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Arts, (lack of) money and the need for inventiveness

March 30, 2011 5 comments

The unsurprising news emerged yesterday that many UK arts organisations will have their public funding reduced or cut entirely. The arts generally is always a bit of a soft target, open to a range of criticisms from less eligibility (‘how can you spend money on the arts when there are no many funding shortfalls in health/welfare/education?’) to profligacy to poor taste (‘you mean my taxes paid for that crap to be displayed in the gallery?’).

I have, I confess, very mixed views about this. On the one hand, my own ‘involvement in state funded art’ amounts to reading my stories at a couple of events that received Arts Council and local authority subsidies. That’s probably about as much as any writer does. On the whole we work in a sector of the arts that gets probably less public funding than any other. On the other hand, I’m aware I go to events, exhibitions and the like that cost vastly more to put on than can be paid for through ticket sales, so I’m benefiting from arts funding in that sense.

State funding isn’t always the best kind of funding to have, and a lot of the most innovative work often happens in obscure holes and corners of the art world (I mean ‘art’ in its broadest sense to include the whole spectrum of artistic endeavour), funded in ways that range from impromptu to implausible, and in some cases the artwork itself is carried out in secretive and illegal ways – yes, I’m thinking here mainly of graffiti. But that said, we also need to recognise that what’s obscure and innovative at one point in time is the orthodoxy twenty years later, and that the UK as a whole is a major global producer in the economy of signs and images. It relies heavily on the flow of artistic and cultural talent in all kinds of areas from music to art to scriptwriting, screenwriting, niche areas of film and even niche areas within film such as special effects. And, of course, development of computer games… it would wind up being a long list.

Anyway. Rant over. What intrigued me today was a BBC article, ‘Arts world gets creative in funding crisis‘. Ideas being tried out now are crowdfunding through multiple small donations via the Wedidthis, Sponsume and Wefund websites; sponsoring individual members of an orchestra, with side benefits including dinners with them; venues being opened up to events such as weddings and receptions; and increasing numbers of in-person and online courses in creative areas run by people who have public reputations in those areas.

The arts are being squeezed in all sorts of directions; not just public funding, but the role of the internet in providing free access to many arts products, whether because the artists have to put it out free for promotional reasons, or internet piracy (which in music and now increasingly in writing means that artists get paid nothing for their work and need to build other income streams – live performance or whatever).

It probably won’t all work out alright in the end. There will be casualties along the way, including, probably, the collapse of some well-known and well-respected organisations. The people who are most recession-proofed, however, will be those who’ve struggled without funding already, trying to get their artistic vision across in unconventional ways. I’d hope that those people, who are often the real cutting edge of new art talent, will be able to struggle for a bit longer, become even more inventive about how they operate, and not just survive but prosper. I’m hoping at least some people will find that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And I’m hoping that’s not a vain hope.

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States of Independence

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.

I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.

Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.

The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.

The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?

Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.

I made this

August 8, 2010 2 comments

I didn’t do my usual sitting-at-the-computer-until-my-eyes-bleed thing yesterday. Instead I built this:

What is it? Answer: a stepped tone generator with in built fuzz/distortion. A self contained noise instrument. Not having played with this stuff much for around 20 years and not having handled a soldering iron for over half a decade I’m pretty pleased with myself – though I have to acknowledge that it didn’t actually work until Stu discovered one of the components in the wrong place and fixed it for me.

It’s the result of going to an electronic music workshop run by Stench, a Leicester-based experimental music outfit. Interesting afternoon, with much conversation about circuit-bending – the ‘creative short-circuiting of electronic devices’, as Wikipedia has it. For the curious reader (you have to be pretty curious type of person to want to know, I suspect) there’s more on the topic at anti-theory.com. Or google it, there’s lots of stuff out there.

This all happened at Fabrika in Leicester, which is going from strength to strength, with fairly off-the-wall things happening. I don’t, for example, know who thought up the idea of workshops on recycling bicycles into other household items of furniture, decoration and utility but it’s a brilliant concept. No, I haven’t been, but just the idea of it is cool – workshops twice a month apparently.

Anyway… the evening was a Stench performance. Stench is a collaborative umbrella for a bunch of people all doing their own thing. So it started with someone whose name I didn’t catch, working with a range of samples. Then there was Steve Auxilec. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be the kind of noise I’d listen to for very long; the improvisation he did was pretty ‘ambient’ with no identifiable rhythm. That said, I zoned out to it and felt strangely refreshed afterwards. Someone commented ‘That looked like you’ve just downloaded the master code and re-set your circuits’. Why, what did I do??

I left about half-way through the next set, by Threep, because I had to get home early for other reasons. But what I heard was excellent. In fact, at the point I was leaving, quite a few people were turning up and the event was running until, I think, around 1am – so I hope everyone had a good time.

