I wanted to share my article It’s Not Feasible, It’s Vital which was published recently on the mid*point website. It’s a continuation of, and a response to, a conversation from an open space event in June 2011.
It’s Not Feasible, It’s Vital
This is something which Graeme Rose started, by telling a story. A story about a keen young man, and a mysterious mentor. The young man is rushing headlong down a tunnel, anxious to get going, to become an artist and to start making work. He’s asking himself if he can really do it. If it makes sense. If it’s possible.
He thinks yes – I’ll do it – if it’s feasible.
“It’s not feasible”, the older man says, “it’s vital”.
And the keen young man rolls his eyes, but does get on with it. And he finds that this seemingly glib advice is stuck in his head forever.
Which – with a quick fast-forward – brings us the Open Space event in July, where Graeme convened a group under this ambiguous, provocative title, and which quickly had me hooked. The discussion from the open space is documented elsewhere(1). Here, I’d like to briefly share some of what it got me thinking about: the vitality of making “art” (which you may define as you wish) and the feasibility of so doing. It’s taken me a couple of months longer than I’d hoped to write this up, but I hope it’s still a useful addendum to the conversation.
And perhaps the less feasible something feels – and the more challenging the circumstances surrounding it become – the more pressure there is to interrogate the vitality of what we are trying to do. These questions (Why am I doing this? Can I keep going?) are perennial, yet of the zeitgeist. All but the most single-minded artists and makers must revisit this territory from time to time?
Listening to the open space debate, it felt important to question exactly what it is that we are suggesting is vital. I won’t unpack this too far, but for me, what isn’t vital – necessarily – is the maintenance of the status quo. The current modes of production, and the means of funding, managing and promoting these, are not – necessarily – what’s vital. They are merely a means to an end. The vital bit is located somewhere else.
The vital bit is making work. And ok, that’s obvious, but the constant struggle for feasibility can distract us. The vital bit isn’t administrative. The vital bit is about looking. Questioning. Exploring. Thinking. Having ideas. Trying to make sense of it all. Reflecting. Imagining a different world. And about the alchemical process of forming all that into something else: into whatever gets the message across to other people.
The vital bit is quiet, hidden and a little bit secret: it happens in the shower, or whilst walking to the bus-stop. The vital bit is shouting so loud you can be heard in a crowd, it’s standing up at the front, or maybe just slipping a note into a stranger’s pocket while the band plays. The vital bit is a process of discovery. And it’s the art of communicating what you found.
Which is pretty exciting, I think.
But who is it vital to? It must be vital to us, as artists and makers. We’ve chosen to be here. We’ve all learned that it’s far from feasible, but we’re doing it anyway. We’ve worked dead-end jobs to be here. We’ve dreamed from the top decks of gridlocked buses, and in the lavatories of stultifying offices. We’ve made notes on the backs of envelopes, and lived in dodgy bedsits with no central heating. It may not be good for our prospects, but we’re doing it anyway. It’s vital for us that we learn, explore and dream. It’s about connecting to the world, and trying to understand. It’s a vital search for meaning.
And it’s vital to audiences, too. It’s the cherished escape into a novel, or into the sonic world beneath your headphones – and that moment when the words, or the music, make you gasp and look up. The moment when you see things differently. When something changes. When you suddenly make a connection, the idea forms, the frown cracks, and when the lights flicker back on and you’re in a fresh new world. Or at least, you’re in a world which has undergone a subtle shift, which shimmers with renewed potential. Not to mention those shared moments when the crowd collectively holds its breath, as the performance thrillingly sidesteps them into unexpected new territory.
Perhaps I’m labouring the point. The making, and receiving, of art is vital. Drawings, songs and stories have been around for ever. And these forms will prevail, irrespective of political and social change; irrespective of publicly subsidised arts provision; irrespective of the feasibility of being a professional artist.
People will always be dreaming, imagining better ways of doing things, and finding ways to celebrate what they have, or to make something new. Even in the bleakest of authoritarian futures, there’s resistance. At least, that is, in authoritarian futures imagined by artists! There’s bright socks under grey uniforms. There’s illicit goings on in the woods and storerooms. Someone in a crowd hums a tune – it’ll be ok. And if it isn’t, it won’t be long before someone imagines how one day it will be ok, and tells their friends. A low subversive murmur pervades. And whether the murmur for change comes from fools, tricksters or artists, the future’s bright, just so long as someone’s imaging it so.
But, right now, it’s easy to feel disheartened. All that abstract vitality is vivifying and wonderful, but doesn’t solve the problem. Art itself will survive, but is the art made by professional artists vital? Can professional artists find a way to make their work feasible? Is this feasibility at odds with the vitality of the art they make?
For a few, their work leads to financial as well as artistic reward, through talent, hard work, luck and cunning. For others, family circumstances provide a private path to feasibility. But for many artists, existing on modest means for decades at a time, the tension between the feasible and the vital is a constant – and this tension doesn’t necessarily bear any correlation to the vitality or validity of their work.
