Thursday, 30 August 2012

Movingpictures 25: Hello to you out there in normal land...

To round off this Olympic month, I thought I would share Ian Dury's original of Spasticus Autisticus, after a version was included in last night's Paralympics Opening Ceremony. But then I found something more interesting instead...

Above is Ian Dury talking about the song, after it couldn't get played on the radio, back in 1981. Don't forget, kids, this is someone who had just had a massive Number 1 (when Number 1s were Numbers 1s!), so not quite the outsider he might seem now. It makes me think of a number of 'transitions', not all good:

  • Firstly, god bless Granada Reports, with which I grew up, for its arts and music coverage - but where would you get 5 minutes of intelligent discussion of a song on regional news nowadays? Maybe Granada Reports was unusual (it was home to Tony Wilson, after all) but the decline in local news is a real and sad one. 
  • Secondly, the language shifts are noticeable, although you can tell Dury is politically involved in disability arts thinking.
  • But mainly, of course, we notice the shift in perceptions marked by the song's inclusion in the ceremony, although still with far to go to complete the journey from exclusion to inclusion, downgrading to respect. 
You can't ignore, however, the great ironies of, for instance, Cameron being interviewed before the ceremony, let alone Atos sponsoring the games, given the clear, focused and energetic attack on disabled people being carried out by this government. Or indeed that nagging thought someone put in my head about 'inspiration porn', or the question why disabled people need their own, separate, games rather than competing at the same time as others? (I imagine there are very practical reasons, and not just for Oscar Pistorious, and maybe 2 halves is better than a month of Olymics There are arguably even cultural cases to be made by some disabled and deaf people, but it's still a question that makes me pause.)

Anyway, those are questions for other times perhaps, after we've enjoyed the sport. Big congratulations to graeae's Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings for a really powerful opening ceremony - I certainly cannot remember anything of such power and visibility for disabled artists.  Well not since graeae's Prometheus in Stockton actually, but that wasn't broadcast globally. Here's a photo I took of it though: 

The issues of access that remain can only be assisted by this profile. He said optimistically... having recently been sorely disappointed to find a major national arts event - on the topic of people working together even - being held in a venue that was not accessible to wheelchair users, due to its age and nature. So, many of the performers so brilliantly showcased last night would have been outside in an adjacent space, at best, if they'd wanted to join in - surely not an image we can sustain. The understandable defence given was 'this is the venue we have, we wish it were different'.  Wishing it were different no longer seems quite enough. Time for a bit of 'I'm Spasticus' perhaps?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Horse Burning Park

More than 20 years ago I wrote a poem called 'The Horse Burning Park', about a heritage attraction dedicated to the ancient industry and craft of burning horses. It was the title poem of my first collection, published in 1994, and felt a bit of a 'breakthrough' for me as a writer. I was especially proud when the great poet Gordon Wardman sometimes included it in his own readings in the early 90s. Googling it will give you some links to 2nd hand copies of the book, at least one of which has the dispiriting description 'appears unread'. The bulk of remaining (remaindered) copies live in my office. 

More encouragingly, I also came across a blog by Peter Knagg which concludes  'Joseph Roth and Geoff Hattersley say more to me about existentialism than Camus and Wittgenstein, Geoff, who comes like a view from the Barnsley factory floor… but his voice isn’t heard enough and not enough people read Simon Armitage and what about, The Horse Burning Park by Mark Robinson?' (Forgive the trumpet blowing, please, finding something like that so long after the book came out feels like getting a reply to a message in a bottle. He's right about Geoff Hattersley too, by the way.)

Last weekend was Stockton International Riverside Festival and Stockton Weekender round here. The most memorable event of some great street arts, with the possible exception of Prometheus by Greaea/La Fura del Baus which was a real highlight of the festival, was the burning of the Gignantikow Labyrinth - built over several days by local community participants, used as a site for theatre and music, and then ceremonially burnt in front of thousands. 

It provided me with the image above of The Horse Burning Park made as real as I'd want it. Give it time and art will bring you everything, whether you want it or not.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Stars of track and field (&river&gym&velodrome et al)

Having found myself quite predictably glued to the actual sports in the London 2012 Sports Day - if there was tiddlywinks on telly I'd be interested in who was going to win - I've noticed how often the winning British sportsmen and women thank lottery funding for its contribution to their success, enabling their teams, training and so on. Compare 1 gold medal in Atlanta, before John Major introduced the lottery, with recent results and the stats are clear: lottery funding has transformed our athletes' performance and medal prospects. 

