Swifty’s Sunday Social, 20 years ago

P1160328It’s odd, looking back and realising that the summer of 2014 was 20 years ago. We were just having fun in a battered seaside town and I don’t think any of us considered that what we were doing would have such an impact. We weren’t a gang, and never called ourselves Imaginists back then. What we were doing wasn’t a conscious attempt to shape the future, even if we did all secretly believe we could change the world. But Margate was burning bright in 2014. There had been months of great theatre, incredible art happenings, a buzz in the national media (newspapers, back then – newspapers!)

It really came together on a Sunday afternoon at the sleepy end of that summer; Swift hadn’t had even one platinum album then, there was little to suggest he’d win the Turner Prize twice, and the idea that there’d be a room dedicated to him in Margate’s Imaginist Centre was faintly ridiculous. He was Tom Swift, not Swift; he hadn’t become, like Madonna, somebody known by a single name. He was just oddball painter Tom Swift, a lanky, awkward character with an eye on the main chance, fingers in some odd pies, a hatful of ideas, a neat line in drippy paintings. And, in Caspar, a mentor.

Yes, that Caspar – he was charismatic even then, but we didn’t realise how dangerous his religious quackery would become. I’m not sure then he even believed in the Sacred Duck; it was just an in joke. I think after Apple introduced the smart drugs, they started to alter the world around him, and he believed the coincidences and chances meant something. If we had known how far he’d take it, well; we’d have pushed him off the harbour arm, the Thames Barrier wouldn’t have been damaged so badly by that ridiculous Rubber Duck, and London wouldn’t have flooded.

P1160550Anyway – together Swift and Caspar and me cooked up the plan for Swifty’s Sunday Social at the Black Cat Club. Not the one you can visit now, of course – that’s a shameless cash-in, a Disneyfied version of where we hung out. It’s not even in the same place. There never was a Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre on the seafront. Back then it was an art gallery called Turner Contemporary, and that summer it was exhibiting work by Jeremy Deller. Forgotten now, but back then he was the big star, not us. Today’s Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre is just an imitation, as authentic as The Cavern in Liverpool, but it’s made Keith Roberts rich and famous. When I watch him on the panel of England’s Got Talent, I can’t help but remember the Gabicci-wearing, quiffed, suited and booted wideboy he was back then. He hasn’t really changed much, has he?

Our Black Cat, back then, was across the road; it’s the toilets of Starbucks now – I know, tiny. It was a proper underground club, sweat dripping from the ceiling and the walls sticky. It was where Swifty’s Sunday Social started, and my own Face Up! too. That was just supposed to be a one-off night, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mods vs Rockers battles in Margate in 1964. I never saw Face Up! becoming the brand it has become, and every one of our coffee shops around the world has a little bit of the Black Cat spirit, every item of clothing in our shops is inspired by what people were wearing in Margate back then, every disc and download in our record shops could have graced the turntables that year. But I digress; the first Swifty’s Sunday Social, all those Sundays ago, is what I’m writing about.

It was a good afternoon. There was a DJ, a local vicar called Emmet Keane (remember, there was still a Church of England back then!), playing reggae and dub; and Helen Seymour performed her poetry. She was an interesting character; slight and hauntingly beautiful, magic eyes, slightly awkward as we all were, slipping rhymes and interesting images into rambling stories. I saw the spark in her, but still can’t believe she’s the same person who wrote that poem for the old Queen’s funeral, let alone that her brief affair with a prince that started at the funeral could topple the monarchy.

P1160510And there was a Simon Williams film projected on the wall, too. I know, I know, it seems unlikely – a Turner Prize winner, the Poet Laureate, a ten-times Oscar winner, a TV superstar, the Prime Minister and me all in the one place, on one Sunday afternoon, but it’s true. It really happened. Simon’s film was a precursor to ‘365’, that won him that first Oscar. It was a black and white film (timelapse, of course, could it be anything else, from him?) shot from Arlington House, which wasn’t the swanky, gated place it’s become. Back then it was just a towerblock, Margate just a seaside town.

