Hou Writin in Scots Maiters Tae Me

Personal, Poetry, Politics, Rambles

(skip tae English owersettin)

I. History

A stairtit writin in Scots as an experiment. Hit wis fleysome tae me, tho A’d kent the leid for a guid bit. A wis seilie tae hae a teacher for Higher English wha haed a strang interest in Scots poetry: throu him I got to ken and luve a wee bit o Robert Garioch n Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt pit me on tae WN Herbert at a schuil creative writin coorse; n growen up in Orkney meant A kent poems fae Robert Rendall n Christina Costie too. A treisured this mirlins o leid for a lang whiles, no that shuir hou or gif thay belangt tae me.

As A’ve wrote n spoken aboot at mebbe ower muckle, A’m a bairn of English paurents. We flit tae Westray (an ooter isle in Orkney) whan A wis 2, sae Orkney’s the anely hame A ken, but for aw that A’m yet n will for aye be an incomer.  Mebbe acause o feelin that, or mebbe acause A wis niver that guid at comploutherin, or mebbe acause A wared a gey great hantle o oors in books, whan A wis a bairn A picked up mair o ma paurents English as ma freends’ n neebours’ Orcadian. Tho but the grammatical forms o ma speech n a wheen o ma wird chyces hae definitely n defiantly steyed Orcadian (‘Hou’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ n ‘Throu by’ for ‘Throu here’ bein kenable wans, tho skeely lugs will catch the mair), thare’s plainly a fouth o English in ma speakin. For aw that, ma speakin is skitie n shifty: A tak on the tuin o the fowk aboothaunds in a wey mony unhamit fowk dae.

Whan A wis a teenager, A cultivatit this Englishness a fair bit. A dandied up ma claes, haed a by-pit fascination wi Brideshead Revisited, listent tae The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon bein a fair anglified chanter hissel), n sic n sic-like: cultivatin n identifyin wi that pairt o me wis a means o takkin strenth fae whit merkit me oot. Aw ootlin teenagers ken aboot this. A cried masel “British” steid o “Scottish”. Sae A didna really stairt explorin the Scottish n Orcadian pairts o me til A bid in England.

A flit tae London tae study theatre directing, n at lang n lenth fund A wisna English aither. A wis scunnert fae whit felt like the total wanwit o Londoners n English fowk mair braidly aboot hou Scotland wis, whit maitered thare,  that hit e’en existit. Hit didna help that thare wis plenty o Americans aroond wha kept on cryin the UK “England”. A developit a wappin chip on ma shouder whit coverage o the independence referendum haes fairly beddit in. A felt mair Scottish, acause again A didna belang, n here hit wis ma Scottishness whit merkit me oot.

Hit wis aboot that time A stairtit howkin the leeterar history o Scots. A bocht a scunnersome annotatit edition o A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. A rade n rade, whit is maistly hou A think aboot n caip wi things. A stairtit investigatin hou the Scots Renaissance happent, hou leid wrocht a means o not anely threapin identity but biggin hit, hou writin in Scots happens nou. Sae A thocht A’d gie hit a go.

My first mynts involvit uisin gey wheen o dictionars. A didna ken hou tae think in Scots. A’d smuirt the lugs n vocables A’d growed up wi. A wantit relearin. A wantit reclaimin a pairt o masel A’d deleeberately juntit oot o ma identity. Whiles A fliskit throu online thesauruses n ither fowk’s poems, A stairtit rekiverin wirds A thochht A’d tint, n A stairtit learin hou tae airt oot the Scottish syntax fae ma ain speech. A stairtit taitin oot the different thrieds o ma tongue – diction, tuin, vocables, syntax – n learin whit pairts o ma vyce articulatit whit pairts o me. I stairtit rewritin masel.

Maist fowk writin in Scots are in wan wey or anither in (or whiddin fae) the shaidae of Hugh MacDiarmid n his byous experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be rade as ettlin at recreautin a Scots leid the same as the Acts o Union haed niver happenit, the same as the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland haed been printit in the than-leevin Scottish tongue; hit wis a project in leevin alternative history throu leid n poetry. Hit damn naur succeedit. Something aboot MacDiarmid’s messan, maggie tak on rewritin his ain leid n history appealit tae me, ettlin at rewritin mines. A syncretist Scots whit borraed fae mony dialecks n dictionars, whit mad a stramash o soond n associe, whit pit feelin n effect first, fittit whit A wis ettlin at.

