Nov 192010

from Arts Professional on 19 November 2010

One of the joys of having a Wednesday to work from home is watching the weekly car crash that is Prime Minister’s Questions. But since the Dark Lords of Austerity took office, I’ve come to dread PMQs not for what it consistently offers for debate—the NHS, education, housing, David Cameron’s vanity photographer—but for what it doesn’t: namely, the arts.

The arts did get a look-in at this week’s session, but the singular exchange on the topic will hardly breathe hope into the sector. It began when the honourable member from Watford crowed about Warner Brothers’ recent ‘investment’ in (for which, read ‘takeover of’) Leavesden Studios, a key cog in the Borg-like machine that is the Harry Potter franchise. Jobs for Hertfordshire, then. No bad thing.

The MP then asked the PM if he’d spend some ConDem energy wooing “British investors to invest in British films made here.” By way of response, His Prime-ness offered that the Harry Potter films were a “tip to filmmakers that we’ve got to make films that people want to watch, and that will have a benefit beyond themselves and also encourage people to come and visit our country.”

A tip to Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows, Antonia Bird, and other venerated but small-scale UK filmmakers: start shooting some Potter-esque pap, or hang up your clapper. It is not stretching this analysis (much) to say that in the ConDem playbook, the only worthwhile art is that which makes squillions and helps tourists part with their cash.

Of course, we knew all of this. What was telling that no MPs challenged the PM’s reductive view of the arts… not even the Labour MPs, who appear ready to challenge virtually any ConDem utterance. In fact, no one seemed very interested in the discussion at all. It may be that one PMQ session is an insufficient litmus test by which to gauge high-level political interest in the topic. But it’s hard not to conclude that there is a dearth, not to say absence, of MPs ready to publicly fight the case that the arts are critical to British socioeconomic success, and not just as marketing tools.

Surely the sector could do more here, starting with wooing sympathetic MPs and arming them with studies supporting the conclusion that by slashing the arts with such viciousness, the Coalition is doing its utmost to ensure that fewer JK Rowlings, let along Mike Leighs, are likely to emerge in the future. Being sympathetic and study-laden isn’t enough, though: they need to speak out. Now that would make for lively midday viewing.

Nov 172010

Partnership – such a sweet ol’ word, innit? And sweeter still, it seems, in these times of austerity when the calculus of the cuts sweeping through the arts sector seems to dictate increasingly that 2-for-1 or even 3-for-1 deals are not just desirable, they’re essential. I refer mainly to new Arts Council guidance, but also to much noise continuing to come from the ConDems and others on this subject.

It occurred to me to attempt a quasi-algebraic approach to unpicking the logic behind this breathless rush to partnering. Try this: Arts Provision – (Banking Disaster + ConDem Ideology) x Spin over Y {or Ynot} x (Apathy ± Elitism * Real Cost of 2012 Olympics) = Grab Whatever Dance Partner You Can, While You Can.

Has a kind of horrible logic to it, doesn’t it?

In any case, it is hardly news that most arts organisations collaborate as a matter of course. What is more worrying is the growing perception that no aspect of arts provision these days should happen outside of a partnership. It’s one thing to find common creative cause in another outfit or artist and then choose, for various reasons of synergy (including economics) to work together. But being forced to conduct your own shotgun marriage—which is where this all seems to be going—is quite another matter.

There is also the matter of who may be inclined to partner with whom. The big organisations with most artistic and fiscal clout—we all know who they are—will want to work with trusted partners, who tend to be large and/or established themselves; smaller or newer organisations may struggle to get a look-in. This is already happening. Consider a recent Cause4 event about the future of philanthropy in the UK arts scene, featuring Jeremy Hunt, at which many questions apparently were asked and, in some cases, even answered. I wasn’t invited. Were you?

