Wednesday 30 March 2011

National Portfolio Funding Statement

Third Angel found out this morning that we have been unsuccessful in our application for National Portfolio Funding from Arts Council England. We are, obviously, extremely disappointed, as we were very excited about our planned programme of theatre, live art, digital and video work and creative learning projects.

We will now work with our partners to find ways of delivering a reduced version of that programme.

Alexander Kelly
Co-Artistic Director
30 March 2011

Tuesday 15 March 2011

A bit cross, actually

I've just overheard, via Twitter, someone at a conference telling artists and/or the creative industries not to whinge about the impending cuts because, remember, necessity fosters creativity. Now, he might have been paraphrased inaccurately, or misquoted, but the truth is I've heard this so much recently that it hit a nerve for me in a rather clumsy-dentist kind of way. I was just about to start a rant on Twitter in response, but then realised that I would have to paraphrase the argument, clumsily, so much that it would not make sense.

So, here I am.

Do some people really think that artists are unaware that a lack of funding doesn't mean they can't be creative? How do they think artists get started? For the first few years of their careers most artists work for nothing. The biggest subsidisers of the arts are artists. And later into - probably throughout, in fact - their careers, most artists will do work they don't get paid for.

Rest assured - there is plenty of necessity in the creative process. Our imaginations always outstrip our budgets. We would all rather have more time on pretty much everything we do, more money to spend on materials, facilities, space.  Great art comes from ideas and from craft. Both require time.  Early in our careers artists are willing, and able, to put in lots of unpaid time - because we want to. Don't get me wrong - we really want to - being an artist is a great occupation. And an important one; but let's not get into the hospitals and schools argument here, suffice it to say I want to live in a world with free healthcare, free education and art - and I don't believe it's an either/or choice.

But another reason that we put a lot of hours (weeks, months) in for free is because we have the ambition that when we get into our 30s and 40s, and maybe have families, we will actually be able make a living making art. I got asked once, "So, is the goal to get onto TV?" No, the goal is to carry on doing it - just a bit more comfortably.

"Comfortably." The enemy of creativity? No. It doesn't help me make a show to be worrying about paying the rent for the home my children live in. It helps my creativity to know I've actually only got two weeks left to make the show, and I have a formal device and some text that I like individually but that don't seem to work together; that helps my creativity if I have time to think about it and work on it. That problem does not help me, though, if I am having to work another job at the same time as making a show.

When I wrote the post last year about VAT on art contributing more to the economy than the arts receive in subsidy, a few people told me that we shouldn't be fighting that fight - that we shouldn't recognise the argument. Art's job isn't to create income for the government or society. But I think that it is not so binary. I think the arguments are intertwined.

I believe art is essential. Culture is the way we communicate, the way we dream, the way we argue, as a society. Therefore I believe we should support it. Some art - because of its form - finds it easier to be self sustaining - because it is reproducible, for example. Some art doesn't. But all of it is important.  Some art (and yes, I'm thinking specifically about live performance now, but it applies to other forms, too) becomes unaffordable to a large portion of the potential audience if the full cost of making and showing it (and telling people it is on) is passed on to the audience. That's not about whether it's any good or not. Live performance that is created for an audience of just a couple of hundred people a night, or fifty people a night, is not going to be affordable if the cost is divided between 200 or 50 each night.  But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be being made. Quite the opposite in fact.

And so I want to live in a society where the funding of art from government is greater than the amount of tax that art gives back to the state. It's a principal, and for me, the two arguments are intertwined.  Culture is essential. So it should be funded. Cut funding to it, and you cut it. There will be less of the art, less of the culture, that needs subsidy, in the next four years, because we, as a society, are giving it less money.  So artists, with years of experience, expertise and insight, will stop being artists. Some younger artists who would have gone on to be great artists, to have created great work, will stop making art before we see those great pieces.

And I can't help but think that these cuts are being made by, and because of, people who can very comfortably afford non-subsidised culture. People who will not experience the damage they have done.

Rant, written in haste: over.
Crisis: just beginning.

