“What Does a Successful Artist Look Like at a Time of Global Change?”

April 27, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Sarah Woods and Fern Smith are founders of Emergence and authors of Culture Shift: how artists are responding to sustainability in Wales.  Fern spent many years as artistic director of Volcano Theatre Company, an experimental theatre company.  In the last 5 years she has been rethinking the role of the arts, inquiring "what is the Arts’ role in a time of global crisis?"  The ensuing conversation led, among other things, to meeting Sarah and to starting Emergence, a ‘creative practice for a sustainable future’.   Sarah’s journey is similar, having been a successful playwright who, like Fern, stepped back to as "if I really did want to create change in the world, or at least create the conditions for change, how should I best do that?"  She now works much more closely with communities and scientists, out in the world. 

This week is the week when Lucy’s book comes out, and it pulls together many of these things; you’ve talked about there being a movement and there being a lot of people who were feeling disparate but are now feeling like they’re coming together around this. Why does Lucy’s book matter, do you think?

SW: There was a really interesting experience as Lucy started to search for people and to bring people together to start making this book. For some of us it’s been quite a long haul, obviously most of all for Lucy. It’s been a long process and a really revealing process. A group of us came together, and working individually with people over the course of that week, there was such a relief as people realised we were all talking the same language, and as people started to find the words to describe their own practice. A lot of people just do what they do, and sometimes finding ways to reflect on that and explain it, sometimes there just isn’t time for it.

That process was hugely important for the artists involved. Obviously, in any work of communication, even before publication it draws more and more people in, and then hopefully after publication draws more and more people into that community again. It really was a very timely build of a community in practice.

FS: I had an email a couple of days ago from a young artist currently doing her dissertation.  I’ve heard a lot of people talking in this way. She was actually saying I was thinking of leaving the Arts, because she just felt it wasn’t relevant. She came across Culture Shift, someone directed her to it. It was a beautiful email because there was such relief, that she was saying "ah, there’s a place, there are people doing this already".

It seems maybe to a lot of young people who are going into the Arts that actually it’s the business as usual model in the Arts. You get in debt, you either get unemployed or you get employed in the Arts, but you just keep on doing it. You keep making art and then more art and more art.

However fantastic and inspiring some of our pieces are, I think that there is a whole movement of artists just saying "maybe this isn’t a luxury that I can afford". I don’t mean that art is a luxury that society can’t afford, I absolutely don’t mean that. But those people who have maybe been activists in their own lives, or are really questioning the old models, they look at the Arts and in terms of the mainstream there isn’t much leadership for social change going on.

Unless those people are aware that there are these pockets, these mini-movements or people actually galvanising activity, then maybe those young people are going to leave the Arts and we’ll lose those potential leaders of future-making art. So ‘Playing for Time’ is so important. I wonder how much of a splash it will make. I hope it makes a big one.

Image RemovedBut in a way, like the most important things, it’s the ripples. People passing on the book that gets passed on to somebody else, and people go "oh my God, I didn’t know that this was happening and I want to be part of it". Actually, with ‘Culture Shift’ as well, people have echoed that relief that people are naming something that is already happening, and then people go – that’s exactly how I’ve been thinking, and I didn’t know other people were questioning.

As an artist, I can align my art with my deeply held personal values. We had a bit of a sense that certainly in the first survey that we did with Emergence, a lot of artists were saying "I believe this in my home life and my personal life, but actually when it comes to the Arts, because I’m a revenue-funded client from the arts organisation, my priority to keep receiving my funding is to make the shows, to keep on making the art which keeps on keeping our company in funding".

Because of the pace that everyone is working at the moment in every single sector, there is less time to stop and to question. Actually a lot of those artists in Playing for Time and in Culture Shift have often been artists that have stopped. It’s not been an easy transition to go – alright, I’ll just move and nudge my practice a little bit, and now my practice will become more consciously in service of people and the planet. Often it’s not that comfortable.

Artists have always been leaders of change. They’ve always been pioneers in those paradigm shifts within society. But sometimes we all run scared and we all want to keep our funding and we all want to keep our jobs. Actually, the leadership in ‘Playing for Time’ and the leadership in ‘Culture Shift’ was coming from the artists. It wasn’t actually coming from the Arts Councils and the policy makers.

But what’s been fantastic is, certainly in Arts Council of Wales, they want this change to be led by the artist. Then the Arts Council are actually supporting that. So the same in England. It’s been a real artist-led movement, and hopefully the policy makers will then join with the artist in creating change, rather than it being a tick box strategy first and then artists feeling like – actually these funders are saying this is what we want to fund, let’s start making art like that. It’s actually happened the other way round, and I think that’s been the exciting thing.

What is Art?

SW: It goes back to the Hamlet thing of putting a mirror up to society and for me that’s what art is. It enables society to better see itself, I think.

FS: For me, there’s something about art that reconnects us with a source. A source of possibility, a source of inspiration, a source of divine. Whatever language different people use. But it’s something that can connect us, art can connect us with the spirit of the depths and the spirit of the times. I think art is what happens in the middle when the spirit of the depths and the spirit of the times come together either in a beautiful way or in a clashing, tough, difficult way.