Big Dogs v Little Dogs aside, other difficult questions must be asked here. Is the incessant drum-banging for partnerships solely another example of the ConDems’ tin ear when it comes to arts and society? Or is it also a failure of the sector itself to properly convey a perhaps unfashionable home truth: that if artists and organisations feel compelled to torture creativity into collaborative boxes—as opposed to letting collaborations happen organically—will we soon find ourselves down a bleak path of endless compromise, in which no artistic idea or artist is able to stand bravely alone?

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Sep 242010
I’ve always thought that the Dyson vacuum folks were missing a trick by not going with a subversive but potentially effective ad campaign built around the phrase, ‘We suck’. Having splashed out on a Dyson some years ago, I’ve never looked back. I love seeing the granular detritus of daily existence whooshed into that clear plastic canister. Thus does each Dysoning feel like a minor, fleeting triumph over life’s invariable messiness.
‘Dyson: We Suck.’ Indeed.
That said, this potential catch-phrase popped into my head somewhat less generously after reading a recent New Yorker profile of the venerable Sir James Dyson, who is also the star ‘innovation’ advisor to the ConDems (and the apparent NBF of our PM). In what was otherwise a profile of Dyson’s attempt to do for desktop fans what he did for Hoovers, Sir James let drop a rather explosive quote:

“[The term creative industries] implies traditional industry is not creative. And, two, it suggests that art and TV and the like are an industry. They’re not necessarily industries, because they don’t make things.”

Let us first acknowledge the indignation, not to say rage, that the last two sentences above must naturally spark amongst those of us in said derided ‘industry’. Of course the arts produce products. It’s just that they aren’t always made of plastic, wires and metal.
But in its blunt simplicity, Sir James’s statement goes to the very heart of the current wrangling over arts and culture provision in the UK. Both the quote and much of his Ingenious Britain report for the Coalition underscore the popular perception that the arts are ephemeral…and worse, that they are divorced from the engines that are perceived to drive economies, societies and nations.
That this is patently false can be observed in any Dyson vacuum cleaner, which takes its design cue less from Electrolux or Hoover than from the Pompidou Centre in Paris: what’s normally inside is cheekily and gloriously on display outside. Produced by engineers, both Dyson cleaners and the Pompidou are deeply influenced by modern art: Dyson himself went to art school, not engineering college, and admits to having soaked up postmodernists like David Hockney at the time. One wonders what Dyson would have produced had he not been able to lap up that kind of aesthetic inspiration.
This kind of argument—that the arts influence and even underpin so much ‘real’ industrial output, in addition to being economically valuable output in their own right—isn’t being made strongly enough right now. Why are we not tapping less literal-minded businessfolk, scientists and engineers than Sir James to help us make this case (‘us’ being the people who make a living in the creative industries)?
I’ll close with an anecdote that demonstrates, albeit obliquely, the potential power of this kind of approach. Some years back, I helped to arrange a private event in the Silicon Valley featuring Leonard Nimoy, ‘Mr Spock’ himself. Like flies to a pointy-eared confectionary, the Valley’s top-line entrepreneurs swarmed to our gig: the collective wealth in the room was surely in the hundreds of millions, the industrial output enabled by the creative minds present undoubtedly in the many billions. I sat next to one of these fellows and asked, somewhat obviously, if he was a Star Trek fan. He smiled and said, ‘As a kid I wanted to be Mr. Spock. That’s why I went into engineering. I’ll bet everyone in this room is the same.’

Nimoy is an actor. The character of Mr. Spock was created by writers. Star Trek is the product of designers, filmmakers, directors, musicians, visual artists, and other ‘creative types’. The arts, at their best, are about re-seeing the world and imagining the possible. Crush the arts and the creative industries, and we potentially crush everything that Sir James and ConDems purport to be striving towards. They need to see it that way. We need to make them.

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Sep 142010
And so, it’s semi-official. A Guardian article today provides the backdrop for news that the Creative Partnerships programme, which has changed the UK arts and education landscape in uncounted ways, will cease to be funded after the current fiscal year. This is no surprise to those us who do a fair bit of CP work: the rumour mill has been so active where CP’s demise is concerned that it has felt like a fait accompli for nearly a year now. Ironically, the Guardian piece is built around a new report citing the societal and economic impact of the CP programme, which is considerable. Read the article; then go to the Culture Creativity and Education (CCE) website and download the report. Both tell a tale of government money well-spent.

