Tuesday, 30 September 2008

No more rock and roll for you - is documentation really evil?

I’ve been reading Bill Drummond’s book 17, about his choir The 17 and his battle against the superfluity and subsequent creative redundancy of recorded music, which he believes has run its course. I became a life member of The 17 by taking part in its performance at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle on 17 May 2006. You can read an account by one of my fellow choir members that very night here. It was a very intense experience. I find some of his ‘scores’ for the choir moving as well as provoking.

Drummond’s work arguably challenges one of the key thrusts of the new Arts Council plan, the ‘digital opportunity’. Is there a responsibility to preserve ‘live’ experiences? Are the performing arts blessed or cursed by the way in which so many shows happen live and you were either there, or you weren’t, and only memories remain? At the end of each performance by The 17, you get to hear the sound of the recording being deleted – how digital a live experience is that? But is the art theory that recording is dead simply that, a kind of art/anti-art gesture in line with many in Drummond’s rather brilliant past?

I’m torn on this. Digital technology opens up new ways of preserving and interpreting past live experiences – it can enrich the participation, as indeed Drummond’s use of multiple websites does for his argumentative art practice. Online distribution could perform the functions village libraries did historically, opening doors to the otherwise distanced.

But then, he’s also right that the very availability takes away the magic. I found a recording of a New Order concert – Blackpool, August 30 1982 to be precise – which I had remembered as one of the best concerts I’d ever seen: that memory was rather complicated, shall we say, by what I actually heard on the recording.

Anyway, I recommend 17 – and indeed his earlier book 45 - to anyone interested in art, music, technology or Bill Drummond: he’s full of ideas worth thinking about. But I’m not getting rid of my records for anyone.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

An Arts Counselling timeline

If you're new to Arts Counselling, there's now an easier way to see what's been covered previously. Simply visit this timeline of the posts and see what interests you:

Had I world and time enough I guess I could add the publication dates of government reports, Arts Council strategies and so on, so you can see how these kickstart certain themes and over time I'm sure that would reveal all sorts of hidden patterns. But I don't, sorry. It will automatically update with each post here though, so it will form a more visually pleasing archive than trawling through 'Older Posts'.

I came across Dipity for the first time recently - I think it could be useful, though I'm not exactly sure for what. It seems early days yet. Search on culture and you find timelines for, amonst other things, Liverpool European Capital of Culture and a brief biography of Peter Jenkinson who used to run Creative Partnerships. (Though I'm sure there's more to his life than 5 events...)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mission impossible?

The Arts Council plan for 2008-2011 is newly published, with a snappy new mission: Great art for everyone. It’s certainly a lot catchier than the previous 'mission', about putting the arts at the heart of national life, and people at the heart of the arts. That was also particularly hard to say if you have my now mishapen-Lancastrian vowel sounds.

I know a lot of debate and heartache went into settling on those four words. It’ll be interesting to see how people react – with enthusiasm, sarcasm or indifference. Although there are elements of the old mission statement I rather miss, I think it’s a much clearer statement of our fundamental purpose. It does, of course, beg some debate. The first reflection I’ve seen is from an Irish choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir who spoke recently at an Arts Council event in Yorkshire and wrote about it on his blog Bodies and Buildings. It brings out some of the nuances of that clear-seeming mission. I especially agree that, as he puts it, ‘art needs to attend to the uncomfortable as well and that people can gather in that discomfort as much as in the balm of celebration.’

There are some other provocations on this topic, all arising from the same day, available on the Arts Council’s website here, including one by the publisher of the fantastic Ian Clayton book I recommended here. I'm interested in how we bring out the nuances, without losing the simplicity - or is that really mission impossible?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Time for pensions?

I was talking to someone recently about pensions for artists. Apparently one third of people, according to some sources, are unable to save for their retirement. (Please add your own favourite black humour joke about banks now.)

