Your England – Exhibition

Your England Web.jpgA journey into Englishness, from the Thames to the Lakes, industrial heartlands to chalk downs. Following tides and twittens, writing 100 poems along the way.

A park bench in Penrith, aviation at Shoreham by Sea, a skeleton in Margate, the Windrush in Brixton, bells of Whitechapel, The Lion Queen. Chalk and flint and wool and salt.

At Lombard Street Gallery, Margate from 28 Sep-8 Oct. Part of Margate Now, the offsite programme for the Turner Prize at Turner Contemporary.

Supported by Arts Council England.

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The Turner Prize is coming to Margate

In 2019, the Turner Prize hits the regions again – and while it’s recently gone to big cities like Glasgow (population 600,000 – 1,000,000) and Hull (population 260,000) this time, it’s coming to Turner Contemporary, Margate (population 40,000).

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A big show in a small town will have a huge impact; in Glasgow the show attracted 75,000 visitors, at the Baltic in Gateshead 149,770, and it’s reasonable to expect more in a venue only 1.5 hours from London by train. And especially, in a place that already fills with London visitors every weekend. Turner Contemporary has been an incredible success, and its most successful show was Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk, with 192,177 visitors – so that’s the target to beat.

The Turner Prize comes at a key time for Turner Contemporary, too. Opened in 2011, visitor numbers would be expected to drop off a little about now – Dreamland’s two reopenings (first in 2015, then again while still in administration in 2017) have undoubtedly helped keep numbers up for the gallery, so an extra publicity boost in 2019 is a good thing.

The gallery are keen to look for a long-term impact from the Turner Prize, and are keen to engage local people in a conversation about how to maximise the show’s impact. It’s worth remembering that Turner Contemporary owes its success to a local ecology of cafes, small independent galleries, boutiques and vintage shops that mean a two hour gallery visit can easily become a weekend stay. Day trippers are bad for the economy: they typically cost more to attract and to service than they spend locally. So making Margate a place where you can spend a weekend is vital to both the gallery’s and the area’s long term success.

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The first open conversation about the Turner Prize was held at Turner Contemporary yesterday. About forty people attended, representing a mix of local authorities, arts organisations, and visitor attractions. It was clear from the attendance that the show was attracting interest from Canterbury, and the wider East Kent area. Artists were keen to be in the room, and were vocal contributors. There were notable local absences, too – nobody from Dreamland, for example.

 

The conversation took the (dreaded) World Cafe format – where you sit around tables, have a guided discussion around a central proposition, write your thoughts on the tablecloth and then move to the next table and the next proposition. I can see there are merits to this methodology; but it’s used at every Turner Contemporary event, and the central propositions are never strong enough for a real debate. Can anyone argue strongly around ‘People of all backgrounds should be able to thrive’?

Having spent 17 years attending meetings very much like this, I’m always amazed by the lack of ambition these events bring out. Most of the discussion focused on things so obvious, it’s hard to believe they’re being discussed and not done. We should ensure visitors can find other attractions, we should link up with nearby attractions, we should ensure local people come to the gallery, we should welcome people at the station and so on. Well, yes.

The Turner Prize has the possibility of being a big gear change for Turner Contemporary and everyone involved in the local creative ecology. It also has the potential to misfire, as it’s always controversial – the potential to accelerate the way property funds are buying up the area and do real damage to affordable living locally – and perhaps worst, the potential to just be another show at Turner, which many local people still don’t visit.

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So – in the spirit of starting a proper conversation, here are my ambitions for Turner Contemporary and the Turner Prize. This isn’t a costed, prepared plan – it’s a quick response to yesterday’s event. And it’s not everything; of course we should join up with other local attractions (Margate Caves open their new visitor centre in 2019), encourage more local people to visit and so on. That’s all a given. But here’s some ambition.