Monday 7 March 2011

Pip Pip

For World Book Night Site Gallery hosted Ex Libris, the first in a series of 'Exchange Dinners', curated by Site's new Director Laura Sillars and Tim Etchells, and hosted by P.J.Taste, who run the Site Canteen. Those of us attending were invited to donate a book to a new library at Site - the first volume of which is Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game, donated by Site's Patron, Jarvis Cocker.

I donated my well thumbed copy of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, by Jay Griffiths. Pip Pip was recommended to me by good friend of Third Angel, Karen Smith, whilst we were engaged in the Karoshi research process (that fed into Hurrysickness, Realtime and 9 Billion Miles From Home amongst others). Particularly following on from reading James Gleick's Faster, Pip Pip had a profound effect on the way I think about time, not just in my work.
For the event we were asked why we were donating the book. That's easy. I said:
It has helped me understand stuff, think about stuff I hadn't thought about before, and articulated stuff I've known but not been able to explain.
It's a book not to be read at a sitting. A book instead to be savoured, dipped in to, revisited. And it is beautifully written.
We were also asked to quote a couple of favourite sentences. Normally what I would have done is go to my notebook of the time, and find a couple of the many quotes I remember transcribing into it.

But not long after I had finished reading Pip Pip I had my bag stolen in a bar in London, containing a just-filled notebook, and a new one, 20 pages or so filled - so I lost a lot of my notes from my Karoshi reading and thinking. Which I did plenty of moaning about at the time, so I'm not getting in to that here.

But when I took it down from the shelf I found my well-thumbed copy of Pip Pip had got three page corners folded down - so I just took that as my lead. These are passages that leapt out at me from those marked pages: 
Although time varied between the west and east of the country, train timetables needed a uniform time; so London Time was decreed in 1840 to be that standard. The Great Western Railway printed its timetables accordingly, introducing London Time at its stations. Plymouth and Exeter hated this expression of the capital's political dominance and refused to accept it for years. London Time finally became law in 1880. The clock at Bristol Corn Exchange has three hands; an hour hand and two minute hands because they register both Bristol and London time, Bristol eleven minutes behind GMT. [p 148]
And whose natural state was iridescent disorder? Who were even more unpunctual than the poor? Who by nature were living in a state of such disgraceful enchantment that they thought the hour of now the only possible time? Who – unforgivably – insisted on seeing the purpose of life to be not work but play? [p 158]
But the important part is not perhaps the discovery but the desire to test people for such things. And the question is if society had already used such tests, who would have run the risk of permission refused? [p 247]
Now I've donated that copy, rest assured that I will be buying another.

The whole event was a great evening, suggesting exciting times ahead at Site. Whilst we were eating, the librarians were studiously cataloguing the donations, which are now available to readers.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Notes on Twitterbug

Last Sunday I was in Stoke for DATFest, to host the live presentation of Twitterbug. These are some initial thoughts on the process and outcomes of the project.

Although this was the last day of Twitterbug, it wasn't intended as a culmination of it. It was one output of a 'multi-genre, multi-platform performance writing project' (as I described it in a tweet). We didn't necessarily understand that that was what it was, at the start, and that was one of the great things about the project, set up by Catherine Edwards – it was an opportunity to play and explore.

I've heard it reported that the guys who invented Twitter have said, “it was like we put the bat and ball in the room, and the users invented baseball.” This is a really nice analogy I think, although it's maybe more like one of those games played by kids down the park – in different parks all over the country – that is somewhere between baseball and cricket and the exact rules and conventions depend on where you're playing it.

Twitterbug felt like a miniature of this. The project introduced writer/performers Jarrod Cooke, Eve Steele and Danielle Henry to Twitter and other social media platforms under the guidance of Hannah Nicklin, and then we all got to ask: Well, what can we do with this? What opportunities for character, narrative, performance, art, intervention, does this give us?

Jarrod, Eve and Danielle's brief was to create a character/persona/avatar and spend two weeks exploring that character's situation/attitude/narrative on Twitter and at least one other platform. Then, at the end of the two weeks, to present a short, script-in-hand presentation of that character. During the two weeks, Catherine and I threw in extra daily tasks, to create formal connections between them, and to give 'what if' discovery opportunities – ask at least 6 questions, prepare for an evening out and report back, relate a conversation.

