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The problem…? I am not a business….

October 4, 2012

I wonder if any important artistic movement has ever emerged by artists sitting down with government bureaucracies to decide what art society should be offered. Perhaps, though I cannot think of any examples.

Can you imagine the conversations as the first punks try to convince governments that what they offer will service the cultural needs of an otherwise under-provisioned section of their society? Or the first surrealists trying to quantify the anticipated benefits of their artistic activity? (‘So Mr Dali, what is your creative process in sticking that lobster on a telephone?’) Or the early modernist composers trying to explain how which sectors of their potential audience would benefit by their discarding harmony and replacing conventional scales with a series of twelve tones? These conversations could never happen, yet the punks, the surrealists, the modernists, changed everything.

Of course, the examples above either come from a time when people were controlled less by governments, or they concern people (like composers and solo visual artists) who could create without engagement with a wider public – though they ultimately require that engagement for their art to become public. It seems hard to do that now. You can’t take over a ruined building – there are insurance questions…. Running a mad cabaret night in a small pub would have both insurance and tax implications…

At least, it seems hard to do if you work in a ‘tamed’ art-form like theatre. We are expected to behave like small businesses. We are expected to present ourselves respectably to the media, with whom we cultivate a fawning, symbiotic relationship. If we work with others, we need insurance. If other work with us, they need insurance. We need to be excellent at jumping bureaucratic hurdles and using the language potential funders require us to use (be they government, philanthropic, private). A few years ago we talked of ‘performance objectives’ and ‘benchmarks’. More recently perhaps ‘stakeholders’ and ‘engagement’. My choice of examples may be inept – I have never been much good at speaking those languages.

You see, I am not a business.

And yet a business is what I must be if I am to work in ‘the cultural industries’ (a phrase that makes me feel just a little bit sick….. I mean were punks part of the cultural industries? Really? When John Coltrane discovered new sonic landscapes, was he part of the ‘industry’…..????). As I try to lay in place the structure for a big DUENDE project in 2014, I have to think of funding, visas, insurances, public relations, tax and national insurance, employer’s liability, social media, stake-holder meetings, outreach projects, audits, website redesigns.

Perhaps all this would be OK if what I wanted was to run a business. Perhaps it would be OK if I had been brought up to feel confident about interacting with the world of business (by which I mean if I had been brought up properly middle-class). But I wasn’t. I don’t. I am not a business.

It’s a trap. I need to be more business-like to achieve what I want to achieve with DUENDE and for our work fully to enter the public domain. The way to do that, I guess, is to give up paying attention to developing my skills as an artist and to concentrate on becoming a proper business. Of course that also means giving up the way I earn my living – which is by working as an artist. But then why do art? Why not run a business that might actually make some money, if all I am going to be doing is run a business.

You see, I’m not a business.

An alternative is to find someone to work with – a producer or manager who can do all of that side of the ‘business’. But unless one is lucky enough to find a person passionate (and probably affluent) enough to work for free, then that requires that one has enough money to pay such a person – at least until they have raised enough money to pay themselves. There is a shortage of such people – for they are gold-dust.

These are half-formed and not very well articulated thoughts. Usually I try to organise my thinking a little better before writing on this blog…. But I terribly short of time and my thoughts are provoked by the strange coming together of two worlds. I am in the final stages of writing a book ‘Encountering Ensemble’. It covers a range of topics  – including an historical overview of ensemble practices starting with Stanislavsky and coming right up to the present day. As I construct the final manuscript, I have a strong sense of some of the common threads. Among the most evident is the fact that ALL the really important work grew despite the actions of governments and bureaucracies, not because of them. Artists change things by pioneering and challenging, not by negotiating and conforming.

At the same time I am trying to put together the big DUENDE 2014 project – which demands I cultivate the ‘business/bureaucratic’ mindset I have been moaning about. It does no good to refuse to be business-like (I know this) – the result of such refusal is that the work I make simply remains invisible or does not happen at all.

Inside or outside the structures of the state? Business or artist?

Perhaps this tension – and my own sense of inadequacy as a businessman and ‘insider’ – is why I love disappearing to the edges and making art. In residencies (on Lesbos this year, in two residencies in India in Spring next year, and then again in Lesbos in July 2013), we do not have to conform to the agenda of others. At the margins we can be artists.

But leave the margins, and one must learn the behaviours of respectable business.

… the problem…?

I am not a business.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rico permalink
    October 5, 2012 4:11 am

    Yes, very few people can have artist mind and business mind at the same time. My former teacher did but he is the only one I had ever seen in HK. This kind of quality is also golden dust but also dangerious like most of the magical elements. His company grew in breaking record speed but now he love business more than art already. So, if you are not a business, it is a blessing.
    Our system was developed by British Government also but I believe the game here is a bit simpler then UK as you guy keep develop it and surely will make it even more complicated.

  2. October 7, 2012 2:38 am

    What your post made me think is this – that we are perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, existing always at the margins, in liminal spaces neither here nor there, and ‘true’ art has perhaps always been born in these borderlands. Can one then, make a proud badge and emblem of one’s marginality? For the geography does not matter, it’s the same soul-numbing story everywhere, different here in India from what you describe only in the specific details, but not in essence. While you have the Arts Council which benignly smothers all true sparks of life, we have too many holy cows to upset, too many self-consciously frail sensibilities to insult, too many government officials to appease for a tiny piece of too little a pie. Thus, we too choose to exist in the margins, or perhaps in Barba’s floating island. Is there a way to grow in a complementary relationship with ‘the system’, I wonder? Would you say an Odin or a Gardzienice also became businesses, or did they manage to find a place we can also look at as a model to emulate, though not imitate?