1. More Turner, everywhere

Turner Contemporary is a charity, established to stimulate Margate’s culture-led regeneration. That’s worked, and there’s a vibrant creative ecology around Margate – but it’s fragile. Rent is already going up; artists are already leaving. Currently, Thanet District Council is undergoing a massive asset disposal – small buildings, workshops, and anything not needed for core service delivery is going. So here’s the idea: Turner Contemporary should become the preferred new owner for any assets being disposed of. Between now and the Turner Prize, Turner Contemporary should take on a range of buildings around the town. Some can be let as studios or workshops, some as residential space for artists, some let commercially to generate extra income, some run as Turner Contemporary satellites. For example, as Northdown Road’s footfall is growing, a Costa has opened. Turner Contemporary has driven that footfall – it should be a Turner Contemporary coffee shop that reaps the rewards. A bold move, but acts like this would create additional income streams, and maintain, preserve and enhance the ecology around Turner Contemporary, and make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success: a gallery surrounded by Costa, Cath Kidston and White Stuff isn’t worth a weekend stay.

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2. Everyone’s connected to Turner

Turner Contemporary should become the major training body in Margate. It shouldn’t just train people in unambitious ways, to be volunteers in their own gallery; it should support proper job training across the area. Coffee shops would have Turner Contemporary-supported baristas, cafes would have Turner Contemporary trained chefs, shop staff will attend subsidised Turner Contemporary training courses, teaching assistants and nursery staff will be taught at Turner Contemporary, and local electricians will learn new specialist skills with the gallery’s help. At the same time, Turner Contemporary should develop apprenticeships in all the roles it needs, from Front of House to maintenance. Again, this is about that ecology: Turner Contemporary’s success is because of the Old Town, the lower High Street, and increasingly Northdown Road. If you’re attracting visitors to Turner Contemporary, your customer care extends outside the gallery to all those places, so making them good is protecting your name and reputation. And at the same time, you’re ensuring that young people locally have good quality jobs, and real prospects. In an area where 50% of children are still growing up in poverty, that’s vital.

3. Chipperfield hacked

Let’s hack the Turner Contemporary architecture. The building, by David Chipperfield, is a few years old and we know its limitations now. The outside plaza is underused, the legibility of the front of the building is awful, the front doors are unfriendly and stick, the foyer is a dead space. The green space at the side is unloved and never used. The space between Turner Contemporary and the sea is a carpark, recently vandalised with clumsy road markings. The outside of Turner Contemporary lacks the life the inside has. Jane Jacobs would hate it. Margate is brilliant at using space – look at the slightly chaotic life of the Harbour Arm, the buzz around the Sundeck at Nayland Rock, or the anarchic spirit of Fort Road Yard. And when Turner Contemporary has used those spaces – for example, with Dwelling for Summer of Colour (pictured), it’s been transformational. By the time the Turner Prize arrives, let’s have a plan in place for the front, the outside, and the areas around Turner Contemporary; let’s make Turner Contemporary a place, not a building.

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4. Bored

Turner Contemporary should be governed by the people it represents and works with. The Board of Trustees  does great work in keeping the gallery going, but the mix of people from the banking sector, big organisations and art world establishment could do with hearing more local voices. The typical local panel or representative group is still an exercise in power: and doesn’t encourage real listening and debate. There should be three local board members, chosen for their potential: they should be given support and training to join the board and a mentor to help them become confident contributors.

If we do this right – all the other stuff will happen, because Turner Contemporary will be properly rooted in Margate.

 

The new, nomadic Agora

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The Agora was the central public space in ancient Greek city-states. The word means either gathering place or assembly. The agora brought together the artistic, spiritual, civic and political life of the city in one space; it was a space for creating social capital.

The Agora is an idea I’ve explored previously, in empty shops – the long-running WorkShop series  (2010-15) came out of a Shoreham-by-Sea project called Agora.

The new, nomadic Agora is a mobile intervention, which will appear in everyday places.

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Agora will travel the UK. As part of the Troublemakers’ Festival, the Swansea Agora will appear in five different locations on five days for five one-hour sessions. The Margate Agora will appear a few times in different places during the Margate Festival. Stoke Agora will happen as part of Festival Stoke.  Short, sharp versions are being planned for London, Eastbourne, and Worthing.