This connects, in my mind at least, to the debate over lottery funding I talked about recently, and the ongoing controversy in Scotland. This was reignited today by Matthew Lenton of Vanishing Point fearing he will have to take his company abroad if they have to move from annual 'revenue' funding to application-based lottery funding, and Vicky Featherstone weighing in: "You can-not create a strong artistic sector project by project, and that has been proved. The development of the art form is all about the long term and it's all about trust."

The 'simple', maybe even simplistic, question in my head, then, is this: 'If sustained investment of lottery funds - within the same legal framework - has made possible the development processes necessary to support athletes to be this good, why can't it do likewise in the arts?' 

Developing sports people is for the long-term, and requires trust, and similar levels of dedication in individuals dedicating their lives to something, for uncertain returns. There are 'big winners' in both sport, yes, as in the arts, but most in either field do not make their fortunes. The attitudes to 'failure' may differ, but it is intrinsic to endeavour in both sports and the arts. (I know that whilst some people in the arts may publicly fetishise the right to fail, they too weep with frustration behind the scenes when their vision doesn't come off.)

It is not beyond the wit of a lottery-based programme and the people who run it to show commitment to talent over time, and to support growing and maturing organisations and individual artists - as well as new projects. It requires trust on all sides, efficient but human systems run by suitably skilled people with ears open to a diversity of voices, and very honest debate and discussion. The parameters shaping choice are key.

One possible advantage sport has is clear results: it is at least - I presume - a little easier to make choices about who to invest in, based on results, training stats and so on. (There's also a ruthlessness to that, of course, which we in the arts traditionally find difficult, for all the drop out rate in the industry.) 

Any funding scheme can run into difficulty when the transparent criteria become a set of marks for execution and artistic interpretation, leaving aside the broader contexts of development of artists, companies, places and the public interest, which are then applied in a mechanistic manner. This can lead to isolated decision-making processes which are not shaped , if you'll forgive the cliche, by joined up thinking that takes into account the whole set of strategies and ecologies that should influence what gets supported and what doesn't. (It can, but it ain't necessarily so, it's not a function of the type of funding.)

A diversity of voices involved in those difficult decision-making discussions based on those transparent criteria and the competing demands is, for me, probably the main thing to obtain, retain or develop - choose your verb depending on your view of the current/proposed systems. 

(I've focussed here on the 'funding for excellence'. One thing sport has generally been smarter about is combining this with support for what used to be termed 'sport for all', the community/amateur level, about which the arts have been historically conflicted. But that's another story.)

Video: Stars of Track and Field from James Davis on Vimeo.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Pussy Riot: artists in a tradition

Bursting into a church to denounce God, the Bishop and the President and patriarchy in general to the sound of some screechy punk rock may not be everyone's idea of the best way to change hearts and minds. But if Nigel Farage had interrupted a church service to sing a song urging withdrawal from the EU or a reduction in immigration, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't demand he was locked up for 7 years, and I don't think the government would be making special efforts to do so. I'd either laugh or clap or get cross, kick him out and then ridicule him. I wouldn't want him tried, deprived of food and sleep, and put in a cage. That's why I support Amnesty International's campaign against of the current imprisonment of the Russian artists/musicians/activists Pussy Riot, which you can read about, and join in with, here

I'm not quite as excited as Suzanne Moore is about Pussy Riot, but it does seem rowdy young thinkers and artists can still rattle the cages of Power. I was reminded there is a tradition of using churches to create eye-catching events. A group of Lettrists, precursors to the Situationists, and thus grandfathers to the first set of punks, and some kind of ancestors to Pussy Riot, pronounced that God was dead in Notre Dame in Paris in 1950. (This is covered in the classic examination of punk/situationism and much more besides, Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.) 

They were actually saved from 'the mob' by the police, and then one spent only a few weeks in prison before being released, whilst the intellectuals of the country debated the worth or otherwise of the gesture, the French mainly respecting the first word of their national motto.

One could ask what would happen if a group of young artists similarly 'invaded' Westminster Abbey.  The last few years' rough justice for protestors and 'rioters' alike suggests the answer is not what I would prefer - shredding of any artistic license, vilification in the Express and the Mail,  a late night appearance before a magistrate, and a fast van to jail, not passing GO, not collecting £200 being most likely - means we might not compare with Putin's Russia quite as well as we (some of us?) would like to assume. This should not prevent us responding to these artists' situation, then thinking about what we do at home too. Nor should it stop us raising ongoing concerns about freedom of speech in Putin's Russia. After all, next to the deaths of many journalists in Russia, even this sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut trial is relatively restrained.