Summer’s lease

Traveling Treasury - a storytelling performance that inspired the cover of A Wider Horizon
Traveling Treasury – a storytelling performance that inspired the cover of A Wider Horizon

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…).

If you’d like a digital copy of A Wider Horizon, click on this link: A Wider Horizon (PDF 5MB). Printed books are available now from Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU, Tel: 01953 713390 Email:  enquiries@creativeartseast.co.uk

 

A dialogue of stories

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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.

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Books can take care of themselves

Little Free library Methwold Rosie Redzia

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.

Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen)

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.

A perfect delight

Schwimmhalle 2

A delight in useless beauty is part of what makes us human. Walking down a street in Mannheim yesterday, I noticed this inscription above the entrance to a swimming pool. Could any script better evoke the ripple of water or the fluid motion of the crawl? It makes you want to go inside just to imitate it. Regular marvels exist, in all their paradoxical wonderful ordinariness, because people always find ways of expressing their character and values through art, even if it’s just a functional sign.

I was in Mannheim to speak about community theatre: you can hear more about that by following this link to the Parliament of Dreams blog.

A pause on the landing

Steps 2The Regular Marvels idea started in 2011, with the project about West Bromwich Operatic Society that became Where We Dream. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate: I had the title before I met the brilliant people at WBOS. I wanted to do something about the undervalued parts of our cultural life and the amateur world was an obvious place to start. Arts Council England’s data on places where there was ‘low engagement’ in the arts was another: Sandwell, which includes West Bromwich, is third from bottom on that list. It was just chance that the Operatic Society, founded in 1937, had been in business longer than the Arts Council that could not see it, but art is nothing if not symbolic.

That book came out of a search for other ways of understanding and writing about people’s experience of art that I’d been undertaking for several years already. I believe that art is necessary to human beings because – among other things – it allows them to know and express things they cannot otherwise know and express. If that’s true, then it seemed paradoxical, perverse even, that all the work that had been done since the mid 1990s, by me and by others, to understand the social value of participation in the arts used other methods. It seemed that social science, evaluation and management practice, critical theory even, were all thought more suitable ways of understanding art than art itself.

So regular marvels set out to explore what could be done by using the discipline, methods, concepts and language of art as a way to understand and talk about people’s experience of art. There was no bigger plan than that, no commission, no funding, no approval. Help came, often from people I’d worked with before, or people who got the idea. One regular marvel hasn’t got off the ground, perhaps because it’s too complicated: it’s a pity, because I think the idea is good, but I’ve shelved it for the time being.

Steps 3All the others have been completed, though, and I’m rather astonished about it now. Since 2012, I’ve published four short books, normally working with other artists, and they’re all available in PDF format from this site. (If you want a printed copy, let me know through the contact page and I’ll see what I can do.) A fifth book – A Wider Horizon – will be published in July by Creative Arts East. And then?

It feels like the right time to take a break from the regular marvels. There are no others on the workbench now and I need to think about what they are and what they might be in future. How far have they really achieved what I hoped? I don’t know: I need some distance. I also need to think about some different things and work in a different way for a while. So, after July, when A Wider Horizon is done, there’ll be a period of hibernation here. In the meantime, if you have been, thank you for reading…

 

Chalkie’s Demon Diary

Tory Island I have written about Mike White before. He belongs to the quiet army of artists and creative people who’ve nurtured socially engaged arts practice at the heart of community life today. A hugely valuable career at Womad, Welfare State International, Gateshead Council and Durham University came to early retirement last autumn as he continues treatment for cancer. Mike is also an old friend with whom I have had many stimulating conversations about art and people, health, well-being and community. Creative people use their gifts to make sense of their experience: it’s the human in us. A couple of weeks ago, Mike started a blog, Chalkie’s Demon Diary, about illness, life and lanterns. So much stuff doesn’t matter: this does. Please read it.

Update, 5 June 2015

Mike died today. I’ve written briefly about him here – Mike White – but there’s no more to say now.

Oh yes it is!

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Jeanie Finlay’s Pantomime

The atmosphere at the Première of Jeanie Finlay’s lastest documentary, Pantomime, lived up to the film’s title. The main auditorium at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema was packed with excited members of The People’s Theatre company, taking a precious night off from rehearsing this year’s panto to see how Jeanie had told their story. Audience interaction began before Steven Shiel, who introduced the film, had reached the stage and continued joyously throughout the evening. The screening itself was accompanied by groans and giggles as people saw themselves and, more importantly, saw how Jeanie had captured the spirit of amateur theatre. Pantomime has been a risk for everyone involved. Filmed on a shoestring in the gaps between other projects, Jeanie made the documentary because she fell in love with the theatre and its people. That shows in the resulting film, and accounts for why the BBC not only picked up the film but are screening the full length version in the run-up to Christmas. You can watch Pantomime on BBC4 at 9.25pm on Monday evening, and on the BBC iPlayer afterwards. Don’t miss it!

Deep, dark truthful mirror

26-590x331 The special challenge of all documentary art (which is the essence of Regular Marvels) is to represent a truthful portrait of the people you are working with to them. Of course, the work will go off and be seen or read by audiences who know only what you tell them of your subject. Then, as with any similar work, documentary art must sink or swim in the estimation of those who encounter it. But before then, it must be seen by those who are its subject. The invitation you make to them, when asking them to be involved, is to look at themselves straight in a mirror, to see themselves as others see them. It’s a brave thing to do – like getting up on stage but without the costume and make up. It takes trust on both sides, because unless it’s truthful it is a waste of time, and unless it’s done with care (in every sense of the word) it isn’t worth doing at all. There are so many traps for the artist here: sentimentality, compromise, flattery, deception. So it was moving to hear so many of those who feature in the film speak after that first screening about how well Jeanie had told their story and how happy they were that they had invited her in.