Agora is a social artwork, and in each iteration, I will sit down with about ten people for an hour to have a conversation about local life. A range of prompts and simple activities will be provided. It’ll be a conversation in Plain English, using everyday examples, about citizenship, social capital and democracy.

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All the local conversations will become part of a wider artwork about the UK’s identity and ideas of citizenship at this time of change. The things people say and do in each place will travel on to the next.

At the end, I’ll produce a state-of-the-nation piece, in writing but also as an exhibition at my studio. Whichever way the general election goes, we’ve fallen apart as a country and it’s time to work out what’s next: our politicians have failed us in that, and it’s time for citizens to talk.

 

Natural capital gets lots of air time because banks – in their ongoing quest to own the world – like to invest. Social capital? Not so much.  Dan Thompson bangs the drum on behalf of all of us. He is expert at unlocking potential in people and places that are ignored. Lucy Siegle

Estuary Lab – Discordianism

To introduce myself to the other artists taking part in Metal’s Estuary lab, I was asked to make a ten minute presentation about my work. I went at it… sideways.

After I was born, I lived in a small house with my mum and my nan. Number 33 Handley Road, Worthing. I was happy there. My nan still lives there. When I visit I always feel relaxed and calm. So – I like the number 33. It resonates, reverberates.

As a teenager I worked at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing – backstage. I left to join a small touring company, and that was where I learned – about conspiracies, about global patterns of power, about old religions, about mysteries, about Shakespeare. The director – Nick Young, trained at the RSC, staged a nude Romeo & Juliet in the 1970s – he was a good teacher.

The address was 33 Eriswell Road. We rehearsed in the front room. Next door, my office, store and workshop was in a little annex to the original house tacked on at the side.
33. It figured, I thought.

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Years later, I moved from being production manager to Rainbow Theatre to putting together my own things (and all of that happened because I spent time hanging out on a Shoreham houseboat, Yerba Buena, which had been Nick Young’s home when he started Rainbow – and I was working on a series of colour-themed art happenings on board). I followed a path from the KLF and the Illuminati, to the K Foundation and contemporary art, to Bill Drummond – and I brought Bill down to Worthing.

Through reading about his work, and his training under Ken Campbell, working on the Illuminatus Trilogy, I came across Discordianism.

From Wikipedia:
Discordianism is a religion and subsequent philosophy based on the veneration or worship of Discordia, the Goddess of chaos, or archetypes or ideals associated with her. It was founded after the 1963 publication of its holy book, the Principia Discordia, written by Greg Hill with Kerry Wendell Thornley, the two working under the pseudonyms Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst.

The religion has been likened to Zen based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school, as well as Taoist philosophy. Discordianism is centered on the idea that both order and disorder are illusions imposed on the universe by the human nervous system, and that neither of these illusions of apparent order and disorder is any more accurate or objectively true than the other.

There is some division as to whether it should be regarded as a parody religion, and if so to what degree

Now it turns out that I’d brushed up against Discordianism a few times – Bob Dobbs and the Church of Subgenius, the Slackers. A real parody religion rooted in Discodian ideas.

I discovered Bob as a teenager in Brighton. In the old Jubilee Market – Tesco before the market, the Komedia these days – the Bob Dobbs gang had a stall selling stickers, T-shirts and slipmats. I bought in to this mysterious, enigmatic character and a philosophy of calm, acceptance, slack.

Everything the KLF did, you see, led me elsewhere. And all those KLF videos and their sleeves covered in pyramids – the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the JAMMS.

(and – that led me to uncover the thing the KLF sampled, to the MC5, to finding out my dad had seen the MC5 in a field outside Worthing, to my sister working in their hometown Ann Arbor, to me visiting her in Michigan and standing outside their old communal house – but – that’s another story.)

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And that number 33. Well, the Discordianists like numbers:

The Law of Fives states simply that: All things happen in fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of five, or are somehow directly or indirectly appropriate to 5. The Law of Fives is never wrong.
— Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Page 00016

The real point of the Law of Fives is that it as a symbol for the observation of reality changing that which is being observed in the observer’s mind.

