Flaneur: Day 1

Poetry, Uncategorized

FLANEUR is a little project I’ve made for the BBC’s Contains Strong Language: a randomly-generated writing-exploration game that you can take part in. Each day of the festival I’ll be taking a randomised wander around Hull and posting a little poem about it. Head to Mixital to get your own instructions for a surprise, write a response, and share it with us. I’ll be reading and chatting about the responses on BBC social media channels each afternoon.

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A big city street with two single-decker buses stopping to drop off and pick up. The sun’s setting. Half-timbered house in the rear, and a few big green trees to the right.

28/9/17

The growl and wheeze of city buses, tired
little dragons, settling to eat a bit
of flesh, dump a bit of flesh, grump their doors
and curse themselves on. Blinking at bikes,
scowling at silent black chelsea tractors — this city
was theirs once, giving its gold, and now a thousand
motors a minute bother their bones, slowed
to rumbling lurch…
___________________________but hey, here’s a straight
and a clear yellow lane: hear them fly.

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My feet up on the wall outside Hull’s Guildhall, where I finished the wander: green socks and purple trainers.

Wander Notes

My instructions:
1. Proceed gently for eighteen seconds.
2. Watch.
3. Meander gently for a while.
4. Roll away from the sea for a while.
5. Take the fourth right.
6. Find the nearest seat and take a rubbing of it.
7. Roll towards the moon for a while.
8. Wheel east for two miles.
9. Go sideways for three seconds.
10. Walk.
11. Take the fifth right.
12. Stop, find a comfortable spot, and write a poem about what you’ve heard.
13. Head back.

A little city centre walk, starting out at BBC Humberside, taking an eccentric loop through shopping and residential streets, before darting off to the river and finishing off with a dander through the old town. Not being a wheelchair user, I interpreted “roll” with a relaxed, dawdling gait; not being a river, I started out with a loopy wander round the fountain for “meander”. There was an awkward moment as I fumbled on my phone trying to figure out roughly what direction the moon was in, and I had my first cheat, being too hungry to walk for 2 miles and cutting it off early. Cheating is definitely encouragesd. A pleasant way to get familiar with the centre of Hull, its mix of big uncrossable roads, pedestrianised shopping, post-industrial and post-commercial spaces and grand old buildings. I’ll start nearer the edge tomorrow and see if I end up somewhere stranger.

hull1

A map of the walk, starting out in Queen’s Gardens, looping through the shopping centre, then up to the river and down though the old town. I wasn’t drunk, I just don’t have a good mouse for drawing smooth lines.

Poem Notes
It’s nerve-wracking, sharing quickly-written poems! I wonder if visual artists who share their sketches feel the same way. Anyway, I’m pleased here with capturing the sound of buses, which I love and have always noticed and couldn’t place until I thought of dragons. When writing quickly, you can generally only get to one or two good things: here, a central image to work through and a set of sounds to play with. I think I’ve overdone it on the sound effects, which need to be reigned in (or, more fun and silly, pushed further), and I don’t think I’ve quite caught the ending yet — too glib, too cheesy! But I’m glad to have met some dragons.

 

Provocations for a Culture Strategy

Uncategorized

For reasons opaque to me, I’ve been invited to a Scottish Government workshop on Culture Strategy next week. I’m not quite sure what will happen there, but it’s given me an occasion to write down some thoughts on how the arts are and could be funded. What follows are some poorly-thought-through provocations for arts funding policy. Some of them may very well be bad. I’d very much like yours. I’m conscious that I’ve probably been invited to this workshop as a representative of the bolshie grassroots, the messy fringe, and to that end I’d like to take to the room some of the voices that aren’t but should be there. If you’ve got suggestions for a Scottish culture strategy, tell me them and I’ll try to bring them up.