The crowd that Sunday afternoon was full of good, interesting people, too. Joe Brown was there; he was a shopkeeper, ran a junk shop with Kelly. He hadn’t become a politician then, had no ambitions to become Prime Minister. Really! Back then, people were career politicians, not people like Joe who just rose from nowhere. There were photographers, and writers, and painters, and dancers, and shopkeepers out that afternoon. The Breuer and Dawson boys, before they hosted their TV makeover series, before Breuer and Dawson was just a chain store. IndustroChic wasn’t a thing back then. A good crowd, for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but not as many people as have said they were there; we’d never have fitted everyone that said they were at the first one into that tiny room. I remember Simon saying we needed ten more people to make it feel busy; Caspar wanted fifty more. There was room for ten, room for fifty, and there weren’t queues around the block back then for anything Swift did.

I guess it’s that weekend that changed it all, really; that made it clear we had a scene. I know the Black Cat is compared to Warhol’s Factory, and while that’s a lazy comparison there’s something in it. The atmosphere maybe, that bottled sense of excitement, that belief that we could take on the world and win, that buttoned-down madness – but the impact of the Imaginists has been so much bigger, deeper, wider. It all started one Sunday, and nothing’s been quite the same since.

Margate, November 2034

Nobody told me it was happening…

P1020430For the last 13 years, the thing which has annoyed me the most is when somebody says, ‘I didn’t know this was happening’.

I’ve heard people say this at art exhibitions and open meetings, big public events and intimate get-togethers. I’ve heard it at festivals with 50,000 leaflets, at art happenings that have been on the TV news, at poetry readings plugged across local papers, radio and social media. I’ve heard it said about gigs, talks, books, shows, exhibitions, stunts, interventions, festivals and readings. ‘Nobody told me. Nobody told me.’ (‘But still, somehow, you’re here anyway,’ I always want to shout.)

The truth is, if you want to know what’s going on where you live, you have to make an effort to find out. Art, real art – the type that fizzes and crackles and makes you think, the sort that wakes you up, shakes you about and reminds why being alive matters, the stuff that changes your life – is happening within a mile of where you live. But you have to want it. You have to look for it. You have to find it. Nobody is going to knock on your door, hand you a leaflet, and ask you to come. Artists aren’t like Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Finding out what’s going on where you live doesn’t take a huge effort. Read the local newspaper, online or on paper. Search Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and follow people talking about local things. Listen to local radio. Watch the local TV news. Most importantly, pick up flyers in local shops, cafes, libraries and community centres and look at posters. None of this is a big effort, but it will make a huge difference to your life.

There is a whole industry built around the ‘audience’ for art – there are arts professionals who can provide insight and development and tracking and engagement and mailing list management. But that whole industry ignores one important idea; that actually, audiences have to take responsibility for themselves, too.

All the artists

Image by Dean Barwell - Revolutionary Arts, Pop-Up Gallery

This could take a while, but I’m compiling a list of all the artists we’ve worked with in ten years of Revolutionary Arts. I haven’t listed all the artists who took part in the successful open house schemes we ran in Horsham and Worthing yet…

