CrisisArt: Day One

Personal, Politics, Theatre

Where I am

I’m spending the week at the CrisisArt Festival, run out of the Academia Dell Arte, based in Arezzo, Tuscany. The main reason is that I’m here to give a performance of This is not a riot, but the Festival is a whole series of workshops, performances, discussions and symposia – it’s a week-long laboratory, with around 50 theatre-makers, experimenting with how art can respond to and be involved in crisis. I’m going to be blogging each day from the festival, partly as an informal part of the documentation process (my trip is Creative Scotland funded), and partly because I think some of the ideas that come out of the week might be well worth writing down.

The first thing, though, is just a wee bit of gloating. Right now I’m sitting outside a beautiful modern Italian villa, right in the middle of the stunning Tuscany hills, overlooking the town and duomo, and it’s 32 degrees. I’ve escaped from the wettest British June on record to luxurious heat and stunning beauty. Better still, I’m spending the week in great company, talking about the things I care about most in the world. Quite apart from the gorgeous surrounds, to be able to take the time out from the daily struggle of finding work and doing work and reporting work, and spend it in reflection and experimentation – I want too say that it’s a luxury, but actually, in the arts, it’s an all-too-rare necessity. I’m glad to be able to be funded to be here, to be able to relax into the experience, to really make the very most of it.


Day one was mostly introductions and orientations, setting up the frame for the week. The festival is about artistic response to crisis – the starting assumption, the premise from which we begin, is that the world is in a time of profound crisis. Economic, social, environmental, psychological, political, and a whole lot more besides. The school’s director, Scott McGehee, posited that a “crisis” is by definition the point where body chooses between recovery and death – I’m not entirely sure how much I want to go along with that metaphor (it’s both a little too apocalyptic and a little too futurist for my sceptical stance), but I am glad to be working in an artistic space where we all accept the reality of neoliberalism’s destructive empire, where we accept that we’re in a period of profound change, and where we all think art, in some way, has to take part in that. Just accepting that from the outset makes it so much easier to begin the real work.

As part of the orientation, the organising collective explained a little of their own process. This is the second year of the festival; in the first, in ran along the lines of the standard model, with a festival director, defined roles, and a hierarchical decision-making process. This year, inspired by the response of horizontalist movements to the crisis, and the liberatory power of such processes, they decided to run the festival on a non-hierarchical consensus decision-making model. I’m delighted! These ideas have long been part of my own artistic and political practise, and I’m firmly committed to the principle that they’re required in order to make our artistic processes liberatory, run counter to hegemonic power. The art of crisis not only has to be liberatory in form and content, but also context.


The main event of the evening was a symposium with three speakers offering different perspectives on what crisis art can be. Scott McGehee jumped straight in to heavy philosophy and aesthetic theory, which kept me excited – I’m always happy to head into that territory. He covered more ground than I can summarise here, all, interestingly, from a very Romantic perspective. He sees art as emerging from a particular phenomenological moment, from immediate lived experience, and he sees that as a freeing alternative to an Enlightenment rationalism and a Postmodern alienation. This is not a common view to encounter any more! – at least not in theoretical circles. But as I listened, I was interested in how much those thoughts chime and clash with the ordinary experience of art – the Romantic ideal is still a big part of popular discourse, and art’s bodily spontaneity is still a big part of people’s attraction to it. But at the same time, I’m more interested in art as part of daily life, as something intrinsic to any healthy community, as an ordinary part of everybody’s existence, and I think Romantic ideals risk rarifying art and making it a separate, specialised condition – a division of power and labour I’m not willing to accept. This trend of thinking also leads to separating art from politics, so that art ends up speaking to politics, speaking to the political condition, but not being a direct, active part of it. All of my work is about art engaging directly with politics – not subordinate to a political programme, in McGehee’s terms, but inseparable from political practise as such. Art subordinated to any other ends, an art of utility, has a tendency to be oppressive and to be bad art (think Soviet realism). But art as praxis is some of our finest (think the Living Theatre). That’s where I want to be.

Our second speaker was Simona Senzacqua, speaking from the occupied Teatro Valle in Rome. A year ago, in protest against a paralysed, under-resourced theatre community, a group of artists and activists occupied a theatre building due for privatisation – they reclaimed a community resource on the verge of being sold off. They’ve since run it as a free and open access arts space – anyone can come and take part in any arts project there, as audience or maker, for free. It’s been hugely successful, with much popular and celebrity support – after a year of operations, they’ve still avoided eviction threats, and they’ve gained a lot of respect. This was a hugely inspiring story to hear – and also bitter-sweet, because as part of the Forest collective I’ve been at the sharp end of Edinburgh’s decline in independent art spaces, and am part of the struggle to bring free and open space back. Her talk spoke to my frustration at trying to make this happen through sanctioned channels, and reminded me that it is possible, if artists are frustrated and determined enough, and if we continue to be ignored, to just take and open the resources we need.

Our last speaker was Dr Lisa Peschel, who studies the role of the arts in Terezin, a WWII nazi-run ghetto and transit camp. It’s famous for being the “show camp” visited by the IRC, who were given a sanitised cultural tour in an effort to  cover up the extermination policies; it’s also where an important propaganda film about the ghettos and camps was made, justifying Nazi policy. Peschel’s research is about how cultural activity extended far beyond a simple Nazi cover up, and was actually a crucial part of daily life at the camp, in which many thousands participated. She argues that the cultural activity was both a tool for survival and a form of resistance – that far from being a salve or a distraction from rebellion, it was a huge part of what enabled people to survive under such extreme oppression. She draws a gentle, careful analogy to the role of art in crisis anyway: that it can always be a means of resistance and a tool for survival.


The next three days will take the same form: a morning of workshops run by participants, a midday discussion about the previous evening’s events, an afternoon siesta / preparation period, and performances in the evening. The surrounds are beautiful and the warmth relaxing, but this sounds like it’s going to be a gloriously intense period of work and thought. I’m excited.

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