Last night at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford University, I presented this at the “Truth to Power Cafe”, a fascinating platform presented by Jeremy Goldstein of London Artists Projects.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting, but on building the new” – Socrates. I haven’t checked the reference… I downloaded it off Facebook.
Apparently it was Isaac Newton who said in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”, although the quote is attributed to great men of earlier centuries… and like the Socrates quote, it’s useful.
Great men have said great things throughout history. And her-story has got lost, or come later, or been dumped in the dustbin of history… And when the patriarchy began to intersect with and underpin systems like capitalism, things went from bad to worse.
“We are none of us free until we are all of us free” – Emma Lazarus wrote that in 1882. And 251 years later, in 2133 (that’s 115 years from now), according to the World Economic Forum we’ll have closed the global gender pay gap.
So it’s important this week, marking 100 years since SOME women got the vote in Britain, to say, as the Mary Poppins classic goes, “well done, sister suffragettes”. Thank you Mrs Pankhurst, and thank you too to Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin, and huzzah for Rose McGowan. You’ve all stuck it to The Man.
The suffragettes stole power in the age of men. And each successive wave of feminism drew it’s battle lines and fought it’s enemies and won ground, created space.
But still the patriarchy reinvents itself – every single time. And how? Because it is insidious, it is engrained in our culture of entitlement, our morality, our thoughts – it IS power, structurally, systematised. And it is bad for us all.
No, Andrea… Men are not the enemy. They are killing themselves in ever increasing numbers because of the toxic masculinity they are pushed to live down to.
No, Germaine… Trans women are not the enemy. You don’t need a vagina to lack male privilege or to understand what it’s like to be abused because you’re a woman.
Rose, yes you are brave, but check your privilege and listen to the lived experience of those who have given you a platform to represent and be heard.
And, note to self… the SWERFS and the TERFS are not the enemy. (Do I need to explain these acronyms..? Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists…) They, like all of us, have got distracted, confused… and the power feeds off our distraction.
We polarise and draw our battle lines, online, keyboard warriors, activists of the internet, spilling in and out of live space… the Tories versus the Corbynistas… Trump versus the liberals… Brexiteers and Remoaners… TERFs and trans activists… and in the middle? Kittens and pornography.
I quite like kittens. I also quite like pornography, well, some of it, occasionally. But I don’t want to invest my life in kittens, or porn, or battles with individual people, or even groups of people.
I have a number of privileges to check – and the most important one is that I have a basic income. A universal basic income is essential, obviously – humans need to survive before they can thrive. But even that, whilst I’ll back it with a passion, isn’t the cause I want to champion the most.
What I want to champion is authenticity, is truth.
Power (the structure, the system, the complex intersection of patriarchy and capitalism and white supremacy and all of that nonsense) is, well, nonsense. It only exists because we allow it to. Even the winners lose. I don’t think Donald Trump is actually really very happy.
Power? We perpetuate it. We live inside it’s insidious lies. We target our old enemies and we fight them, and we constantly lose sight of building the new.
What if we all stopped doing what was expected of us?
What if we all listened to our deepest human needs and wants and focussed on loving ourselves, and eachother?
What if we all questioned our own and eachother’s entitlement? What if we just said ‘no’ and let go of all the things that hold us back?
What if we all demanded authenticity, truth, and an enthusiastic ‘YES’ in every single aspect of our lives? And we believed in ourselves and eachother? And we went out and did all that stuff we might do one day?
Deeds not words, said the suffragettes – it was written on Emily Wilding Davison’s tombstone. So get out and do stuff, and fight if you must, but lets not fight eachother… before you die for your cause, live your truth, live it hard, live it well, live it every single minute of every day. If we all did that maybe we’d really change the world.
A lot has happened in the year since I last wrote one of these blogs. Since I believe that the personal is political, I’m going to express this from a personal angle.