  • Alice Angus
  • David Armitage
  • Eugenie Arrowsmith
  • Sue Baker
  • The Bamboo Band
  • Ben Barker
  • Dean Barwell (photo – top)
  • Pearl Bates
  • Nathan Bean
  • Dan Belton
  • Big Chill Recordings
  • Nic Blair
  • Steve Bomford
  • Ed Boxall
  • Russ Bravo
  • Robin Brenchley
  • Bob Brighton
  • Tessy Britton
  • Brenda Brooks
  • Caroline Brown
  • Chris Brown
  • Faye Brunning
  • Buckler’s Reel
  • Buzz Theatre
  • James Caldicott
  • Maria Carapeto
  • The Caravan Gallery
  • Steve Carroll
  • Nikki Cheal
  • Sin Mui Chung-Martin
  • Naomi Clark
  • Clothkits
  • Andrew Collins
  • John Collins
  • CoMA Sussex Ensemble
  • Louisa Cook
  • David Cottingham
  • Janine Craye
  • Adrian Crick
  • Anthony Cropper
  • Culture Quarter Programme
  • Susan Cutts
  • Abigail Daker
  • Luna Davenport
  • Harriet Davies
  • Lloyd Davies
  • Michelle Dawson
  • Alexandra Dipple
  • Bianca Donnelly
  • Bill Drummond
  • Lou Durham
  • Melissa Ede
  • Caroline Elderfield
  • John Evans
  • John Farmelo
  • Pete Fijalkowski
  • Christine Forbes
  • Becca Foster
  • Leanne Foster
  • Mark Gaynor
  • Susanna Gibson
  • Gimpo
  • Gerald Glover
  • Kenn Goodall
  • Gary Goodman
  • Dave Gorman
  • Wendy Greene
  • Justine Grice
  • Sheila Guyatt
  • Sue Harding
  • Sally Harris
  • Katherine Haynes
  • Ned Hoskins
  • Sonia Hunt
  • The Ice Prince Orchestra
  • Alison Ingram
  • Sarah Johnson
  • Jessica Jordan
  • Susie Kershaw
  • Christiane Kersten
  • Fozia Khaliq
  • Olga Kohutek
  • Eva Lauermann
  • Hugh Lloyd
  • Sian Lloyd
  • Sam Lock
  • Rose Mackew
  • Daniel Martin
  • Natalie Martin
  • Linda McVeigh
  • Meanwhile Project
  • Natasha Middleton
  • Alison Milner
  • Alison Milner-Gulland
  • MLA
  • Moor Arts
  • Hazel Mortley
  • Paul Munson
  • Blanca Negro
  • Patricia Neve
  • Jonathan Nyati
  • Nick Orsborn
  • Edith Pargh Barton
  • Michael Parkes
  • Nell Pascoe
  • Fred Pipes
  • Geoff Plant
  • Ingrid Plum
  • Ivan Pope
  • Michael Radcliffe
  • Linda Rainbird
  • Rainbow Shakespeare
  • Dayna Richman
  • Tim Riddihough
  • Steve Rowland
  • Joanne Rowling
  • Linda Rush
  • Trevor Rush
  • Justin Sainsbury
  • Ben Salter
  • Sarah Sherry
  • Nirmal Singh Darman
  • Chris Slade
  • Micki Slade
  • Pete Slight
  • South Kilburn Neighbourhood Trust
  • Spacemakers
  • Steve Speller
  • Martine Spencer
  • Spilt Milk Dance
  • Belinda Stephenson
  • Hannah Stewart
  • Teresa Stewart-Goodman
  • Elizabeth Stiles
  • Textile Arts Forum
  • Theatre Akimbo
  • Dan Thompson
  • Netta Thompson
  • Nigel Thompson
  • Tracey Thompson
  • Duncan Thrussell
  • Maggie Tredwell
  • Richard Vobes
  • Clive Vosper
  • Andy Waite
  • Helena Weaver
  • Lisa Weller
  • West Sussex Writers’ Club
  • Caroline Whiteman
  • Georgina Williams
  • Jan Williams
  • Sarah Young
  • Debbie Zoutewelle

Agile Arts – a manifesto for 2011

I was asked today to predict how the arts will be in 2011. The more I think about it, the more I realise the model I trust, believe in and want to use is the one which I used to use in software development.  So this manifesto for Agile Arts (which will be developed further in 2011) is lifted almost word-for-word from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

Manifesto for Agile Arts

We are uncovering better ways of developing arts projects by doing it and helping others to do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working projects over excessive administration
  • Creative collaboration over contracts, conditions and criticism
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

We follow these principles:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy our audiences through early and continuous delivery of valuable activity.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in a project. Agile processes harness change for the good of artists and their audiences.
  • Deliver activity and engagement with audiences frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
  • Creatives and those that commission them must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation, but Twitter and other social media are a valuable support.
  • Arts activity is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development.
  • The people commissioning and those creating should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
  • The best arts projects emerge from self-organising teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The Empty Shops Network – a big thank you

A couple of years ago I ran a small local arts organisation, the Revolutionary Arts Group, struggling with no resources to stage artist-led festivals and open studio events, and using non-traditional venues for exhibitions- an old bakers, a functioning church, and other community spaces.

As the recession bit, I was fielding more and more enquiries about how we did it – particularly using empty shops – so the Empty Shop Network was born. The aim was to start collecting information about work in the redundant spaces in town centres, and provide a central point of contact for anyone wanting to find events local to them. It was always a big ambition on no budget, but I realised that I was thinking along the right lines when Susan Jones from a-n offered me a small grant to produce a piece of research which became a ‘Knowledge Bank’ article. It laid the foundations for the Empty Shops Workbook as well.

I’m typing this on the train back from Gatwick, afterflying out to Belfast for an a-n AIRTime event where I was able to talk to 60+ Northern Ireland artists about using empty shops.

