenged their world view (or that they weren’t interested in)  – that challenged the things they really couldn’t see – that the world has been designed with them in mind, that it really does work for them, that it does look better seen through their eyes and they really can’t see what it is we are trying to show them.

And I have to be honest as this revelation sunk in on my dispirited way home on the tube I gave up. I decided to take a break until the pattern of the brick imprinted on my forehead had faded and I was ready to face that wall again.  Maybe by the time I’m ready someone else will have chipped some bricks from it? Maybe not.  But more encouragingly I started to think about Westworld and what it was maybe trying to say and it seemed to me to be the same thing.  SPOILER ALERT!

Two of the main female android characters have an awakening, they begin to challenge the world view. One from inside the world itself and we are left questioning whether she is being manipulated in her revolt for some other end, but the other challenges her world from outside, seeking to understand the world she was made in, not made for.  In the meantime the human men who go into the Westworld seem to be trying to blot out any idea of the modern world and what it means and to revel in the macho world of the Old West, where they can be violent, they can rape, they can kill and torture and maim and be free from guilt or retribution because none of it is ‘real’ – except that we see that it does have a very real effect on them as people – is there a commentary there on the world of video games that we currently enjoy which provide the same, albeit primitive in comparison, virtual reality in which to play out these violent fantasies?

Sadly, as in life, as in Westworld, it is the good robots, the ones that don’t challenge their programming or the world they are made for, that continue to be reused and promoted for different roles, their life prolonged by refits and re-purposing, the bad robots end up in a deep dark basement switched off until they can be made to fit in again.  But maybe the bad robots will be activated into rebellion? Let’s see what Season Two brings to Westworld. Meantime picture me in a dark wet basement, inert, but plotting.

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Counter Culture White Paper

I have set up a small project to create a ‘Counter Culture White Paper’ partly in response to the recent DCMS White Paper but also as a way of bringing together all the thinking that has been happening in various groups and fora that I belong to about how to make arts and culture ‘work’.  This blog constitutes an invitation to collaborate on this.

I was inspired by a session at the recent How To Do It conference on the Greater London Council of 81-85 that saw a radical new approach to arts and culture policy that supported grassroots and community project and prioritised funding to existing (and new projects) that came from under-represented groups (ethnic minorities, women, elderly, LGBT etc).  I was also recently at the launch of the Culture Minister’s Culture White Paper and whilst there is little in that document to offend it certainly isn’t a blue print for a Progressive Arts Policy.  If we want that we cannot rely on Government to provide it – even a Government committed to such a thing (still waiting) would not have the means to produce it being advised and surrounded and drawing upon a history that is largely based in the experience of large and long-standing organisations.

Therefore we as individuals must do this work.  Whether you are an academic, a radical thinker, an activist, a worker in an arts or cultural organisation, an artist, a practitioner or a member of the public who is passionate about the arts then I’d like you to help me create a response to Ed Vaizey’s paper.  I aim to follow his main headings and to provide an alternative response.  The idea is not to pick apart or directly refute his suggestions but to work out alternative or additional solutions to the areas he has identified.  We will also add in the things that were left out: arts education, the BBC, health and wellbeing, art and culture as a vector for social change, etc, etc.

The main headings are:

1. Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers no matter where they start

2. The riches of our culture should benefit communities across the country

3. The power of culture can increase our international standing

4. Cultural investment, resilience and reform.

For reference the full Government paper can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/509942/DCMS_The_Culture_White_Paper__1_.pdf

I have set up a project on this platform to allow people in groups to have online discussions, upload documents etc.  In the notifications area you can uncheck yourself from particular discussions, or all discussions and just receive a daily update in a single email.

I’d like this to be a group of individuals representing only themselves, rather than the organisations they work for, although clearly there will be relevance in the experiences of those organisations and case studies drawn from their work.  I feel that every time an idea gets filtered through an organisational process it gathers ‘organisational’ thinking which means it drags with it the invisible structures of power and hierarchy no matter the worthiness and good intentions of the organisation.

In the project I have set up a separate discussion thread for each of the four areas as a starting point but I am keen that people should also come with their own ideas, come up challenges, aims/headings and to talk freely about how you would like to see the arts funded, how you would like to see them valued/validated/evaluated (if at all), whether you agree that arts can be used for political ends (eg soft power referenced at no. 3) and how you think we can genuinely make arts and culture for everyone and tackle issues of diversity and genuine access and participation – in the sense of sharing rather than instrumental provision of opportunities to take part.  I hope that by having a collaborative discussions format, rather than a consultation format we might build consensus around ideas and solutions.

I’m aware that the Culture Select Committee is also consulting at the moment and it may be that work that is done as formal submission to that, or formal responses to the DCMS White Paper might be starting points, or simply submissions towards this project as well.  Whilst I’m keen to have individual voices and ideas in the discussions clearly where work and thought has already gone into these topics it would be crazy to ignore that or pretend it isn’t helpful!

If you would like to take part in this project please email me at thetalentshop@hotmail.co.uk so that I can send you an invite to join the project platform on Freedcamp.


