Regular Marvels is an independent project that explores alternative ways of understanding people’s experience of art. Begun in 2011, it was completed, at least in its first phase in 2015, when I began a new project about participatory arts practice, A Restless Art, which has its own website. As I explained a few months ago, Regular Marvels was a response to two paradoxes I felt about my recent work:
If art is important, why is it not accepted as a valid way to understand arts experience?
If people are important, why not write about their experience in ways that they might read?
Over five years, I imagined, researched and produced five books, in partnership with arts organisations or others interested in the idea. Each one deliberately focused on an aspect of artistic life that is not much valued by the contemporary art world. Each also shaped set out to be not just arts-led but collaborative, exploratory, open source and socially engaged. All five books can be downloaded from this website as PDFs (just click on the titles below). Printed copies are also available at £5 plus postage, while stocks last: just email me through the contact page if you want one. The books are:
The story of a wonderful, but also typical, amateur theatre company that has been thriving since 1937 and the West Midlands town that gives it life: includes a 15 minute film by Ben Wigley. Published by Multistory.
Explores how the practice of art, whether professional, amateur or occasional can change the experience of aging by strengthening our capacity for agency; with iPad portraits by Mik Godley. Published by the Baring Foundation.
Draws on the experiences of artists who have migrated to several European countries to ask questions about identity, value and culture’s claimed universalism; with collages by Bill Ming. Published by Vrede van Utrecht.
Considers the place of the village church as a focus of art, culture and community memory at a time of diminished religious observance; with photographs by François Matarasso. Published by Transported.
Looks at a programme to bring the arts to rural Norfolk and Suffolk, and asks what lessons it has for the arts and the future of community development.; with drawings by Rosie Redzia. Published by Creative Arts East.
This site will remain online but will not be regularly updated while the Regular Marvels project is suspended. I may come back to this way of working in time, with new ideas to test, but for now my focus is wholly on the always fascinating questions arising from participatory arts practice. If you’re interested in those ideas, please visit the new website.
Last Saturday was windy and cold. A good part of my drive from Nottingham to Whaplode was through torrents of rain, but as I got closer, the weather grew calmer and I grew more anxious about The Light Ships event. It’s been many years since I’ve organised anything quite like this and I wasn’t confident about how many people would brave the early breath of winter or what they’d think of it all if they did.
With the stalwart help of Lauren Williams and Kristina Taylor at Transported, and one or two local friends, the exhibition had been installed on Friday afternoon. It included drawings by Rosie Redzia, woollen sculptures by knitting groups, photographs by Tony Quinton, amateur paintings gathered by Mary Brice of Moulton, new and archive films, and a recreation by Jo Wheeler of the Bus Fayre from her Village Postcard project. But the principal exhibit was the wonderful church of St Mary’s at Whaplode, whose nave was begun about 890 years ago: I wanted the exhibition to enrich the building not obscure it.
Music was made with organ recitals by Tony Fitt-Savage and Tim Galley and the bellringers of Whaplode, and generous hospitality provided in the form of tea and cakes by the church community. The rain kept off. People came and the atmosphere was warm (despite the weather). There was even a rainbow…
These photos give a lovely sense of the occasion. They were taken by Steve Hatton at Electric Egg for Transported, and I’m grateful to them for permission to include them here.
The Light Ships will be presented at 3.00pm on Saturday 22 November 2014 at Wrangle church and at the same time the following Saturday (29 November ) at Gosberton church – and anyone is most welcome to come along. The book will be available to download from this site shortly and copies can be ordered from Transported (it costs £5, plus postage).
Holbeach St. Marks Community Association Building, Sluice Road, Holbeach St. Marks, Lincolnshire PE12 8HF
A few weeks after the publication of Winter Fires, I was contacted by the editor of an academic journal, Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, who was interested in reproducing some of Mik Godley’s images. Naturally, Mik and I were very happy to agree, and a portfolio with an explanatory note was published in the spring issue. I asked Jason Danely, the editor, to give me a sense of why he was interested in the images. This is what he says:
Images and other forms of media are not merely decorations for the journal, but generate a new kind of knowledge-making process that invites the viewer into an engagement with the subject. When I read Winter Fires, I could not imagine the text as separate from Mik Godley’s photo-paintings. This collaborative process of engagement perfectly suited the topics of creativity and art in later life. Mik’s portraits not only stir the emotions of the viewer, but they add depth to the expressions and lives of the subjects.
Ethnography also, at its best, has a particular aesthetic commitment, and does not masquerade as an objective recounting of events, but presents the ethnographer and her process as a vital part of the research. Mik’s process of reworking each photo reveals the artistic hand in ways that the camera cannot capture.
