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Artists in the city.

June 28, 2012

I have been in Athens for the last couple of days. I am en route to Lesbos for DUENDE’s ‘Performing at the Edge’ residency but have stopped here to have some meetings about future projects, to meet some friends and to participate, briefly in The Sleep Project.

The Sleep Project is a week-long , 24 hour-a-day installation in a shop next to a bar in a small back alley. The shop has been fitted out as a mirror image of the bar next door, a sort of anti-reality, a place of dreams, subconsciousness, alternate realities.

Throughout the residency the artists responsible for the Project, alongside some guests like me (and some who are only in touch via the Internet) are making art in the city. There is some passing audience, but not much, People stop as they walk past to the courtyard round the back where there is a bar/coffee house. They pause, pass on. Sometimes people stop and watch for a while. In the evenings there is music which is perhaps more ‘public’, but in the day there is just, quietly, the doing of art.

Yesterday I performed for two hours there. It was a very interesting experience which perhaps I will write about at some other time when I have had a proper chance to reflect on it. For now I am thinking about the project as a whole. Today I sat and watched for a while as two performers did some stuff. Did what? It’s hard to say. They were experimenting with the making of performance. They were doing their job being performers, and watching them was like watching any crafts person exercising her skills. They were absorbed in their work, occasionally aware of being watched, but generally not. They were artists doing art as part of the complex tapestry of a sophisticated city.

There was also a painter in there and someone working on a laptop. And a workman was wandering in and out with a ladder, negotiating the strange rope contraption that had been rigged in the doorway. Outside, trucks delivering beer. Some people on laptops. Traffic. As I took the photos I have put in this post, just for a moment a bird landed on my elbow. A rich tapestry. The making of art was not, in this case, an act of ‘public entertainment’ or even an act of ‘public engagement’ it was one strand in the rich tapestry of a sophisticated city. It was not for anything, any more than a bird is ‘for’ anything. It was part of the city.

Often when I write or speak of the importance of art that is NOT orientated towards its public, people misunderstand, sometimes even wilfully misrepresent what I am saying. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with ‘public’ art. Nor with ‘community’ art. Nor with entertainment, street theatre, live art, formal theatre and dance shows or any of the other innumerable manifestations of the craft of the artist. Indeed, much of my work involves making and delivering performances for audiences. What I am saying is that it is centrally important, if we want a rich ecology of art, to value, support and live alongside artists making art not ‘for’ anyone but because making art, all the time, is the thing we need to do. That way, when we take our work to the public, it has a chance of being rich, deep and complex.

If society supports a culture only when it is serving some ‘function’, then it is vandalising the complex ecology needed to support a truly cultured community. A cultured civilisation supports the whole eco-system, from the most audience-orientated to the most esoteric, because it knows that they feed each other, need each other.

It is not an argument that has ever been easy to make, notwithstanding the fact that it is an entirely inclusive argument. In England now, an argument such as this receives practically no hearing from those with authority. Perhaps this has always been the case, which is why artists are always in the vanguard of reinvigorating communities and reimagining cultures -we simply organise ourselves in ways where we can do what we do as part of the tapestry of where we live. Not ‘for’ other people, but alongside other people.

I am going back to watch The Sleep Project for a little white this afternoon before flying to Lesbos this evening. On Lesbos I will spend three weeks entirely away from the mainstream of the world. We will be artists, training, researching, playing, risking, out in the wilds and on the edge of the sea. These times too are part of the ecology of culture, developing our craft In relationship to one another and to the complex and beautiful natural world that preceded us and that will outlast all of us.






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