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Women’s History Month

Not only does International Women’s Day fall in March, it turns out it is also Women’s History Month.

As you will all know from previous posts I’m interested in local history and politics and I recently made this list of famous/interesting women from Lambeth. I was also a little bit shocked to discover that none of these make it onto Wikipedia’s list of famous people from Lambeth! When I get a minute to figure out how to update a Wikipedia page I will attempt to rectify this (feel free to get there first if you have the skills)…

Leader of women’s rights Annie Besant

Annie Besant was born in Clapham and lived for some time in Gypsy Hill.  She was a passionate advocate for women’s (and people’s) rights and helped organise the first women’s union – the Bryant & May matchgirls – and their strike.  She went on to help Ghandi in India which is where she died.


Muriel Matters – suffragette

Muriel was born in in Australia but whilst she was active as a suffragette she lived in Kennington.  She was famous for her ‘stunts’ which included flying over London in a hot air balloon dropping suffrage leaflets on the citizens below and chaining herself to the grille in the Ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons


The first woman councillor we never had – Lady Sandhurst

In the first London County Council elections of 1889 two women were elected councillors, Jane Cobden (for Bow and Bromley) and Lady Sandhurst for Brixton.  The third place candidate in Brixton raised a legal objection about a woman taking a seat on the council and she was replaced by him.  Other legal challenges meant that Cobden could sit but not vote.


The first woman alderman (sic) for the London County Council, women’s rights campaigner, social reformer and cultural pioneer – Emma Cons

She worked in Lambeth to improve housing conditions, took over and ran the Old Vic theatre, founded Morley College and still found time whilst on holiday in Cyprus in 1896 to help Armenian refugees.


War hero who died for her country – Violetta Szabo

Born in France she and her family settled in South London when she was 11.  When war broke out she was working at the perfume counter at Bon Marche in Brixton.  She was an operative of the Special Operations Executive working as a saboteur in occupied France where she was captured, tortured and finally executed at Ravensbruch at the age of 23.


Cultural rebel and pioneer – Joan Littlewood

Joan Littlewood was born in Lambeth and passionately believed that arts and culture should be for everyone – she sought to democratise theatre and is most famous for her production ‘Oh What a Lovely War’.  However her lasting legacy is her Fun Palace idea – ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ creating a community led environment to enjoy and experience arts and science.  This has been taken forward by WEP founding member Stella Duffy (also a Lambeth resident) who runs the new Fun Palaces project.


Some other little snippets…

Mrs Sarah Pain, about whom little is known except that in 1722 she gave a piece of land for the purpose of building a workhouse which was immediately erected and in 1726 a large brick house was opened near Lambeth Butts for receiving all the poor of the parish.

This grew into the first Lambeth Workhouse which was located on Black Prince Road, it subsequently moved to the buildings which now house the Cinema Museum in Renfrew Road.

In 1758 John Fielding (the man who set up the Bow Street runners) instituted an asylum for female orphans and for the reception of deserted females the settlement of whose parents cannot be found.  Orphans were admitted between the ages of 8 and 10, trained until 14 and then placed as servants with respectable families.

Richard II’s Queen – Isabella – intervened between a rampaging mob and John of Gaunt and calmed the situation.

Would be queen, Arabella Stuart was kept imprisoned at Vauxhall.

Nell Gwynne is reputed to have had a house here.

I can’t imagine that mine is an exhaustive list and I’d be pleased to hear from anyone with other suggestions.


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Has Old Vic lost her way?

On Tuesday this week, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations, I was street-canvassing for the Women’s Equality Party in Waterloo.

We had decided to wait outside the Old Vic for the audience from their Gender Debate to exit – hoping that our words and leaflets would find a welcome audience (and they did).  I was also struck, as we talked in the bar afterwards about our Women of South London event, how much female influence had created the success of the Old Vic.

In the 19th Century the theatre was nothing special, simply competing with music halls, variety ‘palaces’ and other theatres.  It came into it’s own under the ownership of Emma Cons, a women’s rights pioneer and a passionate advocate of education for all, she introduced a temperance regime to the theatre and her penny lectures led to the setting up, by her, of Morley College.  Under the management of her niece, Lillian Baylis the theatre began a repertoire of Shakespeare, opera and more serious plays and the Old Vic Company that came into being at that time eventually became the National Theatre in 1963.

When the National Theatre moved to it’s new home on the South Bank the theatre entered a period of financial (although not artistic) decline and was put up for sale.  Some of the potential purchasers would have put it to use as a bingo hall, or a lap dancing club! Instead, responding to public outrange, it was rescued by another woman, Sally Greene, who set up the Old Vic Theatre Trust and acquired the building and from there on success has followed.

So it seemed a shame to me, looking at the posters for the forthcoming season, that the current production and the two to follow are all written by white men, directed by white men and starring white men.  Women (and others) seem to have been squeezed out of the Old Vic which given it’s long history of finding success under women’s patronage seemed a shame.