Summer 2016 my local MP Philip Davies infamously spoke about ‘feminist zealots’ wanting women to ‘have their cake and eat it’. He went on to become the only UK MP to speak out in support of the election of Donald Trump. And to carry on his tactic of filibustering legislation he dislikes – including the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence because of his passionate belief that equality means treating everyone the same. He consistently fails to recognise that specific groups face specific and structural inequalities and that sometimes it is the job of legislation to address and tackle this. But that is more than enough about Philip – I have spent way too much of my time in the last year thinking and talking about Philip, and in the end, Philip is just a symptom of a messed up system. And so is President Trump.
And I am filled with such hope to be part of what feels like a movement against that system.
I am a founding member of Shipley Feminist Zealots (SFZs) – a local non-partisan group that formed in an attempt to highlight alternatives to Philip’s views on equality. We’ve run cake and conversation stalls, a 1500-strong Sister March (part of the international Women’s March movement that happened the day after Trump’s inauguration), and alternative hustings in the run up to the UK General Election June 2017. All of this is in part an attempt to experiment with how we do politics differently.
It’s hard not to get drawn in to oppositional, shouty, ‘them and us’ stuff. The House of Commons is set up that way and members from both sides have, post election, decried the shouting down, the bullying tactics, the ways (both in parliament and outside) that politics is done. Filibustering is just one of the absurd ways the system is a mess – whoever talks for long enough or shouts the loudest wins the day? Really!?!?! It’s 2017, for goodness sake, surely we can do better than that.
The SFZs struggled in the run up to the election and beyond – strong and passionate people argued for their party of choice and at times started to turn on one another when articulating why their party or strategy was the best approach to achieve a progressive change which all SFZs members want to see.
Trolls attack on Facebook and twitter, desktop warriors sitting behind a keyboard throwing assumptions and accusations. It’s pointless debate – and as depressing as watching the live footage from parliament as the people we let run our country trade in sneering, braying, shouting, not-so-clever insults. Is that how we make a better world?
I feel strongly that this is important – not what our own specific priorities, approaches and policies might be, but HOW we do politics – how we have conversations, how we listen, how we include and engage, how we find solutions and answers, how we work together despite our differences because we need to build a better world, not keep on destroying it.
And we can argue locally and personally and nationally and internationally but eventually we will make ourselves extinct – I thought twice about even mentioning it as I do want you all to keep reading, and I find climate change such an uncomfortable truth tI usually just tell myself it’ll be OK. Sorry, but we all know we can’t carry on like we have and expect humanity to survive. And it’s all connected – personal, local, national, global – the way we do things.
I have to do something – anything, because it’s time to change or die. I have to make my personal, local, national, international interactions be about building a better world. What is the point of a group like SFZs? Is it there to bring down Philip? Or is it more important to reach out and open up to people, to engage and listen, to connect and grow community and empathy?
And intersectionality is a critical part of this. Championing humanity and equality means recognising who is part of the conversation and who isn’t and doing something about it. It means proactively reaching out to those who face multiple inequalities – e.g. LGBT, non-white, disabled, older, younger, socio-economically deprived and other communities and individuals, because it is not enough to just create a space. We have to notice our own privilege and we have to notice when we think it’s not our problem and we have to notice when we ‘other’ people, or we become part of the challenge. Change or die.
What if we all decided that we are accountable and responsible and can be part of the change? What if we all did politics personally? What if we made politics happen in different spaces? In different shapes? In circles, round tables, over a nice cuppa and a piece of cake. Yes, I do want women to have their cake and eat it – and men – and trans women, old black men, disabled people, young people and people for who cake is a luxury they can’t afford. Does that make me a zealot? I hope not.
2018 will be 100 years since (some) women got the vote in Britain.
2018 will be 100 years since the end of the (First World) war to end all wars.
2018 will be 250 years since the founding of the modern circus (in Britain).