Brave wis ma first hail-heidit poem in Scots, tho but thare wis sketches afore hit. Hit’s in the rantin n flytin mode whit Scots is aft thirled tae (the stents of whit are cannily pyntit oot by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review o Union). It tried tae smoosh thegither the tuilyin luves n resents A feel as an incomer Scot, as a hauf-Scot, as somebdy wha half-belangs to a half-nation. A identified ma ain twaness wi some sort o cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland whit is tryin and failin tae mak a multicultural contemporar identity wioot fawin back o tartanry, whit has tint hauf hits history n selt the ither hauf, whit luves and laithes hits ain kailyard. Hit wis n aw a randie threapin o ma Scottishness: hit wis me sayin, this is me, A’m Scottish, me n aw, this kintra belangs tae me n aw, n tae ye, n tae us, n tae this fowk, n this. A’m fain hit’s ma maist weel-sped poem tae date, winnin me a pickle (n losin a puckle n aw), n for ordinar gien audiences a grand time. A felt A wis daein somethin richt.

II. Future

The upbiggit performativity o the syncretist Scots project sert ma ain performative sel-rebiggin; hits experimental howkin o whit Scotland micht be helpit me tae experiment wi whit ma Scottishness micht be. This days, mair nor hauf ma darg is Scots, n A’m conteenan tae sey the mairches o whit hit micht dae. Writin in Scots helpit me gree the different pairts o ma identity: nou A’m no sae fasht, no sae carkin, no sae wirrit aboot gif Scots belangs tae me n mair interestit in whit happens tae Scottishness the nou.

A conteena tae write in Scots firstmaist acause A’m drawed tae hits minority staundin. A luve hits soonds n pattrens, aye, but A luve thaim in English n aw. A’m interestit in hou in Scots A micht write fae the ruinds o things, n sae moot things whit micht ense be whisht. A’m drawed tae hits defeatism, tae writin in something whit’s deein or cheengin or weirin awa; I like the wey readers o Scots hae tae double-taka n reween sentences; A like hou writin in Scots gars us tae rebig wir leid on the flee sae’s tae mak the unmade. Aw this is a brade fae MacDiarmidism: hit’s bent set awa fae the biggin o a hail-n-hauden language, or a hail-n-hauden nation, or a bou-stane ideal of whit Scottishness is. Hit’s a mynt tae ledge the fotchin pluralisms o Scotland.

(A by-pit wird for academic readers: A’m kenably talkin a bit til n aroond Deleuze n Guattari here, n weenin hou Scots micht exerce as or like thir norrie o a “minor leeteratur”. Is awbdy writin on this? Is thare onything tae sey here?)

A find masel distribblit by the masculinism n conservatism o muckle contemporar Scots leeteratur. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to hae turnt tae bein mair stentit newlins tae mair male makars n male subjects and macho eemages. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ foremaist literar jurnal, are sturtinly owergaed wi men. For masel n ma ain readin, the maist o the poets A’ve leetit here hae been men. Nou tho but, on the wan haund, A’m deaved by a rural conservatism in Scots leeteratur whit tells n retells pub yairns n interminable selkie brides; on the ither, A’m stick-n-stowe forgnawed wi the machoness o Irvine Welsh eemitators, wha offer the ither contemporar mains o Scots writin.

A’m wantin tae airt oot queer weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot feminist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot paistmodernist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae chap up Scots wi wabspeak. A’m wantin Scots tae multipy n multiply; A’m wantin hit tae get fair fucken fremmit. A’m wantin scrievers o Scots no tae clock ower auld pasts for Scotland: A’m wantin scrievers o Scots tae cleck orra futurs.

Throu aw that but, thare’s anither tuin cantin. The MacDiarmidite tradeetion o monolithic syncretist Scots haes lang been contert by a vernacular tradeetion o hameower Scots: some swatches bein, in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. This are poets wirkin in minority kynds o Scots – leevin hamelt vernaculars – n writin poetry in the soonds o leevin speech. Futurity haes as muckle tae dae wi leevin minority tradeetions as wi camsteirie, ragglish howps.

For aw that A’ve been reengin ma ain Scottishness throu writin Scots, A yet canna write Orcadian. A mind on wirds n phrases fae ma bairnheid, but A’m strauchlin tae pit thaim thegither. A’ve been awa ower lang. Ma Scots poety has Orcadian souchs, but thay ser anither leid, n A’m growin dissytit wi that. A want tae gang hame for a stoond, n see whit’s thare for me, n see whit’s in me thare.