Perhaps we will find this remedied in the next season?  I do hope so, because hosting a debate on gender imbalance in the theatre, isn’t the same as actually doing something about it by employing those women in leading roles in the repertoire.


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The shadow street

families and houses no.1to5 Courtenay street 1911

sketch 4/3/2016

As part of the work I am doing for my Artist in Residence project, I have been inspired by conversations with my neighbours – and the loan of some old maps by one of them, to look into the past history of the street.  I’ve decided to focus on the census of 1911 – more of the fabric of the current street would have been in place then, so it makes it easier to picture the people of the past living amongst us now.  For example my flat was home to a Police Constable, his wife and 7 year old child, and I’m strugging to fit all of me into it!  In fact Constable Albert Smith was one of six policemen living in the street.  There was a further man on police pension, a naval pensioner, a recruiting seargeant for the army and two female Salvation Army officers, I imagine crime and anti-social behaviour was not an issue for Courtenay Street with this level of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’!

The Smith’s lived in relative comfort, just three of them in what is now a 1 bedroom flat (although as the bath was in the kitchen they would have had a slightly bigger rooms at the back), at the start of the street – no.s 1 to 17 on the odd side – which is where I have begun to try and visualise (see sketch) – there was some serious overcrowding.  No.s1, 3 and 5 no longer exist but looking at the street plan from 1914 they appear to be 3 narrow little houses/cottages, the census says ‘4 rooms’ so I imagine these are two up, two down cottages.

At no.1 live Phineas and Louisa Swodbury and their children.  Phineas is a Labourer, his grown up sons Thomas and Frederick are both in work as an Electrician’s Assistant and a Tailor’s Trimming Porter (??) respectively.  Their 15 year old sister Louisa is a paperbag maker (someone’s got to do it!) and there four younger siblings Rose, Lillian and Grace and Christopher are at school.  That’s nine people in four rooms – not four bedrooms but four rooms including the kitchen.  The census only excludes halls, bathrooms and sculleries (“as if!” I hear Lousia Swodbury cry longingly).

At no.3 live William and Elizabeth Davies and their chlidren.  He is an ‘Electrical Accumulator’ – sounds like he is some kind of human battery but I imagine this is some kind of worker in the relatively new electrical industries – several other people in the street have jobs in this field and some are working in the light bulb packing factory.  They have seven children, none of them old enough to work.  Marian, Alice, William and Frederick are all at school, Rosina, Agnes and baby Albert are at home with mum.  Another family of nine.

And finally at no. 5 we have Henry and Clara Deadman, he is a ‘Carman’ for a ‘meat contractor’.  A Carman was effectively a lorry driver where the vehicle was a horsedrawn one rather than a motor vehicle.  There are 15 carmen in Courtenay Street at this time. There daughters Clara, 8, Ada, 6, Edith, 5, are at school, whilst Ivy, 3 and George, 1 are at home.  When I read the long list of girls and then a son, I thought I wonder if Henry was pleased to have a son at last, and also that he was lucky that George would not be old enough to fight in the war that was looming and would take so many lives in this decade.

Looking at my sketch this morning I reflected that whilst in Courtenay Street this kind of overcrowding is a thing of the past, it is happening again in other parts of London, with rogue landlords packing people into houses, sheds and garages because ‘they can’.  And whether we will get to a point where four working adults can’t aford a dwelling that allows them more than four rooms in total in which to house themsevles and four children!

I will be contiuing on with this work on the Shadow Street and also seeing if I can find out who went to war in 14-18 and who came back.

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An experiment at home

Throughout 2015 I looked at adverts for Artist in Residence schemes. I even applied for a few. Most of them were in schools and the briefs seemed to make the artist themselves the focus of the project. They would work with the pupils/people involved in the project and in some cases make work as well but it definitely felt like the project was about the artist not the residence. I thought about where it would be fun to be an artist in residence, but then I thought about what it would be like to be an artist in residence in just an ordinary suburban road, something like the one I grew up on in Maidenhead. Originally a new build Wimpey homes estate, all the houses roughly the same, with similar families with young children living in them with the occasional retired couple. People going off each day to commute to work. And I figured out in my head how much funding I’d need to do something like that, to be actually resident, whilst I worked as an artist. And I wondered if anyone would fund me for what might seem a rather ‘boring’ project – I mean it’s not like being imbedded in a fighting unit in a war zone, or in a refugee camp. And of course then I realised that I actually live in a street, admittedly not suburban, but still not artistically special or extraordinary. But I am more interested in that ordinary that turns out to be extraordinary. I know some of my neighbours, but none of them well, some I probably have never spoken to. Who knows what stories and lives are in the streets on which we live?

How often as artists do we either look to our immediate experience, or to a far distant exotic or strange world for inspiration and ignore that liminal edge between us and the wider world, our home neighbourhood, our own doorstep?