Some Major Problems for Arts Funding

1) Most artists I know cannot make a living wage from their work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be indebted, precariously-employed, and private renters, unable to access the social and economic capital of previous generations. Whereas previous generations of artists were to some degree subsidised by unemployment and other benefits, these routes have been cut off to most. This has a knock-on effect on diversity, as racialised and other minoritised people are even less likely to access support for their work economically, and face other social barriers as well. The result is an arts scene dominated by middle- and upper-class white people, still, at all levels of production and management, but increasingly-so further up the hierarchy.

2) This means in turn that marginalised voices are tokenized and put into their own boxes: the queer artist is only able to get paid to make art about being queer, for example, or the organisation that does good accessibility work is shunted from the “Performance” panel to the “Diversity” panel (this happened to one of mine). Marginalised voices are more likely to have to rely on crowdfunding, self-exploitation, non-arts jobs and so on in order to make the work they want to make.

3) Publicly-funded arts do not command mass public support. We are luvvies. We are seen as an indulgence. Not enough people see the link between publicly-funded arts, community and education arts, and private sector arts (e.g. an actor in a West End musical may make most of their money in the public sector; a school poetry workshop is only possible thanks to a public support infrastructure). Some of the blame for this must lie in which arts are funded: arts enjoyed broadly by richer people, such as opera and ballet, get the most funding support, whereas arts enjoyed broadly by poorer people, such as hiphop and videogames, get the least public support and are expected to survive in the commercial sector alone. The result is that when public spending cuts come the arts are often the first to go and the worst punished.

4) Arts organisations are riven by multiple economic inequalities. The gap between the wage earned by the Artistic Director of a national theatre and that earned by an actor in that theatre is shameful. Those in administration and management have the most stable jobs and wages, while those actually making art have the least access to jobs and stability, with producers somewhere in the middle. That is, the arts model the inequalities of the wider employment sector, with executives consolidating their power, trickling up wages to the top, and exploiting the labour of those who actually make the commodity. This is also linked to and runs through the problems of points one and two, meaning that those marginalised by factors like disability and race are also hit by these inequalities.

5) There is no clear understanding of or approach to the gradients between “professional” and “amateur” arts. Far more people want to be involved in the arts than can currently find employment in the arts. Submitting your art to a wage-relation also destroys the pleasure of art for some. By necessity or choice, there is a large unpaid arts sector, from community drama groups to volunteer orchestras. This is a vital part of cultural life, but who has access to capital to support that culture is shaped by all the factors previously discussed: the more marginal your voice, the more likely your art will be seen as amateur and undeserving of support. It also creates a greyzone for all artists: as one moves from amateur to professional, because there is no formal apprenticeship (even arts qualifications usually do not lead to immediate employment), one takes on many free and underpaid gigs, and institutions are liable to exploit this to sell art and undercut wages. Support for “community” and “professional” arts is intertwined in fact but not in practice.

6) The ability to earn a living as an artist depends on a number of skills and capacities entirely unrelated to artistic ability, e.g. networking, application-writing, volunteering availability, interview technique, &c. These skills are also distributed along vectors of marginalisation, reinforcing social hierarchies. In particular, public funding is closed off to independent artists who cannot speak the language of funders and write a funding application; at present, support for them is mostly available through other freelance artists lending help. Meanwhile, full-time organisations often employ fundraising officers to help them access both public and private funds. The result, again, is that power and capital consolidate to themselves: it’s easier to get money if you have money, and the cycle continues.

7) In Scotland, and most of all in Edinburgh, the festival model dominates the arts. In this model, employment for artists and art for audiences is made available only seasonally in order to concentrate a marketing push. In some cases, festivals market themselves as an opportunity artists must pay to be part of. As a result, the precaritisation of the arts, and the ability of landlords and financiers to be parasitic on the labour of artists to the point of emptying it entirely of wages, is deepened, while the ability to create year-round arts institutions and community-embedded arts practice is weakened. Moreover, the arts become a special thing that happens in a specific place and time, rather than something threaded through life.