What if we really tried doing politics differently – not warring factions but the founders of a circus of ideas and possibilities? What if when we come together we acknowledge and celebrate our differences as strengths and really work together – trust and balance, juggle and fly, not a sideshow or freak show but a show of what humanity can do, if we lift each other up instead of tearing each other down.
What a world we could make together if we really did it differently, personally, passionately and with imagination.
Wow – wouldn’t that be something?
One hundred years ago, the start of the battle of the Somme in World War One.
World War Two, The Cold War, Falklands, Iraq, 9-11, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Turkey, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, conflicts, disputes, skirmishes, incidents, and so so many more wars since…
15 days ago Jo Cox MP was murdered, and her maiden speech is quoted repeatedly: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than the things that divide us’.
Ten days ago, I ask a group of 9-10 year old girls in Keighley (most of them of Pakistani heritage, and from Muslim families) what they would do if they were Queen of the World – among a range of fascinating answers, one of them says, ‘World Peace’.
One week ago – the shock of ‘Brexit’, and a 57% increase in racist hate crimes reported.
Two days ago, a close friend in tears because she feels fearful, daily, of racist attack.
The Prime Minister has resigned.
The leader of the opposition is repeatedly declared ‘unelectable’.
It’s a mess – that’s one thing that most people seem to agree on.
But why? And what to do about it?
I think (as I usually think) that the route cause of all of this mess is the patriarchy. (I’ll explain why I think that in a minute).
And that if we are to change anything then we need to unite in peace, hope and kindness and love – and to undermine and challenge the patriarchy in every way we can – loudly and angrily, calmly and subtly, fearlessly and relentlessly – it is the most important thing we can do.
Why is it the patriarchy?
Because it’s the system that underpins all the other broken, twisted, vile, damaging systems through which we operate in most of the world – without patriarchy, the rest (capitalism, establishment, the old world order that relies on fundamental unfairness and inequality) would come crashing down.
Patriarchy is a system built on the premise that we are, in a fundamental way, different – that women are ‘other’, and in some ways lesser than men – weaker, fairer, prettier, needier, whatever. Before you all shout ‘man-hating feminist’, I would like to point out that I love men and that you’re missing the point.
The point is that, by identifying HALF OF THE WORLD as ‘other’ – and building structures of governance, economy, domestic life, work, leisure, social mores, creative narratives, everything on that premise – we all collude in a system that generates and perpetuates inequalities of all kinds. We quietly continue to operate our lives taking that fundamental inequality for granted, often subliminally, through our language and our thoughts – because it seems ‘natural’ that women are the care-givers, the softer sex, the nurturers, the kindness, the love, the peace, the gentleness, and that men are ‘by nature’ more competitive, combative, stronger, more agressive, less emotional, less intuitive.
As a 6 foot tall woman who’s work includes impersonating a drag queen, I can assure you that whether there is a difference in the biology and nature of men and women or not, there is almost nothing that one sex can do and the other can’t. And with an increasingly visible and vocal trans community to consider, gender identity has to be understood as fluid, changeable – the clear distinctions based on gender as a ‘natural’ state simply do not exist, and human beings are more alike than different – building our entire world on the premise that there is a fundamental difference between one half of people and others SIMPLY MAKES NO SENSE. But the patriarchy is a system constructed by all of us colluding in this fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.
Once we have misunderstood human nature, and decided that some are more equal than others (men and women), we can then identify other differences and turn them into inequalities by saying that someone else is ‘other’ – because of the colour of their skin, the country they were born in, their religion, their age, their sexual orientation, their social position, the way they speak, their ability to spell and punctuate, their wheelchair, their headscarf, their hat, their funny hair, their political views, their ability to understand the complex implications of a vote to leave or remain in the EU, their willingness to listen to and agree with simple soundbytes and slogans that blame immigration for the failing of the NHS, their need to channel their frustration somewhere that leads them to abuse someone in a street or on a tram, their willingness to join the army, join the protest march, join the political party, campaign, vote, spoil their ballot paper, take part, look you in the eye, whatever. There are people like ‘us’ and there are people like ‘them’ and because ‘they’ are ‘the other’ ‘we’ can blame ‘them’ for the mess.
