Posted by: stelladuffy | May 22, 2016

Everyone an Artist (not great & for)

I was hugely fortunate last week to take part in Bivouac1, a (free – free!!) gathering of artists (mostly visual), facilitated by Eden Arts in Cumbria (here’s Adrian from Eden Arts talking about how the two days were for them – clearly we’re coming from the same place). It was a talking, sharing, confiding, considering, thinking, walking, drinking, EATING, pasta-making, death-discussing, faerie-making, magical (literally), gathering. Meeting. Engaging. It was about conversations, nothing led or panel-debated, nothing decided beforehand to any huge level, just a bring them together and see what happens thing. It was bloody brilliant. There was also some Alan Lane passion & politics (plus Fairy Portal) which is always a joy.

And although a lot of the people who contribute to Fun Palaces are visual artists, my own art work has mostly been theatre and writing, so I’ve had less conversations with a variety of visual artists. I liked having conversations with them. Liked it a lot.

One of the reasons I liked it a lot is that, in every conversation, the visual artists I talked with were speaking about community, about other people, about engagement, participation, creating together. They were NOT talking about ‘great art for everyone’.

I’ve written before about my concern with the ‘great art for everyone‘ tag and those two days last week reinforced my concerns.

When we put ‘great art’ first, when we fly in a ‘world-class’ artist to a school or a community, what we are doing is alerting/exposing people to art. As if art is the thing that can make a difference in and of itself. And obviously it does for some people, but if ‘great art’ really made that much of a difference for all people, then we (the arts ecology) wouldn’t be worrying so much about audience development, we wouldn’t be freaked by the Warwick Commission Report’s 8% stat, and the people who paid £400 each to go to Theatre2016 wouldn’t have spent so much of their  time talking about how to get people into their buildings. (nb – there are a lot of views on that £400 each, some pro, some anti, some somewhere in between, Jake Orr’s version is very interesting re who paid and how much, and here’s Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s speech from the event about buildings and what we might do with them.)

There is another way, that doesn’t involve treating artists as special and different, and everyone else as something to be helped or saved by art – it’s the way of Fun Palaces, it’s what SlungLow do, it’s what Eden Arts helps facilitate, it’s what all those artists at Eden Arts last week do, and it’s what loads of people and places are already doing, all over the UK – they’re just not getting quite as much attention as the ones with all the money who get to shout about their ‘great art’ and beg you to come to their buildings.

That other way is to help people be artists. To enable them to make their own art – ‘great’ by their own standards. That other way is to stop behaving as if there is an us (artists) and them (audience, consumers, clients), to stop treating it as a hierarchy, and to acknowledge that the only way we are ever going to encourage people to love arts, to ‘get’ arts, is to help them DO art, BE arts-makers themselves – ‘artisting’ as Francois Matarasso brilliantly puts it at the end of this piece (whole piece def worth reading too).

I have no doubt that the people I met last week make art that is great – but the really great bit about their art is that they do it WITH people, and then those people get to make art too.

As ever, it all goes back to Joan Littlewood’s ‘everyone an artist‘*. Everyone an artist is the only way we’re ever going to help everyone access the arts.

And hey, maybe when everyone artists then those buildings will just fill themselves – when people feel part of something, they tend to like supporting it. (See : sport.)


*Yes, we – Fun Palaces with the British Science Association and Wellcome who support our workshops – are also working on Joan’s ‘everyone a scientist’ bit too.




Posted by: stelladuffy | May 13, 2016


Quite often my facebook posts become blogs. Here’s a succession of twitter statuses from this evening that became a facebook post that became a blog. Partly prompted by the ‪#‎Theatre2016‬ conversations today …

Blissfully getting-it conversations evening with a cancer-y friend tonight.

Not that beloveds aren’t great, but sometimes it is a relief to be with someone who gets life-precarity. I think I lived the artist no-money precarity for 25-ish years & I have no idea how long my current (financial) ‘enough’* will last, but the life-precarity is what I live with, always, now.

And we (the arts) are crap at talking about that – life/death. We talk about money ALL the time. Funding/no funding, income/no income, as if that is the only precarity. But there are many artists living with death daily. And unless a show/work/play is about death, we hardly ever mention it. We could mention death more in conversations about arts. It’s probably as important as funding.

Anyway, it was great to spend an evening with a cancer-y theatre beloved and talk about death, not money.