Scots isna in guid set. Thanks tae aw the byous wirk o the Centre for the Scots Leid n Scottish Language Dictionaries, thare’s a guid-gaun unnerstaunding o whit Scots is n brave fowk keepin hit alive, but gey few o ma young contempors as poets are writin in hit. While Lallans stodges on, the Scots warks in Gutter or New Writing  Scotland are a curn n seendle fae younger writers. Ootside o Scotland A dout bit ye canna get Scots set furth at aw. A jist dinna think Scots is speakin muckle tae ma generation. Whether that’s the hank o the internet, or bein pit aff by Scots leeteratur’s ayebidin auld-carlism n machoness, or jist inevitable leid-deith, A dae ken, but A feel hit’s happenin.

A luve Scots. A feel like A’m experimentin yet. A feel like A’ve scantly stairtit antrin intae hou Scots micht maiter tae me, tae us. A feel like A’ve plenty tae lear fae thaim wha’ve wrote n are yet writin n rewritin Scots. I feel like thare’s plenty yet tae reenge. A dinna want this leid tae dee, acause A think thare’s that muckle vieve yet tae hit. Gif we get independence or no, A feel like Scottish cultur is flistin thanks tae the debate, that thare’s a guid sort o peuchleness n a sense o possibility thare: A want thay possibilities tae insnorl a leevin Scots. For that tae happen, A think we maun haud inventin n reinventin whit Scots micht be; A want tae threid minority tradeetions throu a royet n optimistic leid; A want no a stieve Scots or a haurd-mairchit Scotland, but a Scottishness whit’s birsin n remakkin hitsel ayeweys.

What Writing in Scots Means To Me

(back tae the tap)

I. History

I started writing in Scots as an experiment. It was scary for me, though I’d known the language for a long time. I was lucky enough to have a teacher for Higher English who had a strong interest in Scots poetry: through him I got to know and love bits of Robert Garioch and Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt put me on to WN Herbert at a school creative writing course; and growing up in Orkney meant that I knew poems from Robert Rendall and Christina Costie too. I treasured these fragments of language for a long time, never quite sure how or if they belonged to me.

As I’ve written and spoken about at perhaps too much length, I’m a child of English parents. We moved to Westray (an outer island in Orkney) when I was 2, so Orkney’s the only home I know, but for all that I’m still and will always be an incomer. Perhaps because of feeling that, or perhaps because I was never that good at fitting in, or perhaps because I spent so much time in books, when I was a child I picked up more of my parents English  than my friends’ and neighbours’ Orcadian. Though the grammatical forms of my speech and certain word choices have definitely and defiantly stayed Orcadian (‘How’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ and ‘Through by’ for ‘Through here’ being really obvious ones, though practiced ears will pick up more), there’s obviously a lot of English in the way I speak. For that matter, the way I speak is slippery and shifty: I take on some of the accents of the people around me in a way that many unhomed people do.

When I was a teenager, I cultivated this Englishness somewhat. I dandied up my clothes, had a brief fascination with Brideshead Revisited, listened to The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon being highly anglified himself), and so on: cultivating and identifying with this part of me was a way of gaining strength from what marked me out. All outsider teenagers know about this. I called myself “British” rather than “Scottish”. In the end, I didn’t really start exploring the Scottish and Orcadian parts of me until I lived in England.

I moved to London studying theatre directing, and finally realised that I wasn’t English either. I was appalled by what seemed like the complete ignorance of Londoners and English folk more broadly about how Scotland was, what mattered there, that it even existed. It didn’t help that there were a lot of Americans around who persistently referred to the UK as “England”. I developed a massive chip on my shoulder which coverage of the independence referendum has definitely helped to bed in. I felt more Scottish, because again I didn’t belong, and here it was my Scottishness that marked me out.

It was about this time that I started digging into the literary history of Scots. I picked up a big annotated edition of A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. I read and read, which is generally how I think about and cope with things. I started investigating why the Scots Renaissance happened, how language functioned as a means of not only asserting identity but building it, how writing in Scots happens now. Eventually, I thought I’d give it a try.

My first attempts involved using a lot of dictionaries. I didn’t know how to think in Scots. I’d suppressed the ear and the vocabulary that I grew up with. I needed to rediscover it. I needed to reclaim a part of myself that I’d deliberately pushed out of my identity. As I flicked through online thesauruses and other people’s poems, I started rediscovering words I thought I’d forgotten, and I started learning how to pick out the Scottish sentence forms from my own speech. I started teasing apart the different parts of my tongue – diction, cadence, vocabulary, syntax – and learning which parts of my voice articulated which parts of me. I started rewriting myself.