We blame women for wearing short skirts, getting drunk and getting raped.
We blame immigrants for taking our jobs, being lazy, and draining the NHS.
We blame leave voters for unleashing an undercurrent of racism, resulting in a 57% increase in hate crime.
We blame Jeremy Corbyn supporters for destroying the credibility of the opposition.
We blame and blame and war and war and it’s all still a mess, because of the ‘other’, because of the patriarchy and the stuff that is built on top of it, and the uncertainty of change is making us all frightened, and miserable, and more inclined to blame each ‘other’.
I still don’t know about Jeremy Corbyn. I agree with most of what he stands for, and he seems like that rare person in politics who stands by his principles. 60,000 people have joined the Labour party in the last few days, apparently, many in support of him and his ‘new kind of politics’. I won’t be joining the Labour Party – I won’t join any political party, because of the patriarchy (see above). But I do participate and I do vote and if he’s still in charge of the Labour party at the next election I’ll almost certainly vote for them. His ‘un-electable’ tag seems to come from the media, and the Tories, and those who have a lot to lose if his policies came to pass. And then there are left-wingers who say he’s not passionate enough, not a great orator, not a firebrand, not a leader. I think that’s what I like best about him – because all those things he’s not are things that feel to me like a core part of the patriarchal establishment – the establishment that is tearing itself apart, fighting for survival and making this mess. I still don’t know if Jeremy is part of the solution, or part of the patriarchy – but I do feel like he might be a source of hope and unity. But this is not about Jeremy.
This is not about any one person, and power, and making things feel stable.
If we’re going to challenge the patriarchy we’re going to rock the whole world.
This is about hope and unity. This is about love. This is about having ‘more in common’. This is about removing blame and always being kind. This is about building communities where no-one is the ‘other’.
It’s hard to imagine, hard to describe, so it’ll be even harder to make it real, because none of us know what it would look like. it’s scary, and difficult – but maybe it’s possible. Maybe the fundamental lie of the patriarchy is beginning to wear thin. Maybe the world is starting to shift. And if we can do this, really find a new way, then my young friend’s wish for world peace might just happen. And we’d all be queen of the world, our world, together.
Our UK democracy (and it is a democracy, albeit a far from perfect one) has put the Tories into power for the next 5 years. My social media streams are still full of shock and anger, a massive sense of fear and hopelessness. Good people are asking why, how, and who is to blame, saying that they will leave the country, and deciding where and how to start the fight against it.
This resistance is vital – not least because it’s a minority of the people that support this government (taking into account the proportion of the electorate that actually voted in support of it) and a majority of people that will no doubt suffer from the actions this government takes.
I want to do something about this. Now is not the time for prevaricating and blog writing (!) but for activism, of course. But I’m not sure that marching on Westminster is the answer for me – and I refuse to blame those people who voted differently from me or say that they are ‘wrong’. Isn’t talk of a ‘fight’ just adding to the creeping sense of anger, fear and hopelessness that has polarised our communities and put the elite back in power? If we shout and rage, don’t we just help perpetuate ‘divide and rule’.
Maybe now really is the time to ‘be the change’, to be bold and brave and say ‘enough’ to all that hate. What kind of a world to we want it to be? I’d like a world full of kindness and hope, empathy and ideas. I’d like people to talk and listen, not shout and blame.
There’s nothing special about me – I’m an ordinary woman, and an artist. So what can I do? I’d like to think that the work I make helps generate a bit of hope, and maybe sparks an odd idea, or even makes a connection between people – not in a big way, maybe, but it’s still important and it’s something I can do.