8) We don’t know what arts funding is for. Is it to support art that cannot survive in the commercial market?–To make the art that doesn’t sell? Is it to enure artists can make a living? Is it to diversify the cultural scene?–To enable anyone from any background to access any artform, as artist or audience? Is it to strengthen the sustainability and economic potential of the Creative Industries? –To invest for a greater return? Because these different and sometimes mutually-exclusive aims are muddled together, we have a muddled and directionless approach to arts funding.

Some Ideas Which Are Not Solutions But Might Help Find Some

1) Artists’ unions to negotiate pay rates with funding bodies, and funding bodies to refuse funding to any organisation which does not meet those rates at every level.

2) Arts executive pay for funded organisations to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker (including maintenance staff).

3) For every administrator or producer employed by a funded organisation, an artist must also be given a full-time job making art. Alternatively, funded bodies must dedicate at least 50% of their annual budget directly to artists.

4) Professional and community arts to be managed by the same public agency, with a ratio of funding to be determined following research (but 50:50 seems like a good one to aim for to me). That is, for every £1 spend employing someone within a professional arts organisation (i.e. one that employs artists), £1 is given in to a community arts organisation (i.e. one that provides free/supercheap access to creative activities).

5) Funding bodies to have explicit policies to favour workers’ co-operatives, i.e. arts organisations which are owned and democratically-managed by their workers. At least, as an interim stage, funding bodies to support the development of workers’ co-operatives through training, starting with their own staff.

6) Artists’ unions to establish new closed shop venues and publishers, &c., or to negotiate with existing organisations to establish closed shops, where only union members can work and pay and benefits are fixed.

7) Funded organisations to meet robust diversity quotas for employees, artists and audiences or face defunding. Quotas should be in excess of demographic proportions..

8) Funding bodies to make at least a third of their funds small grants (£1-5k) directly available to artists, with ultra-low entry requirements and monitoring. The “failure” of many of these grants to be accepted and celebrated.

9) Governments to invest in rent-free housing available to artists on application with ultra-low entry requirements.

10) Government-backed arts apprenticeships established, whereby one works at subsidised wages for 1-3 years learning acting or marketing with a guaranteed job at the end of it.

11) Any funding officer in a publicly-funded organisation is seconded for 25% of their time to an organisation any freelance artist can access to help write their funding applications.

12) Arts organisations and non-governmental funders to have an explicit policy of campaigning for unemployment, disability and other social benefits, in recognitionn that these are a crucial form of arts subsidy.

13) No festivals.

 

Outriders: Changing Spaces

Outriders, Uncategorized

I’m writing this in airports. Owing to some tricky planning and scheduling, I’m travelling back home from Edmonton — built on Treaty 6 territory, and a traditional gathering place and home for many peoples including Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene Ojibwe, Inuit and others — in three hops over 36 hours of solid airport time. Or maybe it’s only 28 hours — I’m a bit confused about how time works now, and I’m pausing in 4 different timezones where it doesn’t matter what time it is because all time is airport time, airport light, airport space, that liminal zone that’s it’s own reality, legality and sovereignty. Half shopping mall, half security processing factory, all skin-dry and eye-sore. I’m ready to be home.

Actually, I’m not writing this in an airport. I wrote all the notes and sketches in an airport, and then I wrote it at home, and now I’m writing it on a train travelling to an airport for the next, completely different, work job. One of the great joys of working in the arts is that you get to travel a lot and see all sorts of fascinating places; one of the curses is that in order to stitch an income together you have to travel a lot, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself living in the non-space of travel: airport, hotel, chain cafe, train. The arts and the lives of artists are enmeshed in (or maybe parasitic on) these structures of globalised business and leisure.

Flying over the praries to Edmonton gives a very particular view of the land: you can see it spread out like a map, marked out and parcelled into different territories, uses, legal claims. You get a gods’-eye survey — or rather, a colonial mapping survey, and the land shows the marks of that approach to land. Over Alberta, I’m astonished at how square all the fields are, big square monoculture fields divided up by long straight roads, the product, I think, by land surveys where the land was cut up by literal chains. Over Manitoba, around the former Red River Settlement, I remember seeing the transition between two different forms of land division: the long strips of farmnland that were the legacy of the French surveys and also the clearances crofters’ imported runrig system, which had all the houses next to each other along the river with the field stretching out behind, giving way to the square grid of the later colonial survey, with houses separated into different corners.