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On your website you talk about different things, you have bullet points of things:

  • "Live the future now
  • acquire information and practical skills which enable us to put our principles into practice
  • develop effective ways to communicate this to a wider audience
  • resource ourselves to keep on doing the work that’s needed to be done
  • re-enchant ourselves with each other, with art and with life".

They struck me as five things that resonate very deeply with Transition and what Transition groups are doing. This question about re-enchanting ourselves with art and bringing art into Transition is something that Lucy’s book will very much put on the map, but which has been growing since its inception really. I wondered what your thoughts were in terms of what the Arts bring to Transition, what dimension the Arts can bring to the work that people who are doing this work are doing?

SW: I’ve felt for quite a long time that in trying to wrestle with the complex challenges that we have in looking at how to move through this Transition, this culture shift, that there is an art-shaped gap really. I feel that for myself and also for the artists I’ve spoken to engaged in this work now, that we are responding to a need –that’s what artists do.

Artists pick up on what’s happening in society from talking to people through an innate curiosity that we live with all the time. The reason artists were pulling away was that there was almost a calling to go and do something else. There is this gap, and it exists everywhere where this change is happening, and there are a lot of roles that art can play that you wouldn’t necessarily traditionally think that art might play in this sort of a journey.

That’s why, for the artists involved, there’s been a confusion to the point of people saying "are we artists any more? Is this what artists do?" I’m certainly not sitting up in my garret smoking cigarettes and typing on my typewriter, which is the sort of view I had of a writer when I first set out in my career. What I’m doing is a much more renaissance activity. It’s multi-faceted. In trying to find out how we usefully fill this gap, we’re taking on a different role which has been hugely challenging and continues to be challenging but is also very inspiring.

I’ve been trying to teach this to first year students at Manchester University to really distil some of this and boiled it down to the idea that artists are having a relationship to change, so are able to give communities, audiences, people involved a relationship to the idea of change. The artwork itself is about change, and has a relationship to change. It’s about participation so it’s not about audiences and spectators. It’s about people being active. Augusto Boal, the founder of Forum Theatre who was working with art and social change in Brazil, talked about ‘the spectactor’, somebody who watches and also takes part. Participation is absolutely key to this practice.

It’s also cross-form. A lot of my work is narrative arts meets activism. I also use film. I have members of the audience up on stage. I do all sorts of different things and I interview people. Everybody I think would say the same, that we’re working with a very cross-form practice. Those things have developed in response to what is needed.

Anyone in Transition, anyone dealing with the sort of culture shifts that we’re trying to manage should see the arts really as a way of responding to that, in a way that you might call out the Green Flag or somebody when you break down. Actually, the artists are trying to come into these situations of – again Augusto Boal talks about the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ meaning both danger and opportunity.

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Artists are trying to come into those moments of both danger and opportunity and ensure that we land more squarely on the side of opportunity while taking into account danger. So it’s very much a renaissance practice that’s building up. It’s also about holding space, about enabling dialogue, about creating empathy and connection between people, bringing them out of isolation and many other things that means that this is a very useful tool for anyone who’s feeling that they’re on the turn I suppose in terms of trying to manage change.

FS: Suzy Gablik, an American art critic then moved more and more closely to this ecological and relational art practice. This book ‘The Re-enchantment of Art’ almost feels like it has been a handbook for change for artists of this particular stripe and also a manifesto and a provocation. The book itself, even though it was written 20 years ago is having real renaissance and now to a lot of artists who are working in this Culture Shift or Playing for Time way are really getting support from what this book says. The subtitle of Lucy’s book comes from a Gablik quote: ‘making art as if the planet mattered’ or ‘making art as if the world mattered’.

She asks a very significant question which has been a provocation for us within ‘Culture Shift’ and also ‘Playing for Time’, she asks the question "what does a successful artist look like at a time of global change?" Of course, as artists, we often measure our success in the number of publications, the number of plays that have been put on, the number of international tours, the number of world festivals that we show our work at, or art publications that cover us. But she’s saying actually, in a sense that is a successful artist in terms of the old paradigm. That’s a live question, I don’t think it’s been answered yet and that’s why it’s such an interesting question at the moment, what does a successful artist look like at a time of global change?

The one definition of sustainability we come back to again and again from Professor Tim Jackson is “the art of living well within the ecological limits of a finite planet.” Just that phrase ‘the art of living well’, it feels like something you could live your life by. It’s not just artists that can do it. So it’s about how do we live more artfully.

There’s also this sense in the book that it’s not saying artists own creativity or artists own the arts. It is this sense of saying actually an artist is not a kind of human being, but a human being is a special kind of artist. Equally Joseph Beuys is saying everyone is an artist. What we’re saying and the artists who are involved in this relational participatory spect-ator practice is – we are all artists, and how can we together learn to live more artfully together? We don’t necessarily have to use words like sustainability or sustainable development. They might be useful for some people, but for a lot of people, they either feel ignorant or switch off when these words are used. 

This is an edited version of the original, longer, conversation.  For the full discussion, you can listen to the podcast below. 

Image RemovedRuth is just one of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered" (see cover, right).  The book is now published.  TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time.  Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015.  Valid until 31 Dec 2015.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at transtionnetwork.org and robhopkins.net and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: art as social change