Working in communities and launching the Echoes Of Oz ‘Heart, Brains and Courage’ awards this week feels like the right thing to do – reminding people in my home city of Bradford just how great they can be – right now feels more important than ever. I’ve written before about a ‘sense of entitlement’, and I think that matters too.
This is not a call to be passive or weak, and I’m not saying there’s no reason to feel angry, nor am I suggesting acceptance. I just think that human beings are fundamentally good – and we can be better than that. Acts of kindness really matter. These things are small, but there’s a lot of it about.
Look at these fab artists in Leeds who are offering the world Tea and Tolerance. Or Festival of Thrift. Or Arts Emergency. Or outside of the arts/cultural sector that I know so well, look at the places that are becoming transition towns. Look to you own community and you’ll quickly find good people doing amazing things – and if you don’t, maybe you could start something, anything – we can all be part of building a world that is better than hate, fear, hopelessness, despair and anger.
Hope and kindness – that’s the stuff we need more of. Who’s in?
Today is the anniversary of Jennie Lee’s White Paper on arts policy which stated that:
“Only yesterday it was the fight for a free health service. The day before it was the struggle to win education for all … In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.”
The paper then follows with a series of recommendations on how to do this – most of which are still relevant in today’s climate of austerity and cuts, where the arts are seen by most as a luxury we can’t afford, created and accessed by the white middle classes and supported by the London elite.
You can read a blog about it HERE with links through to the original paper, with quotes added from current and recent arts leaders and organisations that show how these 50 year old recommendations are meaningful today.
Today, on the anniversary of the paper, and 70 days before a general election, I want to stand up and be counted and say that this stuff really matters to me, and to tell you why.
Then I thought about how, and decided that the best way to do it would be to share some comments from the people that have taken part in Irregular Arts work recently. They say it so much better than I ever could.
This is the reason I do what I do. This is what makes it worthwhile when I’m labouring over another funding bid to Arts Council England, or trying to persuade a local authority officer that our project is a good way to spend their diminishing budget. This is my answer to the husband of a friend who questioned why I should be spending public funding on red sparkly shoes. This is arts for all, in Bradford, with 116 ordinary women and girls from every community and from across the district and beyond, taking part, sharing something, doing something creative – this is the rainbow that gives us hope in the storm. This…
- The workshop ended up helped me with some personal stuff I’ve been dealing with for a while. I was hopeless in the answers I gave on the day, as I just don’t open up in front of people. I thought about the questions posed some more after and it made me realise a few things about myself (and others) and that’s already had a positive impact. I wasn’t expecting anything like that…
- What an amazing experience for our girls. The whole thing was incredibly powerful. (Teacher at Eastwood School).
- 75 Dorothys what can I say? Absolutely LOVED it! It gave me courage, it gave me strength and I loved each and every millisecond of it with my sparkly red heart! Thank you everyone, it has been amazing (in tears as I write this)
- When I arrived at Delius Art Centre a little apprehensive, never having been before and not knowing anyone, and was directed to the shoe boxes where I found one with my name on, slowly opened the lid and found the sparkliest red boots I could have ever imagined! I have a smile from ear to ear again just thinking about it!
- We had a brilliant day from a participants point of view. The main event really was the best bit … everyone I encountered was friendly and really enthusiastic about the project, which was wonderful to experience/observe. It’s enormous fun and rewarding to be a small part of something that’s much bigger and works on so many different levels. It made lots of people smile, even those who had no idea of what was going on. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Glinda appear in the middle of a giant paddling pool in the centre of a post-industrial Northern city? Made my day. And shoes, we all loved the shoes.
- Loved being part of it and that anyone and everyone was welcome to join in
- It was great opportunity to engage with other women and to share some of our life experiences stories together and learn from each other, a very empowering session.
- Being a Dorothy was truly fantastic, I felt welcomed from the start and enjoyed every second of it. For me it was a truly fantastic and original personal development thing and one that was so very well worth doing.
