Too many cultural conferences borrow their model from the corporate sector, but there is another way, says Adrian Lochhead.

Photo of people sitting by lake

We have just completed our Bivouac#1, a gathering of artists, arts professionals and some others – an ‘unconference’ if you will.

In thinking about what was successful about it, I see themes arising that will be useful when we come to do more. And it seems that we will do more, as every participant at #Bivouac1 asked me when the next would be, as they shook hands or hugged as they left the building.

See what I wrote there? ‘Participant’ and ‘hugged’; the first word about inclusion, the second an outcome of that inclusivity, achieved by creating a shared space where everyone contributed.

We should be setting a creative example in the way that we share our thoughts, allowing ourselves to provoke, inspire and be the best that we can be

Although #Bivouac1 had no set agenda or ‘issue to address’, in truth there was one in our minds: that art comes from the conditions in which we live, from who we are, from matters that affect us. We wanted to bring people together to talk and share, not just about the outcome of their artistry, but about other things that mattered to them. The belief was that the art would still be in the room – more so, and more relevantly so, than if we had said come and talk about art.

For us at Eden Arts, this approach is part of our practice. We don’t ‘paint’, or ‘perform’, or ‘write’. Instead, everyone who works for us is an artist and considered to be part of a creative organisation. When we make events and actions we talk about them as ‘curated’, not ‘organised’. We consider the things that we do as ‘artful’; created with the balance of care and freedom with which an artist creates a piece of work. What this means is that we have to take risks – to not know what the outcome will be.

So, what happened at #Bivouac1? We saw Stella Duffy instigate conversations about cancer and death, Matt MacDonald about social enterprise, Robyn Woolston about refugees (with a ‘pop-up’ installation), Alan Lane about volunteering for Mountain Rescue and a bit about being a recent father, and Alex Jakob-Whitworth make little faerie effigies. Stuart Nolan tried to talk about mind reading, but utterly distracted himself and instead led conversations about magic and illusion and science/creative innovation. Richard Smith got the 21st Century arts centre conversation going, Charles Quick took some people off for a walk around town to look at place and Rob and Harriet Fraser got into land use.

Alongside all this was pasta making (real pasta making) and communal cooking with Vista Veg, and then eating – and drinking. All these people are artists, producers, writers and creative innovators of course, but their brief was to get conversations going by talking about just about everything… but art.

If I try to grab hold of the main themes that came to me among the beautiful, thought provoking, intelligent and silly moments that I experienced, it would be these:

Free: Stella commented in her blog post – she beat me to it – that anything in the cultural sector that costs a fortune to attend immediately excludes people. #Bivouac1 received some financial support from Arts Council England – just enough to cover the expenses of the conversation instigators, but no fees for sharing their experience, research and integrity. I regularly receive emails inviting me to £200, £300, £400 events. I never go to them (although I will speak at them if you want… maybe). These sort of costs prohibit the participation of…

Artists: ‘Free’ meant that the day was dominated by artists. There were emerging artists, struggling artists, successful but badly paid artists, everywhere you looked in the…

Building: Our space is borrowed from the NHS. It costs us very little because the NHS understands that what we do is part of the health and wellbeing agenda. It is dirty and messy and inclusive and you can literally smell oil paint. It did not cost £26m and everything in it was acquired from Freecycle (OK, a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). Every second conversation I have with an artist is about poverty and lack of opportunity, while every second article I read in the culture sector seems to be about multi-million-pound capital building projects. I truly believe, without any rancour at all for my colleagues who work in them (I have been one), that they are the most misguided and wasteful use of ‘arts money’ possible. We must stop paying architects, builders, plumbers and upholsterers with arts money and start paying more artists to do more artful things.

Include: At #Bivouac1 everyone in the room had to stand up and say something about themselves. Like an AA meeting (I imagine), it opened up the space and minds, it nudged the quiet people to speak up without over-encouraging the confident. Everyone was interesting – we all are; we are alive, we know things.

Relax: Have fun. Be human.

Leadership. We need it, but let it be as benign as possible and try to stop ego, certainty and determinism dominating. We must allow our outcomes to be uncertain, as that is the course of creativity and we need our leaders to be advocates for that. Otherwise we are just stuffing creative meat into a mincer in the sure knowledge that we will get mince.

Way too many cultural ‘conferences’ borrow their model from the corporate sector. We should be setting a creative example in the way that we share our thoughts, allowing ourselves to provoke, inspire and be the best that we can be, actively helping others to allow their creativity to shine and inspire too.

We must open ourselves up to more than just a notion of excellence, stop creating barriers to access to the idea that creative thought belongs only to special people who ‘know’ about it, can speak the language of it, and own it, and show it off to you if you can afford the ticket price. Stella Duffy’s fleeting reference to sport in her blog is totally appropriate; our amazing sports people are the product of state funded sports development of excellence, but Sport England also exists to encourage participation – because it is a healthy activity. So is creativity, art, culture. Obviously.

So if you want to talk about making a #Bivouac get in touch with us; but if you want to just talk about something, get in touch too. That’s the point.

Adrian Lochhead is Director of Eden Arts.
www.edenarts.co.uk
T: 01768 899444

Bivouac#1 was a CVAN event

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