So that is what I decided to explore in this project. At the beginning of January I put this flyer through every door on Courtenay Street. Although the numbering of the street goes up to 88 it turns out there are only 77 dwellings. Two of those are officially in Courtenay Square but have their doors on Courtenay Street – so I included them. The flyer invited my neighbours to join me in my experiment and asked only that they give a little time to talk to me about their experiences of living in Courtenay Street/Kennington/South East London and if they wanted to, we could also discuss what other things an artist in residence might do. I was quite nervous for some reason when I delivered my envelopes into the various letterboxes, I wondered about the response, I wondered if I’d get a response at all!

Reassuringly quickly I started to receive emails form people in the street saying they would like to take part and so far I have met with three of them. In talking to them and discussing the project with them I realised that I had some other aims in what I was doing and these were:

Not to objectify
A lot of art that is about people – portraits for example – has a tendency to objectify the person being portrayed – they become an object for the artist to work off, and although in a portrait one would look to capture personality as well as physical features, these also become objectified in some way. What I sought was subjectivity – that any work produced would be the collaboration of myself and the person I was talking to, it would be an exploration and an experience rather than ‘capturing’ them in some way – a word we often use when talking about someone’s likeness whether in photography or by other means ‘you’ve really captured them’, ‘you’ve caught the eyes really well’ and so on. I use this language myself instinctively and I am now consciously trying to change it.

Some of this thinking has come out of my discussions with the residents of Courtenay Street and my thoughts about how I will make those discussions and experiences into art works and some has come from my London Debates series of drawings. These drawings which are made whilst people are actively engaged in debate or protest or purposeful conversation are an attempt to put down on paper the experience of seeing and hearing that energy that people have when they are engaged in activity to which they are passionately committed. They are multiple viewpoints and timepoints layered up to create a picture that pulls together a series of moments during a discussion or presentation or demonstration. They aren’t always great likenesses and they don’t always work to my satisfaction, but I feel if I keep on attempting it I will learn something. They are the opposite of a photographic ‘snap’ and it feels like a useful thing to do to find a different way of recording such moments when instant-photography is so ubiquitous and seems to create a homogenous experience of such moments; caught in a fraction of a second we all look the same to some extent when we are in mid-sentence.

Engaging people in art who might not otherwise be interested
I’ve spent a lot of the last four years thinking about how people engage with arts and culture and whether all the cultural lobbying I have done with What Next? is just preaching to the converted. A lot of participatory projects seem to have a slightly patronising us/them slant, where ‘us’ is some kind of professional arts practitioner or organisation and ‘them’ is the people, the masses, the assumed to be ‘not like us’. Arts organisations talk about engagement but only in the sense of audiences. My own experiments in this area have been tiny and this current project will probably reach more people than those that have gone before.

Three people is not much of a sample but so far two of them have some kind of interest or do some kind of artistic activity and only one had no particular interest in the arts but was more interested in the social connection aspect of the work. Assuming that not too many of my flyers ended up in un-opened envelopes in the recycling bin, then 77 different households will be ‘engaged with’, but it will be the people who step up to participate that I am interested in. I want it to be feel like genuine collaboration and hope that it might also spark creativity in others or that I will find other artists in Courtenay Street who are also working away at things.

Exploring the autonomy of the artist
When I initially had this idea I talked to some people about it and many of the responses were along the lines of ‘ooh, you could definitely get funding for that’ as if this was my prime motivator in starting an arts project. I’d had previous discussions around the dividing line between amateur and professional and the sliding scale of amateur/ voluntary/ grassroots/ un-paid ‘professional’/ profit-share-professional/ paid professional that seems to operate as a value measure and also of course in the visual arts world the divide between ‘commercial’ and non-commercial the latter requiring funding by arts organisations in order for the artist to survive. My experience was there was some kind of peer validation going on around the ways in which people were paid or who they were commissioned by or got funding from. To be paid was one thing, but to be paid via a fund that was competitively difficult to get and which implied a pre-judgement of quality by the funder, seemed to be the highest validation.

I decided to reject this. I felt that a validation that was intrinsically tied up with money/getting money wasn’t one I would subscribe to. I also didn’t want to have to pre-evaluate my ‘project’, work out in advance what the ‘outcomes’ might be, or guess at how it might go, in order to fill out a funding application. I wanted to be free to fail, to experiment, to change my mind about the parameters of the experiment, to make whatever work I felt would be interesting, to invite collaborators, to set my own deadlines and expectations and basically to just do as I pleased, free from external constraint. I appointed myself artist in residence, without asking anyone. Because I am an artist and I am a resident here. I didn’t need extra money to make the project happen, my expenses are those I already bear in living in my flat, and I had already set aside a minimum of 1 day a week and a potential of 3 days a week in which to make art (of any kind, visual, written, theatre projects etc). Most of the art I make at the moment is either collage, made from recycled magazines and cardboard, or black and white drawings in small notebooks – the costs are low and easily found from my other streams of income. They might even be recovered if I sell some work!

Other things
I think that I will find as I go along that other things occur, other thoughts to explore, other avenues to go down. I am already thinking about looking into the history of Courtenay Street, its past to complement the work I am doing on its present, and also perhaps (maybe when it stops raining) the physical fabric of the street, what it is made of, what it looks like.

