Monday, 4 August 2014

Meaning, value, and matters of opinion

Indulge me. I want to remember this one.

We're sitting at the dinner table, me and the kids, and my daughter – my restless, anxious, furiously competitive, fiercely brilliant (not, I hope, matter of opinion) daughter – starts asking me about boarding school. Which turns into a conversation about state and private schools, and why parents might choose to send their children to each place, and the class connotations attached to them. Children who go to private school are supposed to be more clever, aren't they, she remarks. Well, I explain, they have to pass an entrance exam, but they also have the opportunity to sit the exam, they have access. We talk about the reputation that attaches to different education systems, including university; the blanket accusation that Oxbridge people are privileged, that ignores the specific circumstances of them being there. Then she asks whether everyone who goes to art school becomes an artist. Actually, I say, a little maudlin, most of them become teachers. It's really hard to become an artist – at least, an artist who earns money from their work. You have to be really good to become an artist, she suggests. Well, yes, I propose, but I know a lot of people who are fantastic artists, yet struggle to earn money from it. I don't mean to be rude, she says, but I think that's just your opinion that they're really good. (At this point, it takes every ounce of effort not to laugh, not because what she says is funny, but because my brain is reeling at the way that, at seven, she sounds so grown up.) Her comment feels particularly barbed because I have, among others, Chris Goode in my head as we talk; there's truth in that, I admit – but as an artist, there are other ways of thinking about what you earn: you might not be rich in terms of money, but there's psychic value, you have a richness in your brain and in your heart. It's a chewy idea, for both of us. So we chew on it.

*

Between the NPO announcements (that tells you how long I've been writing this), reading the Brooklyn Commune Project's unspeakably brilliant document The View From Here, spending a Sunday morning with Jo Crowley talking about the #I'llShow You Mine campaign, trying to write Dialogue's first Grant for the Arts application, and discovering that in the three months following the end of my Guardian contract I barely earned £1500, I've been doing a lot of thinking about money lately. Money in relation to time, money in relation to value, and money in relation to ambition. I spent most of Autumn 2013 writing applications for the Arts Foundation award for cultural journalism, and what would have been a mind-bogglingly massive grant, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Arts Breakthrough Fund; both failed. I spent a lot of Spring 2014 thinking about funding applications, too, but peripherally this time: supporting Mary Paterson in applying for a Grant for the Arts for our new digital project Something Other; doing some editing work on LIFT's NPO application; and as an adjunct of Chris Goode & Company, also applying to be an NPO. Mary and LIFT both got the money, which is just as well, because otherwise I'd feel proper hexed now. Also, everything that follows might just read like sour grapes. Maybe that's all it is. But there's a resonance in the three rejections that has given me pause, and sharpened an ongoing question about the existent structures of money and the difficulty of establishing new ones.

I don't recall getting any feedback in my rejection letter from the Arts Foundation. My application was based on completing the CG&Co God/Head project (which I eventually did, between paid work), buckling down to the documentation of Dialogue's residency at BAC during their Summer 2013 Scratch season (which still languishes on the to-do list), and developing further “embedded criticism” projects with Dialogue (pretty much all possibilities in this direction have floundered over the past few months, due to the lack of my time/their money). My friend Matt Trueman was on the judging panel, so I asked him for feedback: he told me that the process had made him realise how important the audience is for journalism, and that my application fell down because there wasn't a clear sense of who the readership for my proposal would be.

My Paul Hamlyn feedback was brief but really positive, almost frustratingly so. I'd applied to establish Dialogue as a full-time organisation, with an advisory board, the means to commission, a publishing arm, a focus on community work, and a dedication to travelling across the UK, mentoring local critics and linking them into a national network. The judges were, I was told, very engaged in the idea, and felt I had a very distinct vision, but in the end they'd “preferred other applications”. Where I fell down was in the articulation of a long-term business plan: they couldn't see how Dialogue would become self-sufficient, or how I could create a sustainable income stream to take us beyond the Breakthrough Fund's three-year offer. Which is fair, because neither could I.

