People Have The Power

Or The artist as enabler

(I found this in a dusty folder in an odd corner of Google Drive. It’s a few years old. I can’t remember writing it, but it says quite well some things been trying to say again recently.)

The artist is, by tradition, an egotist. The artist creates a representation of their view of the world, whether it’s a painting or a play, and expects us, the common people, to love it. The relationship is clear; godlike genius who talks to an audience.

The rise, since the 1960s, of alternative art practices has, of course, challenged such a simple view.

My first experience of The People Show was an eye-opener. And before you think I’m the kind of middle class, arts loving type that goes to see clever things like The People Show; I was a technician at a nightclub in Brighton where they were performing. The company paid for me to go to Bristol and have a night in a b&b to see the show I’d be dealing with when it came to Brighton. This ‘we want you to do well for us, so we’re looking after you’ had never happened before and was, in itself, an eye-opener.

But the show itself, people Show 103, was something else. It blurred lines between performers and audiences; it broke down barriers between stage, auditorium and front of house; It incorporated new technology and made us technicians a vital part of the production of art. It was vital, chaotic, funny and challenging. It was punk. Two nights with The People Show, and I wanted to be an artist.

A few years later, around the end of the 20th Century, I started hanging out with some artists who were doing similar things. Harry Palmer was a live artist from Hull, which back then wasn’t somewhere associated with edgy art, and Karin Paish was living on a houseboat in Shoreham and not talking to her neighbours. In the name of art, she’d just spent a few months being completely silent.

Around the same time I was working with them, I acquired a publication that, to me, looked like a big, well-produced fanzine. I knew zines; I’d been producing them myself for years, and collecting others. But this wasn’t a zine, even though it pretended to be; it was the catalogue for an exhibition called Protest & Survive at a place called Whitechapel.

I only knew the name Whitechapel for two things; Jack The Ripper and childhood weekends spent staying with a friend of my dad, who lived in Weaver House in Spitalfields, by the city farm that was recently established on an old bombsite. Those weekends were a glimpse of something alien to me, a child who grew up on a postwar council estate in Worthing. That corner of London was physically in much the same condition as it had been at the time my council estate was built; bombsites, derelict buildings, ancient shops, old houses and old people – but overlaid with a rich, colourful, noisy, smelly and chaotic immigrant culture. I remember being overwhelmed by Sunday morning on Brick Lane. It was like the street markets in Bladerunner; a future overlaid clumsily on the past.

I remember seeing the area, with Weaver House in a starring role, in a Children’s Film Foundation production too. It was that kind of place. Cinematic.

I had no idea Whitechapel had a gallery. But the Whitechapel catalogue contained Gilbert & George’s ‘What Our Art Means’ manifesto:

‘We want our art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People’.

I knew nothing of Gilbert & George, their lifestyle, their connection to the place I remembered from my childhood. But their manifesto, and the other artworks included in the catalogue, did speak to me. Through a thing I considered to be a big zine, I found Gilbert & George, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Jeremy Deller, Joseph Beuys, and the whole idea of artist as activist or activist as artist. Sometimes, things that don’t look like art are more powerful than things that do.

(The paradox, of course, is that Gilbert & George are as much a part of the global art elite as it’s possible to be, and much of their work is indecipherable by people who don’t have a fine art degree. But. But. I’d still love to meet them.)

So I was starting to try to make art myself, and finding out about it in unusual ways. And I came at it from somewhere else, remember. I was a technician, a backstage boy, used to making other people’s ideas real. That balancing act became my practice as an artist, although it’s only this year, 16 years into a career as an artist, that I’m really understanding that.

I very quickly became bored with saying ‘here’s a thing I’ve made. Love it. Love me.’ I sold a few works, for sure, and it was satisfying that things I made hung on people’s walls. But I wasn’t convinced they meant much.

I wanted to be in a gang, as I had before. Touring with indie bands, running a TIE company in a white van, being a technician putting a show on for the Brighton Fringe – since leaving school I’d always been part of a gang with a common purpose. So now, I started to pull people together. I curated shows, first in a back street studio in Worthing, then more formally at Worthing Museum, and in Brighton. The act of putting the show together was, I always thought, a creative act in itself. The show’s the thing, where I come from; not the individual bits that make it up. I dressed every exhibition like it was a stage show, created drama as you walked into the space, considered the entrance and exit of the audience as if they were participants in a show. Now, if I walk into somebody else’s exhibition and there’s not a good opening view as I walk in, I think they’ve failed.

I started to use more empty and abandoned and alternative spaces. I’d started my career as an artist exhibiting with Karin Paish on a houseboat in Shoreham, after all. And had previously played a big role in converting the Connaught Theatre’s old workshops in an abandoned theatre back into a studio. I thought I could use any space to show art. I didn’t understand that I should aim for big white spaces.

So I borrowed churches, empty shops, used the basement of the old Argus building in Brighton that was thick with dust and smelled of printer’s ink and oil. I started a trail of artists’ open houses, in Worthing, and spread the idea across the countryside to Horsham.

The work in empty shops became a bigger thing, as the 2008 recession brought collapse to the retail-driven high streets we’d got used to. The process itself developed. While curating exhibitions in these abandoned spaces, I realised that co-curation was more exciting. And that moved to challenging artists to make work just for these spaces. And from there, to using them for something more mixed, an idea that bringing people together was more important than just showing them something made elsewhere. Making in the space was more exciting; the medium was the message. I created coworking spaces before I knew what that word meant, just by dividing up the spaces we had and letting people use them. Saying ‘yes’ became first a creative act, then a political one.