On the ground, the land looks different. I remember this from the strange difference between how hills look from eye-level and how they look on Ordnance Survey maps (which are, for all their beauty, defined by their origins as a military technology). The maps help me name the hills, and plot out the main dynamics of a route, but once you’re off-path the best approach is to look around you and have a think about what the land looks like and where the good routes might be, just like looking at the clouds tells you more than a weather forecast. If you live off the land then it all looks very different from a map: it might be shaped by relations to rivers and migration routes, or how and when particular plants can be gathered, or walking distances (which are better measured in time, effort and danger than in miles). Land is time and sense as well as shape.

And on the ground, the city looks different too. I played SimCity a lot as a bairn, and I still enjoy flying over cities and thinking about commercial and residential districts, the distribution of parks, the transport infrastructure. But from street level, what matters more is pavement, shelter, crossings, comfort, risk. Edmonton is defined by urban sprawl — I’m told it has among the sparsest population density and largest urban sprawl in the world. It takes what I’ve come to learn about North American cities to extremes: every building has its own parking lot, and walking can thus be punishing if not impossible, because you’re expected to drive. Add to that the architecture of an oil-based economy, which here reminds me of a giant Aberdeen: booms and busts that inhibit long-term planning and encourage the rapid growth of megastructures. Edmonton had the largest mall in the world, but it’s been hammered down the rankings by (depending on how you count it) various efforts in China, Iran, UAE and the Philippines. All this — the North American approach to car-based cities in particular — is enabled by the perception of limitless space for expansion, by not recognising the inhabitation, rights, ecology and land use there originally.

In Edmonton I’m meeting Gavin Renwick, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta, and, like me, from Scotland. Starting from work in design and visual arts, Gavin has spent much of the last 20 years working with Dene communities in the Northwest Territories, particularly aiding in land claims and community projects through developing indigenised forms of mapping, design and knowledge communication. Land claims are an important part of decolonial politics (or survivance, or resurgence, or sur-thrivance, each of which terms, among others, carries different significances and inflections). Often contested by the colonising government for decades, to the cost of millions (and lives), these claims are made on the basis of continuous land use and occupation, failed treaty obligations, or both. They are won by indigenous organisations in the majority of cases, despite government opposition, with far-reaching (and often unfulfilled) obligations for how land and resources are used and care for.

As Gavin tells me, land claims involve contests and negotiations not only within the colonial legal system but between different legal systems and conceptions of rights and ownership, different understandings of how land should be treated, different mappings. Part of his role, in services to the communities he’s been engaged by, is to find ways of communicating through and across those differences. Gavin shows me beautiful designs and maps he’s worked on in the past, which indicate very different conceptions of inhabitation, land use and stewardship. These contests of understandings are played out on the land and on bodies: legal structures and design concepts have physical shapes. I’m reminded also of something Katherena told me when explaining land claim issues to me, that it seems that laws about indigenous issues — which have had multiple layers over the decades, with different degrees and shapes of oppressive coloniality — seem to be deliberately designed to be difficult to understand or negotiatiate.

When talking people back in Scotland, something I’ve struggled to explain often is that colonialism is not a past historical period of horrors-to-be-forgotten, but rather an ongoing process that continues to be enacted on land and people. Resettlement of indigenous groups — forced removal from land for economic, legal, military or other purposes — is still a reality. That’s in ongoing contested land claims, and also in ongoing resource use: the colonial conception of the land as a terra nullis to be exploited continues through the corporate extraction and exploitation of natural resources, whether that’s the Manitoba Hydro reshaping the waterways the entire province, the Alberta Tar Sands (in which the Royal Bank of Scotland was a significant investor) creating a Mordor-like landscape, or the Dakota Access Pipeline that’s been very present in the news. There are many other such examples not in the news. In each case, the resource use features ongoing theft and destruction of indigenous land, and ongoing extraction of economic resources by dominant groups, including overseas, including us, including me.

