Breathing Space – public art as vehicles for social change Light City Baltimore, April 2016

It’s a delight to be in Baltimore – see what I did there? I love this city. I spent the best part of two years here, 2010 and 2011, and met Brooke and Justin at the beginning of What Weekly. We spoke about their dreams to document Baltimore’s renaissance. To build community, to do awesome stuff. Those dreams are being made here with Light City. Having an idea, getting people inspired, building consensus. Knowing the risks and taking them anyway. Telling the story over and over and over again: to young people, old people, journalists, critics, supporters, family members. Over and over until people say, yes. I’m so proud to stand here five years later and be a part of it. Thank you for inviting me here. Thank you to Paul and Dorothy Wolman, for being my mentors and for hosting me.

We need a better world? Sure. Can we all agree on that? What ‘we’ ‘need’ ‘better’ and ‘world’ all mean are open to interpretation but the sense is the same. Words are so beautifully vague. The truth is like poetry, someone said, and most people really hate poetry.

I’m not a politician, not a campaigner: it’s not what comes naturally to me, I say the wrong things in public and my attention span is too short.

I’m much more interested in emotions and stories, creating moments of wonder, bits of imagery that make people smile, fall in love – even just for a second – that create a sense of magic, a mythology, something accessible, warm, colourful and unexpected.

Why and for what? That’s why I’m here. In 2008 I found myself setting fire to a 50ft pirate ship, with 150 performers and watching 30,000 people lose their minds… and realized I was onto something. The sense of ‘nowness’ was palpable. Being a part of a collective moment, all those people together united by a shared experience… it’s powerful. I was living in London, a place also full of people, united by the shared experience – of living in London. I didn’t feel the nowness there.

I’ve spent the last eight years living and working around the world, hoping to learn what it means to make public art in different contexts.

When people think about public art for social change there tends to be a socio-economic ring to the conversation:

– generating jobs

– giving voices to marginalised people

– fighting for social justice

— social return on investment… changing or fixing stuff…. often strident and worthy imagery.

I’m not disputing whether there’s a role for these projects: there are amazingly effective works (Force, Open Walls, Baltimore Love Project etc.). It’d be crass for me to do so and totally beyond my ken as an outsider coming in.

The debate tends to snag, however. The cultural industries and lawmakers struggle to articulate value and impact in ways each other understand. There’s been a global shift away from state support for the arts since 2008. Culture helped bail out the banks in 2008 and never really recovered, and the banks haven’t returned the favour.

It’s a slightly different discourse to the campaigning, and to me, just as productive. In particular in a post-internet age where your reputation is governed by the imagery that follows you.

My question is whether there’s any value in it, in a place like Baltimore.

I’ll also talk about It’s My City, my upcoming project in South Africa. I’m working with five local artists to create three giant sculptures that will represent their relationship to the city. They’ve had very clear creative autonomy around what these things look like and what’s coming will be amazing. Oh, and they’ll come to life as giant puppets after a week and walk to meet each other. Then we’ll have a short ceremony and set them on fire.

The setting-on-fire is interesting. I have a long-time reputation for setting fire to things. In theory people love it, in practise they find it tricky. There’s a sense of decadence, somehow that I’m disrespecting all this wonderful work. Especially in South Africa this is proving tricky.

A public artwork, for me, serves a public purpose, ie is for the betterment of the collective. And public spirit is dynamic and changes. There’s no use making a work about community integration, pointing to it and saying ‘we’re done now’. It’s not the job of the artist to do that, it’s the job of the politicians, town planners, city staff, school teachers, doctors, policemen and women, physicians, everyone else. Give a city to an artist and, um, there’d be lots of angst and no buses. There might be buses. Musical buses. Covered in glitter. Vote for me.

That’s why I make temporary work and that’s why for me the active dismantling and burning of the work once it’s made its point is important, so people get that the onus is on them to better their situation through active participation.

My suggestion is that people are more likely to want to get involved, to keep the streets clean, to look after their environment, to put themselves through school and to talk with pride about Baltimore, if there’s awesomely colourful happenings in the city. Things that involve them and that don’t last, that are constantly refreshing, creating different sorts of jobs. You could say it’s the application of consumerist tendencies to storytelling but in a way that plays up to people’s curiosity, rather than dumbs down to a lowest common denominator of shopping.