Together with the text, I was moved to wonder about the role of art and creativity not only in the lives of older people, but in my own perspective of aging and the ways I engage with aging visually. I reflected on the way these images were different from other images of aging that circulate in popular media. Most of all, I came to think about my own writing on creativity in aging, the aesthetic commitments that I use to convey the complexity and everyday life in old age.
Jason’s comments prompt several trains of thought, but the one I want to look at here is his point that ethnography does not pretend to a simple objectivity.
Drawing is not objective: that’s why it matters
The idealisation of objectivity in contemporary culture has long troubled me—I wrote about it 15 years ago, in the introduction to Use or Ornament?—both because it is untrue and because it is used to promote or disqualify certain forms of knowledge and, by extension, certain values, ideas and political theories. Artistic method is central to Regular Marvels, both in the collaborations with other artists and in the literary construction of my texts, partly to signal plainly that these books do not aspire to the kind of objectivity that is used to legitimise some kinds of science and, through intellectual sleight of hand, what is called ‘evidence-based policy’.
The risk, even in questioning the hegemony of this concept of how knowledge is created, is to be accused of methodological failure and therefore irrelevance. That bad faith shows why scientism in Western culture must be challenged: after all, testing is intrinsic to scientific method. Scientific objectivity can be vital in the right places. But it is not the only method of thinking deeply and with integrity about human experience. Nor is it the only way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. The vast and ancient practice of art is another, which is why 2,500 year old plays can still move us today, though we are so different from the people who created them.
And, despite the inability of some scientists, politicians, academics and, yes, artists, to understand it, these human systems of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary, interactive and mutually rewarding.
The work of ethnography is one area, among others, where acceptance of the limits of objectivity challenges the researcher to be even more watchful of their own biases, because they do not trust a method to do it for them. Rather than pretending that their own reality can be left at the laboratory door, ethnographers, like good artists, bring it inside, the better to keep a watch on it.
A note on the photographs: Nicholas Nixon and the Brown Sisters
The photographs that I’ve used to illustrate this post (alongside one of Mik Godley’s images, which are already familiar to visitors to this site) come from a remarkable project by Nicholas Nixon. Since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has made an annual group portrait of his wife with her three sisters. The resulting sequence now stretches over 30 years and is one of the most extraordinary works of portraiture I have seen.
In a press release for a 25 year retrospective of the series, the Zabriskie Gallery wrote this about the series:
For this ongoing series, the artist adheres to two unwavering constants. First, the sisters always pose in the same frontal sequence; Laurie, Heather, Bebe, and Mimi. Second, regardless of how many negatives exposed, only one is selected for printing from each individual year’s batch. This imparts a scientific approach to the work, with its unchanging variables, setting parameters for the creative process. However, operating within these limits also allows the subject matter to richly expand, allowing the viewer to partake more empathetically in the lives of the four individuals.
Despite the misuse of the word ‘scientific’, this is clearly an artistic method, using its own rules. It is also extraordinarily rigorous since it imposes a shared responsibility for the continuation of the process on the sitters. But what matters, in the end, is that the work is a beautiful and moving reflection on human life.
Here is the text of my talk at Talk at Independent Creative Living Conference, Baltic, Gateshead (UK) on 28 June 2016; you can download a PDF of the talk by clicking this link; to download a copy of Winter Fires, click here.
Three Great Human Episodes
Towards the end of his own life, the critic and philosopher Edward Said became very interested in the last work of artists, for which he coined the phrase ‘Late Style’. He
saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is made by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true. [i]
A beginning, a middle and an end
There are several reasons why this idea appeals to me, including its link with Aristotle’s ideas about dramatic structure, which he described as
the representation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain amplitude– for a thing may be whole and yet lack amplitude. A whole is that thing which has a beginning, middle, and an end.[ii]
Like many truths, it seems obvious, but only because a philosopher has pointed it out. And the reason a drama must have a beginning, a middle and an end is because it is a story.
Stories, like human beings, exist in time: so they must begin, go on and stop. Like human beings. And it is our imperative need to tell stories about ourselves and each other that makes us human in the first place. We are walking stories.
A story without a happy ending
Henning Mankell, who was an atheist sometimes described as a secular Lutheran, observed in his last book that
Nowadays people in our part of the world no longer believe in God. They believe in scratch cards and other games of chance.[iii]
As a result, our story of old age is not that good. When Europeans lost faith in God and Paradise, they seem also to have lost faith in happy endings. Without a shared way of making sense of death, we struggle to bring the story to a fitting close.
