Friday, 29 May 2009

In what form would you like to return?

In the latest issue of Freize magazine, on which I've just been spilling my sandwich, the fantastic French author Sophie Calle is asked 'what images keep you company in the space where you work?' She answers: 'In my studio there is a stuffed giraffe that I bought when my mother died, to replace her. Her name is Monique too, and she looks at me from on high with sadness and irony, just like my mother did.' She concludes the questionnaire with 'I don't think my mother would have chosen to return as a stuffed giraffe in the studio of her daughter, but she is dead.' It sounds a little cold without the photo, but when you see the giraffe, which you can here, it is more complex, has humour and remembrance alongside grief.

My mum passed away nearly two years ago, which meant I only saw a little of Calle's film of her own mother almost imperceptibly leaving life when I visited the Venice Biennale in 2007. It was far too close to home to bear. I wasn't ready to hold my own breath in that way again. The picture of her giraffe is going up on the wall at home, a small lesson in holding the facts and feelings of one's life in creative focus.

Friday, 22 May 2009

How far up the ladder dare we go?

Came across some interesting ideas from Tom Atlee in an article about 'crisis and evolutionary leverage for philanthropy'. (I'm talking about the creative uses of crisis at the Theatre Forum Ireland conference next month.) He describes an interesting 'ladder of intervention', suggesting 'the higher on the ladder that activism or philanthropy can intervene, the more leverage for evolutionary transformation it can have.' The word leverage inspires a bit of a twinge these days, but at least he's using it as a noun not a verb.

The ladder relates to previous topics about resilience and systems. Some of the terms may be a little opaque at first glance, and you could argue these things are not strictly sequential but the general idea is helpful, I think, for funders to think about. It might also be useful for peer-to-peer review or support and collaboration to think about. Here it is:

8. EVOLUTIONARY CATALYTIC ACTION: Tweaking the evolutionary process in a system, especially at crisis points, especially through enhancing its collective intelligence and wisdom
7. SOCIAL SHAMANISM: Working the context, culture, story, paradigm, goal, field, etc., within which a system operates
6. SOCIAL SYSTEMS DESIGN: Designing and reworking overall systems and feedback dynamics
5. SERVANT LEADERSHIP: Designing and empowering networks and communities; building capacity for self-organization in specific realms
4. PROCESS ARTISTRY: Hosting generative interactions among a system's diverse players, stakeholders, leaders, etc.
3. ACTIVISM: Mobilizing concerned citizens and victims for causes and candidates to change conditions
2. EDUCATION: Giving people the information/training they need to help themselves as individuals and groups
1. CHARITY: Helping individuals and groups directly
0. SYMPATHY: Knowing and resonating with another's suffering, and letting others know.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Doesn't time fly when you're enjoying yourself?

It’s nine years today since I started working for Northern Arts, the precursor body to Arts Council England, North East – an anniversary I usually mark in my head at least. I was the new Head of Film, Media and Literature, slightly battered and bruised from a year working in the death throes of university adult education. I’m not going to run you through the highlights or the lowlights of the last nine years in the arts funding system, or how many reorganisations, jobs and project groups I’ve been through. (Oh, alright then, a lowlight would be the phrase ‘I don’t have to be in the region to feel a strangler’s hands around my neck…’ from someone I mistakenly tried to engage in rational debate.)

Highlights would include some of the great people I’ve worked with, of course. I’m now no. 10 in the North East Long-Service League table. Unlike her beloved Sunderland AFC, or indeed any North East team, Karen Bell is top of the league with 20 years under her belt and is the only person I’ve ever written a ‘staying poem’ for, as opposed to our traditional leaving poem. (Staying poems are harder as you can’t risk quite the same level of mickey-taking.) The others ahead of me are Gail Scott, Mark Mulqueen, Andrea Lowe, Matthew Jarratt, Ailsa Golding, Kathleen Fairley, Dianne Coaten, and James Bustard – stalwart servants to the arts, the region and the organisation everyone of them. I tried to find a photo of at least one when much younger, but photos in annual reviews seemed to die out before their time, so you've got one of reception instead! I can confirm beards were big and scary at Northern Arts in the 70’s/80's though...

Monday, 18 May 2009

How do you approach presentations?

One of today's jobs is working on a keynote I'm going to be giving next month to the national conference of the English National Youth Arts Network. (This is a 'youth-led conference' and they seem to be getting revenge for something as they've set me what one member of our team called an A level question about 'Youth Enterprise, Innovation and Leadership within the Cultural Industries:' as the theme.) Anyway, as luck would have it, looking for something else I came across these 10 commandments from the TED Conferences for good presentations. (Apparently TED speakers get sent them on an actual tablet of stone...) I can't think of a conference I've ever attended that wouldn't have been improved if every speaker had followed them.

So here's what I shall be trying to live up to:

1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick.
2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before.
3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion.
4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story.
5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy.
6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.