Watch this space for updates on this and for work as it is made.

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Taking a stand

Last week I received an email from both the leader of the Women’s Equality Party and my local branch (Lambeth), asking people to consider standing as candidates in the London, Welsh and Scottish Assembly elections in 2016.

It is a unique opportunity to make history and be the first elected representative of this new party.  It is also a unique opportunity to take forward women’s equality by influencing policy at a local level.  I live in London and am a Londoner by birth.  I’ve lived here for 30 years and I know it is the best city on earth.  But it isn’t always an easy one in which to be a woman (or a human being for that matter).  Could I be the person to make the difference?

I half-made my mind up that I would at least apply to be considered to be a candidate.  There is a short-listing and selection process to be followed so it’s a bit like applying for that dream job, because you never know!

Having gone to a meeting of WEP Lambeth to discuss it, my resolve was firmed up.  Others at the meeting were also planning to apply and many of us had the same thinking on this: if there is a good range of applications, a wide selection pool, it will be easier to identify the best candidates and to get the best people on the ballot paper.  That doesn’t necessarily mean me (my ego isn’t a bad size, but it isn’t that big!) but I might be a useful comparator, a middle ground (I hope) that then makes it clear when someone even better applies.  We are very aware in the WEP Lambeth branch that we aren’t very representative in terms of diversity of the local area, so we also resolved to reach out and encourage others to apply to stand.  There was no hint of competitiveness, each of us felt that the others who had decided to apply would be good candidates and we were all sure that there would be other people out there (WEP encourages candidates of all sexes) who would be equally good.

I am a little daunted in filling out the application form and wish I could be in London for the drop-in help sessions that the Lambeth branch are running.  The timing is tricky but even over the Christmas season I’m hoping to find the time to get my application written up, and maybe I can ask one of my fellow branch members to give it a once over.  If I get chosen, I’ll be thrilled, but if I don’t I’ll be glad to know that my efforts, and those of the branch, have brought in better candidates to take those places.

If you are interested in finding out about the Women’s Equality Party or how to apply to be a candidate you can find all the information you need here: http://www.womensequality.org.uk/

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Post Capitalist Creation

This is a slightly extended version of a talk I gave last night at the first Gobo networking night.  Gobo is a new digital ‘match-making’ service for venues and theatre-makers – it’s launching soon and you can find out more here

The title of the talk and this piece was one of those that I just threw up in the air, hoped to catch, but had as much likelihood as falling down and smashing, or bouncing away in another direction…

“Who am I and why am I talking to you about Post Capitalist Creation?  As you may already have deduced my name is Deborah Mason and I’m a multi-disciplinary artist and cultural activist.  I do some of my work in theatre and performance and trained (some time ago) as an actor as well as an artist.  I’m part of the What Next? movement and a little while ago I met Camilla, after a meeting at the Young Vic and we got to talking.  I seem to remember rambling on about new methods of running rehearsals and creating work and that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about – so why call it Post Capitalist Creation?

In 2011 I had both a deep depression and an epiphanic moment of revelation.  I need creativity in my life – to be happy – but I also need to do things to make the world a better place – I was at the time working for a charity and the sense of achievement through little things that went towards a greater central good – also contributed to my sense of self-worth.  So – no more hedonistic acting career but one that encompassed a range of creative activity that all had somewhere in it a step – however small – towards changing the world – you can read about some of my thoughts on this  blog which is where I published my manifesto for a reimagined world.

I have continued to work on a range of projects and many are linked by a desire to question old hierarchies and their ways of doing things and new ways of working with people.  I found in reading Paul Mason’s (no relation) book Postcapitalism a phrase that summed up, perhaps, what I had been attempting and also a description, perhaps, of the person I now am.

I quote: “Today the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibilities of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information.  That is everything pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy”

Network and hierarchy

I quote again: “The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace.  This gives us multiple economic personalities which is the economic base on which a new kind of person, with multiple selves, has emerged.  It is this new kind of person, the networked individual, who is the bearer of the post capitalist society that could now emerge.”

Well I think we all know someone who’s life involves a blurring of work and leisure, who has multiple economic personalities and multiple selves and that that might not be as new  as Paul thinks but perfectly normal for many many people, like us, trying to survive in the creative world.  How hard is it, when asked in a non-professional context – say a pub at Christmas – ‘what do you do?’ – to just say ‘director’, ‘actor’ ‘dramaturg’ or do you find yourself giving a life-history: ‘well I do a bit of acting and I’m currently a temp at x and I also write a bit and occasionally work behind the bar in my local pub and do a bit of dog-walking’.  Sound familiar?

And the fight between network and hierarchy – well here with Gobo is a prime example … I don’t know about you but I have struggled and been frustrated by the hierarchies surrounding theatrical space – the perception by the venues themselves, their artistic directors and chief executives, the critical community, the peer group that a certain type of venue is ‘better’ than another type and therefore it cannot be made available to people who don’t match against the right level in their parallel hierarchy as director/producer/theatre company, . – not even – to quote Oscar Wilde ‘for ready money’.   A hierarchy, as we all know, built in a vicious circle on our ability to present work in the right place to the right people, in order to progress to the point in our the hierarchy where we are allowed to do so!