For the Benedictine monk, Christopher Jamison,
A happy death as part of a life informed by contemplation and virtue describes the overall picture of our journey.[iv]
But those who do not have his faith must find another sense in the end of life – and, what concerns me more here – in the years before it, which Christian theology has seen as a time of letting go and reconciliation.
The story of losing
We may no longer find that story convincing but, it seems to me, we’ve struggled to create a good alternative. In its absence, the idea of letting go has been replaced with one of losing.
The first episodes of the TV comedy, One Foot in the Grave, are memorable for the way that Richard Wilson plays the bewilderment of someone unexpectedly facing retirement. The loss of a job, and the social and financial status that comes with it, can be very hard to accept.
It is not surprising therefore – and greatly to the benefit of the rest of us – that half of those aged over 65 are active volunteers.[v] Getting older does not make us less inclined to give or to believe that we have something to offer, even if it is no longer in paid work.
Loss is loss
The story of loss is powerful because it is real. Old age brings a succession of losses: though their nature and how they affect are as individual as we are.
I’ve already mentioned the social structure of work, paid and voluntary, and some of us are forced to give it up long before we are ready. The people with whom we have worked for years pass out of our orbit when the professional ties that held us are undone. At home, as age marches on, we lose friends and attend more funerals.
Our own strength and health will decline; our memory may fray. Such losses make us afraid of losing what matters most – our dignity and our capacity to decide for ourselves.
Shakespeare puts what may be the shortest, bleakest picture of old age into the mouth of the world-weary Jacques, whose seven ages of man end with:
‘…second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’[vi]
The loss of teeth suggests the loss of power – the ability to bite.
Loss of Power
And that’s the nub of it. All those losses, whenever and however we face them, represent a slow erosion of our power – not just in respect of others or the world around us, but even over our own bodies and minds.
That loss of power matters because we fought so hard for it as children. The great prize of adulthood is the freedom to make our decisions, to choose and to take the consequences. Autonomy is something most of us cherish above all else
The ability to make choices, to act on our own behalf in the world, is called agency. Our agency is constrained in many ways – by physical reality, by the agency of others and by the structures that shape the society in which we live. But we struggle for it because it brings us closer to self-actualisation. It is how we write our stories, how we become our selves.
Another way of seeing the stages of Edward Said’s ‘self-making process’ is the progress of our degree of agency in the world, an arc with a beginning, a middle and an end.
As babies, we have almost none: our power goes no further than crying and being able to inspire love. Agency increases during youth as we acquire skill, knowledge and experience. The transition to adulthood is not a process but a moment, symbolised as a door to which we gain the key. There is no comparable transition out of adulthood. though the moment of retirement is industrial society’s way of showing us the door.
The beginning and the end
This feels like an arc, rising and falling, and indeed, culture offers many symbolic and mythic representations of human life that trace that pattern. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote:
Why should we know the place for the first time? Because we bring a lifetime’s knowledge and understanding to it, because even if we are as weak and dependent as when we were children, we still have agency – creative agency.
Agency takes many forms. Holding office, money or property all confer agency, as do physical strength and intellectual speed. Rhetoric itself, the ability hold a listener’s attention and influence their thinking, is a source of agency.
Art, the creative act of self-expression through which we bring new images, ideas and feelings into shareable existence, is one of our most precious and universal sources of agency. Why? Because its individual power does not depend on structural forms of power. Yes, social structures like class, ethnicity and gender can amplify a person’s artistic voice, but they cannot smother it because art is always personal – one mind connecting with another.
Art allows us to glimpse what it feels like to be someone else, what the world looks like from their perspective, and how differently it might be if… we thought or felt or acted differently. But it equally allows us to tell our own stories, and say what it feels like to be us, how things look from where we stand, and how things might be if we tried another way of being.
Labour, Work and Action
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between labour, work and action as dimensions of human life. All three are necessary to an active life, but only human beings are capable of the third because it is rooted in their freedom to choose. Unlike labour and work, action does not have to follow necessity – indeed human beings often do what is not in their interest, most notably when they give their lives to save others.[ix]
Art is pure action so when labour takes an increasing amount of our day – for instance in personal care – its countering value is never greater.
A few years ago, I wrote a short book called Winter Fires. It set out to show that creative agency, the ability to act as an artist, could be as important in old age as in any other time of life. It was partly inspired by a reaction to the increasingly accepted idea that participating in art is good for elderly people because it contributed to their wellbeing. It is and it does, but that is just part of the story.
