Thursday, 23 November 2017

Manifesto for being here

I was going to write this blog post as a defense of those artists who choose to work outside of London. It was also going to include a defense of those who choose to be rooted in one place rather than searching for a way to be internationally relevant. Then I decided that instead, what I wanted to do was not write from a defensive position at all, but to articulate the strength of the reasons for being an artist working in Liverpool. I think it's important to do this now because recently I have encountered the faint whiff of disdain towards the city's artists as if the community we have here is a kind of remedial space offering excessive support, encouraging satisfaction with unambitious under-accomplished work.

There are a number of points to address this on but one that I see as being at the root of the problem is the idea that there is a career ladder for artists. This would appear to have a ladder with regional activity somewhere near the ground and success in London teetering somewhere near the top with all of us either climbing or falling. The ladder metaphor speaks to the reinforcement of hierarchy and is intended to spur those near the bottom to work to achieve a higher position. I find it hard not to see this as a technique of domination one that I know has been used against many groups keeping those who have no power within the industry from building alternative structures that might serve them better. We should be more aware of how this plays into the narrative that sees the north of England disadvantaged in relation to the south. To borrow from another city's mythology the "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere" maxim appears to me to lead to a greater number of the country's creative workers believing for most of their career that they have failed in general because they could not or would not "make it" in that one city. Please, don't misunderstand me. This is not a polemic against London. I grew up there, I love the city deeply. The work produced there in many cases is worthy of the attention it receives, but - and it's a big but- there appears to be a sense that Londoner's perspective is, like some sort of cultural Ofsted, the only one that matters. My argument is that on the mythical ladder of success many of us like to climb sideways (technically that means jumping off) and that should be acceptable.

Here is an alternative metaphor, one that in my very biased and partial opinion speaks of my motivation for wanting to stay in Liverpool to work. Maybe our creative work-life is more of a tree growing than a ladder to climb. Having the right environment to flourish is key to growing tall. Rooting is equally important, with trees developing root and branch in a similar pattern, reaching down as much as they reach up. Perhaps success away from home is even more possible if we are firmly and securely rooted somewhere and Liverpool for all it's struggles, is a place where that rooting is possible for a number of reasons. The cultural ecology here developed to support people with open institutions and many high profile artists performing locally and offering opportunities for newer artists to grow alongside them. Whether that be through affordable spaces to work and live or opportunities to be profiled alongside more established artists. That is what I found when I came here and I am evangelical about the benefits of that kind of environment. Don't compete: Create.

There is a perception that people who come to Liverpool to work come here because it's easy, because we are lazy and don't want to compete with the best. The submerged point of view is that what should be difficult in art making is the environment. Just getting the work made should be a struggle for the work to be good. My point of  view and the point of view of many artists I work around here is that the difficulty should be in the work. That it should be subject matter that challenges you or that you ask more difficult things of yourself, stretching your skills, or stepping outside of your regular comfortable circle of supporters. The artists in Liverpool that I know have as their target not the bright lights of London, but the human condition: reaching people is the goal and there happen to be thousands of wondrous human beings living in the city and we may not need to abandon them to improve the quality of our work. I will say many times in this article that this isn't about bringing London down. Artists I respect do thrive there, work I love is made there, but that is also true here.

I am aware that many people don't under stand my motivation for doing what I do in the way that I do it. I often try to help artists that I don't know very well. I think it unnerves some as they think that I want something, but in fact I am trying to be influential in my culture and I think that you can't do that if you just focus on yourself and your work. You have to champion others for no reason other than that they exist or that they are interested in subjects that you find compelling. It isn't just about whether their work is good or bad it is about whether they are part of the project to articulate the most essential parts of our humanity. In fact the only criteria I have for deciding who I want to work with or champion, is how open they are to the depths their subject matter proposes.

For me it is also it is about the politics of opportunity. I think it important to reduce friction and allow people to grow without dictating the terms or shape of that growth. That point of view doesn't preclude  interventions to encourage people to think more rigorously about their work. It also doesn't mean that many artists working in Liverpool might not benefit from time spent working on communicating more clearly with those not living in the city. The ability to communicate with those that are not like you is an important measure of growth and maturity, but it shouldn't be the price of entry to the art world.

A focus on people rather than their outputs is related to a belief that not everything can or should be controlled and that by nurturing the person, their ability to think, their resilience and encouraging them to think deeply about their philosophy so they know why they are doing what they are doing that you are serving the cause of art. Good work, surprising, essential work can happen under those circumstances. The art world is a function of the people who make and consume art, as consciousness and personality are functions of the body. You must support one in order to see the other flourish.

The way of working here is an alternative structure, consciously created and maintained and it does bear comparison to other more competitive cultures. The city is increasingly under-resourced.  The creative community also. Two connective organisations that provided the nurturing and resourcing for a great many of the city's creative workers were defunded this year (Hope Street Ltd. and Merseyside Dance Initiative). I fear that this may damage the creative sector in ways that might not be immediately apparent to people outside of the city or to it's funders. They were low cost, making a small NPO grant incredible value for money. Their existence was an illustration of my point: they supported the people who make art. That they were not valued by funders suggests that this misunderstanding of their philosophy of supporting people may end up being deeply damaging to the sector. I for one am prepared to fight with what I have to get more people to recognise the positive choices that people make when they choose the right environment to nurture their artistry. It is a courageous choice and one that I am aware others make when choosing to live in London too. My argument is that neither choice is better and respect is due to both.

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