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December 21, 2011

This is a long post. My apologies – but there has been much to reflect on in 2011.

The year started in pain. A serious back injury at the end of 2010, MRI scans, cancelled workshops in Australia, deep fear that my career was over (or at least, irredeemably changed), then a long, slow, uncertain process of physical therapy. Relapses – of course – more fear… Is this as good as I am ever going to get…..?

Gradually my back improved, further improved, reconfigured. I end the year with a sense that my body is stronger and more responsive than it has been for years. A profound set of experiences while training an ensemble this summer has opened up new ways of understanding for me – insights which I am still working through.

I returned to performing non-improvised work. Although ‘Echo Chamber’ contains elements of improvisation, it is essentially a scripted and choreogrpahed piece. The responses I got to it were as strong as to anything I have made in the last two decades. Though I have performed only improvisations in the last ten years, my capacity as an ‘actor’ has grown. I’ll perform’Echo Chamber’in Australia next month, Greece at Easter and elsewhere after that. Acting is where it started for me and to return to it – to have to deliver what I train others to deliver – is both necessary and exhilarating.

And of course I improvise – in 2011 in Athens, Berlin, London, Mytilini, Thessaloniki, Salford, Haworth, Huddersfield, Munich, Stockholm.

The training I run has continued to grow – both in reach and in my understanding of what I am doing. Workshops in London, Berlin, Athens, Thessaloniki, Haworth, Salford, Mytilini, Au Brana, Munich, Stockholm. Plans for 2012 include a trip to Australia (the week after next), Greece, Germany, Sweden, Colombia… Big residencies organised for Lesbos and France next summer.

At the heart of the training, in 2010, was an extraordinary three months with an international ensemble in Huddersfield. They were an exceptional group with whom the work was profound. Any doubts I may ever have had about the worth of being an artist working with artists was dispelled in those three months, and further dispelled by the continuing development of relationshps with dancers in Sweden, actors and dancers in Greece, clowns, play therapists and improvisors in Germany….

Self-doubt remains, of course, very powerful. It is a brutal time at the moment and everywhere I go I meet, talk and work with beautiful artists – both young and experienced – who find that work is scarce, money scarcer. Without work, without income, we are at the whim of benefit systems, of bureaucrats, who decide that we are ‘not artists’ and should throw away all our training to work in a shop, to work at a minimum wage, to prove our ‘usefulness’ (because of course art is not useful). We are painfully at the mercy of our own self-doubt. We cannot find out how to be artists so we stop. And all of society is weakened by that. It is not an individual’s failure, but a failure of our culture, that artists cannot survive in tough times.

Undoubtedly the most unsatisfactory, even distressing element of the year for me, in my role as Artistic Director of DUENDE, has been my failure to establish a useful relationship with the Arts Council (ACE) – the UK’s arts funding bureaucracy. I started the year with high hopes, depite a couple of decades of unsuccesful applications. The Arts Officer I talk with had been very encouraging in the aftermath of ‘The Shattering Man’ in 2010. He encouraged me to apply for a larger sum of money, perhaps for a project that might have a number of stages of development. I didn’t – I applied for a smaller sum to support ‘Echo Chamber’, though I spent a lot of the year developing plans for ‘Collision’, the four-year project DUENDE is now embarked on. My application for ‘Echo Chamber’ was rejected, which hurt, though an attempt to have a meeting to discuss why, foundered on an “I’ll check my diary and get back to you with a time’ response from the Arts Council.

A few months later I initiated a conversation with ACE about why, despite my reputation and longevity, I never receive funding from them. The intital response from a senior manager was polite, helpful and prompt, suggesting that ACE would watch ‘Echo Chamber’ and then we should have a meeting. After the performance season was over I wrote to ask for such a meeting, saying that responses to Echo Chamber had been extraordinary. Perhaps I needed taking down a peg or two for making such a claim. The same officer who had encouraged me to apply for money now told me he thought ‘The Shattering Man’ ‘well-produced but inaccessible’. (‘inaccessible’ is apparently a bad thing.). He told me he had heard ‘Echo Chamber’ was baffling.

This disturbs me. The material in Echo Chamber is strong – but baffling? It is a straight-forward solo narrative performance. Stylistically it is fairly conventional, though, so audiences told me, excellently performed. The creative process that underpinned it was not conventional, but the aim was always to have a complex process that led to a clarity of output. I am not interested in presenting my cleverness to an audience.