Expected though it may be, confirmation of CP’s imminent demise is bittersweet for us. Nimble Fish is a child of Creative Partnerships: the company’s founders met doing a CP project and our operating ethos–cross-arts, collaborative, never taking our clients or audiences for granted (CP has always been big on coming into schools with an open mind)–has always reflected that initial work. Many of our regular collaborators, not to say good friends, were met through CP connections. We’ve done a lot of CP work over the years, most of it very exciting and rewarding, both artistically and in the context of the kind of societal advancement that is at our core as a company.
Given all this, it may sound strange to say that perhaps it is indeed time for CP, as a programme, to end. This is not to say that we look forward to an end to the work that CP has fostered; that of arts-led collaboration between teachers, students and creative practitioners for the purpose of enriching and improving teaching and learning. If anything, CP-style work is obviously the way of the future in a world economy that is increasingly about flexible thinking, portfolio careers and creative collaboration.The UK is truly a remarkably rich place where creative people are concerned, and whatever the LibTories do in coming years they’d do well to keep in mind that breaking the back of the country’s creative industries (as their more alarming proposals appear to suggest) effectively breaks the back of the UK’s ability to operate as a real player in the world. We don’t build many great machines from fire and steel anymore, but we do continue to produce world-class ideas. This is a resource that must be nurtured, not neutered.
But as government-sponsored programmes go, CP has had a pretty long and rich run of it: about a decade from inception to what appears to be conclusion, with a truly nation-spanning reach. All programmes become moribund after awhile, their original swagger and daring inevitably stiffening with paperwork and boxes to tick. Artists, too, can grow torpid if they feed too long at any programmatic trough. Sometimes, things need to end in order for innovation to begin again. This may sound ungrateful, but many CP veterans would tell you much the same.
And far from fading into nothing, CP and its work have so fundamentally changed the educational and cultural landscape that we hope, and believe, there is no going back to pure reliance on test scores and rote learning. As artists and cultural producers who are also passionate about education, it’s our job to find meaningful ways to build upon the CP legacy in a changing and challenging world. We are well up for it, whatever comes next.

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Aug 032010
Hugs, kisses and broken-legged wishes to our friend Laura as she fine- tunes her new show, ‘Running on Air’, before its premiere tomorrow (4 August) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

We were pleased to be able to give Laura some help with the show, which takes place entirely within the gentle confines of her ’78 VW camper, Joni. Based on the rough draft we saw some weeks back, the show’s gonna be a corker: intimate, funny and very very fresh.

Joni will make her Fringe home in the bustling Pleasance Courtyard which will add to the fun. Get ur seat in the magic bus now; tix surely won’t last. Book either at or .

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Aug 022010


Amused and bemused by Alex Clark’s big feature in the Guardian Review section this past Saturday, chronicling in some detail the rise of scrum-like live literature events so varied in tone and scope that she, wisely, doesn’t even try to slap a collective label on them. But we are more foolhardy: let’s call this movement-ish thing, ‘Cabaret Lit’. And let’s talk about why it’s not the other way ’round.

We at the Re:authoring Project have, in our various guises, attended lots of CabLit events including some mentioned in Clark’s piece. As she notes, they’re often a lot of fun: chaotic, boozily entertaining, occasionally even thought provoking. But I would argue that they’re not really about literature.  I would argue that you could replace the ‘lit’ in most CabLit events with most anything else that is nominally thought-provoking–with politics, with psychotherapy, with a troupe of dancing bears–and still have essentially the same experience. The CabLit movement is really about the Cab, not the Lit. At best, it’s about a post-modern retro idea of a bygone literary experience; dark, noisy, combative, vaguely risque…think the Algonquin Club or the Stein/Toklas salon, add some social networking tools and a portable PA, and you’ve got the template for pretty much everything mentioned in Clark’s piece.