When you looks for fives or thirty-threes you find them, when you look for conspiracies, ways to determine when the apocalypse will come, connections, you will find them.

So Discordianism worked, it reverberated. It still echoes through the things I do:
Chaos. Magic. Making up religions. Finding connections. Following threads.

About ten years ago, Nick Young moved from his house at 33 Eriswell Road.
Just before he moved, he uncovered something strange after dowsing in the house. Under the front room floor, under the floor we rehearsed the company on, was a well. An ancient well.

A well dedicated to the goddess Eris. And who’s she? Well. I talked about her earlier, under her new name.

The older name, the Roman name, for the Goddess Discordia – was Eris.

 

Estuary 16

Estuary is a new, biennial arts festival curated in response to the spectacular Thames Estuary and presented in culturally significant and historic venues along the Essex and Kent shorelines.  An exciting mix of new and existing works will pull together powerful themes resonant to the place, its history, landscape and communities in an ambitious programme of contemporary art, literature, film and music.

From the Metal blog.

 

I’m among the artists creating new work for the first Estuary biennial. Metal are making it all happen, and brought together a small group of us to work alongside each other and explore Southend, Tilbury and other significant sites along the Estuary for a week.

The places we saw are truly magical – real industrial edgelands with layers of use, occupation and meaning. Places at the end and the beginning of so many English stories. Making it an incredible commission; a chance to weave together all sorts of fragments, places, moments in time. Can I live up to all the possibility? We’ll see.

From my original proposal to Metal:

As I sit here, I can see the full spread of the Thames Estuary; the Isle of Grain, wind farms, the sea forts, the constant tides and changing shipping. At night, Southend sparkles on the horizon. I live eight floors up in Arlington House, Margate, big aluminium-framed windows facing down the estuary. In winter I huddle down and watch storms build and move along the shore, and in summer slide the windows right back to let in warm sun and the sounds of play.

The estuary’s an impressive space. Where I was born, the sea is on the south and is somehow smaller. The sea and sky here is huge.  And this view is one which is full of stories, as well as surrounded by estuary-side towns with their own tales. Submarines and pirate radio, independent nation states and messages in bottles, migrant seabirds and immigrant communities, containers full of Chinese-made knick-knacks, the rusted skeletons of crashed Zeppelins, the last flight of a Vulcan A-bomber.

 

Theatre conference in Galway

There is no individual act in performing arts that does not require collective effort to be realised.  Together each individual element, be it the artist, producer, venue manager or facilitator, forms a collective experience for our sector, and our wider society.

Too often the “Them and Us” distinctions we draw can become entrenched and hostile.  This conference, will look at these perceived boundaries through a variety of lenses – exploring the separation of artist from state, distinctions between makers and audiences, performance spaces and communities, the “established” and “emerging”. Do common issues and concerns arise?  Are there shared approaches that could be more fruitful? What is our single and collective responsibility?

There are plenty of opportunities to talk, and in my time I’ve covered leadership styles for multinationals, digital strategies for social action, grassroots regeneration of town centres and everything inbetween. In June, I’m travelling to Galway for the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC) to talk about the performing arts need individuals and a collective effort.

It’s a subject that I find very interesting, particularly as theatre (where my career started) offers such a different approach to the visual arts, which hold up the myth of the individual as the artistic genius. I was standing on the waterfront in Newcastle, NSW a few years ago talking to a bunch of interesting people after a conference (Marcus Westbury, the Renew Newcastle gang, the great people from Gap Filler in New Zealand) – and we realised that all of us, and the people we admired who were taking creative collaborative approaches to urban renewal, had a thread of theatre in our backgrounds.

And it’s an approach I’ve applied to 15 years of working with mostly visual artists. I am beginning to realise that the lines between the different elements of my practice, between performance and design and visual arts and regeneration and urbanism and social action, are very thin.

Perhaps, in a dozen universes that are just a subtle knife cut apart, I have different job titles; artist, writer, activist, producer, urbanist. For my talk at APAC, I’ll try to tie them all together.