Monday, 30 April 2012

The Art of Exit (not about Jeremy Hunt)

One of the most common and often most difficult discussions in any planning process is the one that comes after the fun, creative prioritising of the possibilities and exiting new programmes - 'what are we going to stop doing?' This is especially tricky if it means closing down programmes or even venues, or stopping funding things. People are attached, sometimes beyond reason, to certain things, even when the bigger picture suggests a need to move on. The need for change that involves what some call 'creative destruction' is implicit in the thinking around resilience - in my own work, but also arguments by others, including Diane Ragsdale recently. (I'm not keen on the term myself, too negative even in its oxymoronic catchiness.)

NESTA have just published 'The Art of Exit' by Laura Bunt and Charles Leadbetter, a report 'in search of creative decommissioning'. the looks at how combining innovation and decommissioning can be used to improve public services - or at least to find better solutions to problems which have traditionally been addressed through public services. (I suspect something of a privatisation agenda behind some of the examples.) They put this in the context of reduction in public spending, although very acceptingly it seems to me. (If I knew more precisely what neo-liberal meant I might use it here.) That said, there are some useful studies in the report, and a potentially useful set of steps identified.

These are not put forward as a blueprint, or sequential, but include two strands 'innovation' and 'decommission'. The six actions are:

  • show current provision is untenable
  • engage and understand
  • create a vision and mobilise around it
  • plan to make a break
  • formalise and scale
  • dismantle, switch and redeploy
One can see fairly clumsy attempts to do this being made in the arts - eg with Darlington council and the arts centre, or at a national level with audience development, or arguably around philanthropy. This difficulty is when these are changes are driven by fund-holders, rather than the collective, and when - as Bunt and Leadbetter discuss - politics and formal accountability processes hamper that switch to new ways of working. These get in the way of what I would suggest is a key element of successful creative decommissioning: collective co-design, involving 'providers', 'users' and 'funders' on an equal basis. if you're grappling with how to move from a situation which is simply not delivering what it could, or not sustainable, it may be a useful read.

(Actually, although my title says this is not about Jeremy Hunt, the first and last of the bullet points above do seem applicable...)

Monday, 2 April 2012

Slowalking: my 2 hours as a performance artist

One of the gripes that often comes up about the boards of arts organisations is that too few trustees or board members experience enough of the actual art to give the staff proper feedback or challenge. Conscious of that, I signed myself up to take full part in the last event of this year’s AV Festival, Hamish Fulton's Slowalk in the Spiller’s Wharf car park on Newcastle’s Quayside. (The Festival has been rather brilliant, if I may say so as a trustee – but don’t just take my word for it, it's had great reviews here and here and here amongst other places.)

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘As Slow As Possible’, turning the faster, higher, further theme of this Olympic year on its head, as well as taking a tip from John Cage. This included various ‘durational’ works – ie things which lasted a long time and explored the limits and potential of stretching things out, and, yes, even boredom. (The festival lasted for a month, a different kind of durational feat.)

Fulton’s Slowalks are a kind of anti-Great North Run, but even more so than I’d thought, having failed to check the videos of previous walks. I had imagined that the participants would be walking slowly around the car park, perhaps creating some kind of slo-mo performance version of taking a line for a walk. But on arrival I was allocated a spot at the end of one of the parking spaces. The other 200 or so people taking part were on adjacent ends and intersections of the white lines. (You can see some of my neighbours in the photo above, just before we started.) Our task was to walk to the next intersection, taking exactly two hours. That’s less than 4 metres: 3cm a minute tops. The aim was to walk very, very slowly but continuously, which is a lot more challenging – and interesting – than you might think, although, yes, inherently absurd for most people. We couldn’t talk, use phones or ipods.

Each person seemed to do it differently. (One or two even blatantly cheated by standing still or shuffling on the spot for 1 hour 59 minutes and 58 seconds and then took five big steps forward. Shocking behaviour, for which I’m tempted to argue they should be barred from future festivals.) For me it was a physical experience – trying to keep my legs moving, shifting the movement up one leg and down the other, making sure I lifted my toes and heels, but only moved them a very little, tightening my stomach whilst keeping one foot off the floor, being very conscious of my body – and a visual one – playing games with the tarmac to determine where to move my feet next, piece by piece, trying not to go too fast – and an aural one, listening to the wind and the Quayside buses, the squalls of birds and the fishermen nearby who must have thought we were mad. I made it into a game as much as a meditation, a very slow work out. The things I had ‘brought’ to sort out in my head over two slow hours in a hectic week of work and home, thinking I’d need something to think about, I didn’t get to– I was very much concentrating experiencing on the moment, which for me was a break, and more refreshing than I’d anticipated.

I wouldn’t say time flew by, but it did pass quickly – because I was actively concentrating, I think. It was both relaxing and curiously taxing. As can be seen from the terms I use above, it did feel like a kind of arts experience, if you want to put it in that box. At the end the little clusters of three people that had very slowly come together over 2 hours, catching each others’ eyes only occasionally but becoming more and more familiar with our faces, clothes and movements, all seemed to have an urge to laugh. 

Talking to the two strangers we exchanged experiences and felt curiously alive, it seemed. People formed little groups to laugh and talk about our experiences of the shortest slowest walk we would ever do, if we were lucky. (I couldn’t help think at times of people who learn to walk again after serious injury and what they might think of the work.) Our joint participation in an odd, but shaped activity, created a connection, fleeting but more than I’ve generally experienced at, say, plays I’ve gone to on my own. The people there were of all ages, and not all fitted any arty stereotype, although that may have something to do with the equalising effect of wrapping up warm.

How I will make use of this experience at our next board meeting, I am still unsure. But if we are going to talk about mass participation performance art – which is what I decided this was, when describing it to my frankly incredulous family, although it can’t have been proper performance art because no one was naked – maybe it will help to talk from inside the experience.