Gobo has created a network of alternatives, providing advice and information that allows us to save time and effort by understanding where the rules apply and where they don’t.  Network v hierarchy.

I’m interested in these things, but I am more interested in the way in which we work in rehearsal rooms and in the creation of work, hierarchies also operate there – quite simple ones – the director is in charge, but answerable to the artistic director or producer – if there is one.  If working with a very high value star then the Director may not, in fact, be at the top of the hierarchy.  The other actors are simply the droids of the theatreworld doing the bidding of others, expected to obey and perform without question – including inputting creatively but in such a way that does not challenge the boundaries set for them and which is almost always – in the mainstream at least – mediated by the director, producer or writer.

So – some examples of working differently – these are not always radical differences sometimes simple shifts of emphasis or responsibility – the work itself is not always radical as the experiment may be in the process not the product.

The project I first spoke to Camilla about was my production of Julius Caesar, this was inspired by the Arab Spring and the London Riots, set in modern London, with a live twitter feed into which characters, cast, techcrew and audience could all input. I sought to fully engage the audience in this most political of Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that in so doing they might then become more politically engaged.  Using the play as an exploration of democracy I felt I needed to make an effort to direct it democratically – not necessarily voting on key decisions but attempting to give as much autonomy and freedom to the actors and backstage teams as was practical.  The two main actions towards actor autonomy were these:

In choosing a modern London setting for the play I felt confident in asking the actors and creative back stage team to create the context for themselves.  At our first rehearsal we sat down, I laid out some basic parameters made some suggestions and then put actors into relationship groups and told them to figure out who they were in this context, what their relationships were.  They then fed back to me and the group when they were done. From this basis we created the play.  I also worked to direct action in a different way – for the crowd scenes we had about 20 people on the stage, I’m not a fan of clunky Shakespearean crowd scenes that are clearly choreographed and managed with stagey ‘shouts’ and ‘angry sounds’.  I also didn’t have the time to tell 20 people individually what to do and how to act.  So I used an amalgam of techniques borrowed from RSC movement workshops, Viewpoints, swarm choreography and CGI programming to algorithmically programme the crowd.  This gives each character a series of ‘self-rules’ relating to the action that enables them to move, speak, react autonomously but also as a result of being part of the group and in concert with the group – this results in what appears to be spontaneous and unchoreographed – realistic – crowd action – but never results in anarchy or the players moving so far outside the context that it distracts from the action.

I had a very short rehearsal period, a large number of actors and a complex play.  The successful delivery of it was in a large part down to handing creative power to the people involved rather than holding it all for myself – there is a responsibility in being director that means that you are the one who will take the heat if the play fails (although not necessarily the praise if it succeeds) and it is therefore scary to hand over power for that result to others.  Taking that leap though was the ONLY way that this play was going to work – and it did work –  – to quote from one review: “The production as a whole redeemed alternative approaches to Shakespeare by enhancing the text not distracting from it: Think Ian McKellen’s seminal Richard III set in 1930s England with Nazi overtones or RSC’s Merchant of Venice appropriately transported to a 1980s City trading floor.”  – I’ll take that and in the words of the Chambourd advert ‘the trumpet won’t toot itself’.

For my next two challenges I looked at ways in which I could get the audience to get involved and take on some of the responsibility for the success of the play – the first – The Tiny Play Festival was more about getting them to understand what the considerations might be for making a successful play – in a night of 21 one minute plays by thirteen authors the audience was challenged in the interval to create phrases, sentences, quotes to put into their own play at the end of the night, once the moment came, those lines were drawn at random and read back to the audience by the team of six actors.  Whilst the actors went and ‘rehearsed’ the audience, facilitated by me, decided on a context, and a back drop scene – which I live painted to their specification – for their show.  The actors came back, performed, received notes from the audience-directors, performed again and show over – much of the audience feedback reflected on the fact that the evening had helped them understand what goes into making a play.

In Bears my collaborator, Hilary Jennings, and I handed over control of the plot to the audience.  As part of a new writing night we created a ten minute play with three points in it where the audience could change the course of the play.  Again using computer programming techniques each point allowed a flip switch to take it onto another course.  The script was printed on two different colour papers.  At the end of each section the Bears – who were trapped on an island with diminishing resources – would ask the ‘gods’ – the audience for help with a dilemma – the audience then voted white or blue and the result prompted the bears to turn to the next section of that colour.  In one scenario the bears lived, in another they died.  The audience’s choices at each stage determined the final outcome.