The last year has seen me writing strategies for local authorities, talking at national community conferences, spending timewith Central St Martins students at graduate week, hobnobbing with the great and occasionally even the good at the Conservatives Arts and Creative Industries Network… the list is kind of endless when you include all the conversations, BBC News interviews, magazine articles and other stuff that’s happened around the fringes.

I’m starting to earn a sensible (but by no means excessive!) wage as an artist and arts manager.
And it’s all because that small, early grant gave me the confidence – it was tacit recognition that I was doing the right thing.

That grant has helped us to access even more funding and set up a range of projects – and the thing I’m most proud of, we’ve already paid about twenty times the original grant to other artists and small creative businesses.

So thank you Susan, and thank you a-n for providing real support just when it was needed.

Beg, Borrow and Steal – Or ‘How Pitching Fails Artists’

In graphic design, there’s a great debate around the practice of putting a pitch to a client. In effect, you’re asked to work up your ideas in rough and then put them forward for consideration. It’s a lot of time and effort, and there’s always a worry that a client will like your ideas but not your costs and take the idea without paying. It would, of course, be almost impossible to prove that had ever happened.

Even if they don’t steal the idea, the process itself gives the client something for free.

“Clients derive a substantial benefit from being given – at no cost – a range of responses to their brief. This helps them to make … their final choice” says Adrian Shaughnessy in ‘How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul’, “and in the case of unscrupulous clients (of which there are fewer than most designers imagine) it affords them an opportunity to steal ideas. In other words, clients are receiving a benefit they do not pay for.”

This morning, in The Argus, I read about a proposal that we had put forward to Brighton and Hove City Council, for a project in one of the city’s junior schools. Well, the trouble was, I read about another group of artists who’d spent a week working on something very similar to the proposal our artists had spent days working on.

“A large-scale, multi-media, interactive installation in the school’s gym,” we’d proposed, “Taking visitors on an imagined journey along Brighton beach” with “Large-scale works on recycled cardboard, a painted canvas backdrop representing the sea, horizon and sky, and old fashioned carousel fairground rides”.

And the school got “cardboard carousels” and “a view of the seafront”, where parents could walk down an “artificial promenade”. I’m not suggesting that the individual artists involved stole our proposal, but I’d be very surprised if our ideas weren’t discussed by the school and the city council, and they used that knowledge when working up the ideas that another group of artists had pitched.

Shaughnessy suggests that “by saying no to pitching, studios and individuals are taking a principled stance – they might also be missing out on opportunities, but the respect they get from taking such a stance outweighs the occasional loss of business.”

He has, I think, a very valid point. I shall be thinking hard on this, and you may well see the Revolutionary Arts Group adopt this ethos. Could we persuade other arts groups to come with us, and concentrate on building relationships with each other and with clients rather than going into battle to win work? Now that would be an interesting journey.

The Trouble With Artists

It’s a new year, and for the past 16 days I’ve been in planning heaven; brainstorming ideas, setting some targets, making sure events are lined up for 09 and getting ready for a really good year. (Oh – and getting a little frustrated with the Ice Prince!)

One major aim is to build the number of artists we’re working with. And this is always a problem – I can’t work with every artist that approaches the Revolutionary Arts Group so we turn down at least as many as we accept. I never say why…

But Ariel Hyatt from Cyber PR has hit the nail on the head over here, when she says “there are two types of artists. complainers vs. doers / negative vs. positive attitudes / builders vs. idlers / artists that are willing to takes responsibility vs. ones who are angry and entitled.”

So – if you’re a doer, with a positive atitude, willing to build your career and willing to take responsibility; please get in touch. It would be great to work with you in 2009…

Made In Worthing

So – Worthing will get a new arts festival in September 2009, a year from now.

Made In Worthing will showcase contemporary visual and live arts, music and literature, produced by local artists, companies and groups – and will continue the tradition of the now-defunct Artists and Makers Festival to bring interesting, challenging and unusual guests to the town. For the record, they’ve included Bill Drummond, Dave Gorman, Andrew Collins, Gimpo, The Caravan Gallery and acts from the Big Chill.

Made In Worthing will aim to explore the place and spirit of Worthing and take a sideways look at our local identity. The whole thing will be brought together by the Revolutionary Arts Group and will happen in September 09.