A lot of artists have talked about a ‘socially engaged practice’, but Lloyd Davis and me have talked more about being ‘social artists’. There’s no need to worry about what engagement means and how it will work if you are honest, straightforward and open. Lloyd’s helped me understand that.

There’s no need to worry if you just say yes to people. With the Workshop projects in empty shops across the country (starting with Workshop 1a in Shoreham, via Workshop 24 in Kilburn, ending with Workshop 34 in Sittingbourne), I started saying yes to people that wanted to use the spaces I was unlocking. Yes, you can run a workshop – here’s a table. Yes, you can hang your work on the walls – borrow our hammer. Yes, you can hang out with other people here and play with ideas – put the kettle on. Yes, you can hold a mini-conference – we’ve got enough chairs. Yes, you can use it as a studio – that corner’s not being used. Yes, you can make a mess – here’s the dustpan and brush. Yes, you’ll have to work out how to get on with the other people in the space. Yes.

And there’s no need to worry after you’ve said yes, either. People are, it turns out, honest and straightforward themselves, for the most part. People said amazing things about how they felt when we said yes; ‘I couldn’t resist’ and ‘I’m running with new packs’ and ‘I couldn’t have written a business plan that let this happen’ and ‘we were listened to and given the chance to breath’.

To take it even further, I was giving away all the knowledge, skills and resources that I’d acquired so that I didn’t need to say ‘yes’ anymore. I didn’t want to be an expert. I wanted people to get on and do these things by themselves. So I helped the Meanwhile Project get started, writing them a workbook for using empty shops. I wrote a bigger, more detailed toolkit for Arts Council England and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. I turned that into Pop Up Business For Dummies, published by Wiley. Now, anyone can do this stuff and they do. There’s been a revolution on our high streets. Today, most towns have something more interesting than just shops. I’m off to Swansea this week, where the old Iceland store’s now a theatre and Sew Swansea run workshops empowering women on the high street. Our town centres are again places for art, culture, social life, learning – as well as shopping.

As I try to understand the work I’ve done to activate empty and abandoned spaces over the last 16 years, I’m starting to look differently at older work, too.

Early on, when I was one of a group of artists sharing a studio, we started to talk to children, aged under 16, about what they’d like. I was, by mistake, a youth worker at a drop-in information shop, and became a detached or street-based youth worker, running on the very estates where I grew up.

And that work was brought into the studio. I was working a lot with another artist in the studio, Tracey. We got married.

Together, we worked with young offenders, who came out of the courts to be placed with us in the studio. We worked with young people at risk of offending. We worked in schools. We listened.

Young people wanted to paint, like the older graffiti artists they admired. So Tracey and me learned to hold a spray can, and let young people paint 250 metres of murals in schools, youth clubs and subways across West Sussex. They led, we followed.

Another group of children we met, aged between 10 and 14, wanted somewhere safe and dry to learn to skateboard. We helped them design indoor ramps, found a youth club that would give them space, and had them built with money from Sussex Police. A brilliant Police Sergeant called Mel Doyle helped. She said yes to us.

The children led, we followed, but by our learning we enabled them to do more, to achieve more, and to make better things. We were, we found in one case after another, the only people listening; and I now realise, we were perhaps the first and only people to say yes to some of the children we were working with.

The things we let them do gave them a sense of achievement, a pride in the marks they made on their community. The same outcomes as the work in empty shops with adults, of course.

And now, I’m finding the same outcomes in other work.

Bedford Happy was a carefully curated day-long, town-wide artwork that let people celebrate what they loved about their own town. It took three months to plan. It was built around a series of moments, interventions designed to reach wide and diverse audiences, and to build momentum through the day. Each of these interventions was made by people from Bedford.

People, out for a normal day in Bedford’s rather ordinary town centre, would be pulled along by the artistic undertow. It went well; a choir singing Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’ in the library,, flashmobs saying thank you to local shopkeepers, pop up workshops in empty shops – hundreds of people were engaged by what they saw, smiled, and thought about happiness. I overheard one shopper say to another; ‘they’re everywhere, these Happy people, I’ve seen them all over town all day long.’ We weren’t; we were a small group of pranksters who, like a guerilla army, took over the town.

At the time, I struggled with the fact that, on the day, even Bedford Creative Arts who commissioned me seemed to have forgotten that it was me, the artist, that had created the series of interventions, happenings and moments that made the day. The people paying me to be an artist left me out of the group photo of people who’d made the day happen. People were now so proud of their town, they’d forgotten I was there at all.

Of course, what was happening was the transfer of power; the act of enabling meant the enabler was unnecessary.

Peter Coyote said, ‘A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.’ It’s a quote I’ve used a lot. My work is free food.

And in another quote, an internet meme sometimes attributed to John Ruskin and other times to William Foster, we find another perspective. It says that ‘Quality is never an accident, it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution’

That’s my role. To ensure there’s any value in saying ‘yes’ to people, to help people take the lead in ways which don’t overwhelm them, to really enable them to do something worthwhile, takes high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution. Making free food is an art, and it takes an artist.

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