Art is not just something that the young can provide for the old. It is something that the old can provide for themselves and for everyone else, including the young. Old people are artists too – professional and amateur artists with fifty or sixty years of creative knowledge to draw on as well as young artists who have only found the time and the means for creative work in retirement. In the book, I tell the story of all these kinds of artists, with portraits made by my friend, Mik Godley.
Artists thriving in old age
There were those, like Sally Cottis, who were simply continuing a lifelong professional practice as musicians, painters or writers, relieved by a pension from the burden of having to work in teaching or in response to commissioner’s wishes.
There were artists, like Colin MacLean, for whom retirement had been the opportunity, at last, to do what they had always loved but had put aside to earn a living and provide for others.
There were artists, like Gwen Sewell and Rosie Wheatland, who had discovered theatre, dance or writing as way to talk about being old and challenge the assumptions of those who thought of old age as a problem.
Old people are just people who are older
Old people do have problems but so does everyone else. They are not, and shouldn’t be, defined by those problems, any more than people should be defined by disability, motherhood, gender or skin colour.
To do so is to disempower people, and the biggest problem of old age is already a loss of power. Instead we could see old people as skilled, knowledgeable and experienced, as having the time and will to contribute their gifts, as being resources for themselves, each other and society as a whole.
Independent Creative Living
The vision of establishing living spaces in which people who need support can also be active and creative in everyday life seems to me deeply inspiring. Where the young are concerned, we have little difficulty in recognising the place of creativity within a package of care but why should it be so different for the old? Is it because we see potential only in the young?
We need to rewrite the story of life, no to give it an easy, upbeat Disney-fied ending, or pretend that it’s easy to live with loss, but to recognise that we don’t stop being involved in that self-making process because we have reached a certain age. We always have thing sto learn and things to share, if it is only what the view looks like from where we stand.
Some of our powers may decline with age, but our potential for creative agency need not. The Baring Foundation, which has focused on the arts in old age since 2010, recently offered a series of commissions to artists aged over 65. The work produced by Ron Haselden and Bisakha Sarker, Robert Race and Hilary Painter, among others, has been exceptional.
In Robert Race’s automaton, a merry-go-round turns with the the words ‘you don’t stop playing because you grow old: you grow old because you stop playing’. It’s all we need to know. Life is for living.
[i] Matarasso, F., 2012 Winter Fires: Art and Agency in Old Age, London, p.3-4.
[ii] Aristotle ‘On the Art of Poetry’ in Dorsch, T.S. (trans.) 1965, Classical Literary Criticism, London, p. 41
After last Thursday’s vote, I wanted to write to friends in other European countries, to share my feelings and just to be in touch with people I care for. I soon realised that there were far too many of them and that I’d be writing emails for days. I also saw that I’d be repeating myself in expressing my dismay and asking them not to lose faith in me, in us, in Europe. So this is a personal letter, a letter of friendship and affection, posted here just as a way to reach all my friends – and, who knows, make new ones. I’d write it in more languages if I could, but I can only manage English and French (below). Thank you for reading.
Une lettre à mes amis de l’Union européenne
(y compris, pour l’instant, les Britanniques)
Depuis le vote de jeudi dernier, j’ai voulu écrire à mes amis dans les autres pays européens pour partager mon émotion et simplement pour être en contact avec ceux qui me sont importants. Je me suis vite rendu compte qu’ils étaient très nombreux et que j’aurai des mèls à écrire pendant des jours entiers. J’ai aussi vu que je me répèterai beaucoup en exprimant ma consternation et en leur demandant de ne pas perdre la foi en moi, en nous, en Europe. Voici donc une lettre bien personnelle, une lettre d’amitié et d’affection, posté ici simplement pour mes amis – et, qui sait, pour en faire de nouveaux. J’aurai écris en allemand, en espagnol, en grec… mais je ne maitrise que l’anglais et le français (plus bas). Merci pour la lecture et bon courage…
I woke: the house where I was born. Rain was falling softly in all the rooms.
In voting to leave the European Union, my fellow-citizens have changed the future. The consequences – for those of us living in this green and rainy island, for our neighbours and even for people in distant lands – are grave and unpredictable. The referendum has exposed and intensified long-standing divisions in our society; it has often turned on grievances unconnected with the EU. And we have no idea what happens now.
In 1947, in a city ruined by the war, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons ‘that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. In France, Raymond Aron, made a similarly cautious assessment, advocating democracy principally as the best way of limiting the state’s abuse of its power over individuals.