Most folk writing in Scots are in one way or another in (or running from) the shadow of Hugh MacDiarmid and his extraordinary experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be read as trying to recreate a Scots language as if the Acts of Union had never happened, as if the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland had been printed in the then-living Scottish tongue; it was a project in living alternative history through language and poetry. It damn near succeeded. Something about MacDiarmid’s mongrel, magpie approach to rewriting his own language and history appealed to me, attempting to rewrite mine. A syncretist Scots which borrowed from multiple dialects and dictionaries, which played havoc with sound and association, which put feeling and effect first, suited what I was attempting to do.

Brave was my first fully-fledged poem in Scots, though there were sketches before it. It’s in the ranting and flyting mode that Scots is often confined to (the limitations of which are astutely pointed out by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review of Union). It attempted to smoosh together the conflicting loves and resentments I feel as an incomer Scot, as a half-Scot, as someone who half-belongs to a half-nation. I identified my own doubleness with some sort of cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland which is trying and failing to assert a multicultural contemporary identity without recourse to tartanry, which has forgotten half its history and commodified the other half, which loves and loathes its own kailyard. It was also an aggressive reclamation of my Scottishness: it was me saying this is me, I’m Scottish, me too, this country belongs to me too, and to you, and to us, and to these folk too. I’m happy that it’s become my most successful poem to date, winning me a few things (and losing others), and generally giving audiences a good time when it comes out. I felt like I was doing something right.

II. Future

The constructed performativity of the syncretist Scots project suited my own performative selfreconstruction; its experimental investigation of what Scotland might be helped me experiment with what my Scottishness might be. These days, more than half my work is written in Scots, and I’m continuing to try and push at the boundaries of what it might do. Writing in Scots helped me reconcile different parts of my identity: now I’m less worried, less anxious, less concerned about whether or not Scots belongs to me and more interested in what happens to Scottishness now.

I continue to write in Scots I think primarily because I’m attracted to its minority status. I love its sounds and patterns, yes, but I love those in English too. I’m interested in how in Scots I might write from the margins of things, and be able to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. I’m attracted to its defeatism, the sense of writing in something that’s dying or passing or changing; I like the way readers of Scots have to double-take and rethink sentences; I like that writing in Scots forces us to remake language on the fly in order to say unsaid things. All of this is a strong move away from MacDiarmidism: it is determinedly not the construction of a coherent language, or a coherent country, or a monolithic idea of what is Scottish. It is an attempt to assert the shifting pluralisms of Scotland.

(An aside for academic readers: I’m obviously talking a bit at and around Deleuze and Guattari here, and wondering how Scots might function in relation to the concept of a minor literature. Is anybody writing on this? Is there anything to say here?)

I find myself disturbed by the masculinism and conservatism of much of contemporary Scots literature. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to have become restricted of late to more male playwrights and subjects and macho forms. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ main literary journal, are frighteningly dominated by men. Reflecting on my own reading, the majority of the poets I’ve referenced here have been men. Now though, on the one hand, I’m bored by a rural conservatism in Scots literature that tells and retells stories down the pub and interminable seal-wifes; on the other, I’m utterly exhausted by the machoness of Irvine Welsh imitators, who offer the other main contemporary stream of Scots writing.

I want to find queer ways of writing Scots. I want to find feminist ways of writing Scots. I want to find postmodernist ways of writing Scots. I want to mash up Scots and net-speak. I want Scots to multipy and multiply; I want it to get really fucking weird. I want writers in Scots not to invent new pasts for Scotland or to interminably dig through history for answers: I want writers in Scots to invent new futures.

Though all that, though, there’s another tune singing. The MacDiarmidite tradition of monolithic syncretist Scots has long been countered by a vernacular tradition of Scots writing: in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. These are poets working in minority versions of Scots – living local vernaculars – and writing poetry in the sounds of speech. Futurity has as much to do with living minority traditions as wild and disruptive hopes.

For all that I’ve been exploring my own Scottishness through writing Scots, I still can’t write Orcadian. I remember words and phrases from my childhood, but I’m struggling to put them together. I’ve been away too long. My Scots poety has Orcadian inflections, but they’re put to the service of a bigger language, and I’m getting dissatisfied with that. I want to go home for a while, and see that’s there for me, and see what’s in me there.

Scots isn’t in a great state. Through all the magnificent work of the Scots Language Centre and Scottish Language Dictionaries, there exists a throroughgoing understanding of what Scots is and a brave body of folk keeping it alive, but precious few of my young contemporaries as poets are writing in it. While Lallans plods on, the Scots pieces in Gutter or New Writing Scotland are few and far between and rarely from younger writers. For some reason, I don’t think Scots is speaking that much to my generation. Whether that’s the influence of the internet, or being put off by Scots literature’s enduring old-fogeyism and machoness, or just inevitable language death, I don’t know, but I feel like it’s happening.