I realise that this may sound bitchy, but it isn’t meant that way. Anything that takes a fair swing at opening literature to new audiences is to be applauded, particularly if it is meeting with some success as some of these CabLit gigs clearly are…as I’ve said, they can be fun and interesting. But CabLit is ultimately a conservative movement, a truth that Clark herself is clever enough to note: “Even though readings are shortish and punctuated by live music, they are still essentially readings.”

Within such conservatism, well-disguised as the hip-n-now, Clark highlights something that is more insidious: “What of the writers who can’t, or don’t want to (perform)? Those for whom the words on the page are the thing, not their talent for doing a turn?”

CabLit has no answers to these questions; indeed, the Guardian itself gives the game away by electing to use a photo of Zadie Smith, reading at Bookslam event, to illustrate the CabLit phenomenon. Surely, Smith is the poster child for the CabLit generation: young, beautiful, articulate, writes like a dream, and no more at home than in the limelight. And oh yes, established: no grubbing up the ranks for Ms. Smith, which is what the CabLit movement, like our humble Re:authoring Project, nominally was founded to address.

In a literary world where life really is a cabaret (c’mon, you knew it was coming…) it is increasingly tough for the shy, nerdy, perhaps even physically unattractive writer to break into the limelight…precisely because of the nature of the limelight that is becoming de rigueur. We worry that movements like CabLit create self-fulfilling prophecies: the good performer becoming the lauded writer on the merit of the former skill, not the latter.

It’s still early days here at the Re:authoring Project; we are small and toiling, aspiring to mighty things. But we began this endeavour by stating categorically that our process did not require the author to become a performer, even while it would strive to keep him or her at the centre of the work. Deviser, manipulator, self-effacing deconstructor….sure. But people, particulary writers, are either performers or they’re not. We want to work with them find a unique and compelling alternative live voice for their work…one that is literarily,  if not necessarily literally, theirs. We stand by that slice of dogma because it keeps us focused on the writing itself. If that ain’t right, all the rest is noise.

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Jul 072010
I surely won’t be the only culturista blogging today about the convergence of arts and technology, having just returned from the very enjoyable Shift Happens conference. The challenge with emerging from such a whiz-bang, upbeat, the future is NOW (dammit!) kinda event is that one can feel quite dazed, in much the same way that too many Christmas presents or too many sweets can make you feel a bit ill at ease (or just plain ill).

Such feelings are, of course, largely misplaced: tech, whether high or low, will not save your arts company from bankruptcy or propel it to a BAFTA, if such things motivate you. Twitter, immersive 3-D, motion capture suits…all merely tools, like a shoelace or a crab pick. But that’s an increasingly heretical view these days in the arts. While no one is likely to brand you as obsolete if your kitchen lacks a crab pick, if you’re out of step with the latest tech there are some who think you might as well float skyward and explode in a shower of light, a la the grim 30th birthday ceremony in Logan’s Run. I’m only half-joking here. At Shift Happens, one breathlessly overconfident speaker asked, in a very shouty way, who amongst the crowd did NOT have Twitter or Facebook at the centre of their life. After a moment, a brave woman limply raised her hand. The speaker was gape-jawed; in the crowd, a silence reigned like that of deep space. If there was an App for virtual tarring and feathering, I would have feared for the brave woman’s virtual life.
For all I know, this Twitterless wonder is a shit-hot artist (I never found out: a dozen men in bright white hazmat suits immediately rappelled from the rafters and bundled her away, reportedly for radical reprogramming). But isn’t it enough to be a shit-hot artist these days, tech or no? I ask not out of Luddishness, having worked for years in the Silicon Valley in jobs that brought me into daily contact with the bleeding edge of purportedly world-changing technology. I have my Twitter and Facebook, my AudioBoo and Beejive. And of course, I have my blog(s).
But there’s an increasingly noisy little voice in my head urging me to turn off (my iPhone and laptop), tune out (of Twitter, Facebook, Skype, WordPress, Posterous, etc) and drop away from a race I’m not likely to win, nor ever find myself interested enough in to try. The race, I think, is for me to become sufficiently one with my technology so that it guides my personal, professional and creative life, every bit as much as I guide it. To win the race, one has to surrender to the race itself.
Here’s an idea. Maybe it’s time for an antidote to events like Shift Happens and its inspiration, the much-moneyed and ultra-hip TED. Maybe a conference not with high tech or even low tech, but with NO tech! Just minds, hands and voices…y’know, old school, keeping it r-e-a-l. Hmm, this might have legs. A quick round on my Twitter feed, and it should develop nicely.