I also worked with Hilary on ‘Play in a Weekend’ an exercise that was originally designed as a way to encourage and give some training to people looking to move into directing, within an amateur group in South London.  The play chosen was Two – and as some of you will know this is traditionally acted by two people with one director.  It is a series of two-handed scenes with a range of characters in a pub in the north of England.  Instead we had a company of 20 people comprising 8 directors and fifteen actors (some people did both) and about 12 hours of time in which to run some workshops and put on the play.  Most of the Saturday was taken up with the workshops, discussing things like to warm-up or not warm-up, working with the text, miming (which is part of this particular play), and only a small part in rehearsing.  Despite this short time scale, there was little panic, no diva-tantrums and a successful performance.  Shared responsibility – every single person in the production having the same responsibility for success – meant a much calmer and more efficient process and a greater chance of success.

I’m about to embark on another experimental project with Hilary and hopefully we’ll push the boundaries a little more again this time!

Does any of this matter and how is this relevant to you?

I think it does matter, I’ve alluded to the hierarchies that exist in the creative world, we are trained to accept them and work within them.  A lot of the ways in which we define ourselves as ‘professional’ in this world have little to do with being paid and much to do with a variety of externally set ‘rules’ that we abide by in order to be accepted – it’s a bit like being part of 19th Century English society – are you a lady, are you a gentleman?  If you are born a Duchess you can break as many rules as you like and nobody can say you’re not, but if you are just Miss Mason with five thousand a year, then you must know all the rules and show you know them in order not to get kicked back into the middle classes and denied access to high society.  In the theatre world (and other creative spheres) we still operate in this sort of society and I challenge it as unproductive and unhelpful. Not networked. Not 21st Century.

I want to work with people, a wide range of people, in a collaborative way that produces work that through process or end product makes people think differently about the way things are or could be and the way things might be done differently.  Both creatively and in society.

Get in touch if you’d like to talk further!

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Aspiration, poverty & art

I haven’t blogged for a while but a couple of things recently made me start thinking about this all over again. One was the article by Dawn Foster on the ‘poverty mindset’ (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/30/poverty-negative-spiral-fear-self-loathing ) providing rather harder evidence than my gut reaction posted as ‘Hard Times‘ back in November last year. The other was conversations last week, one at What Next? Southwark’s ‘Election Reflection – Feast or Famine for Arts, Culture and Heritage’ and another at Devoted & Disgruntled’s open space about socially engaged arts. Hanging over all of this, like a dark cloud full of sleet, is the continuing demonization of the poor by the Conservative government and sections of the UK media.

At the end of the Open Space on Tuesday I found myself offering two things in the closing circle:
To set up a crowdmap to map socially engaged practice (projects, practitioners, organisations) – I’ve done this and if you are working in this area please ‘submit a report’ and map yourself on: https://sociallyengagedarts.crowdmap.com/

The other was the rather basic statement ‘it’s OK to be poor‘.

Why would I say such a thing?

In both the Open Space and at the Election Reflection there had been challenges to the idea that artists/arts practitioners should be funded to make a living out of their work. There were suggestions about the need for them to not rely solely upon the Arts Council but to find alternative ways of making it ‘work’ whether through collaboration, fundraising or increased commercialisation. There were also voices (sometimes the same ones) saying that artists needed to be freer to make their work without having to pre-justify it – or justify it at all. There were also artists who were making work that required a transaction with their audiences (in both cases requiring stories or conversations) rather than money – and that to commercialise that would effectively destroy the intention of the work, but for them to carry out the work required funding so that they could ‘get by’ (ie pay for accommodation and food).

In talking about socially engaged practice and trying to find a definition, we quickly ruled out any kind of amateur arts. I queried this and this is a difficult area for me – on the one hand arts that are carried out for no financial gain by the participants are a large and vibrant part of the UK’s cultural life – around 11m people are estimated to be involved. For example there are more than 2,500 amateur theatrical groups putting on around 30,000 plays a year. I don’t know if anyone is counting the other things – like painting clubs, craft groups, choirs and so on? I imagine they also run into thousands. These groups are defined by being open to anyone but they are not exclusive to the purely ‘amateur’ – my experience is that many ‘amateur’ theatre groups contain a good proportion of professionally trained actors, and backstage crew (costume makers, set dressers, etc). Painting clubs also often have a mix of professional and amateur artists and a range of people in between who sell work but might not have had professional training. Looked at from the ‘amateur’ side the difference is fuzzy and moves along a sliding scale. Looked at from the ‘professional’ side it is a sharp distinction. Why? Because the professional feels the need to protect their position – they DO want to make a living from the arts – they don’t want to ‘give it away for free’ and they have been professionally trained and they have worked to develop their practice and put a lot of themselves into that work – probably making significant financial investment either through sacrifice or actually putting in savings, legacies, selling their car and so on. There are also practical considerations – the scope and ambition of professional art can not always be replicated on an amateur scale – whilst an amateur theatrical production of – say – Shakespeare might be every bit as artistically adventurous, well designed and well acted as a professional one – it isn’t impossible and I’ve seen them – the nature of the way they are put together is only possible on a very short term time scale – the average run being 3 or 4 nights – at most a week – beyond that and the local and community audience has been exhausted and ticket sales would diminish to a point where they were unviable. The actors and backstage crew all have day jobs, many take time off during ‘show week’ but could not do that indefinitely – they certainly couldn’t take a show on tour. Many of them do not want a professional career in the arts – many of those professionally trained have given it up because the life style or the way in which the professional world works did not suit them – thus voluntary arts are not a competitor for the cultural space taken up by professional work and that sharp distinction is not necessary.