Next project: an urban-inspired take on a tribal mask, I think. I’ve got the stuff I need, had the whole project in a box in the shed for about a year and just never got round to it.

Oh, and if anyone with relevant knowledge can explain why a couple of virtual synthesizers I’ve downloaded (for Mac) need some additional sound files – VSTi support, or some such thing – and how I get hold of them, I’d be grateful.

Drumming

August 4, 2010 6 comments

I’ve pretty much always had a drum or two around the house, either bought on holidays or bought for me as presents. But I rarely do much with them. This is the current one:

Small djembe drum

A small djembe

(The pic, by the way, is courtesy of Chris Cafferkey – it is my drum, but the background is a Seminole-style patchwork quilt she made a few years back).

I ended up doing a bit of drumming round the fire at a pagan gathering a while ago – where I was doing the fire stuff you’ll see in previous blog entries – and when I saw an ad for a local drumming workshop, it piqued my curiosity.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer, I spend about 110% of my waking hours in front of my computer, writing stuff – or researching and preparing to write, or editing. It’s all very right-brain, word-based, analytic stuff. I write some things that look like stream-of-consciousness, but when they get fitted into stories it’s all carefully manicured and tailored to the plot… And the idea of crossing over to the ‘other side’ and doing something more physical, more visceral, perhaps, appealed.

So I went to the workshop. And learned a lot in a short space of time.

First, I’m crap at drumming. That much I already knew. But I could keep a simple beat going, at least. Apparently if I bothered to practice every day for say three months I could get pretty good.

Second, I learned some basic technique. For djembe this is essentially the bass slap, the higher-pitched ‘tone’ when you hit towards the edge of the skin and the ringing tone you can get from a glancing blow on the very edge. Yes, there are many more techniques. I said I was a beginner and these are basics. I found my own way of working out a rhythm, running it to a lyric in my head. Actually I already knew that one from years back, but doing it again was a challenge. And I learned I’ve very right-handed, struggling to lead into any beat with my left hand.

Third, and most importantly, I was impressed by the teaching/learning style. I guess I’m used to ‘learning’ being a case of discussing something, working it through in a conversation of some kind, and then putting it into practice. Almost every type of learning I’ve done, from academic to shiatsu to first aid, follows this general pattern. This, however, was very different. If you want to learn to drum – you drum. You see and hear what the workshop leader is doing, and try to replicate it, and then he goes off into something else that makes the beat more complex or interesting, and you keep going, and then he comes back to the basic beat and takes you off in another direction. It’s a whole lot more intuitive and I found I was using my whole body, almost doing a sitting-down dance, in order to keep time.

Which takes me to a fourth observation, which is how stiff my body is from all the sitting-down-thinking-and-typing I tend to do.

Lots more as well. I noticed how the drum I was playing was reverberating to the other drums, for example. And how loud a drum really is when you go at it (which at home, with neighbours, I almost never do). And I’ve decided I need a bigger drum because the 8-inch diameter is basically the whole length of my hand, which makes a bass slap tricky.

I’m going to keep going. At home, and not necessarily in that particular workshop because it’s Afro-Caribbean based and that’s not my particular thing, but maybe there are other groups elsewhere. But the more left-brain, intuitive, rhythmic side of me needs to come out from wherever I’ve been hiding it. And it’s a good upper-body workout as well… It must have been inspirational because I’ve started randomly hitting and slapping things just to see what they sound like and whether I can copy a rhythm – the rhythm of the dishwasher as its working, for example…

I’m sure there are more ‘analytic’ sides to drumming; but for the moment that’s not how I’m engaging with it. I’m seeing it as a counterpoint to the other stuff I do, not a replication of it.

In other news, I’m planning on going to a music event of a totally different kind, Stench, at Fabrika, Leicester on Saturday (they’re running Sunday as well, but I’m not sure I can make it then). This will be home-made electronic music, the kind where people have fiddled and rebuilt and customised various electrical appliances to make interesting sounds. Should be fun.

And for now, it’s back to the sitting-at-keyboard-thinking-and-writing thing…

Shortfuse last night (and a rant)

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

We got there late, unfortunately, but it turned out to be something of a miracle we got there at all.

Intriguing collection of stuff – a range of semi-autobiography, well-crafted tales and wonderfully evocative language. Also, unusually, some live music from The Orange and then from the First Monday Ukulele Club, which was as unlikely as it sounds – a stage filled with people playing rock’n’roll on ukeleles… a sight to behold and extraordinary (in a good way) to hear.

Shortfuse is next on 18 June, I believe (their website should soon have updated information – shortfusefiction.com). The theme for that night will be ‘taboo’. Then it’ll be taking a long break for the summer, so it’ll be a case of ‘get there or miss out for the next 4 months or so’.

