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07 December 2010

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Discursive Delights: ponderings on the recent Salon Series

I think it’s fair to say that the Sky Arts Artichoke Salon Series was a great success, not only in terms of attendance (thank you to the hundreds of people across the UK who came to listen and participate in these conversations) but also in terms of content.

The chair Tim Marlow expertly guided our cultural commentators around complex, and sometimes controversial, issues with the aim of opening up debates on the nature and use of our public spaces for public arts. What we got as an audience was a highly varied discourse on a topic that is hugely pertinent to today’s economic and social climate. In an interview with Artichoke Co-Director Helen Marriage, Tim outlined the importance of these conversations for "economic, social and cultural reasons" stipulating that they sit within a "critical territory" which it is our duty to interrogate.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few months (these brave souls can definitely be excused), you’ll have no doubt heard that the arts sector has been responding to the recent announcement on government funding cuts to the arts at, arguably, a comparatively disproportionate rate. Since then, there have been daily stories of a myriad of cultural institutions all over the UK being threatened by the funding being pulled from under their feet. It’s not a pleasant landscape to look out onto.

Throughout the Salon Series, this economic situation provided an immediacy to the conversations that have been drawn out of the discursive trilogy, adding a passion and a nervous energy to the points being made; as though this public platform was a way in which supporters of the arts could come together and be reminded of the remarkable things which can be achieved - an allegorical spoonful of sugar to the sour tasting pill that has recently been swallowed.

As you may recall, we kick-started the salon series with The Politics of Cultural Disruption where we discussed the pros and cons of companies like Artichoke disrupting public services, daily routines, and limiting access to predominantly urban spaces with public art. From our panel of commentators and the audience we solicited different ways in which we can enable people to re-imagine their urban landscape through the imagination of artists.

The panel thrashed out a number of key issues including ‘health and safety of the audience’ versus, in Sarah Gaventa’s view, 'health and safety used as an excuse not to bother in the first place’ quoting, “Life’s a risk – isn’t that part of the fun of it?” Gaventa, Director of Public Space at CABE, went on to put forward the view that public art must be supported by, if not instigated by, great open spaces. She posited the need for open minds to design and look after those spaces, to allow culture to flourish, and to support creativity and fun.

When questioned about what public art really means, artist Marc Quinn commented that it “…gives you an opportunity for an unexpected encounter, to be caught off guard, and be moved in some way or to have an emotional reaction that you weren’t expecting. Outside space should be an unregulated free space…it should be a nebulas area of transition.”

True to form, frank commentator Janet Street Porter stirred things up on the subject of creating community identity and cohesion through public art, by saying that art should be difficult and elitist: it doesn’t have to be ‘plebsville’. There’s nothing wrong with difficult art.”

The second Salon was held at the Williamson Tunnels in Liverpool and raised questions on City Limits; how much large-scale arts projects or festivals can push the resources of a place for the sake of public art, and art as a catalyst for regeneration. Artichoke’s La Machine project, which took over the city centre of Liverpool for 3 days in 2008, was used to illustrate many of the points discussed in this conversation.

The Right Reverend James Jones spoke about the positive impact of events like La Machine on the self-esteem and aspirations of a community, but also that it demonstrated what he fears most about contemporary urban regeneration programmes: that cities are suffering from 'urban diabetes': “This is where the blood pumps round the heart of a city and doesn’t reach the extremities - the outer estates - and they atrophy and die.”

Our panelists and audience wrestled with the difficulties of being granted permission for such large-scale public projects to which Helen Marriage, Co-Director of Artichoke, said, “we don’t, in general, tend to ask permission. We tend to go to the authorities and say ‘We’re doing this; how can you help us make this work?’

Rather brilliantly, this is an opinion echoed at the final salon by Maggie Bolt, Director of Maggie Bolt Associates. When asked about how the arts might deal with the effects of the funding cuts, she encouraged the use of guerilla tactics suggesting that we shouldn’t wait for permission: “just do themif you know you’re going to get the answer you don’t want, just don’t ask the question.”

This third and final Salon, The Gardens of England, focused on public arts in rural areas. Hosting the final debate at the Eden Project compounded a synergy between Artichoke’s work and this ecological development; both give a possibility of the outside, of events outside, of re-imagining spaces and manifesting a ‘bigger picture’.

Just five days after we had visited Eden Project mid-Cornwall was hit by one of the biggest floods in living memory. Many areas, including Eden Project, were plunged under several feet of water and mud causing damage and disorder to thousands of lives overnight. Five days later, then, a reminder of what the outside can really mean. No matter how planned events are something can always rearrange plans, and there’s nothing you can do about the force of Mother Nature!

For me, it was a timely reminder that ‘the arts’ has a job to do and a service to provide. It may not be about making houses safe again after flood damage, but in our own way, our job is to continue to commit ourselves to asking questions, causing problems, finding the answers, and opening up minds to the positive possibilities that surround us all everyday. We believe firmly that our work is about bringing people together on a large scale to create joyful, long-lasting memories of something they never thought possible; and ultimately to contribute to the bigger picture of cultural and social exchange in our communities.

These Salons were my first 'proper' Artichoke events since joining six months ago (having joined the company during the final throws of the Magical Menagerie in Milton Keynes).  As the audience members of City Limits pointed out, I believe that instigating these conversations is arguably as important as the events themselves; it allows us to evaluate, remain current, and learn from each other which is something I’ve always admired about the arts sector; our willingness to share learnings, best practice, expertise and networks. And so, notwithstanding the doom and gloom of the funding situation we find ourselves in, I leave you with the words of Sarah Gaventa in her article Tate debate: open your mind to public spaces and remain ever optimistic for the future of art in public spaces:

“It is in the best of times that we expect to have great public spaces, but it is in the worst of economic times that we really need them to be great…They aren't a luxury but an essential natural health service, the ultimate drop-in centre – preventative healthcare that is far cheaper than the NHS, and without a waiting list." Sarah Gaventa, guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 June

If you missed out on attending any of the Salons, you can catch up by listening to or watching the various media on our event pages at artichoke.co.uk/talks


Anna Cook
Communications Associate

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