- Really enjoyed my 75 Dorothys experience. Thanks so much for organising it! I particularly enjoyed being part of something with a mixed group of women and girls and the positive energy in the rehearsal place was brilliant.
- I came on my own to the event and met lots of lovely people and felt welcome. It was a fun activity and I enjoyed being part of it. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity in participating even though I had a bad back, It was well worth doing. I found that there is a little glitter in Bradford from time to time and 75 Dorothys sparkled in Bradford Centenary Square.
PS – If you’d like to read more or watch a film about our 75 Dorothys project, you can HERE
Artists and arts organisations like mine sometimes talk about our work as ‘socially engaged’ work – if arts are a tool for social and/or political change (which I think they can be) then we need to get to grips with how we do that. In the midst of my own grappling, I’ve found myself struggling with the ideas of ‘power’ and ’empowerment’.
‘Power’ or the lack of it, feels like a solid, fixed thing – something you have, or you struggle against, that can be taken from you, that corrupts – power is often spoken about as a deficit model: you gain power by taking it away from someone else.
‘Empowerment’ always sounds a bit condescending: power can be given, as a generous gift, as well as taken away. Again the language implies a finite resource – those with the power choose how much they are willing to share it.
Talking through ideas about power in the context of An Odd Occasion we were discussing men, women, space (in the widest sense) or lack of it, and in the midst of an anecdote Alison said, ‘it was his sense of entitlement that really got to me’.
That phrase ‘sense of entitlement’ instantly worked for me as a new way of seeing and discussing ‘power’. It describes a feeling, an understanding, a set of assumptions. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is not fixed – it sits in a context and is much more fluid than ‘power’. A person may have more of a ‘sense of entitlement’ in one situation or relationship, less in another. A ‘sense of entitlement’ is easily questioned, easily challenged. A ‘sense of entitlement’ can be encouraged, acquired, evolved. A ‘sense of entitlement’ could be in one of those lightbulb moments you sometimes get – it might be as simple as provoking an interesting thought, or inspiring a fresh idea.
That’s where it feels relevant to me, as an artist trying to grapple with social change. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that our work is ’empowering’, because I don’t feel like part of the fixed, systematic, structure of ‘power’ – the ‘power’ is not mine to give or take away. I feel a bit better about the idea that the work we do might trigger someone’s ‘sense of entitlement’ – in fact that’s something I’ve seen happen.
In ’75 Dorothys’ we asked groups of women and girls what their ‘heart’s desire’ was, and what was their ‘ dream that you dare to dream’. Just taking the time to think about that was, for some of them, a question they had never had enough time, space, or ‘sense of entitlement’ to consider – and a few of them have told us this has made a big difference to their lives.
‘Queen for a Day’ seemed to unlock something in some of the women that took part – by asking them if they could be a different version of themselves, just for a while, who they would be. Again, this very simple question, with some time, space, creativity and support to explore the answer, resulted in some of them seeing themselves differently – it gave them a ‘sense of entitlement’ to be who they want to be.
These are just some examples from our work. There’s lots of other great arts companies and projects that are working every day to explore ideas, ask questions and have dialogue with people that might find a fresh ‘sense of entitlement’.
This is just one more reason why ‘the arts’ is really important.
There’s so many things coming up for us at Irregular, I thought I’d put some info on them all in one place…
The biggest deal for us is An Odd Occasion – the performance event that we’ve been working towards is coming up fast. We’ve been thinking about women and men, and the different ways they behave and occupy space. We’ve been talking with eachother (the team), with academics and with the women and men that we’ve met along the way. Some people filled out a survey. Some people sent us some thoughts via Twitter or Facebook, or on this blog. Some people we just chatted to when we met them. Some people sent us things to read and think about. Some people sent us pictures. Some people had fun dressing up. We’re going to take all of this to Theatre in the Mill in the first week of June, and make an event out of it. There will be tasty treats, shoes, mirrors, books, odd characters and blurred boundaries. We hope you will join the conversation. We don’t know what might happen next. An Odd Occasion is on 7th June at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford – you’ll need to get a ticket. Click here.