  3. October 7, 2012 9:09 am

    Thanks for your comment Arka – and yours Rico. They make me think…
    I doubt there was ever any kind of ‘golden age’ in relationships between artists and the state or private patrons. (After all Meyerhold enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik revolution and that didn’t end well for him. Stanislavsky was held in highest esteem by the Soviet government but was, nonetheless, under virtual house arrest for the last decade of his life…).
    Nonetheless I wonder whether Gardzienice and Odin could be established today – after all, the former was established in the seventies, the latter the decade before. What both benefitted from was a combination of support and neglect. Both were given enough support to enable them to survive – marginally and not without enormous sacrifices by the artists involved – but nonetheless they were given space, some funding and the possibility of creating performances without much need to justify in advance what they were intending to do. Then they were pretty much left alone. Today that initial support is seldom forthcoming unless a ‘business case’ can be presented (in other words unless the creative, marginal exploration of the unknown is first translated into the alien (and murderous) language of business). And if support is forthcoming, such groups are not then left alone – they are monitored, ‘kept on track’, measured against benchmarks, required to submit reports…. All of this is benign in intention, and destructive in effect.
    An example – a small one. I have been trying to see if a group of artists from round here – people I have worked with but a group I am not part of – can use space at the University I am still marginally connected with, at times when that space would otherwise not be in use. It is not possible. There are Health And Safety concerns. There are security concerns. There are insurance concerns. It would be easy to sneer, but I am not doing so. The intentions are honourable – the university is honouring its legal commitment to the ‘care’ of those who might use its facilities. The effect is that these artists – who do not have the money for insurances and who are not ‘incorporated’ into business structures that would make access to such things easy – are not able to access spaces. Of course we could argue that they should be more ‘business-like’ and ensure they are ‘professionally structured’ – but that rather brings me back to where I started. To be an artist (indeed I think that nowadays, to be a citizen) one must first be a business. Morally I despise the raising of business ethics and structures to the high-altar of human experience. And practically I think, however benign the intention – the effect of this on the area I am concerned with (the healthy artistic life of cultures) is ultimately destructive.
    Gardzineice and Odin have survived (and are profoundly to be respected for that survival) because – I am guessing – they were able to establish their roots before the state decided it needed to infantilise all of us by interfering in every aspect of our personal, professional, social and imaginative lives. I know that if you give people freedom to work without ‘supervision’ (be it in the arts, education or elsewhere), some people will abuse that freedom. They will take the money and do nothing with it. However some people will flourish because their unique and innovative qualities will be liberated. I would rather see some wastage and some flowering, than see everything reduced to an ‘acceptable standard’ – especially that standard is decided by those (the government) who do not know what they are talking about and usually create policies to appease and justify themselves to the power-interests they represent.
    I remember well the counter-attack on more liberal arts-funding policies in the 1980s when the media (yes, it was a small number of newspapers run by a smaller number of rich men) picked on a few cases of ‘waste’ or ‘extreme art’ (often I remember involving undesirable groups like lesbians and (in the UK) ‘black’ people) and used those cases to demand the reining in of all innovation when such innovation was funded by the ‘tax-payer’. The government enthusiastically agreed….
    it is a complex question and I don’t claim to have answers. Generally I think all people (after all artists are people aren’t we?) do best when they have the means to ‘follow their bliss’ (Joseph Campbell) and are then left alone. Bureaucracies and government’s justify themselves by interfering….
    Back to the margins. I have some toad’s intestines to boil……

  4. October 7, 2012 11:11 am

    Dear John,
    Thank you for this response. It raises many questions, as indeed it should. “I wonder whether Gardzienice and Odin could be established today ” – this question is precisely what we are trying to practically put to the test. for both of them typify the kind of ‘tribe’ or ‘micro-culture’ that I dream The Arshinagar Project will someday become.Yet, too many times I hear myself asking the same question you have raised. In some ways things never change, yet it is true that they were both born in a different world. Would anybody today be able to foment a revolution in a small provincial town, in a theatre of 13 rows? I don’t want to believe the answer is no, but it looks that way. I hope this in some ways is relevant to your thoughts on ensemble and that I am not wasting your time, so in that vein, I’d like to ask if one can look at the generation after Odin and Gardzienice – at ZAR or Song of the Goat or Lalish or Adishakti for instance. How are they different? Of course, here I am not going into a judgement of the quality of their artistic work, but the fact that in some ways they do represent artistic cultures which are somehow different from run-of-the-mill ‘companies’. Let me also end here for now – need to find some newts whose eyes I can poke out. As i said in the beginning – there are many more thoughts, many questions, and I hope to jot down some more of them as this conversation progresses. But for now, on to those damned newts it is.

    • October 7, 2012 7:14 pm

      i think you are certainly right that these companies represent attempts to establish radical alternatives to the mainstream – I (again regardless of any judgement of relative artistic merits) applaud them for doing so! The question we all face is whether the degree of compromise (and i know and accept that there will always be compromise) is supportable. At what point does compromise mean that the integrity of the art – and the respect for the audience that the pursuit of such integrity is based on – is too compromised. I also hope that answer about whether it is possible to change the world is not ‘no’, but I sometimes doubt it….
      DUENDE is trying to establish its own model and – noticeably – we are being obliged to do so entirely without state support. That starving of support might, ultimately, suffocate us. Or perhaps we will survive……
      That this is not a problem unique to one culture or one time is, in itself, a source of strength and a reinforcement to bloody-minded determination…..
      There are witches everywhere……

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