The Art of Disruption

Programming

How to present what you do, as a freelancer/contractor? How to be both descriptive enough to be credible, yet keep the door open to new collaborations? As François Matarasso puts it: “In this neoliberal world, where people are commoditised, a freelancer must be ready to stand in the shop window, if not the auction block, in his best clothes. We’ve all got an elevator pitch now.”

In a perhaps misguided attempt to cover all grounds, I’m currently using ‘Events Manager, Audience Developer and Translator’ on my business card. My ‘services’ page also lists Programme Management & Coordination, Research and Copywriting. I could go on – but I’m not sure that adding more specialities would make my achievements and skills look any better. In fact, such an enumeration is not even reflecting what I do overall.

That’s why I’m using ‘Cultural Producer’ on my ‘about’ page and on LinkedIn: because it’s not just describing the different parts of the process, but how they’re all converging.

Jeremy Deller, Procession (Manchester International Festival, 2009) via BBC Manchester website

Jeremy Deller, Procession (Manchester International Festival, 2009) via BBC Manchester website

I like this definition, used by someone called Gina Tarantino in her Penn State University blog:

A creative cultural producer is a professional that plans, designs, organizes and manages artistic projects that have a cultural impact on the public that will interact with them.

Play Me I'm Yours, 2012, Toronto (Mexico piano, University & Dundas)

Play Me I’m Yours, Mexico piano (Toronto, Canada 2012)

And even more this one, developed by London-based creative company Nimble Fish to describe their own practice, which they felt was not accurately reflected by the categories “Theatre” or “Theatre-in-Education”:

Cultural Producers establish, implement and manage a self-generated creative vision, typically outside the purview of traditional performance or gallery spaces. Cultural Producers are rarely restricted to a single artistic form, preferring instead to work with whatever combination of forms best suits a particular idea or theme. Cultural Producers often seek to animate or re-interpret public spaces in the context of the communities they serve, and consequently their work often has a strong component of community participation or co-creation.

City-wide flood simulation produced by La Folie Kilomètre and pOlau

Jour Inondable, city-wide flood simulation produced by La Folie Kilomètre and pOlau (Tours, France , 2012)

Arts Council England and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation commissioned a 2007 publication titled “The Producers: Alchemists of the Impossible” to “celebrate and explore the role of the producer in the arts” through 14 portraits of creative individuals.

One of the featured producers is Helen Marriage, co-founder of Artichoke, “a creative company that works with artists to invade our public spaces and put on extraordinary and ambitious events that live in the memory forever”. Artichoke will probably forever be known for the Sultan’s Elephant (see below), but they’ve also created, more recently, the city-wide night-time Lumière events in Durham and Derry-Londonderry, the giant spider in Liverpool and One & Other, Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth Commission project.

Durham Cathedral, Lumière Festival Durham, produced by Artichoke (2009)

Durham Cathedral, Lumière Festival Durham, produced by Artichoke (Durham, UK, 2009)

In 2012-2013, Helen Marriage was awarded a Loeb Fellowship by Harvard Graduate School of Design, to “study the intersection of design, public art and urban infrastructure”. She has since embarked on a series of talks and seminars on the topic of cultural disruption and ephemeral urbanism, and her recent presentation at the Ramsay Gardens Seminar series is summarised on International Futures Forum’s website.

She retraces the 5-year journey to get permission to close streets in London and stage a huge peripatetic performance, recalling the shifting point that made it all possible and the self-discovery that ensued:

For the first three years the answer was always no. But in the end the mood shifted:  from “why would we do this?” (a plea for justification, outcomes, evidence) to “why would we not do this?” (an enrolment in playing a part in producing something magical).  Helen’s message – “it will be fantastic and you will be really proud” – finally struck home.