There’s a dark side to this. It can feel like we’re living strange, strained lives trying to make work and make ends meet. Our lives can feel distorted or fragmented by the contortions necessary to
meet the requirements of funding bodies. Our work risks becoming less vital as a consequence, shaped to suit the funders, producers, venues and their schedules. This is, perhaps, particularly acute in performance, where the work may require a collaborative team of makers to both create and present it, and where (usually) there isn’t a tangible or marketable object legacy after that team of people disperse. The resultant state of administrative tension can lessen our potential to act spontaneously.
The time spent pursuing funding, and the energy drained by necessitated administration, may leave us less able to contribute creatively to our communities, friendship groups and families. Our ability to freely gift our energy and creativity may be diminished. By struggling for professional feasibility, do we risk undermining the vitality of our work?
But maybe this tension is useful? No one wants to flog a dead horse. Trying to maintain feasibility forces us to interrogate our work and vitality – and perhaps quitting is ok, if our work isn’t vital? Perhaps surviving as a “professional artist” is only desirable if there is a glimmer of feasibility about it? Professional art may not be vital, per se. The art itself is vital, but there will always be outsiders, credible amateurs and others to actually make it. The thinking and making will persist, one way or another.
But let’s look at it another way. Gavin Grindon and John Jordan, in their pamphlet A Users Guide To The Impossible(2), tell a story of freedom, in which a collective of activist artists are commissioned by a big gallery to deliver a series of workshops. “Just don’t embarrass our sponsors”, says the gallery, by email. The collective decide to use the email as the starting point for their workshops. You can probably see where this is going… And yes, the collective do the vital thing: they say and do what must be said and done. The sponsors are embarrassed; the collective are vital and authentic.
The gallery’s not pleased, of course, and for the collective, a potentially lucrative relationship comes to an abrupt end. Grindon and Jordan delight in the collective’s new found freedom to explore its own path: now free from any need to compromise their work. The collective maintains their vitality, but at a high cost. They have also freed themselves from getting paid, from other future commissions, and potentially from long term professional feasibility. Has their apparent liberation conversely diminished their ability to keep working together, and potentially muted their collective voice?
Feasibility may compromise the vital, yet perhaps it’s also necessary to sustain it. In the face of this dilemma, it seems that feasibility is vital too, if we are to adequately nourish both ourselves and our work.
Suddenly arts funding – and especially public arts funding – does seem vital. The bureaucracy required to access public funding may be an undesirable burden, but accepting public money may reduce the risk of compromise to the work (especially if, as above, private funds explicitly require compromise!), whilst increasing the feasibility, and the possibility of actually getting the work made. At a time when public arts funding is under threat, it’s worth remembering how brilliant a resource it is, and how vital it is to fight to maintain this aspect of the status quo: both its existence and the freedom it allows.
Speaking of this need to defend public arts funding, Alan Lane(3) makes a compelling case for vitality:
“…we will have to create a passion, an amazement in the public. A certainty in the people that stories matter, that the arts matter – not as peripheral to the central parts of their life but as a component of the very marrow of their being.
We must become in their minds vital.
You don’t win someone’s love and support by begging for it – that’s like crying at the doorway as your lover leaves for the last time.
We will get the ferocious support of the public by seducing it from them. By telling them stories, by dancing them stories and singing them and building them and playing them”.
Alan proposes the creation by seduction of a powerfully virtuous circle, where the vitality of art is perpetually reaffirmed, as the art itself perpetually and powerfully revitalises and reaffirms life and lives. It’s an alluring prospect – and perhaps it is feasible. Like the subversive dream of change shared by the crowd, we’ve already imagined it.
Luckily, in the UK, we are all in a position where we can – possibly – access public funds to help us make our work, and to make it feasible. It’s an extraordinary position to be in. There may well be risks to ourselves and our work if we lose focus and become caught up in the struggle for feasibility, but it’s a risk we’ll have to try to mitigate as best we can. Take time out, rest, reflect. That’s vital too. But that virtuous circle is – possibly – within our reach, if we can only keep going, and stay vital.
Here’s Chris Thorpe(4), speaking at Forest Fringe in 2010:
“Do not give up. Do not leave your ideas half-born. Do not walk away. Because otherwise the only ones left going forward are the cunts of this world. And if we give up and fade into the background, their voices will be loud and their signal will be on all the frequencies. Do not stop. Do not stop. Or they will win”.
Chris may not be making a call to action – more pre-emptively raging against inaction – but I can’t help but find his words compelling. And although he doesn’t address feasibility, like the mentor in Graeme’s story he is convinced and convincing in his passion for vitality. Feasibility will have to find its way…
And perhaps that’s no answer at all? Or perhaps it’s the best answer there is? I’ve found that engaging with Graeme’s provocation has itself been energising. Thanks for reading, and please consider sharing your responses. What’s your experience of searching for feasibility and vitality in your practice? Can you propose or sketch a route map through this shifting territory?
Keep going. Stay vital.
Ben Pacey, 2011.
By the way, I recommend checking out the references:
1. Midpoint Open Space “What more can we do to create a better future for theatre in the West Midlands?” 23-24 June 2011 at AEHarris, Birmingham.
2. A Users Guide To The Impossible. Gavin Grindon and John Jordan, 2010.
3. Stories Matter. Cancer, West Berlin, pianos and ideas above your station. Alan Lane, 2011.
4. One Minute Manifesto. Chris Thorpe, 2010.