I don’t think it’s about having answers, rather creating an ecology that allows for creativity to thrive – support for temporary work, a creative strategy that crosses a number of municipal departments and brings together private and public partnerships, long-term commitment to emerging artists and the facilitation of artistic, creative and fabrication spaces, and tying funding for such projects all around the idea, the delivery, rather than the documentation and the reporting. Manchester, in the UK, adopted a city-wide cultural strategy as ‘the original modern city’, where people just got on and did stuff rather than talked about it. All the cultural organisations got behind it as a method statement and it’s become an incredibly useful hat-stand for everyone to hang their coats on, if that metaphor can be served up on your side of the water.

The word ecology is interesting because it’s an interdependent, messy word, closer to the nature of our interactions (and the inter-disciplinariness of public art projects) than something more hierarchical, like ‘environment’, ‘the conditions’ etc. This raises thoughts on gender, and how gender is expressed in public space. I hope to create a balance of the masculine and the feminine in my work; we all need each other to survive and thrive.

Light City is presenting such an amazing opportunity for the City of Baltimore, so useful at the time of the elections. Light is the most wonderful medium for creating magic in unusual ways. As a production material it requires specialist expertise and fabrication skills – serving middle class needs – and this can only be a good thing. As shown by the conference, there are also related and relevant opportunities to spark conversations and fresh thinking within the umbrella of warmth, industry and inclusivity that light suggests. The spectrum of order (halogen) to chaos (fire) is very interesting as well, because it can’t be controlled in its entirety. On that spectrum we can all find a home somewhere, whoever we are and wherever we have come from. So given that light (and life) are the big unifiers, events like this one offer unique opportunities for social change.

Notice the rebellious thoughts you’re having, while you’re here. The I want to quit my job, I want to travel, I want to spend more time with my friends. Notice how you feel when you encounter something awesome here. Notice the kinds of conversations you’re having. This is what comes with some breathing space. Thank you very much.



Mobius Fellowship report – A summer in Helsinki: my time at Kiasma Theatre

Between June and August 2015 I completed a Mobius exchange at Kiasma Theatre, a co-producing theatre at the heart of the celebrated contemporary art museum in downtown Helsinki. Much can happen in eight weeks – not enough however to speak with authority about the arts in Finland. I can offer personal reflections on my experiences at Kiasma, and living and working in Helsinki.

In the UK I am a festival producer and installation artist. I’m interested in how cultural institutions use festivals to engage with audiences beyond their doorstep. So a visit in July to Kiasma was perfectly timed. Since 2000, the team at Kiasma Theatre have curated and produced an annual summer festival of live and urban arts called URB, using the Kiasma building as a base and reaching out into other venues and sites around the city. It’s an important platform for local artists to connect with international work. The 2015 edition was 12 days across 7 sites, with 4000 visitors and participants. Helping produce URB would be the focus of my fellowship, and my thoughts below consider the festival program and how I perceived its impact.

Another good reason for the timing; it’s said there are two seasons in Finland: Winter, and July. People seem to wait all year for these weeks, and being outside is a national obligation. There was just so much outdoor activity: outdoor concerts, the Helsinki Festival, the Flow Festival. There’s a sense of urgency in the air to make the most of the summer light. You sense this urgency in the cultural programming.

Loosely speaking, festivals are governed by time and interested in place, while cultural institutions are governed by space and interested in time. Festival programming acts as counterpoint to the regular exhibitions programme and URB was no exception. I was lucky to be involved with the kesäduuni (summer project) – an initiative to engage young people who are out of work and on benefits, to be resident in Kiasma for an intensive 8-week programme, ending with a performance as part of the festival. When the young people sign up for benefits, they’re presented with several dozen choices for summer placements in all sorts of industries, one of those being at Kiasma. The government pays them to attend, from 9am-3pm, five days a week (anyone in the UK will raise an eyebrow). Ten young people applied, eight were accepted and seven completed the programme. One girl didn’t turn up after day three. She was pint-sized, covered in tattoos and devoted to her huskies, which win competitions: that’s how she spends her time. Another was arrested in week 3 for avoiding the draft: he’d forgotten about it, he said. With encouragement from one of the facilitators he smuggled a camera into military prison and filmed secretly. His material became part of the final show.

It was amazing to watch the group develop over time, connect with each other and engage in a creative process that included improv skills, deep personal reflection, physical theatre, filming diaries and getting on stage. Now the summer is over the group have gone their separate ways, without a plan for follow-up. I remind myself of the enormous range of engagement work that happens across the UK. Legacy is the buzzword, but there are many different ways for young people to engage in arts and culture. Some projects focus on skills, others on creativity. For me, anything that helps people find a way in to being more creative is a good thing.

