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August 18, 2013

In a little over two months I leave my job at the University. I have been an academic since 2004. Though the job has been, for the last couple of years, only a one-day-a-week job, it is still a commitment, an obligation and – like so many jobs – a continuing infestation of the mind.

I will be free from the bureaucracy, free from the pointless administration, free from the marketing bullshit, free from complicity in a compromised educational system that desperately tries to maintain standards in the face of government and societal interference.


Free from all of this.

But free to….?

What, as I return to a life where it is my daily work as an artist and teacher that puts food on my table (and savings for illness, retirement and the other inevitable joys of ageing), what am I free, now, to do?

And what price that freedom?

I have no funding for my art. State funding is not available to me (a quarter of a century of largely unsuccessful applications has finally convinced me of that). My work is not ‘commercial’. The training I run is specialist. I am an artist, not artist-as-social-worker. I have the freedom to do what I want, to (as Joseph Campbell put it) ‘follow my bliss’, but that does not mean I know how to pay for it.

I have no private income and I do not come from a wealthy family (the only true guarantors of artistic freedom), so I am free from interference by the state or an educational bureaucracy, but restricted by lack of access to resources to make my work.

Freedom to and freedom from do not always coexist.

A few nights ago I was sitting with my partner chatting to Nicolas Nunez and Helena Guardia. Both are magnificent artists with a long pedigree. They have been developing work in Mexico City for over thirty years. Both spent time with Grotowski in Poland and hosted Grotowski in Mexico. Both spent time in India working with exiled Tibetans. They have spent a life time researching indigenous and contemporary traditions to make extraordinary work. Their work talks of being human in this universe now. Truly they are community elders in the international community of artists.

They struggle to attract the basic funding to continue their work. Nicolas talks of his work not being fashionable. Of not being dedicated to some ‘social purpose’. Of not being motivated by some clever concept or easily explicable ‘idea’. His work is based on contact – on human relationship with another human and with a time and a place. He suggests that governments distrust relationship and genuine interpersonal contact. They cannot control it. They do not understand it. They fear it. They do not like what happens when people feel things, experience things, viscerally understand things collectively. Governments prefer TV, with people isolated on their individual sofas watching product created by the rich to peddle illusions to the disillusioned. Or huge spectacles where people are awed and disempowered.

Nicolas and Helena also talked about a conversation – many years ago – with an arts bureaucrat who was explaining the state’s unwillingness to fund their work. They were told that their reluctance to adapt their work to the dictates of government had bought them freedom – freedom from control and freedom to do what they wanted. But the price of that freedom was very high.

In his opening speech to the Edinburgh Festival, playwright Mark Ravenhill suggested that ‘Maybe the artist free of any relationship with any public funding body is freest of all?’ It is a challenging thought, because the freedom from interference and freedom from the need to serve the policies of the current government does not give me access to the resources to work with my peers, to make art, to earn a living. It is a funny sort of freedom. A tough and sometimes lonely freedom. But perhaps real freedom is always a little tough and a little lonely.

So as I leave the University and re-embrace my freedom, I wonder how to earn enough money to continue to teach, to make shows, to direct other people’s shows, to maintain the work of DUENDE. I want to make two new shows next year – but I do not know how to find places where I can perform or money to pay collaborators.

However, I am free to discover and free to write, edit and discard the script of my own existence, day after day after day.

Nicolas and Helena, my partner and I chatted on into the evening about art and the process of being an artist. At some point Nicolas said (I paraphrase – we were some way down a bottle of tequila by this time) that whenever you accept funding you must be aware that the person giving the money is buying something. And you must be sure that you are willing to sell whatever they are wanting to buy.

I do not regret being an academic. Nor do I regret my decision to leave. For many years I was willing to sell to the University what they wanted to buy. Now I am not. Though I am saddened and frustrated that I cannot get funding for my work from the Arts Council, I do not regret my decision – at least for the next years – to give up applying. What they want to buy from me is not something, in the end, I am willing to sell. I value my freedom too highly.

So I am soon to be free from and free to…. It is an expensive freedom and I must find a way to pay for it.

And in case there is any confusion, let me be clear. My freedom tastes fucking wonderful.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2013 9:27 am


    I left my university position two years ago in order to devote more time to my creative work (I’m a composer), and because I was also well tired of all the negative aspects that you mention. I haven’t regretted my decision, but I certainly to appreciate what you’re saying about the challenges of being ‘free’. Sometimes when I meet people from the uni they talk to me with a kind of enthusiasm and admiration, based on an apparent assumption that I’ve either retired or entered some kind of utopian life. The reality of course is that it’s bloody hard. We can be free from the university, but not from all the social structures and values that help hold the university system in place. Also, we cannot be free from facing the complexity of sorting out our own desires, especially when put in relation to those social structures.

    I wish you the best in this new phase of your life and career.

    Ron Herrema

    PS Thanks for posting the photo of the voladores – I saw them in Mexico City some years ago and made this photographic work:

    Volador (flier)

    • August 19, 2013 12:53 pm

      Thanks Ron,
      Freedom seems giddy and light-headed and – a bit like a fairground ride- breathless. Enjoy the ride I guess….

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