I wish today’s politicians showed similar wisdom in their thinking about democracy, but demagogues thrive by making things simple. I mistrust certainties and those who sell them, so I look to democracy – with Churchill and Aron – to protect our human rights. Electoral choices are not intrinsically good. Democracy is simply the right to choose, and the obligation to accept the consequences. The people may have spoken but what they intended to say – and why – is complex and uncertain. Those on the winning side elevate their choice to a moral truth. It is not. It is just the least bad way we have of deciding what to do.
The British have chosen to leave the European Union. The 48% who disagreed must live with that choice, as the 52% majority remind us. This thing will happen. Those who chose differently, who have other beliefs and alternative visions of the world, must decide what to do now. How do you respond when you wake up and find it’s raining in every room?
As politicians bluster in the media, I fear new borders and barbed wire. But security is built by getting to know those around us, not by planting hedges so we can’t see each other. If our neighbours do take us at our word and leave us alone, we’ll have isolation when we wanted independence.
Many of us – perhaps most – do not want that vision of our future. We know the EU is flawed – but so is our government and our democracy. They’re just the best we can manage at the moment and, as Churchill said, they’re better than the alternatives. If we walked away from everything flawed, we’d never stop walking. In truth, our imperfect systems and human weaknesses are the best explanation of why humanity does better when we work together to meet life’s complex challenges. And, of course, that also applies to this decision. We must work together to make the best of it.
I trust my friends in the European Union to understand the complexities of our struggle with these choices. It can be a difficult, dangerous world: you know as well as us what that means. Democracy’s binary choices cannot adequately reflect the hopes and fears of 35,55,983 individual voters. Only meeting, talking and listening, face to face or virtually, can help us understand each other better.
No one knows what will happen now, but societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, in what we do, not what we say. Most of us want to live in peace with others. Most of us accept that people are different. Most of us know that life is short and precious.
For most of the period that the UK has been a member of the European community, I have worked with people who have expressed their belief in human rights, democracy and our shared humanity through cultural projects. That work is life-enhancing in every sense. It reaches across social, cultural and official divisions and helps us live together. In the past year I have visited cultural activists in many countries from Portugal to Kyrgyzstan, Orkney to Morocco, Serbia to Ireland, and of course, in Britain. Whether or not I’ve needed a visa, whatever the situation or culture of the people I’ve met, I have been inspired by their creativity, optimism and commitment – and especially the imaginative courage of the younger generation. Come what may, that is the world I want to be part of and contribute to.
Yours in friendship
Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale. Il pleuvait doucement dans toutes les salles
En votant pour quitter l’Union européenne, mes concitoyens ont changé l’avenir. Les conséquences – pour ceux d’entre nous qui habitent cette île verte et pluvieuse, pour nos voisins et même pour les habitants de pays lointains – sont graves et imprévisibles. Le référendum a exposé et approfondi des divisions de longue durée dans notre société ; il a aussi souvent impliqué des plaintes n’ayant que peu de rapport avec l’UE. Et nous ne savons pas ce qui en adviendra.
En 1947, dans une ville ruinée par la guerre, Winston Churchill a déclaré à la Chambre des communes que « la démocratie est la pire forme de gouvernement, sauf toutes les autres formes qui ont été essayées de temps en temps ». En France, Raymond Aron, fît une évaluation également prudente, prônant la démocratie principalement comme la meilleure façon de limiter l’abus du pouvoir étatique contre l’individu.
J’aurais souhaité que cette génération d’hommes politiques fasse preuve d’une sagesse pareille, mais les démagogues profitent toujours de fausses simplicités. D’instinct je me méfie des certitudes et de ceux qui les vendent. Je demande surtout à la démocratie – avec Churchill et Aron – la protection des droits de l’homme. Les choix électoraux ne sont pas intrinsèquement bons. La démocratie est simplement le droit de choisir, avec l’obligation d’en accepter les conséquences. Le peuple a parlé, mais ce qu’il a voulu dire – et pourquoi – reste complexe et incertain. Du côté des vainqueurs on fait de ce choix à une vérité morale. Il n’en est pas. C’est simplement façon la moins mauvaise que nous avons de faire nos choix collectifs.
Le Royaume-Uni a décidé de quitter l’Union Européenne. Les 48% qui ont voté autrement doivent vivre ce choix, comme nous le rappellent les 52% de la majorité. Cette chose se produira. Ceux d’entre nous qui ont choisi autrement, ayant d’autres croyances et d’autres visions du monde, doivent maintenant décider quoi faire. Comment réagir quand on se réveille pour trouver qu’il pleut dans toutes les chambres?