In retrospect, she realised that she herself had been the problem. She had been asking an impossible question – in asking for permission. They could not possibly say yes. But once it got into the minutes that the event was scheduled to happen, everyone assumed that somebody else had given authority and from then on their role was to help.  It was a valuable lesson and one that she now follows always: her job is to take responsibility, to be the bearer of risk for everyone involved, which frees them up to be as helpful and creative as they can without formally ‘owning’ the project themselves.

Artichoke: Sultan's Elephant (London, 2006)

Sultan’s Elephant, Artichoke & Royal de Luxe (London, UK, 2006)

Reviewing The Producers for a-n , Charlotte Frost surveyed a number of established cultural production agencies (listed below). Despite clear differences, such as the diversity of organisational structures, she finds them to share three key functions:

  1. Matchmaking collaborative relationships: combining artists and artforms, often assembling a custom back-end team, and bringing together projects and venues, funders and other supporters.
  2. Providing the necessary time and space: directly by providing physical space (Artsadmin) or virtual platforms (Furtherfield.org), and also through committing to the long-term durational process (Artangel).
  3. Being the “risk absorber” (Steven Bode, Director of FVU): “Every project starts from square-one in terms of the producer having to find creative partners, a venue and, usually, funders” (Electra Co-Founder and Director Lina Dzuverovic); “Its very important that all of us, Artsadmin, Artangel, Forma, and everyone else… keep encouraging new work to happen, if we don’t, everything will get very stagnant. That is, what is inspiring and compelling for us, and it is something that I would reiterate to Arts Council England, this experimental work influences the mainstream and feeds everything else.” (Judith Knight, Co-Founder and Director of Artsadmin).
Floating Cinema, Up Projects (London, 2013)

Floating Cinema, Up Projects (London, 2013)

The video below shows the LIFT Festival production of Haircuts by Children, an “aesthetically scintillating experience”  developed by Toronto-based culture production workshop Mammalian Diving Reflex that has already been re-created in 30 cities.  Artistic Director Darren O’Donnell explains:

Haircuts by Children involves children between the ages of 8-12 are trained by professional hairstylists, and then paid to run a real hair salon, offering members of the public free haircuts. The project invites the consideration of young people as creative and competent individuals whose aesthetic choices can be trusted. While providing atypical entertainment for the public, Haircuts by Children also shifts the traditional power dynamic between children and adults, creating a safe social space where children and adults who live in the same community can meet and share a unique creative experience together. The idea that kids should be allowed to cut our hair evokes the same leap of faith, courage and understanding required to grant children deeper citizenship rights. For many it is actually less terrifying to contemplate allowing kids to vote.

Links:

UK

artangel.org.uk
artichoke.uk.com
artsadmin.co.uk
electra-productions.com
forma.org.uk
furtherfield.org
nimble-fish.co.uk
upprojects.com

CANADA

www.mammalian.ca

FRANCE

www.lafoliekilometre.org
www.polau.org

Second Floor

Virtual Street Art: Tour Paris 13

Spotlight

Tour Paris 13 is an old crumbling residential tower in Paris’ 13th arrondissement marked for demolition in less than a month. It’s also, for that remaining time, allegedly the biggest collective street art project realised to date. Over 100 artists, coming from 16 different countries, were invited to use the 9-floor, 36-apartment tower as their canvas – from the basement to the facade and every single inch of the floors, walls and ceilings.

The art is as real as it gets and visiting the tower is free as long as it’s still standing, in small groups of 49 people maximum at a time for safety reasons. So what’s virtual about it? How we can experience it.

El Seed

El Seed

While the artists were working inside the tower, the project was kept under wraps and extensively filmed by Thomas Lallier – in preparation for a documentary – and audio recorded by French public service Radio France (well known for their excellent ‘création radiophonique’, or radio art), to create an immersive digital experience.

Second Floor

Second Floor

When ‘visiting’ an apartment, a collage of user-generated images scrolls across the screen, revealing the space by fragments, and the voices of the artists at work raise above the ‘soundtrack’: traffic, sirens, footsteps echoing in these empty spaces, doors creaking, phones ringing, and the sound of the spray can, with that clicking of the shaking and phrasing of the breathing, in long lines and short bursts.