As well as a performance, the group mounted an exhibition of visual work in STOA, an arts and community centre in East Helsinki. Their work spoke about their feelings of belonging and alienation, familiar elements in the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective hanging at the same time on the gallery’s walls. The Mapplethorpe exhibition brooded monochrome with occasional slashes of colour: a room of erotica separated by a flowing black veil, elsewhere a rush-hour crowd of celebrity portraits: Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, Richard Gere, Debbie Harry, Annie Leibovitz, Philip Glass, Isabella Rossellini, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote. Here then is the contemporary art gallery with its exhibition on floor 2, charting the urban journey of a man (and woman, with Patti Smith) through whose eyes we see snapshots of an era. Space and time. Here then, also, are a group of young people, taking the pertinent themes elsewhere into the city of Helsinki. The framework of the URB festival validates their opinions and gives prominence to their contribution, weaving threads between Brooklyn in 1972 and Itäkeskus in 2015. Mapplethorpe was 24 in 1972, a couple of years older than the kesäduuni participants. Time and space.

It might seem trivial, flippant even, to put a skate ramp outside the art gallery, and hold a competition as part of the climactic weekend for a contemporary art festival. Parents of a friend were visiting at the time. ‘Is this art?’ they said. They also said ‘Is this art?’ to Liisa Lounila’s video installation 7BPM (2013) in the Elements exhibition on the fourth floor of the building. They seem unsure about a number of things.

Skating is important in Helsinki. Big caps and high-tops are in fashion, it’s all a bit bit back-to-the-future. Hundreds thronged to watch beardy boys throw themselves up on down the ramp, the event sponsored by an energy drink and local TV on hand. It brought out the skater in a number of museum staff, and we watched as a crowd of mostly young people felt comfortable in the shadow of the museum, drinking beer and having fun. No print marketing campaign can do that.

Returning briefly to 7BPM, which charts a lightning storm in Chinle, Arizona. According to chief Curator Arja Miller, ‘Lounila’s work often involves an ironic dissociation from the sublimity of the relationship between humanity and nature that was championed in the romantic period. In her earlier work she turned hurricanes and tornados into kitschy glittery surfaces…she seeks to challenge the viewer’s experience of the sublime in nature…with a little exaggeration you might say that natural phenomena have become just another consumer article.’

There’s a thread here: Lounila’s provocation, as interpreted above, and voiced by my friend’s parents, takes form as insecurity. 7BPM is one response, the skate ramp another. To me it demonstrates the power that playfulness can bring in provoking critical and creative responses. I am not qualified to say if this is art or not, but it feels like a worthwhile conversation for an institution with ‘contemporary’ in its name.

I asked Miki Aaltonen, URB producer, what he thought about this. ‘Urban art can be thousands of things or nothing at all, it would be ridiculous to be not at all playful. It’s an invitation. We want to collaborate with many kinds of communities and people: there needs to be space for things to happen that are not totally premeditated. With the Skate Ramp, the community are running it, we are curiously following on behind.’

Aaltonen’s curatorial approach bonded the content loosely together to tell a sprawling urban story. This was interesting: it was easy for me to draw my own path through the festival programme. As a participant this is empowering – I’m not being told what to do. The contemporary art world can feel hard to access: like a cryptic crossword, the rules are beyond reach for most people. Festivals like URB give people permission to engage in their own way, and this bridges the distance between the individual and the institution. It’s a multi-sensory learning journey, and feels democratic. From the forward to the festival programme: ‘the starting points for many of the works in the festival program have been actions and behaviors of distinctly varied social groups. In artistic expression, however, they open up the codes to a wider audience, and their proposals can be shared and held as valid for all. As the works settle into a festival program they open to the public the opportunity to evaluate their mutual substantive parallels, and no doubt also to possible disagreements.’ Exhibitions, with paid-for tickets, audio-guides and interpretation, direct your experience. They don’t all tell you what to think, but it’s the standard MO, at least in terms of the visitor experience.

Speaking to Leevi Haapala, Kiasma Director, he was clear about the role the festival has in building active partnerships. It is not an engagement project, he said, it’s at the core of the museum’s ethos, building audiences by curating art beyond the walls of the building. This is an important (albeit unspecific) statement for a collection-based organisation. And sincere: the festival has its own programming budget that’s treated as artistic activity, not marketing. Of course the boundaries between engagement, marketing and curated exhibitions are porous. 63% of the URB audience in 2013 were under 35, 56% coming to the gallery for the first time, 81% local to Helsinki. Great marketing stats. A partnership with the SIC gallery in this year’s URB connected Kiasma to their hipster audience in a way that serves both organisations. Festivals, outdoor work and free activities attract different kinds of people to a cultural institution to the regular exhibitions programme. Trying to determine the exact nature of this work quickly becomes a debate on semantics; it’s all just different sides of the same coin.