Maintenant, quand les politiciens fanfaronnent sur les médias, je crains de nouvelles frontières et de nouveau barbelées. Mais la sécurité se construit en apprenant à connaître ceux auprès de nous, pas en plantant des haies pour que nous ne puissions plus nous voir. Si nos voisins nous prennent vraiment à notre mot et nous laissent tranquilles, nous trouverons l’isolement quand nous cherchions l’indépendance.
Beaucoup d’entre nous – peut-être la majorité – ne veulent pas cet avenir. Nous savons que l’UE est imparfaite – mais on peut en dire autant de notre gouvernement, de notre démocratie. C’est simplement ce que nous avons trouvé jusqu’ici de mieux pour gérer nos affaires et, comme le disait Churchill, c’est préférable aux alternatives. Si nous abandonnions tout ce qui est imparfait, nous abandonnerions tout. Il faut accepter que nos systèmes imparfaits et nos faiblesses coopèrent face aux défis complexes de la vie. Et, bien sûr, cela s’applique également à cette décision. Nous devons travailler ensemble pour faire avec.
J’ai confiance en mes amis de l’Union européenne pour comprendre les complexités de notre lutte avec ces choix. Le monde peut être difficile et dangereux : vous aussi le savez bien. Les choix binaires de la démocratie ne peuvent pas refléter les espoirs et les craintes de 35,55,983 électeurs particuliers. Il faut se rencontre, échanger, s’écouter, que ça soit face à face ou en ligne, si nous espérons nous comprendre.
Personne ne sait ce qui va se passer maintenant, mais les sociétés appartiennent aux citoyens, pas aux gouvernements. Elles sont formées par les relations, pas par les traités. Elles sont la somme de nos actes, pas de nos paroles. La plupart d’entre nous veulent vivre en paix avec les autres. La plupart d’entre nous acceptent que les gens soient différents. La plupart d’entre nous savent que la vie est courte et précieuse.
Pendant la plupart du temps le Royaume-Uni a fait partie de la communauté européenne, j’ai travaillé avec des gens qui exprimaient leur engagement aux droits de l’homme, la démocratie et notre humanité partagée par le moyen de projets culturels. Ce travail enrichit dans tous les sens la vie. Il franchit les divisions sociales, culturelles et officielles et nous aide à vivre ensemble. L’année passée j’ai rendu visite à des activistes dans beaucoup de pays – du Portugal au Kirghizistan, des Orcades au Maroc, de la Serbie à l’Irlande et bien sûr, en Grande-Bretagne. Partout, j’ai été inspiré par la créativité des gens, leur optimisme et leur engagement – et particulièrement par le courage et l’imagination de la jeune génération. Advienne que pourra, c’est le monde dont je veux faire partie et auquel je veux contribuer.
With the publication of A Wider Horizon ten days ago, this phase of the Regular Marvels idea draws to a close. I say ‘this phase’ but I don’t know whether or when there may be a second one. Five years ago, I set out to explore different ways of writing about the place of the arts in people’s lives. I was dissatisfied with some aspects of my own previous work, and even more with the language and assumptions of current arts discourse. Two questions concerned me in particular:
If art is important, why is it not accepted as a valid way to understand arts experience?
If people are important, why not write about their experience in ways that they might read?
Regular Marvels was a response to both problems. My intention with each book was to:
Work with a writer’s, not a researcher’s, methods and sensibility;
Work with a visual artist as an equal partner in the process;
Choose the subject and focus of each book myself;
Write about things the art world undervalued or just didn’t see; and
Write in ways that were approachable and interesting to those involved.
Those ideas shaped both the process and the final books, in particular the commitment to publishing them under a Creative Commons licence and making them free through this site. It also influenced their appearance and content: richly illustrated, legible design, accessible language, no footnotes. I wanted each one to be readable at a sitting – a long train journey perhaps.
A couple of recent but unconnected conversations have been encouraging. Joli Vyann, an exciting young performance company, told me that they’d been inspired by Bread & Salt when they were researching their piece about migration, Stateless. And Lyn Gardner, theatre critic with the Guardian (who has just written generously about A Wider Horizon) mentioned she’d read and quoted from Winter Fires. Writing can seem like a mad obsession, like constantly dropping messages in bottles off an ocean pier. It’s great when you get a reply.
With a bit more distance, I might give a better account of Regular Marvels. For now, I want to thank all those who’ve come on the journey – the people who’ve contributed to the books in countless ways and those who’ve read the results. It’s a big busy world and your attention is appreciated. In September, I’ll post news of a new project. In the meantime, I wish you a good summer (or winter if you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere…).