Sébastien Preschoux

Sébastien Preschoux

The project was spearheaded by Galerie Itinerrance, a local gallery specialised in street art. It’s not the first time that it spills out of the walls: as well as representing artists and showing their work, gallery owner Mehdi Ben Cheikh has been offering ‘official’ outdoor tours to discover large-scale murals in the neighbourhood (presumably commissioned). In an interview available on the Tour Paris 13 website (with English subtitles), he talks about his remit, as a street art gallerist, to have an ‘urban practice’. He also tries to describe the tower project:

I don’t like the word exhibition. It’s something a bit strange… It’s not a museum, it’s not a gallery, it’s not a wasteland neither, it’s not a squat… It’s a mix of all of these. It’s something more or less organised, but that still has a soul.

He also talks about the role of the internet – and therefore of digital experiences such as the tower’s – in making street art “the first truly international movement”.

Shoof

Shoof

After 31st October, the Tour will be closed to the public, but the website will remain accessible. During the following 10 days, virtual visitors will be asked to ‘save’ the art by clicking on what they want to keep, pixel by pixel. The resulting archive will become a ‘witness’ of the artistic project.

Mosko

Mosko

Finally, the 52-minute documentary that will be released in September 2014 will reveal the creative process of the artists involved, but also the history of the tower itself and of the neighbourhood, pre- and post-urban renewal.

Sean Hart

Sean Hart

All photos are from Tour Paris 13‘s website; click on images to access the artists’ individual photo gallery, interview and biography.

The Art of Mind

Programming

I’m thinking a lot about accessibility and inclusion right now as I’m preparing to deliver AODA training to over 500 volunteers – that’s the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, explained here – and developing partnership with CultureLink, a settlement agency, to offer a New Canadian Volunteer Experience with Luminato.

That’s probably why a subway poster caught my attention with its colourful design (the cover image for this post) and the word ‘fest’. It also promised free food. Upon further investigation, MindFest 2013 turns out to be a free 1-day fair about mental health, hosted by University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry and Hart House, an active campus arts centre, on 6th May, to mark the first day of Canadian Mental Health Awareness Week. A visit to the website reveals that MindFest’s mandate is to “promote public awareness, dialogue, and understanding about mental health and illness”.

On the programme, talks from the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario and CAMH about ‘breaking the silence of mental health’, ‘dealing with workplace depression’ and ‘improving access and breaking down barriers’; workshops about ‘preventing suicide’ and ‘helping someone with mood disorders’; Canadian documentaries about mental health, buskers and comedians. The film and art content is provided by Workman Arts, which I had never heard of and immediately looked up.

Workman Arts is a Toronto-based arts and mental health company that works with its Members to create artistic experiences. Membership is free and open to “any individual who lives in and receives or has received services for mental health or addiction issues in the Greater Toronto Area, and is interested in developing their artistic talents”. From 8 Members in 1987 focusing on theatre, WA has grown into a 250-member, multidisciplinary world-touring company. Their list of past co-presenters is long and diverse, from other arts centres or programmes to health institutions and film festivals.

And to top it up – and make it even more topical for the purposes of my research about festivals – WA has produced 3 Madness and Arts World Festivals, in Toronto (2003), Muenster, Germany (2006) and in the Netherlands (2010) (each festival website has been kept live, presumably for archival purposes, and it’s pretty interesting to notice the digital outreach evolution). The main Workman Arts website announces a 4th festival in preparation in a country still to be determined.

Finally, WA will be relocated within the redeveloped grounds of CAMH, the mental health institution on Queen Street West, currently undergoing major site design changes that aims at “transform[ing] the face of addiction and mental health treatment in Toronto and bring new pride to CAMH and to the city”.

