Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The artists of austerity Britain

This essay was written for the PANDA Arts performing arts network, for whom I am a patron.

‘Austerity conservatism’ is the buzzword I’ve been hearing at countless national conferences during the past year. Whether those conferences were about the effect of the government’s cuts on families, urban life, charities, social and public service users, university students’ education or Britain’s artistic and cultural development, “austerity conservatism” has cast a dry grey wartime pall over the proceedings. It conjures up a mothball-scented, dingy, rationed, shrivelled image of contraction, of depression, of make-do-and-mend. It creates the impression of limitation, poverty and stringent asceticism.

But for all the pessimism and justified critique surrounding the budget, the arts scene isn’t looking so terrible. Yes, the BBC has had to do away with hundreds of posts, offer voluntary redundancies and make its remaining producers re-apply and re-interview for their own jobs. Yes, Amazon have killed bookshops, iTunes has killed record shops and social networking sites have created a generation of net-addicted sofa oafs who type ‘lol’ into their bedroom keyboards instead of actually laughing in reality. Yes, countless small to medium sized arts organisations have seen their funding cut. Yes, newspapers have had to axe half their staff and give their remaining contracted writers a fifty per cent pay cut. Yes, some university humanities departments have had their funding slashed by 80%. Yes, much paper content and written media has been superseded by the free Internet, putting a generation of journalists out of work and condemning the upcoming generation to a career of working for free. Yes, advertising revenue is down, forcing all its associated industries – from lifestyle magazines to mainstream television – into a trough.

But while tangible things decline – small things like income, job security, family stability, the ability to pay one’s food bill – something else will remain forever strong: the human spirit. Admittedly, the human spirit does not pay the mortgage. And admittedly, the financial model of culture is changing so drastically with the digital revolution that even the strength of the human spirit couldn’t halt the trend to put all content online for free, paving the (virtual) way for a culture in which, in a decade’s time, there will be no newspapers or magazines and all cinema and music releases will be streamed directly to a home computer.

And yet I’m optimistic. Every arts producer, editor, commissioner, executive and general cultural impresario I’ve spoken to has mentioned a culture-wide reaction against the austerity, contraction and limitation I’ve described. While the social, financial, technological and cultural framework – or ‘paradigm’, to use that yuppie buzzword so favoured by thinktankers – has changed, human nature has not. Even in the digital era, people need people. People like people. We enjoy the buzz of an exhibition, a music festival, a cinema or theatre visit, a panel debate, a live dance performance, a meal with friends, a book reading, a party. The digital revolution will never replace that drive or match that experience and as our lives become ever more virtual, atomised and isolated, the desire to connect in person, in reality, grows ever stronger.

The industry people I’ve interviewed during the last two years, across all disciplines and art forms, tell me the same thing: that audience numbers for live events have not dropped and may even (in some cases like the music industry) have increased; and that the numbers of live events across all art forms has increased dramatically in spite of the scarcity of money. There has been a boom in grassroots cultural events, people starting up their own local literary festivals, groups of artists forming collectives and putting on shows, small drama companies collaborating to produce and stage new work, countless conferences aimed at building links between those innumerable tiny organisations who produce fresh, exciting work but have found themselves on the wrong side of the Chancellor’s ledger. The government has said no to emergent culture and emergent culture is fighting back.

This seemingly instinctive urge demonstrates the necessity and power of creative art. Daily life moves quickly, as does political life. But broader ideas move slowly and deeply. We come to understand these ideas not only through immediate debate, newspaper commentary and discussion but at a much more profound level, in which we examine the meaning of the experiences around us. It is from this deeper, often slower and certainly more expensive and time-consuming level that the best art arises. Its benefits are equally profound, subtle and longstanding but it’s no wonder that the government, looking for a quick fix to the country’s financial problems, cannot see the value of this small drama centre or that avant-garde dance company.

The curtailment of funding towards the creative arts hasn’t curtailed the creation of art. Instead, it has inspired it, spurred it on, provided new impetus as artists and audiences alike absorb the implications of the new regime we are living under and the emotions it has provoked. In any time of recession, depression or oppression, there is always a tremendous and corresponding resistance which creates new forms, new work, a new language and a new way of seeing the world. It’s natural to want to create and to reflect the world around us – all the more so in times of great restriction.