I love Scots. I feel like I’m still experimenting. I feel like I’ve barely started exploring what Scots might mean to me, to us. I feel like there’s a lot left to explore. I don’t want this language to die, because I think there’s so much life left in it. Whether we get independence or not, I feel like Scottish culture is booming as a result of the referendum debate, that there’s a confidence and a sense of possibility there: I want those possibilities to involve a living Scots. For that to happen, I want to keep inventing and reinventing what Scots might be; I want to thread living minority traditions through a wild and optimistic language; I want not a stable Scots or a tightly-bordered Scotland, but a Scottishness that’s pushing and recreating itself always.

I Want To Blow Up (a model of) The Palace of Holyroodhouse (for art): Research Day 2

Events, Politics, Rambles


This is the auto-surveillance report of the second day of research for the performance project I Want To Blow Up (a model of) The Palace Of Holyroodhouse (for art)

On 21st March 2014, between 1800 and 2100 hours, Harry Giles did use the following Google search terms:

  • Control of Explosives Regulations 1991
  • Air Bag Inflator
  • can you blow something up with an airbag
  • Amino Dinitrophenol
  • what is Amino Dinitrophenol for
  • Ammonium Picrate
  • What is wetted ammonium picrate
  • how do theatre pyrotechnics work
  • What is UN no. 0428
  • pyrotechnics
  • pyroguide
  • what pyrotechnics are unlicensed
  • What is barium azide
  • oil well cartridge
  • oil’s well
  • “what is an oil well cartridge”
  • “explosive cable cutter”
  • “how does an explosive cable cutter work”
  • can you blow stuff up with emergency flares
  • emergency flare explosion
  • blowing up a model
  • minature explosion
  • small explosion

and access the following websites:

His research was retweeted or otherwise engaged with by the following people publicly on Twitter:

  • @amaenad
  • @oneferny
  • @Max_Scratchmann
  • @atarbuck
  • @kieran_hurley
  • @pennysuperdog
  • @rvwable
  • @mrjvarney
  • @lorelei_
  • @kathrynbeaumont
  • @hinesjumpedup
  • @colonpress
  • @t3xtur3
  • @AnathemaJane
  • @BexAtkinsonLord
  • @kevmcveigh
  • @hannahnicklin

and by 12 further people at the Camden People’s Theatre, whose names were unrecorded.

His research questions were:

  • Are there any UNLICENSED EXPLOSIVES which would make a SATISFYING EXPLOSION?
  • Is becoming a LICENSED EXPLOSIVES ENGINEER feasible?
  • Could AIR OR WATER be used to make a SATISFYING EXPLOSION?

His conclusions were:

The majority of my time was spent with the HSE list of unlicensed explosives, to determine whether or not any of them could satisfyingly explode a model palace. Over the course of the research, I determined that the unlicensed explosives were either (a) Chemical components or minor explosives equipment which could not make a big enough legal explosion to destroy a model palace; (b) Fireworks and pyrotechnics which I would need to consult with a pyro engineer about the use of; or (c) Airbags.

The function of the COER exclusion list appeared to be to make the handling and transport of the components of industrial explosives less hampered by regulation, and to support the pyrotechnics industry. A large proportion of the list defined the threshold of water suspension which made an explosive chemical unlicensed, presumably for transport and handling by uncertified engineers while in a “safe” state. This created an interesting analogue with speech acts about terrorism: there is a level of water suspension which makes nitrocellulose legal for anyone to own, but as the nitrocellulose dries out it crosses a semi-arbitrary threshold where it becomes illegal. Similarly and unsimilarly, it is possible to talk about blowing things up, but if you cross an arbitrary threshold of dangerousness or terroristishness, your speech becomes illegal. The legal water saturation level has a mathematical description, but the legal terroristishness level of speech has yet to be clearly defined by courts and is already a legal struggle.

Apart from exclusions like airbags and bolt-cutters — equipment which is technically explosive but doesn’t need regulation — the function of the COER legislation is to support industry, and make it really clear what the parameters for making a profit from explosives are. It is notable that the legislation around terrorism isn’t half so clear about what the parameters for freedom of speech are.

There are two options from the unlicensed explosives list which might feasibly blow up a model palace. An airbag explosion, as documented by many youtube videos, including a satisfying one of a pumpkin, could definitely destroy a model palace. However, it wouldn’t “look” like an explosion. It would destroy a model, but without any satisfying flames or smoke. I began to realise that the aesthetics of the explosion were important to me. I wanted the explosion to “feel” dangerous or terroristish — close enough to something illegal, without actually being illegal. This is an intractable aesthetic problem, because I want something that feels terroristish enough to scare an audience but is not terroristish enough to scare the police.

