Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish artist Matt Baker

Friday, 15 November 2013

Holding Open the Space of Opportunity

Kenneth Fowler at 'A Vision for the Future: A Model for Change in Creative Dumfries and Galloway'

Yesterday saw the launch of the new arts-led structure for arts in South West Scotland - described by Creative Scotland's Director of Communications Kenneth Fowler as 'nothing short of a revolution'. The process of arriving at the new structure is called the 'Fresh Start for the Arts Initiative' - I was one members of the Board that oversaw the Fresh Start project and was asked to give an 'artists perspective' on the last 2 years in Dumfries and Galloway at the conference - a couple of people kindly asked me if I would publish a transcript of my talk- so here it is

It has become traditional to start any discussion of the Arts in D+G with the fact that, 2 years , we lost much of our art infrastructure with the demise of DGArts and 2 Council arts development posts.
As a creative community we did respond to this – initially 60 people gathered in Rhonehouse Village Hall to talk about what we could do together. 

This was a reaction to an immediate and challenging situation – BUT it was also a recognition of the fact that contemporary arts practice was evolving and we needed a structure that reflected this new reality. The simple fact that we were strong and organised enough to take on this challenge is, in itself, a testament to the foundational work of DGArts and others – I’d like to personally acknowledge that work on behalf of the region’s artists.

The Commonty
One of the immediate results of that informal sector meeting at Rhonehouse (which was to be followed by more organised versions at Dalbeattie) was the emergence of The Commonty blog – for anyone unfamiliar with The Commonty – it is run by volunteers, has never had any subsidy and makes the rash promise to publish everything that is submitted. In a geographically huge region like ours The Commonty has become a really valuable tool for keeping everyone up to date with what is happening in the arts.

With any disaster (like the loss of DGArts always comes opportunity….sudden change makes a space and the shock inspires new thinking to populate such a space. Often this is just a fleeting, but very precious moment. There is much discussion about creative practice and how it is different from other ways of operating in the world. I’d like to propose that ‘holding open a space of opportunity’ is actually at the core of a creative approach.
Looking at what has been happening here over the past 2 years from an artist’s perspective – I believe that the Fresh Start process has been all about continuing to hold that space of opportunity open (and I feel that Kathleen O’Neill grasped this idea from the outset). When there have been the inevitable frustrations and questions about ‘when is something going to happen…and…wwhen will we see results’ – my answer has been that it IS happening and the way forward is to join in and help everyone else keep doing just that….keeping the space open.

But what does that actually mean?.....what is the point of keeping open a space of opportunity?


Contemporary practice in the arts is becoming more discursive – it is not new to say that art is better at asking questions that providing answers….but when Scottish Theatre maker Nic Green describes the ‘artist as listener’ and talks about an artists needing to ‘quieten the voice of knowing and letting a place or situation actively shape a creative response…..then I believe we are in new and vital territory. Territory that arts practice in Scotland is world class at.

Referring this to the Fresh Start situation in D+G – if we were to place around a finished “structure’ then we would, actually be watching something start to die.

By constantly being in a state of becoming the arts in D+G becomes open, collaborative and inclusive for other sectors like Health, Education, Tourism and Environment. If we have a rigidly defined shape we close many doors and become, ultimately, more difficult to work with. One of the most important roles for creative practice is the ability to translate between different approaches in partnerships – this requires the flexibility and nimbleness afforded by permeable boundaries.

The creative community is gradually growing into our stature as one of the top ten economic sectors in South West Scotland….but our sector is what it is because it plays by different rules. We have been hugely fortunate in having the support of our local authority (in the form of people like Richard Greiveson and Rebecca Coggins) in recognising that and helping us to build a structure that is fit for purpose for how we need to flourish as a sector.

Let us not be under any illusion…….what is being discussed here is not the arts just putting on nice things for an existing niche audience. This is a radical agenda for the arts to play an active part in equipping our world for the challenges of the future. We are all getting the idea that, as a society, we can’t just keep on as we are – there is a recognition that we need to become more adaptable and more resourceful…..teamworking and unlikely alliances are what must become the rule rather than the exception. This is exactly the skillset and daily reality of working in the arts. We have a duty to reach out and share our skills with others just as we continue to learn from and listen to others through collaborative working and co-creation.

