Monday, 27 February 2012

Positive imagination



I didn’t so much make a positive decision to give State of the Arts 2012 a miss as simply not get myself together in time to book a place before it sold out. I did, however, decide to treat myself to 3 days grappling with climate change, the environment and my green side at Tipping PointNewcastle. Having experienced the twitterage and bloggage about #SOTA12, and then spent time with more than 200 artists, scientists and others in Newcastle last week I can’t say I’m sorry it worked out like that.

Although I’m sure there were lots of positive aspects to State of the Arts – bringing people together, some great speakers, some interesting debates - the reactions to it seemed shape by the logistical and political limitations of that scale of event. This is neither about to what extent ACE does or should control the agenda, or about how individual artists are validated by either ACE or the other people attending. (Honestly folks, anyone waiting for validation from a funding body is on a hiding to nothing, surely?) But the ambiguities and creativities of arts people  and our work, individual and collective, seems to get lost in wanting to hear or have the case put, and positions staked out.

Tipping Point Newcastle had a focus of positive messages to energise creative responses to climate change. It started with a ‘sparky’ battle of the graphs between Kevin Anderson (of the ‘we’re doomed unless we change utterly’ school) and Matt Ridley (of the ‘it’s not so bad and the cure is worse’ school) that generated more heat than light for me. Following days though left me with a head spinning with ideas and a general positivity, despite the challenges environmental change represents to our culture in both the broad and specific senses of the word. Some quotes and thoughts amongst many others:

  • There was lots of talk of ‘sustained anger’, but isn’t that as oxymoronic as ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainable growth’?
  • Are we ‘constipated with choice’ as John Fox put it, in his inspiring defence of the imagination? (You can hear that, and a rousing rendition of 'All things bright and beautiful' here.) 
  • Seeing John Fox and Sue Gill in action again also mae me think how we need to pay heed and dues, and even homage, to some of the inspirational elders in the sector, as well as bringing in new people. (There was a healthy contingent of young researchers and artists too.)
  • Alan Davey made announcements (a few minutes after the ACE tweeters had said, but never mind!) about Arts Council environmental policies and new elements to funding agreements.  ACE has also been bringing down its own emissions and carbon use quite significantly – although reducing staff numbers will also have been part of that.
  • Lucy Conway of Eigg Box on the Isle of Eigg used the phrase that’s echoed most in my head since – ‘the idea of finite’, which is what islanders accept as natural. (The inhabitants of Eigg have agreed a ‘cap’ on their use of power, and must live within the limits of the island for many other resources.) This felt like the heart of the issues for me – do we accept the finite nature of our planet or live as if there are no limits? (Lucy also revealed that Egg has 90 residents and 22 committees - though the winters are long, and some only meet once a year.)
  • This helped me towards my own conclusion that for me environmental concerns sit within my socialism, rather than vice versa, and that the ideas of equity and balance cannot be separated out from changing behaviours to reduce climate change. If there was a button to push to make carbon harmless, I would still be arguing for some changes in behaviour.


With only one or two isolated breakouts of green self-righteousness, sentimentality or sense of humour failure, it was also a really positive but challenging group of people. Difference of opinion seemed easier to express than in many such discussions, although probably within a broad consensus. But I saw few artists looking for external permission or agency, perhaps because this was one of the contexts that demanded what re.think describes as ‘bigger than self thinking. I certainly came away with fresh determination to act bigger than self, and to write in that spirit too.

You can access a lot of material from Tipping Point and some excellent reportage on the Amplified site. 

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