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May 152010

A lovely little bit on BBC1 the other night about the ongoing ‘human book’ programme run by libraries here and there in the UK. Lovely people doing it, lovely motivations behind it. In short, instead of going to a library and borrowing a book, you ‘borrow’ a person. They tell you something about themselves,and you can ask questions. Ideally, civil and enjoyable conversation is had, never something to be sniffed at in our ever-more aggressive world. As I said, lovely.

But while the folks on offer are certainly human, are they really books? I say no. A book, however it is delivered, is a work crafted by someone with a particular skill and intention; whether non-fiction or novel, it is a work of creativity, a work of art. You might counter that talking with someone can embody the same qualities that motivate literature, and certainly such a debate could go on into the night fueled by bottle upon bottle of one’s favourite tipple. But we’re talking about the differences both in process and product. The act of walking down the street contains movement, expression, motivation, intention and, in many cases, grace and beauty. But is it dance? After writing this, I will walk downstairs with my empty coffee mug, turn on the tap, wash it out, place it in a drying rack, towel off my hands, wander back upstairs, and probably return to my computer to complete some other things that need completing. Is that a performance? The cycle I described has a beginning, middle and end; it contains motivation, story (albeit a dull one), a performer, props, a setting….

You might argue that I’m making a proverbial mountain out of a proverbial molehill here; you might even be right. But in a world in which books are increasingly devalued–and in the UK, can’t we say the same of art in general?–it feels ok to be a bit reductive, perhaps even a bit pedantic in defending even the smallest, even the most innocent of further degradations to the idea of artistic process, intention and engagement. This is not about the form of the book: previous posts have laid out my position therein, which is that the medium is changing and in the process changing the message and how it is received and interpreted by audiences. That’s all fine. But if we can argue ’til dawn about when a book is a book, surely the lines must be clearer about when a book is NOT a book? Engaging someone in conversation, however valuable it might be, isn’t the same as engaging with a professionally crafted narrative. That’s chat, not literature. More than ever, it’s important to shout out the difference.

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Apr 162010

cross-posted from

Funny, the conversations you can find yourself sucked into while casually perusing a distant friend’s Facebook site. And so it was for me earlier this week, as I innocently replied to a posted article about the future of books; or more specifically, about the future of books as seen in these early days of Apple’s much-hyped iPad.

It was a thoughtful (if somewhat disjointed) article, the basic premise being that writers who start writing ‘for’ the iPad or Kindle or any other device as if it were merely a snazzier conveyer of a traditional form were doomed. The future winners of the Darwinian scrum now consuming the publishing world, the article concluded, were those who would think about how to tell their stories in a way that took maximum advantage of how new technologies engaged with their audiences. Making the story part-read, part-game, for example; or offering clues in the text that lead to embedded story enhancers on the web.

I’m all for such things as long as story remains paramount, which was the article’s primary point, and it was in this spirit I that offered a ‘huzzah’ on my friend’s FB page for bringing this tidbit to light. Alas, I was quite immediately flamed by another of her FB friends, who said essentially that he wondered what I was smoking. Surely, the flamer said, books were books and e-books or any other ‘e’ interpretation of text was something other than a book, and therefore not to be spoken of in the same hallowed tones as we must, so the flamer said, surely speak of ‘proper’ books.