If you see Fresh Start as one giant artwork – then we are all co-creating it with our local authority and other local and national partners – notably Creative Scotland.

Like any organism, the arts need to feed all parts of its body. ‘Art for Arts Sake’ is something that we need to discuss too. I see ‘Art for Arts Sake’ as being important to the body like dreaming in sleep – essential for health. As an arts community we need to continue to invest in things that have no immediately obvious outcome or use – just as individual artists we need studio time. For me, the only question here is in finding the right level – what percentage of resource should go to Blue Skies thinking and what percentage for down and dirty grassroots?..........(of course you can have Blue Skies Grassroots too – but if anyone knows how to communicate that on a funding application then please let me know!)

Punkin' the Jubilee
My own personal experience of the last 2 years is of working professionally with people that I have known as friends for years – particularly through The Stove and Environmental Art Festival Scotland. Also I have got to know amazing new friends and colleagues around the region. 

Back2Back - The Stove

I am really pleased that Fresh Start has stuck to the emphasis on geographic representation for the sector as opposed to the traditional divisions into representation by different artforms. For me, this is in keeping with the spirit of our times, when we are all collaborating across artforms AND it builds in a whole region approach from the outset. (Always accepting that everywhere in D+G is complete law unto itself!)

Environmental Art Festival Scotland 2013
I have been asked to show some images from the recent Environmental Art Festival Scotland (EAFS) as an illustration of my artists perspective of the Fresh Start approach.

First Thing to say about EAFS:
The festival was produced by a partnership of three local organisations Wide-Open, Spring-Fling and The Stove. None of us had worked togerher formally before – it was a brilliant experience that was like discovering the bits of your self that were missing in the person of someone else. This bodes really well for the future and through Fresh Start we are beginning to look at ways that an ongoing partnership can be part of the overall Visual/Environmental Arts strategy for the region.

Second Thing to say about EAFS:

EAFS was built on long-term working relationships with organisations like Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission, Biosphere, VisitScotland, Education, and various heritage organisations…….as well as the extensive network of local arts organisation that were, thanks top the work of the last two years, in much stronger contact than previously.

The intellectual underpinning of the festival also came form work going on in the region -notably the Do Not Resuscitate project. DNR is led by the Crichton Carbon Centre and is a collaboration of leading Scottish climate scientists and artists. Crichton Carbon Centre and Creative Carbon Scotland also worked with EAFS on an environmental, social and economic survey of the festival and the captions on these slides come from that survey.

Third Thing to say about EAFS:

EAFS included both Blue Skies thinking artworks and more participative and inclusive work. Our aim was to show a range of approaches and attempt to embody the way that our wider community in the SouthWest thinks about the land and the different alliances that form around living with the land. Bringing people to debate such approaches within the context of art happenings and contexts was central to the overall vision of the festival.

Fourth Thing to say about EAFS:

EAFS was part of bigger D+G agendas:
* The ambition to establish the whole region of D+G as a laboratory fro and National Home of Environmental Art
* The proposal for a major landmark artwork at the English/Scottish border at Gretna
* Synergy and thematic connections between major festivals in D+G eg Wigtown Book Festival picked up on the momentum of EAFS and included elements from EAFS in their own festival – we are now in discussions about ways that the too festivals can collaborate more closely in the future.

The EAFS Satellite programme continued after the Core Weekend. Fresh Start funded the Satellite programme – which reflected the geographic focus of Fresh Start. The Satellite programme built of the Hub networks giving people a chance to now work together on practical projects…to work on a national and international stage…..and to travel across the region to see what each other was working on.

The Satellite programmes are written up on the EAFS website:
Annadale and Eskdale
Stewartry (Stewarty Satellite was integrated into the EAFS Core weekend)

With projects like EAFS, this conference and the news about Dumfries has been nominated as one of 2014’s Creative Places – I think it is fair to say that D+G is up and running if we just have the confidence to hold onto the string of the balloon and not look down…..then I believe that our region will be fully on the international stage very soon.

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