We’re also really excited about #incognito. A brand new piece commissioned for Bradford Festival by the Bradford Council Culture team, 3 extraordinary divas and their entourage will converge on City Park Bradford #incognito on Saturday 14th June from 12 til 3pm (ish). You might catch a glimpse of one of these fabulous creatures powdering her nose, getting some retail therapy in, or having a lady lunch. This new work is made in collaboration with the wonderful Jordan Massarella Dance Company.
Mysti Valentine has some important outings over the next few weeks too:
31st May sees Mysti hosting Bradford Pride for the third year running, and as Pride are celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, Mysti’s outfit is going to be VERY special – and not just the shoes!
On Friday 6th June Mysti Valentine is hosting BEND IT! at Yorkshire Dance – curated by the excellent Gary Clarke, it’s an eclectic evening of dance and performance by some of the leading queer artists in the UK. We’re honoured to be taking Mysti along, and if you’re visiting Yorkshire for the weekend you could come to BEND IT as well as An Odd Occasion.
Later in June it’s the first ever Shipley Street Arts Festival, run by our great friends at Q20 Theatre and featuring some really excellent artists. We’ve put together a special CABARET HEAVEN for the occasion, on Friday 27th June – it will be a great party full of fun and Mysti Valentine is your hostess. Click here for more details and tickets.
Mysti will also be popping up in Bradford on 5th July as the ‘Street Diva’ – yet another chance to see her for free and sing-along-a to your favourite tunes. We’ll say more when we have the full details…
AND FINALLY – we’re in the process of setting up our company structure, fund-raising for some exciting new projects in the Autumn and planning all kinds of future Irregular happenings – so thanks for reading this and keep in touch. xx
I’m just back from Montpellier, France, and my first (hopefully not last) IETM. IETM originally stood for Informal European Theatre Meeting. – it is now the ‘international network for contemporary performing arts’, which better reflects its membership and purpose.
I’d heard of IETM over the years – it was a place that artists went and at the time I wasn’t really being an artist. Off they’d go to somewhere unusual in Europe to meet other artists, producers and creative people – and they’d come back renewed, refreshed and full of ideas. I often felt a bit of a pang of ‘I wish I could do that’. And now I have.
In 2013 I decided to take myself seriously as an artist – I’ve always been one, but I haven’t always owned it. I’ve spent years working around other artists, as a producer, a strategist, a facilitator, a fund-raiser. I used to say “I’m a consultant working in the arts and sometimes I do performance.” Then I turned 40 and I had another child and I did a coaching course (not in that order, but all those things had an impact). I worked out that I wanted to flip the description of what I do and who I am. So now I say “I am an artist and a creative producer working in performance and I also do strategic work in the arts.” It’s a small change of words, but it’s probably the most important thing I’ve done in my working life. If I didn’t take myself seriously as an artist, why on earth would anyone else?
Fast forward to Spring 2014 and here I am. I’m in the process of establishing my own company, Irregular (Arts). I’ve got Arts Council England funding (and support from Bradford Council, Bradford University, and also Edinburgh University) for our first production, An Odd Occasion. I’ve got bids going out left right and centre and new commissions for projects coming in. And I’ve been to IETM, as an artist, talking with other artists from across Europe and the world, sharing ideas about our work.
IETM has the potential to be baffling and daunting, especially (but not only) for a first time attender. It is, as it was originally named, ‘informal’ – there are formal conference/discussion sessions, a plenary, a general meeting, and other showcase/presentation sessions, alongside an artistic programme and social gathering places. 500 delegates from across the world (not just Europe) are here – and finding ways to connect and start new conversations seems slightly overwhelming initially.