Besides MindFest, over the next three weeks, WA is involved in a fashion show, the Mad Couture Catwalk, as part of Fashion Art Toronto, a professional 4-day event in a 15,000 square feet historic industrial warehouse; the launch of a poetry anthology at The Drake, a hotel that marks the renewal of CAMH’s Queen Street West neighbourhood (just like the Gladstone – one with music, the other with visual art and design); and a photography exhibition, Here is Where, during Contact Photography Festival, a month-long series of exhibitions at 175 venues throughout the Greater Toronto Area that attracts an estimated audience of 1.8 millions. They also produce an international film festival which which has just launched its 2013 call for submissions.

And finally, they’ve participated in most Nuit Blanches since 2006, and they run a youth programme in schools, Rendezvous in the Classroom. With such a prolific, touche-à-tout activity, it seems that Workman Arts are creating multiple new patterns of relations and information, working relentlessly to both give their Members artistic opportunities and wide exposure and to increase chances for audiences to reconsider their view on mental health. As a Workman Arts Member puts it:

Show me a person with mental illness and I’ll show you a person with mental illness. Show me an artist with mental illness and I’ll show you an artist.

– Melissa Bender, Visual Artist, Workman Arts Member

Fittingly, on the night I’m finishing this post, they’re holding a post-festival party in their space for the closing night of Images Festival (as announced on Twitter). Fittingly because Workman Arts seems, through its online presence (of which archives are a big part), to carry a festival spirit throughout the year,  by co-presenting events in multiple forms and with multiple partners – and I would think they’re pretty good at throwing a party.

Volunteer Management: A Free Taster

Tools of the Trade

Volunteer management is often on my mind right now, and I find that it’s a component of the festival mix that’s not too difficult to get right. Fortunately, there are plenty of enthusiastic people out there who are happy to trade a bit of their time and skills for the satisfaction to create a memorable collective experience. That leaves us with three problems: recruiting, scheduling and communicating.

I’m preparing a presentation on ‘Recruitment, Recognition and Retention‘ with my colleague Saskia for a Volunteer Managers meeting at the Art Gallery of Ontario in April, so I’ll come back to this in a later post .

As for scheduling, the tricky part is not to figure out when volunteers are needed for which tasks, but rather to display them in a manageable way. If you have multiple sites, simultaneous activities, one-off necessities such as an airport run, it can quickly get messy to try to visualise them all at a glance. And without a dynamic system, it’s easy to forget to fill in a shift or to miss out on some volunteers when notifying them of changes. A spreadsheet and emails can go quite a long way, but they’ll cost a lot of time and frustration.

Enter technology, and even better, a totally free software. I’ve used a platform called VolunteerSpot for two different events now, Jane’s Walk and Toronto Design Offsite Festival, and even though it’s nothing like ‘proper’ volunteer management software such as Volunteer Squared, which I blogged about previously, or Volgistics, it’s a million light-years from the awkwardness of a painfully manual system.

A few features that will seem unbelievably sophisticated to anyone who’s never used such a software (i.e. me about a year ago):

    • You can create a custom link that take volunteers straight to your sign-up form.
    • Volunteers register online, with all the details that you want to collect, and they sign up themselves for shifts.
    • You can leave shifts open, with no sign-up limit, or lock them once they’ve reached desired capacity.
    • You can see at a glance any vacant spot.
    • You get a notification when volunteers cancel their shift.
    • Volunteers receive an automated email reminder before their shift.

It’s geared towards small nonprofit and volunteer-led organisations, so it’s suitable for a festival with fairly simple needs, maybe up to 60 volunteers.  Beyond that, it might be worth moving on to a more robust platform that gives you more options and support. After all, Volgistics costs as little as $380 per year for 200 active volunteer records, but that could be $380 that you need to buy volunteer T-shirts.

VolunteerSpot has 5 sample sign-ups to demonstrate its multiple uses and a few video tours. I should also mention that it has a premium version, but if you can afford to pay, then other softwares offer a smoother interface and more features.