Rural touring schemes are a quiet triumph of the British arts world. For 35 years, these small, independent organisations have brought theatre, music and other performing arts to villages across the country and found enthusiastic local audiences. They have offered life enhancing experiences to people who, because they live far from cities, have limited access to the arts. They have provided rewarding and often challenging work for thousands of artists, from seasoned performers to young people at the start of a career. And, in doing all this, rural touring schemes have allowed more of us to enjoy the arts we pay for as tax payers and national lottery players.
Night after night, gifted artists perform at the invitation of the local community in halls, schools and churches from Cornwall to Cumbria. There might be 40, 70 or a hundred people; few venues can accommodate more anyway. But numbers aren’t the point. This is an art of closeness—chamber music, not the Last Night of the Proms.
‘People like the intimacy of the performance, the fact that you are feet away. You’re not watching at a distance on a screen—you’re involved, you’re part of the action.’
The performers are close: you can see the whites of their eyes. The atmosphere is electric because there’s nowhere to hide if the show isn’t working—and that can be as uncomfortable for the audience as for the artists. But such occasions are rare, partly because touring schemes are skilled at finding good shows, and partly because local promoters decide which ones to put on in their community. It is a joint enterprise with shared risks. And when it works, which is very often, audience and artists share a joyous experience, life enhancing and even, sometimes, life changing: regular marvels, indeed.
A Wider Horizon will be presented at the National Rural Touring Forum conference on 14th July 2015 at Wymondham College in Norfolk. The book will then be available from Creative Arts East and as a download from this site. A Wider Horizon, which is a collaboration with Rosie Redzia, will be the fifth regular marvel, and marks the end of the series, for the present at least. More news about that, and the new work that will follow, will come in the summer.
Designing the regular marvel books is always enjoyable. Visual judgements involve a different part of the mind to writing, and when something works you can see it at once (literally). There’s a way to go, but as far as integration of words and images A Wider Horizon might be the happiest yet. Each book has explored the dialogue between ways of knowing differently. If none has been completely successful, to my mind, I feel they’re getting better.
That’s partly thanks to the work of Dave Everitt, old friend and multi-disciplinary artist, with whom I do the layout. His command of the software has saved me having to learn it but working with a sympathetic spirit is the key. The combination of being painstaking but not opinionated is precious and makes the working process a pleasure.
But if A Wider Horizon does work out, it will be because Rosie Redzia’s drawings of landscapes, people and performers tell their story so well. It’s not my story – that’s the point of her contribution – but we often saw the same things, together or separately, and have talked about them over the years of the project. The result is not just two versions of the experience of rural touring but three, with another emerging from the dialogue between the two. At least that’s the idea: you’ll be able to decide for yourself when the books are available on 16 July.
I once bought a six-volume set of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. It had been printed in 1717, less than fifty years after the author’s death, and when the English Civil War was as close as the Second World War is today. The leather binding had been repaired with electrical tape, so I paid just 50p a volume. How could something so old be so cheap? But that’s a book for you. For objects that seem so fragile, they are remarkably resilient. They dry out if they get wet. Pages tear, but not volumes. Burning them is hard: it’s a symbolic act or sometimes a desperate one. Perhaps the present fashion for paper recycling will be a greater threat.
Art is precious. We keep our children’s drawings for decades, unable to throw them away because they represent the people who made them. We protect great art with locks and alarms. When a painting is stolen, the great fear is that it might be damaged: money is a secondary concern. Fanatics destroy art. They did it in Europe during the Reformation and they are doing it now in Syria and Iraq. Art is irreplaceable because it is made by irreplaceable people. Both are precious and vulnerable; both deserve care and protection. That is not to equate inanimate objects with human beings, though. Art matters because it symbolises and shares what matters to humanity: that’s why people who burn books always go on to burning people.
Books, it turns out, are a very good way to safeguard art and the values it holds. We can see broken temples and statues from the classical era, but it is books that allow us to hear Socrates’ defence of truth and honesty during his trial. Without books, the voices of those who have lived before us, of those who live in other countries and cultures, of those we will never meet, would all be denied us. A few simple symbols recorded on a surface have given us access to the whole human universe. They have prevented us from lapsing into final barbarism, though we have at times come close.