Meantime I'm interested in experiences of how different generations work together leading arts projects and organisations, as well as how 'young leaders' operate in their own spheres. If you've any stories to tell, let me know.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Homage to Arthur Seaton?

I hope I'm not crashing any serious taste issues with the image above. Harland Miller has a show opening at Baltic in Gateshead next week and the invites have been raising a smile in the office, so I thought I'd share. I really like the Evelyn Waugh one, 'Gateshead Revisited', too.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A reasoned disorientation as the basis of music education?

Dame Liz Forgan, Arts Council England’s chair, has been making headlines this week by urging educationalists to raise children on ‘difficult’ classical music like Harrison Birtwhistle. "Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all" she told the audience at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards. This seems to have been generally welcomed, and whilst classical music is not my own natural home territory, I would commend the strategy for raising children on great music of any kind. (So I'd go for the 'Public Enemy, not Will Smith' version of hiphop education - this not just a 'classical thing'.)

We’ve certainly followed it with our kids – and indeed started it by naming them Louis and Billie. (I once had a conversation with the new Poet Laureate about jazz-related names for children when her daughter Ella was very small, if I can be allowed a small name-drop.) I’m pleased to relate my son’s band cite lots of unsuitable music he’s heard for 18 years as an influence - his main use of Spotify seems to be the Sonic youth back catalogue - and certain that his great uncle Smokey and the soul side will come out in due course. The dinner table guessing game of ‘which country/epoch does this weird music come from?’ will also stand them in good stead I think.

Mind you, when they were very small we did once play them the Fires of London recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for A Mad King, which my wife’s father plays on. (He’s the one playing the violin on the album cover above.) As I remember it, they pretty much ran from the room screaming, covering their ears, though memory may be exaggerating a little. Looking for an image I came across this description of coming across the same recording which shows that’s not the universal effect on young people, proving Liz Forgan’s point. Exposure to the wild, wonderful, wierd and disorientating - that's what I call education.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

How do we grasp uncertainty and save the economy?

Been a little quiet on here over the last fortnight - no apologies, I've just been unusually occupied at home and work - so today I will fearlessly attempt to link (to) three things in one post...

I'm quoted in MMM's latest 'communique' (great word for a Wednesday!) about their collaborative pilots, three of which are in North East England, as wanting to encourage 'resilience not reliance'. This is my new mantra, so be warned.

Resilient Nation is a new publication from Demos. It has a focus on emergencies and civic defence, but not exclusively so. It proposes 'we need to rethink the concept of resilience in a way that resists the temptation to think only in terms of the ability of an individual or society to 'bounce back' but suggests a greater focus on learning and adaptation. In a new definition of this concept, responsibility for resilience must rest on individuals not only on institutions.' It concludes by putting forward a focus not on intervention bu on building 'the four Es of community resilience: engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement'. It's an interesting read, if not slightly worrying as a citizen to hear about police refusing to sound flood sirens even during floods 'in case it spreads panic'.

There is a very powerful quote from a farmer, in the aftermath of the foot and mouth crisis: 'Everything is the same, but nothing is the same. Part of you is trying to find where you fit in the new reality, part of you wants to the safety of the old ways. Slightly dislocated from your surroundings, but the physical surroundings are the same, but I suppose you have changed, and the old certainties, that were not certain but seemed it, have made way for new changeable ways that are not certain, and you know that they are not certain.'

This resonated throughout my reading of Lifting People, Lifting Places, a new paper from the DCMS. This sets out the contribution culture, media and sport can make to economic recovery. Much is a summary of things already underway, but it brings them together so one can get a sense of the big picture. There are some aspirations set out, and a useful annex of data on how the sectors are being affected by the downturn. (I don't know whether it's irony or paradox or something worse that those organsations who've most diversified their income streams who may be worst hit, and those who were arguably 'simply reliant on public funding' who for the moment are most stable.)

It could have done with an edit by someone with a strong aversion to cliches, but perhaps that's quibbling. (I gave the Creative Business Award out recently at the North East Business Awards, and swear I was the only person not to say 'in these difficult times' - it's true, but then it's always true for some people.) In the foreword Andy Burnham writes: 'Rather than sitting on the fringes, culture, sport and the creative industries are part of the core script for recovery and prospoerity.' Noting budgets were 'slashed' in the 80s and 90s, he says 'That mistake will not be repeated.' Others will also quote him on that, I'm sure. (I guess the £4m lost from next year's Arts Council England grant-in-aid needs to be seen as not a slash but a flesh wound?)

The document does set out DCMS's stall in an encouraging way, and from everything I hear they are fighting their corner strongly, and posing a healthly and correct challenge to the sector. We need to respond to this opportunity with new and fresh thinking for this changed, uncertain world, not simply protecting what's been built, or wanting to play nicely in the corner. Building resilience not reliance...