Fireworks and pyrotechnics offer another options. However, I’m reluctant to pursue this approach, because I feel some commitment to do this project DIY. Also, using shiny theatrical explosives feels like “cheating”. I want this to feel like an explosion that anyone could do at home, with enough time and budget.

I decided to shelve both the airbag and the fireworks. I then began to look at very simple homemade explosives. Three options presented themselves from cursory YouTube searches: a flour bomb, a lithium bomb, and a molotov cocktail. All would provide small, relatively-controlled but dangerous-looking explosions, and all involve very simple unlicensed ingredients. However, I’m not totally convinced that all of them are legal and safe.

My research questions for the next performance, at Glasgow Buzzcut in April, are:

  • Determine whether a flour bomb, lithium bomb or molotov cocktail would be both explosive enough and safe enough to meet my requirements.
  • Contact the police and ask if making a flour bomb, lithium bomb or molotov cocktail might be legal under controlled theatrical circumstances.
  • Research safety parameters which could control said explosions.
  • Contact fireworks and pyrotechnics engineers to see if anyone is willing to consult with me about my questions.

Legal Disclaimer:

  • All the information I am accessing is to be used only for blowing up a small scale model of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in a safe and legal manner.
  • I neither condone nor encourage the actual blowing up of actual public buildings, and will not be sharing my research with anyone who does in an encouraging way.
  • Any websites I link to here or on Twitter are for information or humour purposes only, should not be used for acts of terrorism, and can be found by a very basic Google search anyway.

I Want to Blow Up (a model of) the Palace of Holyroodhouse (for art) is a performance project about:

  • Rage and its uses
  • Free speech and its limits
  • Art and its effectiveness
  • Surveillance and the state

The performance consists of the three phases: (1) the active period of research involved in figuring out how to build a scale model of Holyroodhouse and then legally blow it up, which will take place in public, preferably in arts venues; (2) the actual blowing up of the model Palace; (3) a performance lecture about how and why I did it and what happened. If you have access to space in an arts venue and would like me to research bomb-making in your space, please get in touch.

Please note, I will be recording all documentary evidence of this project, up to and including my private thoughts on the matter, in an auto-surveillance dossier in order to spare the public purse. Please note that all comments and mentions of this post will thus be monitored for monitoring purposes.



More Good Now: A Working Manifesto for Artist-Producers

Events, Poetry, Politics, Rambles, Theatre

I’m an artist who also works as a producer. I set up and still help run the spoken word organisation Inky Fingers, and I co-direct the live art series ANATOMY. The idea of artists leading artistic production – artists organising nights, festivals, buildings – seems to be taking off at the moment. At the last Buzzcut Festival (an artist-led festival), the organisers worked with the Live Art Development Agency to organise a day blether on artist-led projects around the UK. There was excitement and community and possibility. This is wonderful.

At the same time, there’s a lot of discussion happening about the issue of artists working for free, artists struggling to get paid, artists getting exploited by venues. A lot of the response has been about how artists can work together and by themselves to improve their treatment by producers and venues – like here and here (with a good critique here). This is really important. Solidarity between workers is how change happens. But I’ve also been thinking that, increasingly, artists like me are working not just as artists, but also as producers: event organisers, festival programmers, building managers, scratch night impresarios. So this manifesto is a way to start a conversation about how we can do that part of our work better.

Producers usually have more power than artists. However collaborative, innovative and loving their projects, if you set yourself up as a producer you are giving yourself power – power to access space, media, resources; power over the artists you ask to work for you. This is a manifesto about how to be responsible in that relationship, and how artist-producers – people who find themselves on both sides of the employment equation – can  make our arts ecology better.

Best kens I haven’t always done it right. I’ve asked people to work for free without proper reward, and I’ve overworked myself. I’ve done stuff when I’ve been thinking more about my own reputation than making the art happen. While this manifesto does criticise things I’ve seen other artist-producers do, I’ve done most of them myself, so I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou. We all fail and we all learn. This manifesto is not meant as a stick to beat ourselves up with, but a prod in the arse to get us moving in the right direction. It is also not a book of complete and correct answers: it’s a start.

(N.B. This is written as a UK-specific manifesto, because I don’t know other countries’ arts ecologies well enough to comment, and the “we” that occurs throughout is artist-producers in the UK. But I hope other folk might find some use in it too.)