A people’s theatre

24-590x331 The People’s Theatre have been putting on plays at Nottingham Arts Theatre since they converted it from a discussed chapel in 1948. They are a vital – if not always sufficiently appreciated – part of the city’s cultural and social life. Just like the thousands of amateur theatre companies across the country. The care and commitment everyone puts in – so well portrayed in Jeanie’s film – is very special: for many of them, it is what life is all about. Their experience deserves more credit: they know what they are talking about. As Jeanie told The Stage:

“It offered me an incredibly rich environment, full of funny, endearing and heartbreaking stories and characters at a precarious moment in time. If this theatre closes, it’s not just the bricks and mortar that we’ll lose, it’s history, community and importantly the vital bonds of shared creativity and camaraderie,”

PS To read Where We Dream, the Regular Marvels book about West Bromwich Operatic Society, click here for a free download.

An antidote for visual satiety

 

In a world saturated with pictures, the work of artists is very vulnerable and very important –vulnerable because it is so easy to lose one’s way in this hall of mirrors, lured by money, fame and flattery into creating work that serves only the purposes of power. And important for the same reason – because, if they are true to their own way of looking, their craft and their sensibility, they are the antidote to the visual pap with which power shapes our ideas of reality. Artists with integrity are like whole food in a world of burger bars and junk.

Richard Johnson is a Scottish-Canadian artist who has been sent, first by the Detroit Free Press and latterly by the Washington Post, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing new about war artists: Britain first used them in 1916, and they have been assigned to most subsequent conflicts. But Johnson works as a ‘visual journalist’, much as a press photographer would: documenting what he sees and the people he meets in immediate sketches whose purpose is to help newspaper (and website) readers understand better what is happening now, today. His latest assignment, following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, brings vividly home, and from many perspectives, the humanity of the experience. The results can be seen in a blog here.

Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Boston Calling, Johnson explained his idea of drawing’s value in journalism:

‘It’s great for telling stories where you need people to care about people who are far, far away – so, your refugee camps in Syria, internally displaced camps inside Iraq now, Ebola in Africa, these are stories I think that [drawing] could be used incredibly effectively to make people emotionally connect with what are basically just other human beings. They may not be nearby but they’re just as valid and just as valuable as anything else in your life.’

In much less dramatic contexts this is one of the founding ideas behind Regular Marvels. Art has not just ways of seeing, but ways of knowing, that it alone commands. It does not simply depict or represent: it creates knowledge that cannot otherwise exist. The contributions of the artists I have worked with on these books – filmmaker, Ben Wigley; painter, Mik Godley; sculptor Bill Ming; and illustrator, Rosie Redzia – have been integral to each one. They do not illustrate my words, any more than those words describe their visual work. They create new kinds and new levels of knowledge.

One reason for that is because they are the result of time taken and therefore they take time to understand: this is slow imagery in a world that plays fast and loose with pictures. Artists like Richard Johnson can help us go beyond being informed to empathising and even understanding what is otherwise so far from our own lives. When the imagery of war can no longer be distinguished from the imagery of video games, the ball point and the pencil can still tell fact from fiction.

 

The Light Ships: First Words

TLS Fleet Church flowerThe fourth Regular Marvel is called The Light Ships: Church, art and community in the Lincolnshire Fens. It will be published on 8 November 2014 by Transported, at an event in Whaplode Church. In the custom of Regular Marvels, here are the books opening words:

Two thirds of every eyeful sky

If you know the Lincolnshire Fenlands only from the windows of a car or a bus, you may not think very much of them. The landscape is neither dramatic nor picturesque: no mountains, lakes or pretty villages to catch the eye. On each side of the straight road stretch equally straight lines of cabbages, beet and potatoes, interrupted only by glasshouses, bungalows and truck stops hedged with flags. This is working land, in working gear. It is very productive though: much of what we eat grows in these fields, in rich earth won from water. Workers bend over crops in the morning mist, picking, weighing and packing. A steady convoy of trailers rumbles out from farm, store and factory so that our supermarket shelves are never bare. Its waterways are also straight and functional. Their names—Forty Foot Drain, New River—don’t stop for poetry as they hurry rainwater out to sea. Above them, pylons stalk into the distance like tent pegs for the sky. Turbines lazily harvest the wind. And higher still, jet contrails draw the straightest lines of all across this land of levels and right angles.

If you know the Lincolnshire Fenlands only from a distance, you may not think much of them at all. But if you stop, if you turn off the trunk routes that connect Newark with Kings Lynn or Peterborough with Skegness, you find another Fenland, ancient, self-reliant and rich in unexpected treasure.

The spires are the clue. They pierce the horizon through little stands of trees. Like lighthouses across a still sea, church steeples signal where people live to those who rush by with places to go, people to see. They are still points in a busy world: pointedly pointless. They have stood a very, very long time and they have seen it all.

 The book will be available as a free download from this site after 8 November, with details of how to get printed copies. They’ll also be available at three Light Ships events in Whaplode, Wrangle and Gosberton in in November. If you’re in the area, do come along – everyone’s very welcome.

The Light Ships Invitation