Then I came across an article about a retirement home for country musicians being set up by the Country Music Association. Which got me imagining one for the contemporary poets Sean O’Brien once described as fighting like rats – or was it ferrets? – in a sceptic tank, and how entertaining that would be. And then I saw that the only such home in Britain is about to close, as reported here, and felt guilty for casting my poet friends into a bardic version of Stella Street

So thought I would point you to a genuinely informative site called Pensions for Artists, which is fairly self-explanatory. Pensions are not – contrary to what some artists argue – hard just for creative people. Lots of people have difficulty committing to a pension. (Try working in catering, for instance.) But there are some things artists can do to help themselves and this site is a good place to start if you need to think about pensions. This was just one small initiative which came out of something called Artists Insights I helped kick start across the Arts Council some years ago and it’s good to see that continues to resonate.

(Just imagine, though, a retirement village with Andrew Motion living between Carol Ann Duffy and Benjamin Zephaniah, with a house on the end full of experimental poets. Bill Herbert would, of course, name the streets as he did in West Park in Darlington.)

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Can sport inspire art?

There’s a lot of talk, and indeed a lot of clench-teethed muttering, about how the London 2012 will be a ‘cultural olympiad’. Opening and closing ceremonies have come under particular scrutiny.

The Great North Run Cultural Programme is a great example of how you can make meaningful connections between sport and the arts, and over the last few years has done both commissions of the first order (eg Wilson Twins, Michael Nyman) and mass participation arts ‘events’. I think it’s an exemplar for 2012. There is a natural connection as the driver behind it has been former world-record holder Brendan Foster, whose company runs (pun intended) the Great North Run. Brendan has been a real champion of involving artists in this phenomenon. He has a refreshing directness that many in the arts don’t have, too. It’s worth looking through what the Cultural Programme has been up to in recent years – it is a real achievement.

(One of this year’s moving image commissions - Run for Me by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, currently to be seen at BALTIC in Gateshead - features a member of our Communications team, Kathryn Goodfellow, and her dad. Kathryn's doing the run for the first time in October. Personally, I think you can take art and culture links too far and will stick to fiveaside … Like many people Kathryn’s being sponsored: join in here. Ali Simanwe from our Finance team is also running it and you can sponsor him here. Go on.)

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Knives out for the imagination?

I was nervous the first time I met Carol Ann Duffy, when she performed at a literature festival I used to organise in Middlesbrough, in the mid 90s. It was because she was a big name on the circuit even then and had been a little demanding when we were arranging the reading. It wasn’t because I’d read poems such as ‘Education for Leisure’ and thought she might get out a bread knife and stab me.

Which is clearly what the people at exam board AQA think might happen with the fortunate young people who have to sit their exams. They received three complaints about the poem – which is a monologue by a young person who decides to carry a knife – and want all copies of it destroyed.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this idiocy. It misreads the poem entirely, though I guess you could say the poem makes the ‘mistake’ of inspiring if not sympathy with the carrier, at least insight into what might make someone carry a knife. It is not uncritical of its speaker though. Anyway, it’s the kind of poem that would be rich for exploration with young people. But they will have to get their exploration of knife crime from Romeo and Juliet instead. The power of the imagination is obviously still something to suspect.

Although this has had lots of baffled media coverage, and some comments from other writers, I have not seen any calls for other writers to pull their poems from AQA anthologies, or boycott the roadshows many pupils now attend. I know there may be both copyright and income implications but shouldn’t writers be responding to this direct and worrying censorship? They may be only three letters away from the shredder themselves. Perhaps others should join one of my heroes Adrian Mitchell in not allowing the use of his work in exams? Failing that, can I suggest schools who’ll be destroying books at least have some John Latham-style book burnings or chewing students can take part in?

(The only time I had a poem used in a GCSE-related book, the poor kids had to ‘compare and contrast’ a poem of mine called ‘Buttocks’ with ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. I kid you not…)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

How can the Arts Council help with your electricity bills?

Regardless of how much attention you pay, in an organisation as multifarious as the Arts Council, every now and again you come across something and think ‘I either forgot or didn’t know we were doing that. But what a good project.’ Here’s today’s example...

The Arts Energy website gives access to a toolkit which will help organisations manage their energy use – cutting down on costs and reducing their carbon footprint. The benefits to both the business plan and the planet should be obvious. I know from examples in the North East what a difference a proactive approach to this can make to the bottom line and productivity. The toolkit consists of a number of modules to both assess current energy management practices and to develop a plan for improvement. It has been piloted and you can now register for it at www.artsenergy.org.uk.