1. Your job is to make great art happen.

Your first duty as an artist-producer is to make great art happen. Every space you create must be a space that grows, cares for and celebrates great art. This can look like a lot of different things. A good open mic is as important as a pro cabaret, because how can artists make great art if they don’t have somewhere important to learn? A good open mic is probably more important than a successful performance night that only books established artists and is only seen by established audiences, because how can a night that replicates the dominant culture create more great art? Great art means change, plurality, surprise, experiment, failure. Making great art happen means growing a healthy ecology of art.

Your first duty is not to enhance your own reputation. You must be behind the art. If you find yourself booking someone because it will enhance your standing and not because you like what they do, then stop what you’re doing right now. If you find yourself putting your name in bigger type on the posters than your artists, then stop what you’re doing right now. If you find yourself taking all the credit for a great night without first crediting your artists, then stop what you’re doing right now. The art comes first. The art needs you. Being an artist-producer who makes great art happen will already enhance your reputation – you will be more likely to get interviews from arts magazines than your artists, your name is consistently linked with the great art, your heart will bloom. So your first duty is to make the great art happen.

2. You do not get paid until the artists get paid.

If you ask people to work for free, you must work for free. If you ask people to work for expenses, you must work for expenses. In this arts ecology, arts administrators and professional producers find it easier to get stable work than artists, and tend to get paid more than artists. That is messed up. If you are an artist-producer, it is easier for you to get paid than for your artists to get paid. So make sure they get paid first.

If you work in a venue that pays its staff, there is no excuse whatever for not paying artists. If you are hiring a venue for a fee, charging the audience entry, and not paying your artists, something has gone wrong. Find a free venue instead. This includes scratch and all other development work. Adjust your budgets accordingly.

3. Free culture is not a free ride.

I believe in free culture. I believe in finding alternative forms of artistic community and artistic production to consumer capitalism. I believe in finding ways to give away art for free and for artists to still be able to survive. This sometimes means running spaces and events that let everyone in for free and don’t pay anyone. Spaces like this are laboratories of the imagination, they are ways we can experiment in doing things differently. Spaces like this are not an excuse to take artists for granted.

If you are experimenting in alternative forms of economy, then do it properly. If your free culture event expects artists to do their own publicity, find their own food, find their own accommodation, and provide their art with no support whatsoever, then your free culture event is bullshit. If you’re not paying people, work out what else you can do for people. Can you arrange a deal with a local eatery to feed them? Can you marshal a list of spare rooms? Can you get all the artists to run a free skill-sharing session? Can you provide supported and curated access to people who might pay the artists later?  Whether or not your event is free and whether or not your artists get paid in coin, you have a duty to look after them.

4. Be honest with your artists.

If you programme by open call-out, then your call-out must include all the information about what kind of money and support is available to applicants. If you programme by invitation, your first message to them must contain all this information. If you do not tell people straight up that it is a free gig, you are taking them for a ride. If you tell people it’s profitshare without including a realistic projection of profits, you are taking them for a ride. If you are not tell9ing your artists something because you’re embarrassed, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you make artists email you with enquiries about this kind of essential detail, you are wasting the time in which they could be making great art.

If any kind of money is changing hands, your artists and all your staff should know who’s getting what. If open book accounting is at all practical, do it. If it isn’t practical, find out how it could be. Financial transparency strengthens us all, because it helps us all understand the realities of how art’s finance happens, which helps us figure out how to make it better.

5. Opportunity is a dirty word.

Artists don’t need opportunities. Artists make their own opportunities. Artists need material things. Artists need space, time, support, audiences, advice, food, shelter, ideas, community, encouragement, criticism, reviews, pay. Don’t tell your artists you are giving them an opportunity. Tell your artists what it is you’re actually giving them.

6. Diversity is not a catchphrase.

Diversity is not something you do to get funding in. Diversity does not mean making sure you programme artists of colour occasionally. Diversity does not mean putting on one BSL-described performance per year. Diversity is something which takes careful research, organisational overhaul, and material support. Diversity is something you do because you believe in it, because you should believe in it, because it makes us better and it makes the art better. If most of the art you host is by white/british/male/straight/cis/able-bodied people then your project will be boring. If all you do is reproduce dominant culture then art as a whole will suffer. If you do not take active and materially-supported steps to make your project more diverse then you will end up reproducing dominant culture, because that’s how privilege works.

Ask these questions: Who is not performing with you? Who is not coming to your show? Why? What will it take to bring marginalised groups into your project? How might their needs be different and how can you meet them? What audiences do you currently advertise to? Who gets advertising through what routes? Who are you actively excluding and how, even if you didn’t know it? Who might talk with you about how to make things better? What can you offer them?