* I don’t buy a lot, I’m not fussed about stuff/things, I’m right now wearing an 18-year-old cardigan (it’s still lovely!), I’m lucky that my enough is pretty light.

Posted by: stelladuffy | May 12, 2016

learning to swim in the abyss

I wrote this piece about disease and resulting depression a few months ago, and a lot of people responded. Being open about illness, disease, depression, fear, anxiety is tricky – it can feel very vulnerable, too vulnerable, and while I appreciate that vulnerability can be really useful, like many people I too find it hard (depending on circumstances) to make myself vulnerable, to be fully open. But it can also result in a huge amount of support.

Someone I don’t know in the world, in actuality, but do know on twitter, has today spoken about her diagnosis of breast cancer. And Suzanne Moore has written today about social media being a connection, not a hindrance or something that gets in the way of connection – but another connection, depending on how we use it.

I’m just back from a long, wide-ranging conversation with a woman I know a little, and am happy to know more, about disease (cancer and not), arts for our sake (not art for art’s sake), about illness and fear and living WITH it, not living despite it, about choosing not to ‘fight’ our bodies or our illnesses but to work with them, about where support is to be found and how sometimes even reaching out at all, for any help, can be terrifying. It was a great conversation.

Since I posted that piece in March I have been doing more mindfulness work, reading more existential stuff (psychotherapy and philosophy), Pema Chodron (as ever), Paul Tillich, Rollo May, loads of others, and I’m thinking more about what the ‘abyss’ is, to me.

With my first cancer, 16 years ago, the analogy that worked for me was that of a journey, one where I was changed when I came out the other side. In my solo show about that illness, I compared cancer (surgery, chemo, radiotherapy, infertility) to the time I swam across a lake when I was 14. I kept going to the other side, and when I came out I was the same, and I was also changed.

This time round, with the more recent cancer, it feels different. I think age is part of this, the fact that in my 30s I was one of a few friends with disease, now in my 50s it is increasingly prevalent. We are aging more obviously, we are dying more readily. I no longer have my years to live again. At 36 I might have made it to 72 (recurrence, accidents etc notwithstanding). At 53 I will definitely not make it to 106. Time feels more solid.

So the analogy that’s working for me now is swimming in the abyss. There’s no “other side”, there’s no getting out of it. I am the same, and I am changed, IN it. The etymology of ‘abyss’ says it means bottomless pool. I don’t think there are any sides either. I don’t think there is anywhere else to go. I’m not always fine with this, but if there is nowhere else to go, then it makes sense to try to be with it, than to fight it. (Again, what is sensible is not always what any of us feel or do!)

Joseph Campbell said “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” And I like Campbell’s work, I have found all the variations on the hero’s journey very useful – in life and in writing – BUT the hero’s journey usually includes the idea that the hero finds the treasure (in stumbling, in falling, in being at her darkest, most painful place) and then she brings it back – to home, to us, to the tribe, to the ordinary world. And yes, the hero is changed by that journey and so are we. The redemption thing so over-played in the Hollywood cliche, and yet also so much a part of our mythology and storytelling.

Now I’m thinking that perhaps the abyss itself is the treasure. The stumble is the treasure, the letting go, ceding, giving in, the letting be is the treasure. And, because there is no getting out of the abyss (other than death), learning to swim in the abyss actually involves learning to stop swimming. To stop trying to get somewhere else. That is, it’s not Hades and there is no tunnel with light at the end, even if you only eat three pomegranate seeds, there’s no getting out, not even for six months. There’s just this, abyss.

There’s just this, whatever this is – a sunny day, a crap diagnosis, a week that’s too busy, a bunch of bills to pay, people to see, places to travel to, things to do. Just all of this, in an abyss with no bottom and no sides and nowhere else to go.

Weirdly I find this notion both enormously daunting and comforting. Because on the (rare) occasions I’m ok with there being just this – just this moment of being alive – I’m content. Even if the next moment is full of anxiety, fear, pain.

I have no skill in this letting-be yet, I suspect it might take all the life I have left, however much that is. I can’t imagine that I will ever get great at it. (I enjoy achieving, doing, ticking-off-lists so much I can’t imagine ever not wanting to DO.) But I like it as an idea – the possibility that there is only the abyss, and we’re all in it, connected and alone, learning to swim in the abyss, learning to BE in the abyss.

And I’m grateful for the connections, actual and digital, they do help. Phosphorescent sparks in dark water.


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