I am therefore optimistic, not at a financial level but at the level of creativity and artistic fervour. Artists across all disciplines are instigating their own no-budget version of cabinet meetings, thinktanks, management consultations. Just because the money for creation isn’t there, it doesn’t mean the desire to create will die. It will simply find new ways of reaching the surface, aided by a great deal of lateral thinking, co-operation, dynamism and organisational skill. When money is scarce one uses other resources to survive: networking and collaboration; exchanges of labour; clever ticketing, membership and incentives schemes; grassroots, word of mouth, local and social media organisation rather than big-scale marketing; collaborations with charities, with larger cultural institutions or with volunteer and interned workers. It’s not ideal – it may even be on the poverty line – but it is original, it’s unifying and inspiring. It’s a new form of creating cultural power.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Where are all the women? Sexism in the media - organising the fightback

The NUJ is planning an event at TUC women's conference this year looking at how to combat sexism in the media. The event will take place on Wednesday 14 March 7pm at TUC Congress House, 23-28 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS, map here, starting at 7pm.  All are welcome - please feel free to forward these details and invite others to attend. If you would like to suggest speakers, put yourself forward as a speaker or help out with the event please email: campaigns@nuj.org.uk

If you want to get outraged and informed before the event, you could read the stats, anecdotes and whistleblows here:

    A letter from Malawi: powerful acts of challenge and change

    The below was written by Fiona Morrell at Theatre for a Change, who contacted me yesterday. What she communicated was so powerful I asked if I could reproduce her words here. She has many interesting and urgent things to say about Malawi, women, power, abuse, HIV, equality and education. If you would like to know more about Theatre For A Change, please email fiona.morrell@tfacafrica.com

    Theatre for a Change was founded in 2003 in Ghana as a NGO focused on HIV prevention. In 2007 it opened an office in Malawi which now employs over 60 people. HIV disproportionately affects women. We use experiential, participatory approaches to equip profoundly marginalised people, almost always women and girls, with the skills and knowledge to protect themselves from HIV and advocate for their gender and sexual rights.

    In Malawi we work in two main ways, through formal education, empowering young teachers with skills to pass through to children and make their classrooms more equitable places, and our community work where we specifically work with sex workers.

    Sex workers are the most at risk group in the country with an HIV prevalence rate of 70.1%. Our cohort of sex workers go through a process of behavioural change workshops to explore how to gain self confidence and a thorough knowledge of their rights. They then become empowered to become advocates for their rights through legislative theatre. Legislative theatre, based on the ideas of Boal and Friere, is based on the belief that we can tell someone to do something all they like, but it is only through standing in their shoes that real change can be manifested.

    The women take their improvisations into places where abusers are, to bars, to the police station. They start performing their stories in their language, and then invite an audience member to take on a role of a vulnerable character. Suddenly a client starts to feel how difficult it is to negotiate for the use of a condom, to feel frightened, to have no choices. The effect is very powerful. Recently the women took their work into Parliament - something which was highly controversial bearing in mind Malawi does not properly acknowledge the presence of sex workers. Their advocacy will help push for legal clarity of their status - something which is currently unsure. They also work closely with the police, the group whom they identify as most likely to abuse them, and who subsequently have the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the country. We hope this will lead to long term systemic change.

    One year ago the women launched the equals campaign, demanding the right for women to be seen and treated as equals. This campaign is growing and gathering support from women across the country. Our cohort of women working as sex workers are also given the opportunity to learn income generating skills: metal work, sausage making, hairdressing or dress making which will give them options to leave sex work in the future.

    We are unusual in dealing with HIV through promoting gender equality, but we believe, that sustainable prevention will happen only when women are empowered to protect their sexual health. We are soon to start a similar project with sex workers in Ghana.

    I believe passionately that the work the women in Malawi do should be heard about and celebrated - not only because of their bravery and determination, but to emphasise that one cannot separate health, social well being and gender - that if we continue to ignore gender inequity we will fail to tackle other great development issues - this really isn't rocket science but it is not, in my opinion, talked about or valued enough.

    Thursday, 16 February 2012

    The coolest woman on earth, volume 298405

    Around this time last year, minus two weeks, I attended a stunning event put on by the Birds Eye View film festival. It was Sounds and Silents, pairing contemporary women musicians, composers and performers (including Micachu, Imogen Heap, Tara Busch and others) who created and performed live scores for classic short films by women directors. The film, music and combination of films and music were mind-blowing, a testament to women's genius and innovation both then and now. Read my feature on it here.

    One of the stars of the evening was the musician Seaming, hailed as "a remarkable talent" by renowned conductor Otto Klemperer. I've been following her career ever since; you can listen to her music here. Seaming is unveiling a lot of new work in the coming months and I had to get behind it.
    Image by Michael England, taken from Seaming MySpace page
    Seaming will be performing new work, a song cycle entitled 'Songs For My Grandmother', commissioned by the Chinese Arts Centre. Seaming writes to me,
    "Expect spycorders, vintage electronics, words by the award-winning poet Judy Kendall, (palindromes, hair..the list goes on..) and also on stage with me will be acclaimed concert pianist Enloc Wu. It is a treat to be working with her again."
    • They will be performing Songs at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester at 8pm on Thursday 23rd February. For more details click here.
    • They will also be performing at VORTEX at 9pm on Sunday 26th February, with prior support from pianist Leon Michener and drummer Mark Sanders from 8.30pm. For more details click here.
    • Seaming also has two audio-visual pieces on exhibition at the Full Rabbit show in the basement vaults of Shoreditch Town Hall, from 24th February. For more details click here.

    Image by Michael England, taken from
    Seaming MySpace page

    Friday, 10 February 2012

    YouGov Cambridge tell women to listen to what twelve men think and say.