The last production of the festival, Discorituaali, neatly tied up the experience for me. Two hours dancing to thumping techno in total darkness, in the modified kiasma theatre. The work, prepared by Live Arts Society, a loose collective of graduates from the University of Helsinki, began with a script, which ended ”You can trust this darkness. It has been built carefully.” Take the normal rules of a gallery and turn them on their head. But do so with the same care for the space and for the experience that a curator would take to mount a show, or an artist to make a work. I left the work with a sense of joy and catharsis. Miki said it was ‘unexpectedly enjoyable’ – this high praise indeed.

There’s a lot of talk in Finland, as in the UK, about the aftermath of digital technology, the ‘post-internet age’. The last fifteen years have passed as if in a blur. It feels now that the creative and cultural industries have recovered from the traumas of the global financial crises and have evolved to meet this changing world. A festival like URB is a barometer for these shifting attitudes, and Helsinki a nexus point on Europe’s northern edge.

I left the country with a healthy respect for Finnish culture, or at least, the working culture in Helsinki. Finnish people are often described as being reserved: I found audiences to be warm and encouraging, particularly for new work and work by emerging artists. More than perhaps anywhere else I felt a sense of egalitarianism. A fourth wave of feminism is old news, people (seem to) get over gender differences without any fuss. Of course this is not the whole story: perhaps people were nice to me because they knew I wouldn’t be there too long. Helsinki and Kiasma feel like places I can return to and feel at home. I am extremely grateful to the whole team for making me feel comfortable and welcome.



General elections in May 2015 introduced a right-leaning coalition of the largest three parties, including the populist and ethnically nationalist Finns Party, which received 17% of the vote. Across the arts sector there was a collective holding-of-breath. Direct government funding for cultural work is so small that it hasn’t registered highly in the national debate. The government is making more noise about cutting funding to education – notably to the universities – and came to power on a platform of fiscal and popular conservatism: cutting work-related benefits and curbing immigration. It’s January 2016 and I’ve returned for the Lux light festival. Outside it’s -22 degrees, so cold that your nose and lips bleed, your teeth ache. I understand now what they mean by Winter.

On Coaching – We are all storytellers, April 2014

Coaching feels so elegant, this idea what we’re looking for is most often within us. I feel that it’s democratic, too, recognising that we are unique in our differences. We have so many hierarchies in our lives that a coaching encounter can be disarming. We pause and make space for magical thinking.

The tools and vocabulary of coaching look forward to what you are going to do next. What outcome do I want? What impact will this have? What will it be like? The experience, however, is something else entirely: respectful silence, generous listening and gentle containment, working with someone to arrive at a clarity that’s theirs to hold.

Much has been made of intentionality, whether it’s to live a wholehearted life, or to form enduring bonds in the relationships that matter to me. If intention is thought, then imagination is felt, and where they meet is where sense is made. What a beautiful space!

The ancient Rabbis believed that each text has four levels of meaning. The Peshat is plain, direct and literal. The Remez is hinted at, or symbolic. The Drash is the story that flows from such inquiry, and the So’d is the secret, hidden or mystical meaning, arrived at through inspiration, or revelation. The four together spell PaRDeS, and ‘pardes’ which means ‘garden’ or ‘orchard’.

I am secular and atheist. I could never understand how stories of talking mountains or wise men in forests or might connect with the business of living as laid out in a religious text. Rules are rules – what’s the point? It’s only recently that I can see how important stories are for fostering empathy and making sense of the world.

The logic that dominates the literal and hinted meanings in our lives gives way to more imagined and felt experience. It’s the distance between events out there and feelings inside. I am swayed by the tide of evidence-based research to show that our feelings drive us and not the other way round. There is playfulness in storytelling, a permission to explore meaning without consequence. And coaching feels to me to be a journey of enquiry. In ancient Hebrew, darash means ‘to search’, while drash means ‘story’. The two are intimately connected.

In other words, what is said in coaching – our plans to making change – these words are literal and symbolic, closer to the Peshat and Remez. What is felt in coaching, through the connection created between coach and client, opens up possibilities for deeper experience.

I believe that the search and the stories are the fulcrum between our selves and the world. In holding the process as coach my role is to accompany my clients down and up the levels of experience as far as they need. Rather than the fear of feeling too high, or of being too deep: through a lightness of touch I aspire to make space for the storytelling, the wanderings in the forest or on the mountain, the magical thinking that can lead to inspiration, clarity or enduring change.