Discussions afterwards were interesting and left me musing on how hard it is to organise any kind of arts event – and how much harder it’s likely to become in future in the current financial climate. So this is the ‘rant’ part of this post.

I don’t just mean things like literary readings, but art exhibitions, dance performance, theatre… we’re already at a stage where a huge amount of cultural activity is done for free, or for pennies, because the people who do it have some longer-range vision or dedication and are essentially prepared to put time and effort into making it happen.

This is so even in ‘popular’ culture – I’ve been to places like goth/industrial music events where the DJs organise the event, put in huge amounts of time flyering and advertising on social websites, etc., all for a split of the door takings after they’ve paid venue costs. They do it because they’re dedicated, which they have to be to put in the number of hours it takes in background work to make something happen and walk away at the end with less money than it will cost to get a taxi home.

And that’s just for an event with DJs. If you have a PA system, props, admin costs, or any of the myriad of other things it takes to get some kind of performance together, anything that might be called ‘alternative arts’ is going to struggle. Sure, it always has. Think for example of the number of artists whose paintings now sell for small fortunes, but who never saw a penny from their work in their own lifetimes (and whose work wasn’t even thought to have artistic merit in their own lifetimes!). And there are plenty of writers with experiences on similar lines…

But it does leave me wondering if there’s any financial model (other than working off arts grants) that would help keep ‘marginal’ events alive, because so much of what they do can’t be valued economically. I’m just thinking here of the many painters, dancers, actors, and writers whose work starts off in the margins of culture and develops there until the mainstream is ready for it…

Well, ok economists will usually say everything has an economic value; what I’m arguing here is that the value of fringe cultural events doesn’t lie in the present but the future, and usually exceeds the extent to which it can be monetised in the present. Does that make sense?

If anyone wants to start a debate or discussion about this, I’m up for it.

Stench VI

March 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Early in the evening Star Trek: Yoyager was on TV. B’elanna says to Seven something along the lines of ‘You have to watch the warp coil like a hawk, it can be unpredictable’. Seven says it’s only a propulsion device. B’elanna says ‘But it has a mind and personality of its own.’
Cut to later in the evening at The Art Organisation, Leicester. The stage has a couple of laptops and a pile of repurposed circuit boards stripped out from discarded electronic kit. It’s impossible to tell which sounds are sampled, which are generated from scrapped and modified circuitry. It looks like this is indeed a pile of junk that has a mind and personality of its own, and the performers are interacting with that mind and personality as much as controlling it. The overall effect varies from ethereal birdsong to heavy driving industrial beats.
From an audience perspective it looks like chaos theory at work. A performer gently tweaks a knob and whatever input that adds to the mix (which might be a signal controlling another sound) has the effect of a butterfly that beats its wings and whips up a hurricane.
It’s an acquired taste, but if you’ve ever gone to sleep with the radio on and woken up sometime in the middle of the night to find the signal has drifted, there’s a beat created by phasing between two stations and loops of static and interference – and found that it’s weird in an interesting way – you’ll have the idea. It’s almost trancelike, and the music of dreams. My dreams anyway, and presumably those of the respectably large audience.
At the end of the evening, Kanta Horio did some intimate, amusing and fascinating stuff on a very small scale with old computer fans, electromagnets making ball bearings jump about in little boxes, springs used as reverb units and suchlike. This is a style of performance that seems quirky, distinctive, unique.
There seems to be an increasing interest in this kind of music. Perhaps some people have come to it from the contemporary industrial music scene, some from looking back at the origins of it in the more or less experimental work of groups such as Einsturzende Neubauten, and some from the (now rather dated) avant-garde of Stockhausen. Perhaps some have just latched on to the aesthetic of recycling old stuff to make new and interesting stuff, the way that people like Survival Research Labs have done for redundant military equipment that gets re-made into performing robots. But whatever the sources and influences, the effects are remarkable.
Stench appears to be a collective of 30-plus people (though only a handful were involved in last night’s performance). It describes itself as an ‘artist-led forum for innovative performance, experimental music and digital arts … open to anyone who is interested in being involved in creative projects that go beyond the mainstream’. They will be performing again in April and August, and apparently are running workshops over the summer.
Read more at Stench’s pineapster page.

Sounds of childhood revisited

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Having just posted on childhood influences and electronic music, I got this email reminder: STENCH VI “An evening of handmade electronic music and performance.” This Thursday (11 March) at 20:30 at Fabrika, Leicester – see the link in the blogroll on the right. There’s synchronicity for you… I’ll definitely be there!
Did I mention I mis-spent part of my youth playing with tape recorders and razor blades (because that was how you made musique concrete in those days) and then with borrowed VCS3s? Apparently you can get computer simulations of synthesizers these days but I’m probably better employed playing with words instead.

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