I would like to think that when I reach the end of my life that I will have very few regrets. I know that I will have one though, which is that I was not in London on Thursday May 4th 2006, and for the days that followed. For those 4 days, a huge puppet elephant and an 8 metre-tall girl, walked around the city, entrancing and charming the million or so people who came to see them. It was a magical event that moved people deeply, and which brought the city together in an amazing way, just 9 months after the 7/7 bombings. It brought the imagination into the heart of one of Europe’s largest cities, and is one of the best examples of that that I’ve been able to find. One of the people central to it happening was Helen Marriage of creative company Artichoke. She very kindly agreed to speak to me, so I started by asking her, for anyone who didn’t see ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’, as the project was known, to tell us a bit more about it.
The Sultan’s Elephant was a production by the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe, who had worked across Europe and the rest of the world for 25 or 30 years, and they were proposing an event – they work with puppets, giant marionettes – so this was a show involving a huge elephant marionette which was three storeys high, if you can picture that, and a little girl who came out of a space rocket that she’d crash landed. She was about 24 feet, maybe 8 metres high.
The show consisted of them existing in the streets, in this case in London, over a period of about four days. The roads all had to be closed to traffic and they delighted and entertained and moved people in a way that art in this country really hadn’t happened in that way before. Most art works take place in dedicated venues inside theatres or galleries or concert halls. This was really monumental work of supremely high quality taking to the streets and enjoyed an audience of what the BBC described as upwards of a million people.
It seemed like it really touched people in a very profound way?
I think it did. You have to remember the context. From the point at which I started thinking about doing it, it was seven years until we got the permission. Closing a world city is a massive deal and it was seven years before we managed to persuade everybody that this was something that they wanted to sign up to. The public authorities and agencies who control our cities, they think of them as machines for getting people to work on time, or whatever. They think the most important thing is the traffic.
In this instance I was trying to persuade them that the most important thing was this communality of spirit, this sense of a shared moment in people’s lives, something so unlikely and unusual that people would remember it forever. And that is exactly what happened. But the more pressing thing at the time was that it was nine months only after the 7/7 bombings which took place here in London. A number of a tube trains and stations blown up, and a number of people dying, and it’s easy to forget that people were actually very frightened about being in public space and coming together.
Then this amazing thing happened and it was such an invitation, a universal invitation to people to just come and be delighted, that people forgot their inhibitions and regained that old sparkle in their eyes and in their voices as they all realised that together they could enjoy this amazing art work.
The people that you worked with like the police, and the traffic planners, and people like that, how was it for them when they actually were able to get out on the street and see this thing going past?
Well they weren’t only passively watching it going past. They were actively our partners in delivering it and they were terribly proud. They say still that it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. These are people who, you know, they close the roads habitually for things: the marathon, or for the triumphant return of the rugby team, or for political events, visits of a President or royal events. There’s tons of reasons why London will shut its roads. But they’re all considered to be events of national significance.
This, when we started the negotiation, was definitely not of national significance, although it turned out to be, which was the point. We took everybody on a journey that said the arts too have their place in the life of a city, and that the city doesn’t just have to be about shopping and traffic, that it’s as important for people collectively to share these moments, moments like this, as it is for them to share or to experience moments in their own life.
You know, when you fall in love or when their baby takes its first step. Moments are what you remember. And moments are what Artichoke deals in.
It seemed to me like one of the key things that it evoked in a lot of people that I spoke to who saw it was awe. They were completely awestruck by the scale of this thing and the delightfulness and the charm and the magic of it.
What they’re really struck by I think is the fact that it was real. In a world in which we live behind our screens, you and I can be having this conversation – we’re not even in the same town, we can see each other, talk to each other – where we can all have amazing experiences, and we can click a button and be anywhere in the world, and we can have any number of friends, but, actually, be quite alone.
The thing about Royal de Luxe’s work, but also all of the projects that Artichoke have done, is that they absolutely have at their centre a live experience. And, yes, it was monumental, and yes, it was astonishing, and yes, it was beautiful, and all of those things. The most important thing about it was that it was real, and you had to be there.
Although these were giant sized puppets, manipulated by people that you could see pulling the strings effectively, all that anyone ever said to us was, “She’s so real” about the girl. She so clearly wasn’t real, and yet people wanted to be transported into a world where this was real. And they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
They couldn’t believe that London had shut. They couldn’t believe that these creatures had come to stay. And it wasn’t like watching it on a phone or on a tablet. You stood there and you smelt it. You know, you never smell anything from your phone. You touched it. And you were touched by the people who you shared that experience with.
You mentioned that it took seven years to get to happen and cost a lot of money to put on. I wonder, with my hat on of being involved in working with communities who are trying to engage people in thinking positively around climate change and trying to reimagine the place where they live, and trying to tell those stories about what this place could be like if we were able to transform it in the way that it needs to be transformed, what lessons do you think we can learn, and groups who are doing that kind of work can learn, from something like the Sultan’s Elephant?