    YouGov-Cambridge have been sending round an email to news and politics journalists inviting them to a major symposium which will be held in London on Thursday 15th March. The media partner is the FT. The topic is a huge one which affects everyone, women most of all given the effect of budgetary and social services cuts and women's existence, labour, participation and contribution at all levels of life: it's Public Opinion, Economic Governance and The Future of Europe. The organisation seems to be allied to Cambridge University and its YouGov-POLIS Programme for Public Opinions Research. Its slogan is "What the world thinks...and the experts say" and it bills itself as...
    ...a new kind of research-centre that combines the tools of academic expertise and professional polling to analyse key trends and events in global affairs. Through a mixture of debates, lectures and in-depth, international polling reports, the  Symposium will examine how both experts and the public approach the same vital questions of European purpose, crisis and future.
    But it is no kind of "new" research centre at all. It's the same old thing. Its major symposium, programme here, features 12 white men speakers and 0 women.

    Here's the email that was sent round, below. Think you'll agree that the questions up for debate are extremely interesting. Think you'd concede that the issues are universal ones for Europe and have implications for the rest of the world politically, culturally and economically. Hope you'll concur that since they only needed 12 speakers in all they could have found 6 women from across politics, the media, finance, the backbenches, academia, economics and business to talk. Had it been more diverse, I would have loved to have attended and reported from it. The email:

    On behalf of Stephan Shakespeare, Founder & CEO, YouGov plc, we would be delighted if you could join us for the YouGov-Cambridge Symposium on Public Opinion, Economic Governance and the Future of Europe, on Thursday 15th March 2012 at the British Academy, 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, SW1. YouGov-Cambridge is a new kind of research-centre that combines the tools of academic expertise and professional polling to analyse key trends and events in global affairs. Through a mixture of debates, lectures and in-depth, international polling reports, the  Symposium will examine how both experts and the public approach the same vital questions of European purpose, crisis and future, including:            
    • To what extent does public opinion impact the economic decision-making process of the EU?
    • What kind of capitalism will enable us to recover and prosper after the crash?
    • Is a bolder European Central Bank the answer; should European sovereigns be viewed as TBTF (Too Big To Fail); and can either be democratically justified?
    • What kind of Euro-governance should we covet and fear between Balkanisation and Federalisation?
    • Is 21st Century Europe destined to be a ‘hobbled giant’ of the world economy, as the US National Intelligence Estimate suggests?
    • How do EU polities view the desirability of membership and the health of its governing institutions?
    • Must the EU and its currency borrow ideas from America’s Founding Fathers to survive?
    • Is the Euro doomed and Germany too powerful?
    • What drives public opinion for and against the competing economic arguments for recovery – and how shallow/entrenched are they?
    • ‘What is Europe’ according to public opinion – and if it’s more than geography, what makes it so? 

    Speakers include: John Humphrys, Presenter, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme; Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer; Sir Roger Carr, Chairman, Centrica and President, CBI; Jim O’Neill, Chairman, Goldman Sachs Asset Management; Alex Ellis, Director of Strategy, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Sir Win Bischoff, Chairman, Lloyds Banking Group plc; Bernard Jenkin MP,Chairman, House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee; Lord Wood, Advisor to Ed Miliband and Shadow Cabinet Minister Without Portfolio; Lord Glasman, Labour peer and co-editor of "The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox"; Declan Ganley, entrepreneur and founder, Libertas; Georges Ugeux, Former Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange, now CEO of Galileo Global Advisors and Professor Andrew Gamble, Head of Politics, Cambridge University.

    A full programme can be found here.

    The Symposium is not open to the public but is by invitation only. Registration and coffee begin at 9:00am with opening remarks for 9:30am. We look forward to hearing from you in the hope you can join us for this Symposium.
    Warm best wishes,
    Emma Sullivan, Business Manager, YouGovStone
    Dr Joel Faulkner Rogers, Director, YouGov-Cambridge
    ...and warm best wishes to you, YouGov, for creating a major symposium about issues which affect everyone and inviting 12 white men to speak, and 0 women.

    Not On Safari In Harlesden

    I wanted to write a short piece celebrating the art of perambulation and inspiration. In her Not On Safari In Harlesden project, the author Rose Rouse, whose books include Last Letters to Loved Ones, has been exploring her local area with a range of writers including Louis Theroux, Alexei Sayle, Monique Roffey, anti gun crime activist Michael Saunders, poet Sue Saunders and politician Dawn Butler. Part urban anthropology, part memoir, part art happening, Rouse has been on over 30 walks, which she has described in her column in the local paper, the Brent and Kilburn Times. The site is here: beautifully written, inspiring, intelligent, observant contemporary urban reportage written with great humanity, which really deserves to be published as a complete book as it gives such an insight into modern London. Rose has also also made a short film, Dance Willesden Junction, where she and eight friends in red dance the, er, gritty chic *cough* walkways of the station. Here's a wonderful still:
    Watch out for the high visibility maintenance man who gets down to Al Green. We like your spirit, guy: