Alternative Editorial: Can Art Save Our World?

XR’s mystical apparitions brainchild of Bristolian Doug Francisco, founder of The Invisible Circus

XR’s mystical apparitions brainchild of Bristolian Doug Francisco, founder of The Invisible Circus

By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator AUK

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival this week has put me in the familiar quandry about what qualifies as art? And who has access to it?

As a consumer, I’m not sure that decades of asking those question have led to truly significant changes in theatre and dance audiences. Certainly established arts venues generally cater for those who can pay: the more successful the artist, the more expensive the ticket.

Which is sad in so many ways. Particularly for the artist, whose insights, imagination and beauty will have such limited audiences – often missing out those for whom the work was intended. And it’s sad for society: how much we all need to be enriched by the creative expression of those who commit their lives to the fuller expression of what it means to be human.

It’s as if a vital source of transformation cannot connect with those who most need it: but what else is new?

Yet tucked away in the bowels of the Lyceum a series of experiments was pushing the boundaries. Free tickets were given out to take part in arts driven socio-political explorations, called Saturday Sessions. One event, Climate, Culture & Creativity, created an interface between activists and the arts industry, and inviting the public to participate in the conversation.

Richard Couldrey from Transition Towns and Kate McGrath from Fuel Theatre, introduced the event, saying

“We are living in a climate emergency and the role of culture within the ecosystem of response to that is vital and necessary.

We must act now, it is urgent, so let’s imagine together and conscientiously build a deep response, making change happen in the arts for good.

This is a unique moment. A window of opportunity. There are many drivers for change: Greta Thunberg inspiring worldwide student climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion creating the images of protest to inspire us, David Attenborough’s series on human impact on the world, 50+ councils in the UK declaring climate emergency all leading to a rise in individual and community activism, underpinning the work already being done in the arts sector and beyond.

And it’s not just a moment of anger- the anger is fuelling a great re-imagining of our neighbourhoods, communities and society. A massive exercising of creativity that enables everyone to participate - a great invitation to join in…

Let’s challenge each other to pledge to new lines of enquiry and play our part individually and collectively towards a regenerative future.”

Ben Twist (Creative Carbon Scotland, on Festivals) Eva Schonveld (Climate Action Networks on Scotland) and and Kay Michael (From Culture Declares, on XR at EdFest ) set the context – where we are in the fight to halt climate catastrophe. I was there - alongside Sam Knights of Extinction Rebellion - to offer provocations on systems change: opening up spaces for artists to offer practice as well as inspiration. Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Towns, talked about the role of our imagination to step into a better future.

The soft power of Art

The soft power of Art

Then it was over to the eighty or so arts practitioners and consumers gathered, to consider how the arts could contribute more or better to the rapid changes that are now needed.

It was not an easy subject to manage. There were people considering the climate “emergency” (not just “change”) we are in for the first time, slightly shell-shocked. Others had been thinking through greater accessibility of the arts for a wider public for decades, but were sensing a gear change because of what XR was bringing. Others picked up on the notion that creativity has to be seen much more as the province of every citizen, rather than a professional group. It was a rare moment of accelerated elision between these often-siloed perspectives.

That afternoon, in another Lyceum event we were the audience - and discussion group - for an abbreviated version of Clint Dyer and Simon McBurney’s work in progress called The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke. It was a reminder of the classic role of the arts: to give intense insights - through creative storytelling – into our divided society. But also the extra problems now arriving, of people waking up, for the first time, to their daily reality.

‘Franz’ is a young black man, recently sectioned. We learnt that 16 young black men are sectioned every day in the UK – higher than anywhere else in the world. One in four of all people sectioned are black.

Using the metaphor of adoption, he explained how impossible it was to process being invited to be part of a family, all the while experiencing being constantly rejected. How important it was to be allowed to be fully, culturally black, while at the same time being told by the white people around you, that your colour was unimportant to them.

“Franz’ in The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke

“Franz’ in The Happy Tragedy of Being Woke

How easy it was for others experiencing exclusion, to imagine that your pain was equivalent to theirs—when it can never be. Maybe a stark challenge to intersectionality.

Such was the quality of the acting and writing, the room felt electrified. Emotional responses flowed, often only indirectly related to the play. Some confessed to never having understood before what it means to be black, living in post-imperial Britain.

The boundary between the arts and the audience came down as the actors fully integrated their characters and their real-time daily lives. When asked what could be done to make things better, writer/ Director /actor Dyer said, “Only time and conversation. Within community”.

It was profound moment of confirmation. In this moment of rapid awakening – to the triple crises – it’s vitally important to open safe spaces for conversation. Which means not rapid, disconnected opinion sharing on Facebook or Twitter. But carefully facilitated, subtly held spaces in which people can speak and be heard.

How often do I hear good groups of the usual suspects – those of us who have been active in these spaces for many years – worry that their participants aren’t diverse enough? We try to invite the excluded into our conversations, but rarely ask what the conversation should be to enable them to be there. The arts create a uniquely open space for new conversations to arise.

But there needs to be more follow up, with all who participated having ways to build on the relationships birthed there. That’s certainly an explicit goal of our model of collaboratories (ref), working with the community networks already available.

The final experiment of the day at the Lyceum was Breaking Bread: a chance to have dinner with random groups of people to discuss climate inspired questions set by a visiting artist – in this case, Nigerian / British poet Inua Ellam.

On paper, this did not sound too promising. Groups of people, already up for discussion, sharing their diverse opinions without any structure for taking action. And yet, it proved an important moment of acceleration for many of those participating.

Ellams’ flowing words and challenging imagery, shifted us into more thoughtful responses than might otherwise have been. His own grappling with agency and mental health pushed us into more embodied, visceral responses to the emergency, than simply organisational or theoretical.

How can we get more of these kinds of interventions – the more experimental and playful the better – into the communities where they are most needed? Of course this is partly an issue of community theatre groups that have lost their funding being brought back into play. Although their challenges to find whole community audiences has to be taken on, nevertheless.

But it is also non-arts spaces, particularly socio-political gatherings that could go much further in understanding how crucial the arts are for achieving their goals. For deepening conversations, generating empathy, building bridges between siloed communities. For uncovering new possibilities. For enlivening and waking up.

How does this fit into our concept of the new economy? How can it become constitutive of the consensus needed for Universal Basic Income? In what many ways is this core to social prescribing?

Let’s keep factoring the arts in when we think about the ways and means of helping communities become more resilient for the challenges ahead.

Advertising imagery addicts us to consumerism through superficial meeting of emotional needs.

Advertising imagery addicts us to consumerism through superficial meeting of emotional needs.