Some of the earlier discussions and questions are blogged about in the last entry here, and by Catherine, here, and Hannah, here. Here are a few more questions from my notebook:
  • Who do we follow on Twitter and why? I follow interesting characters. I follow good company. I don't follow people for narrative – but I might deliberately follow a story unfolding via a hashtag – using Twitter for the news.
  • Can we have “unpleasant” characters on Twitter? Following someone you don't like is very different to, for example, spending time with Begbie in Trainspotting.
  • Who is listening? People using twitter like the inner monologue in detective fiction. The outsider/observer.
  • Walking is our base unit of travel – this has come up a lot in our discussions. Allows for observation, as does public transport. Both allow for 'live' tweeting.
  • Do the characters know each other in real life? On Twitter? How much can/should they respond to each other?
  • How much can/should they respond to other people online – some of whom will not know they are “fictional”?
  • How plot driven? Life's narrative isn't structured.
  • Locating character/playing with form/more cryptic?/genre influences?
  • How serious? How playful? How silly?

What was really interesting to me was that Eve, Danielle and Jarrod, all starting from very similar experience of social networking and responding to the same brief, were able to use social media differently and then present written pieces that were formally different to each other, and worked with/against their online lives differently, too. Unsurprisingly, Catherine and I felt a compulsion to play along, and I found myself using the opportunity in a different but related way, too.

The two-weeks 'live window' was a comparatively short time to develop a work online, and we found that the characters did become more plot driven towards the final weekend – the brief also included taking the characters to Stoke at the same time as the performers, who were charged to turn the location settings 'on' on their tweets.

Danielle's character was the most fictional: @Honey_henry, a honey-trapper, cynical, world weary – a contemporary take on the private detective archetype. She advertises her services online, and tweets observations on human relationships, perhaps as a way of dealing with any compromise she feels about her job. Danielle's live presentation, the most poetic and stylised of the three, recounted @Honey_henry's feelings on the occasion that her status quo is challenged – the night she falls for one of her marks - and the consequences. So the present-tense of @Honey_henry's live presentation took place on a number of occasions in the proceeding two weeks.

Jarrod's character, @zombiejarrod, lived Jarrod's own life, as if he were a member of the formerly living. Played comparatively straight, @zombiejarrod, a very nice guy by all accounts, was also looking for a date to a wedding in Stoke. Jarrod's presentation found his zombie-self standing outside the church, stood up by his date - an opportunity to retell his character's story, putting in more detail and background than we got from following him on Twitter. The text was therefore positioned at a specific point in the timeline of the previous two weeks – in the 5 minutes leading up to the sending of a tweet hashtagged #worsttimestobestoodup, on the afternoon of the last Saturday.

Eve's character, @_evka_ was the most real world of the three – a slightly reframed version of her own life, focussing in on one way of responding to that situation. The actions in the real world (going on protests, for example) were all done by Eve and @_evka_ simultaneously. It was only in the final two days that @_evka_'s timeline became fictional, as she deliberately didn't collect her kids from her ex-husband on the Saturday morning (preventing him from going on holiday) and went to stay in a hotel in Stoke. As some of @_evka_'s followers didn't necessarily know that she was a character, Eve was keen to make it clear that she wasn't abandoning her kids indefinitely, just having a weekend away to recharge her single-mum batteries. Eve's text for @_evka_ was a series of video messages sent to her kids and their dad over the weekend, which stood alone, but could also be fitted into her online narrative if you'd been following that.

I'm interested in how these characters each felt like they were referencing another genre, whilst still exploring what social media could do for them. I noticed that the avatar I created to try things out alongside performers, @stagcaptain, started as a fairly conceptual way of exploring ideas about routine and ritual, and quickly evolved into a Lad-Lit short story – a genre I am fairly familiar with.

Over the two weeks up to last weekend, the online characters had largely been in the same place as their writer/performers. At the time of the presentation this was clearly not the case, so I asked them, live, where, in their online timeline, their three characters 'were now'.

@Honey_henry was still holed up in her unexpected love-nest. @Zombiejarrod was on a train back to London. @_evka_ had just finished sending her final video message from the cafe of the Museum we were in, and was about to get the train home to Manchester, to pick up her kids...

Beyond that, I don't know if those particular characters will continue online, but I'm pretty sure that this initial exploration has sown the seeds of future projects for some of us.