As the flamer and I traded broadsides, a spot of Googling revealed him to be a rather accomplished and reasonably well-known author himself. The broadsides gradually morphed into a kind of detente as our (rather long) exchange moved to the diminishing opportunities for professional authors, and particularly authors who focus on non-fiction, which requires great expenditures of time, research, and travel, and therefore money (as in, literary advances) to produce. The flamer, whose work generally falls into this category, noted sadly that he’d seen his advances go from livable to laughable to non-existent: this despite prizes, press, and decent readership.

We concluded our exchange with a virtual handshake of sorts since I, too, know several writers with roughly the same literary profile and trajectory. I didn’t tell my nemesis-turned-(sort-of)-comrade-in-arms that some of these writers, rather than howling about a changing publishing world, had made conscious choices to do things differently. I didn’t say that some of them were beginning to reap dividends from doing so. I left that exchange wondering if I’d ever see the flamer’s name on a book again. I hope I do; he clearly does great work.

I feel fortunate to have retained a fair amount of flexibility in my thinking about writing and its changing forms and audiences. But it’s all too obvious that there are many writers out there who cannot see past ‘the book’, or even a very specific idea of what makes for a worthwhile book. Exhibit A: at one point, amidst an exchange about self-publishing, the flamer wrote that surely if one’s book doesn’t crack the Amazon top million, it isn’t worth much creatively. A dubious assertion indeed in a publishing world dominated by the likes of Dan Brown and JK Rowling.

The author of the article that started this whole saga, who proudly admitted to being only 21, said with great enthusiasm that if George Orwell had had an iPad and other tech gizmos to enhance his writing arsenal, he would “have blown our minds.” Maybe: would 1984 have been any more potent had Orwell decided, say, to embed a tiny webcam in the e-book version and have readers surreptitiously eavesdrop on each other? Discuss!

But at the least, one likes to think he’d have understood that just as sheepskin gave way to papyrus, and painstakingly-rendered monkish script gave way to Gutenberg, the form, function and use of ‘the book’ is changing again. But people still want stories, and they always will. Every writer should find solace and light in that idea.

Apr 102010

Growing up in Midwestern America, amidst the trailing moral vapors of its Puritan origins, I was consistently trained to be on guard against hubris. Any form of braggadocio, so it went, was catnip for bad fortune, an invitation for a wrist-slap from god, a hair-trigger for the sky to fall. We learn only later, of course, that this is bollocks: some of the most powerful, most successful people on the planet, whether good human beings or not, also display a clear penchant for bigging themselves up.

Still, if you’re schooled from the cradle to hide your light under the proverbial bushel, it can be hard to celebrate the good stuff…even (gasp!) to brag about how great it feels when things are going well. But sometimes the bushel simply can’t contain what it’s meant to hide. Sometimes, ya gotta just say, ‘Huzzah for me/us!’ and disregard whatever existential jeopardy might ensue.

It’s been a banner few weeks here in the jolly Nimbleverse, said banner-ness coming after many months of furious creative activity. We’ve been running this way and that, developing ideas, cajoling creative friends, explicating concepts, enthusing upon themes…the usual, in other words, except more so because we’ve just been a-brim with new stuff of late.

It’s fun to be so in the flow, to have the ideas just a-comin’ and a-comin’. Arguably the only thing better is to have several ideas grow into projects, which is the happy situation we’ve found ourselves in of late; either because we’ve decided one way or t’other that they’re viable, or because someone has decided it for us and is giving us the resources to make something happen (resources are always nice, of course…). Both results feels really, really good…so good, in fact, that we just couldn’t resist shouting, ‘Bully for us!’

We’ll talk more soon about the specifics of what we’ve been fortunate enough to put into play of late. But today, share with us a big ‘Huzzah!’ and a virtual glass of fizz. (And knock wood, of course, that the Fates take our joyful outburst for what it is. We’re a humble bunch here. Honest…)