The rejection letter sent to CG&Co from ACE was the most infuriating, because that also contained the “we preferred other applications” line, which felt much more disheartening in this instance – a value judgement, almost. But I perked up looking at the bit on the feedback form about money. It recognised that the company demonstrates good financial health, realistic budgets and increasing turnover. But where, ACE wanted to know, was the “budgeting for office or utility costs”? It's all well and good wittering on about art, but if you're not planning for printer ink and paperclips, you clearly haven't a clue.

I'll be the first to admit I'm quite stupid when it comes to money. No, that's not it: I'm indifferent to money, until it feels like I haven't got any and I panic. But from that place of stupid indifference I feel like there's a correlation in all these rejections, which is less to do with money than a fault in imagination. Throughout the (very supportive) PHF process, I was assured that the Breakthrough Fund was particularly interested in helping nascent organisations flourish into full existence; Dialogue, however, was too nascent, and needed to demonstrate a recognisable business structure to encourage the Foundation to feel the money was going to reliable hands. There could be no learning on the job here. The Arts Foundation rubric suggested it was interested in “the changing landscape cultural journalism is currently going through”, yet Matt's feedback implied that writing for a known readership attached to trusted outlets was more attractive to the judges than striking out across that changing landscape to build a new audience. My favourite is the CG&Co stuff, which confirms something I'd suspected of the NPO application process all along: ACE is more concerned with accountancy than art. Its focus is on bricks and mortar, offices and bureaucracy, what CG&Co producer Ric Watts calls “lumbering infrastructure”. Not the ephemeral stuff that nourishes people and speaks to their lives. (When I was writing this earlier, I forgot that Ric and I had an email conversation about the presentation of a business plan not being a requirement of CG&Co's NPO application. He would happily have provided one, which would have demonstrated that the company runs a "pretty paperless" operation, if asked.)

I spent a chunk of June writing my first big essay on CG&Co (for an American journal, published in December), thinking across a few strands of its work. It led me back to a post on Chris' blog, from August 2010, quoting a passage from John Holloway's Crack Capitalism: “Stop making capitalism and do something else, something sensible, something beautiful and enjoyable. Stop creating the system that is destroying us.” The NPO is structured to support capitalism. But CG&Co aren't trying to make more capitalism: they're – we're – trying to make something else. The same is true of Dialogue, which rejects the commodity culture that's suffocating theatre criticism, and of me as a writer – which is, of course, why I've barely earned £1500 in the past three months, despite working constantly. (I think of this, the writing I do here, as work. That's probably a mistake. Also, when I say constantly, the last time I put in a 12-hour day was before the kids. But the kids are the hardest fucking work I know.)

Patriarchal social systems, capitalism included, renders those without money worthless. A lot of the conversation around NPO “success” or “failure” felt difficult to me, because – like with that “we preferred other applications” – it was loaded with value judgements. People who remained in the portfolio understandably, but thoughtlessly, represented their continued funding as an endorsement of their work, a sign of their value to ACE, to the arts, to the nation. Outside commentators offered their congratulations for this “well-deservedrecognition of ambition and great work”. What does that imply about those 58 organisations who were removed from the portfolio: was their work small-minded and mediocre? At one point on twitter, the argument was put forward that artists shouldn't be inside the establishment, but I find that difficult, too, because everything is the establishment. The landlord to whom you pay rent is part of the establishment. The shop where you buy food is part of the establishment. The electric lights you use when rehearsing and performing a show make you complicit in upholding the establishment. Try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record...

There's a contradiction in all this that I find impossible to resolve. Even if you're not building capitalism, you still have to live in its world. If you want to build new structures in which value isn't measured in money, and be recognised and supported in doing so, you're going to need money to do it. Alan Lane of Slung Low and Tassos Stevens of Coney spoke brilliantly about this at the In Battalions festival: NPO funding has supported them in creating public work without charging for tickets and running a venue where audiences pay what they can (Slung Low), and locating their work within principles of generosity and social responsibility (Coney). Those companies would do those things without NPO funding. But my guess is they'd find it harder, not least because money is a magnet to money, funding attracts philanthropy, finance goes where finance already is.

In the midst of writing this, I was doing one of those tinkery internet searches that spirals in serendipitous directions and landed on an interview with Dave Eggers conducted in 2000 by a student from Harvard. Again, indulge me: I've still not read any of Eggers' books but adore him for his music writing. On Joanna Newsom: “Her music has changed my life and will, I'm sure, make me a better person. … [It's] making me braver, making me feel that with it I could ride a horse. Into battle. A big horse into a big battle. This music makes my heart feel stout, and enables me, with my eyes, to breathe fire.” On the appropriate response to the Libertines' Death on the Stairs: “You have to be moving for this one, because it's messy and fast, as if the Clash met the Jam and they went swimming in a dirty river. So walk along a crowded street. … Actually, don't walk. … You need to stop and do a dance. The dance you need to do is called the Charleston. ... Do it quickly! Don't slow down. Why? Because the song will know! The song is watching! You want the song to think it's not good enough for three minutes and 24 seconds of the Charleston? Jesus.” (I thought this was ridiculous but then I tried it and he's right.)

In the interview, Eggers gets really angry with the interviewer's repeated suggestion that he's selling out. Being critical, he argues, is easy, too easy. “To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart,” he counters. “It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters.” And then comes the diatribe about money:

“A few months ago I wrote an article for Time magazine and was paid $12,000 for it. [Excuse me for interrupting but what the fucking $12,000 fuck!!!!!] I am about to write something, 1,000 words, 3 pages or so, for something called Forbes ASAP, and for that I will be paid $6,000. [!!!!!!!!!!] For two years, until five months ago, I was on the payroll of ESPN magazine, as a consultant and sometime contributor. I was paid handsomely for doing very little. Same with my stint at Esquire. ...

“Do I care about this money? I do. Will I keep this money? Very little of it. Within the year I will have given away almost a million dollars to about 100 charities and individuals, benefiting everything from hospice care to an artist who makes sculptures from Burger King bags. And the rest will be going into publishing books through McSweeney's. Would I have been able to publish McSweeney's if I had not worked at Esquire? Probably not. Where is the $6000 from Forbes going? To a guy named Joe Polevy, who wants to write a book about the effects of radiator noise on children in New England.”

And this, too, is the contradiction I struggle against. Eggers knows that it's absurd, an abomination, for a single person to acquire that much money. But he knows also that he can enable a lot of people, a lot of art, with it, creating a semblance of equality where the dominant structures would deny it. He accepts, to do that, he needs to play capitalism's game. He puts a positive spin on it: for him, all he's ever doing is saying yes to every offer that comes along. But it's still saying yes to capitalism's game.

Dialogue has existed for over two years now; it's something Jake and I do in our spare time, between jobs, between blogs, between (in my case) mothering. It has all sorts of high ideals: we want to engage more with community work, with work happening outside London, with mentoring young people – but we're failing to fulfil them because time and money are limited. Even saying that, I feel like the failure is in my imagination: for one thing, I've read enough John Berger to know that if you're equating time with money, as I do, constantly, you've let capitalist ideology gobble you up and become part of the problem. If I wanted it enough, I'd find more time, worry less about money, and just get on and do it. But what I consistently see that Jake and I can't do without money is extend our own collaboration or entice other people to work with us – not without the guilt of making people do stuff voluntarily, thus operating by the same neoliberal terms that I abhor. The frustration of that is excruciating.

*

Writing that essay on CG&Co for the American journal was also my first stab at writing about Stand, a verbatim show Chris made for a community centre in Oxford, as part of Oxford Playhouse's Plays Out strand, which aims to “connect people through theatre”. Stand is subtitled “Ordinary people changing the world”, and features six stories of people from the local community talking about their activism. It's a quiet show about speaking up, an undemonstrative show about demonstration. The words are delivered by actors, who perform sitting in a row, scripts on music stands just slightly to the left of their seats, small coffee tables to their right on each of which sits a single prop, barely used. The whole thing is so subdued that, especially with Chris' punk-raucous staging of Mad Man still ringing in my ears, it was hard at the beginning to stifle the thought that maybe, just maybe, I was a little bit bored. But Stand is a show that creeps up on you. And what creeps up is the idea that, although money bequeaths power, it's not essential for change. Real change needs patience and generosity and a fuckload of invisible work on something that matters.

The six characters, people, in a row from left to right are:

A man in his 80s who, every Thursday afternoon, stands outside a science lab protesting at the use of animal testing. He's done this for aeons and he limits himself to Thursday afternoon because outside of those hours he knows he'll be arrested.