But baffling? Now I’m baffled. Who could find it baffling? I hope that it was not the ACE representative, for if she did not understand something so direct, on what basis could she be said to be making a judgement? And while I’m wondering that, I have to say that I hope (this is not sarcasm – I genuinely hope) that the professional arts officer sent by ACE to assess my work – my ability to earn my living as an artist – was not the woman with blond hair on the third row of the final performance who thought it appropriate to check her phone during the show… Surely a professional, charged with watching a work of art, would not show such disrespect to her own role, the rest of the audience and to the artist. Would she? I’m very baffled.

Perhaps ‘baffling’, like ‘inaccessible’, is a catch-all word meaning ‘we do not like your art’.

When I tried to clarify the position – querying why my work did not, apparently, fit with ACE’s meaningless slogan ‘Great Art for All’  – I was told that this was the personal opinion of the officer I was communicating with. End of query. I am welcome apparently to go in for a chat. I initiated this bout of communications by saying I was not interested in a ‘chat’, but in a meaningnful conversation.

This is a dead-end which, for me, raises significant questions. They are not really questions about why I do not get funding. I’ve always made it plain that I do not think I have a right to funding. I think that I have a right to clarity and to know if, as is obviously the case, my ‘face does not fit’, why that is. I think I have a right to some respect, even if only because I’ve been making art, striving for excellence, innovating, mentoring younger performers, learning, training, delivering, for over two decades. That’s what I wanted from my conversation with ACE, not slogans and a patronising reassurance that, like every other citizen of the land, I am entitled to apply for a grant.

These questions – to do with survival and the earning of a living as I approach the latter part of my career – perhaps should have persuaded me to hold on for dear life to the half-time income I receive from the University. However this is also the year in which I have essentially given up my academic career. Apart from a small fractional research contract, I have left the University, and am now a freelance artist again, working alongside those whom I train, trying to make my way in these brutally difficult times.

Does this feel bad? No. It feels fantastic. It feels absolutely right.

In good times, when society is rich and complacent, the arts become a luxury that governments and businesses support to prove their ‘civility’ and ‘culture’. But in tough times, when governments lose their legitimacy (or even, as has happened round the world in 2011, go to war with their own people) and the rich retreat to their luxury yachts to entertain their friends from the tax offices, then art becomes necessity. Now, we need living culture

A post on facebook some months ago demanded “Artists! Your prime responsibility is to talk to your audiences, not to other artists!” (It’s possible I am not remembering it exactly, but that is the heart of it). This seems to me to be bullshit. The prime responsibility of an artist is to have something to say and the skills to say it clearly. Otherwise we become like drunks inflicting empty conversations on people we have tricked into sitting next to us at a party. Unless artists having something to say and the skills to say it, we become like daytime television, so much noise and light (leavened by manufactured controversy) designed to achieve nothing but pacify our audience and distract them from encountering anything that is actually worth their attention. We become a way of filling up the passing of time

That is not an honourable activity.

Being an artist is an honourable activity.

So as I, and DUENDE, move into the new year, in these dark, dark times, I am utterly full of hope. ‘Collision’ – a new four-year project that I spent the year developing – will begin its uncertain journey on Lesbos this summer when DUENDISTAS will remain behind after a two week residency, to do a week of creative development. I will continue to make links with artists, producers and venues internationally. With a profound regret, I guess I cannot develop DUENDE’s work much in the UK. though I shall continue to explore any avenues that open up.

‘Collision’ will happen. I might even apply for a grant for it.

Artists – funded and unfunded, mainstream and experimental, ‘socially-engaged’ and/or arts-for-arts-sake purists, will make work. For them, however they survive, I have deep and absolutely unconditional respect.

To those of you who read what I write here (about 80 of you for each post), I send my warmest greetings at this time of year – whatever it is you are celebrating. I hope to meet with some or all of you in 2012 as I journey from place to place, trying to do the things that I feel I should be doing…

2011 began in fear and pain. It ends in the deep uncertainty that accompanies the dawn of a new journey. It is an uncertainty filled with excitement and hope.

Next stop, Melbourne

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Liam O'Grady permalink
    December 22, 2011 12:34 pm

    Lovely writing John. Not sure what else to say other than I love the reality, honesty and courage. Also very much looking forward to that next stop Melbourne business.

  2. December 22, 2011 7:31 pm

    Thanks Liam
    I look forward to catching up with you in the heat of mid-summer! Its been far too long!

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