There are two concepts I’ve encountered when researching these contests and negotiations that I’ve found particularly vital. The first, which Gavin told me about, is Elizabeth Mackenzie’s dictum, “Strong Like Two People”, which has since become a motto for Tlicho edication. It speaks of living in and as both the colonial world and the indigenous world and being stronger for it. The second, which I learned about in the work of Dr Darcy Leigh, is James Tully’s concept that “Another World is Actual”, meaning that a different way of being exists not in an imagined future but now, in a time and space that exists alongside and in contest or negotiation with capitalist and colonial time and space. Not either/or but both/and, and always but.

Returning home, and thinking and writing about all this, what I know most now is that I know enough to know how little I know. I feel still as though I’m blundering into issues, trying to learn what I can and be respectful, but still learning and still (always) making mistakes. I feel too that I’ve picked up a lot of threads and only just begun to pull on them — this blog has covered a lot of ideas in a beginning sort of way. I’ll be producing particular pieces of writing for the #Outriders project — a condensed and tighter version of this blog, a longer piece of poetry — but they too will be a beginning. There’s a potential lifetime of work, of course.

The motivation for me, in this place and time, in doing this work, is how relevant it is to Scotland’s future. (That, and an angry-sorrowful sense of injustice and complicity that’s been in me since I was small and has never stopped simmering except to boil over.) As the UK goes through a long period of constitutional turmoil, and as Scotland seeks to define and redefine itself within that, I don’t think the conversation can continue in an honest way, let alone a liberatory way, without a confrontation with our past and ongoing participation in colonialism. This requires a solidarity with, respect for and centering of those in decolonial struggle — although I’m finding ideas and inspiration for my own home and politics in this journey, it’s those confrontations and people that must be centred. Scotland’s confrontation is political, personal, economic and more: it requires recognition and reparation for the way Scotland has profited materially from colonial violence, and it also requires a reshaping of our institutions, lives and minds away from colonial logic. There are other Scotlands existing alongside, in among and through the Scotland we usually assume to exist. I want to bring to mind just one the Scotlands we try to hard to forget, and through that to find more strength and life for the Scotland I choose to be part of. Those Scotlands are intertwined, and I can’t escape one for the other: I live in both, and others besides.

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Taking this journey (which is not over) and writing these blogs (which are a start) has meant a lot of support and help from a lot of people. Thanks to Cléo Sallis-Parchet and all at the British Council Canada, and to Nick Barley, Jenny Niven, Cat Tyre and Ioannis Kalkounos at EIBF for organising and supporting the projects all the way through, plus to Chris DiRaddio, Shelley Pomerance, and Tiphanie Flores at Blue Met / Metropolis Bleu for their hosting. In Montréal, thanks to Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine, Jonathan Lamy, Rachel McCrum and Kai Cheng Thom for brilliant conversations. In Winnipeg, thanks to Reuben for history, humour and driving. In Churchill, thanks to Karen Blackbourn (plus Lib Spry for the connection), Leonard Macpherson, Bill Calman and Mike Spence for a lot of education, connections and ideas, plus to all at the Churchill Community Bulletin Board for good chats. In Edmonton, thanks to Kalea Turner-Beckman and Gavin Renwick for fine hosting and encouragement. Thanks to all who’ve read, commented, shared stories and given me good links, and thanks to anyone whose name I’ve forgotten (please tell me and slap my wrist; it’s been a long month!) Most of all, thanks to Katherena Vermette for agreeing to be part of this project, and for being very generous with conversation and with time.

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A big ole pile of books, the titles of which are listed below. Left are the books I took to Canada; right the ones I brought back.

I brought back a lot of books from Canada. In fact, I had to buy another suitcase to be able to transport them. Whoops. Here’s my reading list, which is in no way complete but gives an indication of what I’m reading and thinking about and another place to start.