A much younger man who, as a student, astonished the campaigns officer of his union by turning up at her door saying he wanted to get involved. Because no one ever does that. With friends he's set up the Reclaim Shakespeare Company to protest against the sponsorship of theatre by the fossil-fuel industry. They'll buy tickets for a show, sit near the front, then bounce on stage when everyone's in their seats and deliver an impassioned diatribe encouraging people to rip the BP logos from their programmes.

A woman, middle-aged, a mother, who insists she's not there in her own regard, but for her adopted daughter. She talks about how she “didn’t want to raise a timid child”, how she wanted her daughter to “be confident. To stand up for what's right.” She gleams with pride as she relates how her daughter, now in her early 20s, upbraided a posh woman on a bus for being rude about a homeless man.

A man, also middle-aged, a photographer who campaigned to save the alternative community that inhabited the Jericho boatyard in Oxford, and prevent its replacement with a development of luxury flats. The campaign was fraught and not wholly successful, and to a degree that broke his spirit. He gave up photography and works as an electrician now.

Another middle-aged woman who first made a stand when, at the age of about five, she led her brother into the middle of the road outside their house, to prove to him that: “We have a right to go anywhere we like.” She now works giving mental-health support to people who have come to Britain seeking asylum, often after experiencing torture in their own countries.

Lastly, a younger woman who has taken part in demonstrations such as Climate Camp, been arrested for supergluing herself to a chair in the office of a PR company identified to be in cahoots with the fracking industry, and now runs a workshop at the heart of Oxford dedicated to teaching people how to fix their bikes, and other make-do-and-mend practical skills necessary to combat waste. “There should be workshops in the middle of cities and communities,” she argues. “Shouldn’t all be commercial space.”

Although equal in passion and conviction, they come across as a disparate bunch. Some of them conform to the identikit of activism focused on in media reports, but others don't fit that picture at all. One of them is just a mum. Another's activism includes nothing more demonstrative than putting stickers on cars that park over pavements:

Until then it was almost like I was in a fever of rage, because I felt so powerless about injustice, and I think cars came to symbolise ‘might is right’, and oil-burning getting priority, and just that act of putting a small sticker on a windscreen, it was like cool air through my body. I no longer felt that fury, cos there was something I could do. Now I’m a middle-aged woman, and with a group of other middle-aged women, I have gone out from time to time stickering cars in broad daylight, and we’re invisible, because we’re middle-aged women.

It's a small act of defiance, this: anyone in the audience could do it. And that's where the power of Stand lies: in making activism not a separate activity, but something each of us can and should engage in. I thought when watching it of Harry Giles talking on twitter about the word activist, pointing out how off-putting it can be, a badge of honour forging solidarity among those who wear it proudly, but for the wary a barrier that prevents them joining in. In Stand, being an activist is no different from being a human who wants to respect other humans, and the environment, and acts accordingly.

But Stand's power – its ability to inspire empathy – also lies in the fact that not all of the activism to which these people dedicate themselves is successful. The photographer is exhausted by the stresses of working for the boatyard community. The octogenarian has campaigned against animal testing for most of his life, to no avail. To quote a recent Guardian headline, Government pushes ahead with fracking plan despite widespread opposition. A chord of failure reverberates through Stand – yet it doesn't condemn, and nor does it sentimentalise or overstate what activism can achieve. It quietly positions activism within the realm of ordinary activity, something that can sit within a weekly routine, regular as doing the laundry; or in the spaces between checking on a pudding in the oven. It argues that being an activist is part of being a parent: raising children to question the world as it is, and contribute to building a better one. It makes anti-capitalist activity, the work of building lives and communities around something other than commerce and exploitation, something we can engage in together. At any age, any stage in life. It feels like stealth dissidence. And that realisation had me walking out in a quiver of excitement.