7. Scratch is not an excuse.

Scratch is a sexy word. Scratch helps venues think they are engaging in artist development. Scratch lets producers ask people to work for free. Scratch is a necessary part of many people’s artistic process which makes it an easy way to exploit artists, like their need for space or love or food can be exploited. Scratch is an easy way to take an audience for granted. Scratch takes the pressure off programmers to make great art happen. Scratch feels like an easy event to start organising, because everyone’s doing it.

Art development is work, and should be rewarded like all other work. Scratch is as important a labour act as performance. Just because you’re running a scratch night, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every aspect of it seriously. If you’re giving artists the “opportunity” to scratch their work, what happens to them next? If you believe in artist development, you need to support their work after they scratch it. You need to find out what happens to the work next. You need to consider funding that work.

I actually think most artists take part in scratch nights at major venues not for the chance of audience feedback, but because they want their work associated with and watched by staff at that venue. It’s not that difficult for artists to get good critical feedback – though sometimes it is, and that’s why we have scratch nights! But if venue interest is honestly what artists want, you should give them a chance to say so, and you should be finding a way to meet that need, rather than making yourself look sexy and getting free work by running a scratch night.

8. You are in an ecosystem.

Art gets made in an ecology of artists, events, spaces, venues, producers. That ecology is mostly geographically local, but extends its tendrils through communication networks, and sometimes, like fungus, what looks like two separate bloomings may be connected under the soil. If you are planning to make something happen – an event, a festival, a venue, a whatever – it should be because the ecology needs it. If there are loads of open mics, don’t run another open mic. If there are no high quality cabarets, run one of those. If there is no development space, make that happen. Don’t make something happen because it’s the sort of thing you happen to like: make it happen because artists need it, communities need it, the ecology needs it. Ecosystem collapse happens when there is a lack of species diversity, or when dominant species consume all the resources, or when some fucker comes and chops down the tree and the wind blows away the topsoil. You need to learn what ecology you are in and how to be a conscious, valuable, contributing part of it.

9. Be kind to yourself.

You are no use to anyone, least of all yourself, if you crash and burn. Working yourself into the ground, or taking on more projects than you can properly commit the time to, or starting collaborations you can’t finish, is bad for everyone else, bad for the ecosystem, and bad for you. It can also be a way for you to put yourself before other artists: while you ride on the wave of your energy, and become known as an exciting and dynamic person, and leap up from project to higher profile project, other people (often more vulnerable people) may be picking up the pieces. This will probably not make you happy. Be careful with yourself. Be honest about your capacity. Learn to say no to others and to yourself. Only do what you want to do (and what, economically, you have to do), not what you think you should be doing, and especially not what other people think you should be doing. Only take on projects that you think really need to happen, which you really care about, and which you really have the capacity to fulfil. If you do this, you will feel more fulfilled, and you will feel stronger, and so will your community.

10. Have an evil plan.

We live in unfriendly times, and in times which are unfriendly to art. Our lives are a process of constant compromise: what matters is not a puritan ethic of personal perfection, but learning to make compromises which you can live with and learning how to use them to change the times you live in.

You are very unlikely to be able to accomplish all of the demands in this manifesto, and that’s assuming that you want to. You are not superhuman, and the world will put a hundred hurdles in your way. You will be disappointed by yourself and by the world. So don’t try and do it all at once: instead, have an evil plan to take over the world.

It’s hard to get funding for an unproven project. So start out by working for free, and asking artists to give their art in exchange for food and a bed, all the while being clear that you’re doing this to build your capacity to obtain funding (and then share your good fortune with everyone who helped you along the way). It’s hard to build diverse audiences when you can’t afford to print flyers to get people in the door, so start out by bringing in an audience you know how to reach and then use your success to reach more people. It’s hard not to overwork when nobody pays you properly, so surround yourself with supportive collaborators, so you can take care of each other when you fall down. Have a plan, and tell the people you work with what your plan is.

Always be thinking about what comes next for your project. Always be thinking about how you can make it better, for yourself, for everyone else, and for art. Good luck.

Please copy and improve this manifesto.

Like all texts on this site, this manifesto is shared under a Creative Commons license. That means that you’re welcome to take the text and post it anywhere, for free, and that you can change it in any way you like. I’d like it if you linked back here because, well, credit is important to artists. But I’d like it much more if you changed it, made it better, cut bits, added bits, made it better, added seventeen new points, distilled it to a sonnet, made it better, wrote something entirely new from a completely different perspective, made it better. Thanks for your time.