I didn’t go it alone. I was encouraged to attend by Alison Andrews, a longstanding member of IETM and my main collaborator in An Odd Occasion, who has been a frequent source of wisdom and support along the many years of my artistic journey (we’ve been trying to find a way to work together since 1993.) The theme of this IETM was ‘TRANS’ – trans-borders, trans-formations, trans-genders, and Alison thought this was a natural fit given the work we are doing.
Alison and Richard Sobey have founded the excellent ‘Walking Talking’ project which meant that I was part of a Yorkshire delegation at IETM – the (Yorkshire) guest house, travelling with other Yorkshire-based artists, and working together to make inter-regional connections (whilst singing ‘On Ilkley Moor Baht’ At’ and handing out Yorkshire puddings, but that’s another story…)
Being part of this Yorkshire initiative was great on lots of levels. In some ways it was a bit like being an usher or a bridesmaid at a wedding – you’ve got a particular job to do, a role to play that makes being at a wedding make sense – you’re part of it, not just any other guest at the party. Perhaps most significantly, though, I got to spend focussed time on the long train journey through England and France getting to know my Yorkshire-based colleagues, finding out about their creative ideas, projects and passions and sharing my own – this was valuable in ways I can only begin to imagine, but it certainly feels like we’ve laid the firm foundations of some longstanding and important creative connections.
Having chosen to join IETM as a member, I was also supported at this first meeting via their ‘buddy’ system, which meant I got an email from a lovely American based in Norway called James, who arranged to rendezvous on the first day and offered advice, ideas on how to make the best of the opportunity, and a contact number if I needed any more of the same.
Having posted some information on the IETM members pages of the website about my work and my areas of interest, I also got an email from the producer of another artist currently making work that explores gender and identity, and we arranged to have an interesting chat over lunch on the final day.
Some of the most useful connections were made when I spoke up in the discussion sessions – by talking about my ideas and practice and by asking questions, it was soon easy to identify and be identified by other artists who have reasons to want to connect. And these were the artists who I’d bump into at (or travelling to and from) the artistic programme – again, a shared interest bringing us together.
I was surprised by the lack of digital connectivity at IETM – wifi was a bit hit and miss, and I was by far the noisiest person on the twitter # hashtag, which was odd for me as someone who readily uses social media channels as another tool for making connections and extending dialogue. But now back at home, those twitter connections are made, and they are better for being built on a firm foundation of face-to-face conversations we had – with shared passions, trans-local points of connection and the understanding you can only have when you have looked someone in the eye and said ‘yes, me too’.
I was sometimes frustrated by a lack of dialogue about engagement and audiences – in this space full of artists from across the world, there was much talk about different styles and practices, and a strong sense of the activism and politics in the art works we create – but there wasn’t very much conversation about the public and how we connect with them, or how we can co-create our work with people taking part in it with us. Again, perhaps this is a reflection on my own perspective, that these issues are central to the way I want to create work and the artists I usually work with feel the same.
It’s this shift in perspective that IETM provides that feels important (and right now, just back at work, it feels like the most valuable thing I got from IETM – more than the personal/professional connections made) – seeing your work up close and from afar, placing it outside it’s context, shifting it’s paradigm.
I’ve understood, finally, how local some of my work is – by taking the ideas to another country, I can see that they’re out of place as soon as I take them to another city, just a few miles down the road. That doesn’t make the work irrelevant – it just helps me to understand how strong a sense of place it has, and how much a shift of context can also shift meaning.
I’ve also really understood that I am an ’emerging artist’. Most ’emerging artists’ are much younger than me – recent graduates, young practitioners. Despite being mid-career / established as an arts professional, the years I wasn’t ‘being’ an artist are significant. And that’s OK too – in fact, it’s really exciting.
PS – one of the other Yorkshire artists at IETM, the brilliant Sarah Spanton, has made her own response to IETM Montpellier, which is really interesting – here’s a link