That approachability – reassuring homeliness, almost – is supported by Stand's casting. So many of its actors would be recognisable from the television: there's Cassandra from Only Fools and Horses, and the girl from Press Gang, and that one was in Mona Lisa with Bob Hoskins. I abhor The Archers, so I've no idea if one of those voices was recognisable from The Archers, but maybe. The casting imbues the room with familiarity, safety, the comfort of nostalgia – and that acts as a cushion for stories that are present, challenging, unsafe sometimes, profoundly urgent. Stand was made with and for a community centre in Oxford, but – a few site-specific references aside – it isn't unique to that community, and resonates much further. It speaks to our time, and our responsibility, a responsibility given short shrift by those whose interest lies in preventing it. You can hear the cynicism activism struggles against when the woman running the community skill-centres says: “You’re collectively looking after everybody’s needs, so you kind of make a community and it feels very like – this is going to sound really hippie, but – it feels very loving.” Everything about anti-capitalism sounds hippie: naive, idealistic, misguided. Impossible to achieve. The narrative that says capitalism represents how humans naturally are is strong: it has to be, to keep us hypnotised by inevitability. Stand offers a different narrative. This is what we need art to do.

*

At another point during the intermittently rewarding, frequently frustrating In Battalions festival, someone remarked that most audience members have no idea what work goes into making a piece of theatre. Catherine Love wrote a thoughtful column about this at the start of the year, agreeing that: “Theatre tends to be notable for the erasure of its own work; we are invited to partake in illusions, to forget the labour that has produced what we witness on stage.” I re-read her column last month, and wondered whether the NPO funding structure justifies itself in that erasure, by paying for what's visible – the upkeep of buildings, the paperwork of evaluation and accountancy, “office or utility costs” – while successfully ignoring the invisible work of the rehearsal room and beyond.

For a couple of days in July, I popped into Chris' rehearsal room as he worked on Men in the Cities. I've started yet another Deliq post on that show, so won't say much about it here, but what struck me – more so than in other CG&Co rehearsal rooms – was how much work was necessary to transform that text, which Chris had already spent several months writing, into performance. Maybe I registered it more because there were so few people in the room: just Chris, his director Wendy and stage manager Hattie; sometimes Katherine and Naomi and Ric (lighting, set, producer) were there too, but the work that riveted and exercised me was the subtle, intricately detailed work of the voice. Work that is hidden and patient and essential to communicating with precision; work that involved argument, negotiation, justification (Wendy's sensibility is quite different from Chris', and she questions every choice he makes.) The difference between the first read-through and the first preview, in terms of where Chris was placing the stress in individual sentences, where he was modulating his voice to facilitate empathy or create distance, how he was guiding his audiences' relationships with his characters, was fascinating, but if I hadn't been to rehearsals, it would have remained invisible. Not the nuance itself, but the journey to it.

What does it mean to witness, and articulate, that work? I wish I knew – not least because this is the heart of that bloody essay on “embedded” criticism that I'm still struggling to write. Not least because, if I could find a way of positioning its value, I might find a way to get paid for it. Not least because I need a sense of meaning to justify doing this instead of earning money to support my family, doing this when (the patriarchal structures of motherhood keep reminding me that) I ought to be with my family. This isn't me fishing for compliments, from anyone but least of all from CG&Co, who give me a rare sense of psychic security in the world. It's me seeking a new language to articulate value and meaning, to myself and to the kids I so thoughtlessly brought into being, a value that doesn't relate to money, a meaning that doesn't reduce everything to productive, quantifiable work. A language that rides a big horse into a big battle, breathes fire from its eyes, and doesn't play capitalism's game.

2 comments:

  1. This is a great read, Maddy. I've been doing work on value in the arts for a year now RE a Nesta project, and actually some great research suggests that money doesn't necessarily follow money, in fact in terms of generating value - of both monetary and non monetary kinds, one should "put money at the margins" of a creative (or any) community that's from the Connected Communities study of the Watershed. You might find Bill Sharpes Economies Of Life book really great. You can download it for free here: https://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/projects.php?pid=31 or buy a printed copy. Includes the great sentence "art is the currency of human experience" x

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hannah this book looks BRILLIANT, thank you so much - just looking at the link I've had a little lightbulb moment: it's not about finding different words to eg value, currency, but (and I keep coming back to the supersmart blogpost Hannah Silva wrote on this idea, which reconciled me to the word critic) stretching these words so they mean new and better things that we need them to mean. Also you've reminded me that I still haven't read your massive This Is On-related essay, it's in twitter favourites and I Must Get On With That. xx

    ReplyDelete