I like the idea that, years from now, these little regular marvels will still be lying forgotten at the back of a cupboard or in some small town junk shop. Seeds can wait a very long time for fertile soil. The books that do survive the recycling bin will blossom for anyone with the curiosity to pick them up and reward them with a document of another time and a glimpse of how some people thought and felt then. They don’t need looking after. Like messages in bottles, they can bob about and take care of themselves. If you’d like a printed copy, drop me a line and I’ll put it in the post.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted very fast, between 1946 and 1948, by nations reacting to the horrors of the Second World War. It is somewhat neglected nowadays, both in spirit and in fact, but it remains a benchmark of what human beings aspire to be and, since it was ratified by the United Kingdom, it is a standard to which we must hold ourselves. Among its articles is the 27th, which begins by stating that:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
We have made good progress towards meeting this promise since 1948, through the work of local government, the Arts Council and, perhaps more than any other single body, the BBC. It has probably never been easier to enjoy the arts. Their quality, diversity and accessibility in Britain is extraordinary and a cause for celebration.
But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes an important distinction between enjoying the arts and participating in the cultural life of the community. Both rights are fundamental—and different. One can enjoy the arts alone, intimately, without anyone knowing about it. Millions of commuters do so every day, cocooned with their iPods, Kindles and tablets as the train rushes them from work to home.
In contrast to these private experiences, participating in the cultural life of the community is a public and shared act. And it is central to how individuals find and create the common ground that makes a community or a society. It is why Classical Athens developed the civic ritual of theatre and the civic process of democracy simultaneously. Totalitarian regimes do not bother much with private artistic tastes as long as they control the cultural life of the community. It is the difference between passive consumption and active participation, and each has very different results for individuals, communities and democracy.
There are endless ways of participating in the cultural life of the community. Rural touring is certainly one. In gathering in the village hall for an event that they or their neighbours are responsible for organising, people affirm not just their cultural tastes and values but also their willingness to be a community in the first place. In all my conversations with people about rural touring, over more than ten years now, the most consistent reason they give for being involved is that it brings the community together. Whether they are promoters, neighbours or incomers, the people who turn up on a cold February nights to see an unknown play by an equally unfamiliar theatre group, do so to support the community. And, of course, the best way to promote our values is to enact them. It’s not what we say but what we do that makes a difference.
This is a short extract from the draft of A Wider Horizon. The draft goes out today to the people who’ve been involved in the project for correction and further thought. The design process begins next month and it will be more fun than usual thanks to Rosie Redzia’s fantastic drawings, which will be on every page if I can manage it. The book will be published on 15 July 2015 and available as a free download here.
Is artistic excellence really incompatible with social purpose? It’s an argument I’ve heard throughout my working life but it has never seemed coherent—unless art is defined in such malnourished terms as to be all but lifeless. That artificial debate came to mind when Álvaro Restrepo sent me a short film of extracts from the latest creation of the dance company he leads,with Marie-France Delieuvin in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias.
Álvaro and Marie-France began working with young people in the city in 1997. It was the kind of adventure that only two visionary artists would even think of starting—to establish a contemporary dance training programme, of the highest standards, open to all, without funding, in a city with great social challenges and a country fractured by conflict. Over the years, the company has expanded, contracted and mutated, moved from home to home, stepped sideways and back, always allowing its character to evolve naturally through the creative explorations of the people who are El Colegio del Cuerpo.
Many of the teenagers who began as the ‘pilot group’ nearly twenty years ago are still with the company, dancing, teaching and in other roles. They are giving a new generation of vulnerable children the same opportunities for education, personal growth and creative expression they once had. They are also the nucleus of the performers who carry forward the company’s artistic vision in creations like this tribute to Kazuo Ohno and Leonard Cohen.
I have probably seen more work by Álvaro and Marie-France than by any other choreographer, from early site-specific pieces in Cartagena during my first visit in 1998, to a performance at Sadler’s Wells in 2012. Dance is an art form that I came to appreciate slowly, and these intense performances played a large part in my education. Their stories are powerful, evocative and original, with a distinctive beauty in both the movements of the performers and the haunting, colourful imagery. But most of all, for me, there is a triumphant humanism, a will to honour what is best in us, whatever our origin, culture or status, and to place it as a bulwark against the forces of cruelty and violence that everywhere press against them. This work is profoundly brave, so I was not surprised but very happy when Àlvaro told me that it had Leonard Cohen’s blessing.
El Colegio del Cuerpo (The School of the Body) is the essence of cultural democracy. It is art with a vision of itself as a force for education and growth, for healing, for love. It is not just untroubled by its social mission: it wouldn’t be itself without that purpose. But nor would its social mission be much good without its unwavering commitment to being the best art it can possibly be. Artistic excellence and social commitment unite in humanism. This is an important story and I hope one day to have the chance to tell it. But for now, you can hear Álvaro tell it himself, which is undoubtedly better.