With all of the projects that we ever work on the quality of the idea is the most important thing. If you’re trying to move people, it has to be better than anything that they’ve ever imagined. However big or small it is, it doesn’t really matter on the scale side of things. But it has to be imaginative, it has to be transforming, so something familiar has to suddenly look not like it normally looks, otherwise what’s the point?
You can’t move people so easily. We do these big light festivals called Lumiere, and one of the things I really refuse to do is put up a screen and then project onto a screen, because that screen could be anywhere. But I would always happily commission an artist to make a projected work for a particular building, to sit in the architecture of a particular building. So that you’re not masking a building and going, “Here’s a screen, look at this, isn’t it pretty?” You’re saying, “Let’s reimagine this building as something different.” That transformation, transformatory quality, is what shifts people I think.
Since the Sultan’s Elephant, have you done projects that have had a similar kind of impact?
Most of our work, we don’t try hard for that, but that seems to be the impact of the stuff that we do. Whether that’s a collective transformation in terms of a big audience being moved by something, or we do quite a lot of projects where people are actually involved in the making of them, and the transformation of those individuals can be as profound as anything that came out of the Elephant.
We did an event for the City Corporation, which was for the commemoration of the Great Fire of London. We did six projects, one of which was working with young people from the impoverished boroughs that surround the city. So Camden, Islington, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham, Southwark. We brought young people from those areas who weren’t in education and training and we trained them in CNC laser cutting and carpentry, but also getting up in the morning training, and getting to work on time, and working as a team, and all of that kind of stuff.
Anyway, between them and our brilliant carpenters, and the artist David Best, we built a 120 metre-long model of London as it was pre-Great Fire. Then we floated it on barges down the Thames, and then to an audience of 50,000 live and six million watching online, we burnt it. For those young people to be at the centre of what was a national commemoration, to be interviewed on the television, to be witness to the profound respect for the work that they’d done, that was as moving to me as the amazing response of the audience to being present at this very unorthodox but extraordinary commemoration of these events.
We’ve seen eight years of increasing cuts to the arts in this country and a devaluing of art running through the education system. I wonder what’s your sense in 2018 of where our collective imagination is at? How you would rank its state of health?
I don’t really know the answer to that question. I think a lot of really creative work is done by young people in their bedrooms. The kind of work they’re interested in doesn’t require them to go to some dedicated arts facility and be trained in that way. They’re making music in their bedroom, or doing poetry, whatever they’re interested in.
There is a healthy creative imagination at work. I think that the lack of priority that is put on the creative arts and creative industries is a shameful waste but that doesn’t mean I think that stuff doesn’t happen. It just means it’s tougher. But there are amazing artists doing amazing work all over the country.
A question I’ve asked everybody that I’ve spoken to is if you had been elected as the Prime Minister in the last election, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – that you felt that given the big challenges that we have of climate change and so on, that we need the collective imagination to be as strong as possible, whether in school, in university, in public life, in policy making, in work, or whatever – I wonder what you might do in your first 100 days in number 10?
When you look at the real flowering of the arts in this country, you look at somebody like Jennie Lee who was the Arts Minister way back in the 1960s, and she just managed to persuade her political colleagues to make the arts much more of a priority than they had ever imagined in the past. It would be very easy to do that.
If you think about what’s the health service budget at the moment? £118 billion a year? And the education budget is probably £80-something billion a year? The Arts Council’s budget is £400 million a year. You could double it and double the impact, and double the effectiveness without anybody really noticing.
The sad thing is when the arts are made to fill the gaps in other departments’ failures, if you like. So arts in health, arts in education, all those kinds of things. The arts and creative learning has its own special place and shouldn’t be used as a sticking plaster for the way in which other services are being diminished, because they’re unique people, these people called artists. They can see a future that none of us can see. Their work is all about taking us to somewhere else, and reimagining our world. That is where I would concentrate my resources.
How can big art projects catalyse new democratic spaces? Spaces for that reimagining of the world and where it goes in the future?
That all goes back to what I was saying at the beginning, which is that we’re all complicit. All of us are complicit in wanting our cities to be machines for shopping and traffic, for getting us to work on time. We mind when there’s a block in the road or the bus doesn’t work, or London Bridge station is being rebuilt. We mind that we can’t in a predictable way be certain that the city is going to perform for us.
At Artichoke, we think that the city is something more than that, that simple machine in which we’re cogs being flung about in whatever direction. I think of the city as a fluid space to be occupied by the broadest possible representation of our population, both visitor and resident, and that arts events – the kind that we make – can absolutely act as, less a catalyst, more an invitation to people, to reimagine their relationship to the city. And in doing so, I hope they reimagine their relationship to the people that they share it with.