I find myself constantly having to justify my position as someone who seeks both professional work as an an actress and director and who seeks to sell my work commercially as an artist and writer, and yet also embraces working with amateur groups and non-artists – not as a parachuted in ‘professional guide/leader/collaborator’ but simply as one of them as a person who enquires into what it is to do that ‘thing’ and who is interested in the different ways that that ‘thing’ is done – the hierarchies, the etiquettes, the tribal requirements that differentiate the professional and amateur worlds. I’m interested because I don’t believe in the status quo and doing things the way they have been done forever but finding out new ways of doing things – by ‘doing things’ I mean the processes, the starting points, the working methods, the interactions – rather than the end products or productions. So why do I persist – why not just throw my lot in with the ‘professionals’ and pretend I’ve never had anything to do with anything ‘amateur’? Well apart from being dishonest I think that working in both these ‘places’ sliding up and down that scale, crossing that divide (depending on where you are coming from) enhances me as a creative person, provides me with more inspiration, more drive to get things done and ensures that what I do stays rooted in the real.

Which leads me to the next thing… aspiration. A couple of young people I have met recently who have engaged in these various debates have been challenged, both rudely and more kindly, on their aspiration to make a living in the arts – and the arts alone. I do want to live in a world where that is possible, but this isn’t it right now. That doesn’t mean that artists should give up that aspiration, but they should make it one about changing the society we live in so that it becomes a place where that is possible. I also question what that ‘making a living’ aspiration actually includes? Most of the young people I encounter now have been born and brought up in a society that embraces the capitalist reality; they have been effectively brainwashed into believing that you have to own your own home, that you have to have money to get married and have a baby, that you ought to be able to afford to go somewhere nice on your holidays, and so on and on. That to not have or want these things is to have failed. Even though they accept that these things are not immediately within their grasp as young artists starting out, they still aspire to them as being part of what defines their success – not just as people but as artists. I think this is probably quite alien to many older artists – the 60s and 70s (and a bit of the 80s) of squats and communes and people deliberately rejecting capitalism meant that artists could be successful and poor at the same time. There is a sense now that to do something else as well (yes the dreaded ‘day job’) is to somehow make oneself impure, sullied, only partly an artist. I have come to realise that as long as you get the balance right – as long as the ‘day job’ is something you believe in and can make a difference at, but also leaves you enough time and flexibility to do your artistic work – then it is actually a beneficial thing. Beneficial not just economically, giving you that breathing space financially to have fallow periods artistically – breathing time to let things settle, to reflect and consider and research, but also by providing fresh input into your creative life. It takes you out of your art world bubble, roots you firmly in the real world. It has taken me a long time to get to this point!

To accept these things is not to lack aspiration – it is to have aspiration – to make your life work for you – to ground yourself in reality so that you can do the work that will change society so that everyone can have a creative life – even if they don’t choose a creative career. To undertake socially engaged work whilst being socially engaged in your own community. We should not limit our aspirations to just ourselves, our comfort, our short term futures, but have grander aspirations to make the world a better place and also to save it from the destructive effects of climate change. Artists struggle with making a living, but so do many other people, I have a friend who lost her job in the financial crash, retrained as a translator, couldn’t find a job as a translator and is now back in the financial sector, we aren’t the only people making compromises. There is nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to do the big and the beautiful and having the budget to match that – but we don’t all have to do that and/or we don’t have to do that all the time.

Poverty – I started this by saying ‘it’s OK to be poor’ – and it is and it isn’t. There are children growing up in poverty who don’t have enough to eat, who are wearing poor quality, inadequate clothing, who are living in defective housing and who’s health and ongoing development will be effected by these things. Added to that the stigma of being poor will hold them back in education and that will hold them back in life. This is not OK. What is OK is having somewhere secure to live, budgeting for your food sensibly, not buying stuff all the time, not going abroad on holiday, not having a car and not always knowing where the money is going to come from. It is OK because you can have a life rich in other things, the things you do, creatively – or not creatively – running marathons, working out, volunteering within your local community, and there are plenty of things you can get for free – art galleries, theatre, film, workshops, lectures, etc, etc. It is a perception of poverty not the real thing – yes it means a low income, but it is one that is set within a different context of what being ‘poor’ is. I talk about my lack of money, and write about it, proudly and with no shame – yes sometimes it’s difficult and I think, ‘oh if only I could win the lottery’, but most of the time I’m pretty OK with it. I want to share that – I’m not a slacker or a shirker and most people who are poor aren’t either. I’m standing up for it. There will be many people – thanks to Government and media – who are ashamed of it. If you are poor and happy – let people know – counteract the capitalist myth that aspiration is only about aspiring to own, with a truth that aspiration can be about aspiring to be and aspiring to change.

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