Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Movement of artists

It’s a murky business, politics. Lots about The Manifesto Club makes me very nervous – eg their campaigns about vetting and their general libertarian bent. There is the whiff of ex-trot about the rhetoric and nothing makes me more nervous than a libertarian ex-trot. But one campaign I do support is that addressing the point-based immigration system and its impact on artists and academics. You can read about here and there are some useful pointers as to how to raise this in the context of the general election.

I’ve just become chair of the Swallows Foundation UK, which is involved in a unique international partnership between North East England and the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the Swallows Partnership. The North East has just played host to a fantastic residency by 28 South African performers, which very nearly didn’t happen because most of the artists were refused visas at first asking. And indeed second asking. It was only after much intervention, much further information and the loss of a month’s planning time and support from National Campaign for the Arts and others that most were able to come. Many were refused because as young, single, black African males they seemed to be automatically suspected of wanting to stay in the UK after the residency ended, despite many of them having visited before, and having returned quite normally. The NCA has campaigned really powerfully on this.

Does it matter if less artists are able to visit the UK? Is it a political issue? Yes, in both cases. I want to live in a country that’s open to ideas, experiences and learning from elsewhere, and can explore its own identity through comparison, debate and connection. That connects us into an understanding of our history and future in the world – whether that be our colonial and Commonwealth past, or post-colonial hybrid notions of Englishness or Britishness within a European identity. The points-based system, and the general tenor of ‘debate’ about immigration as evidenced in this election seems to me a variant of what I’ll call (referring to my last post) as England’s Dreaming. One of the parts of the ACE/RSA State of the Arts debate I found most disappointing was the part on movement of artists, where it seemed people thought this was simply a targeting of artists, when it actually stems from a broader and more pernicious fear of ‘the foreign’. It needs to be addressed as a political issue, not one of simply arts policy: it is, therefore, a very useful point to raise with your prospective MPs.

The ironic punchline to the story of the Eastern Cape Swallows is that, as they were due to return home on Sunday, none of the artists or visiting politicians from the Eastern Cape can go home as planned, due to the cancellation of flights because of the volcanic ash...

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