No Boundaries – no fringe

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No Boundaries 2014 was heralded as an ‘open symposium on the role of culture in 21st century society accessible for established cultural leaders and for those who are discovering their leadership role’. Artists were also able to attend. The symposium also took place over two cities: Bristol and York. We were promised a wide variety of speakers, free to propose open space events, an early morning Arts Council England briefing, a disco and loads of geeky hi-tech internet streaming between venues, so I went to York.

What happened? Well, I went feeling a little cynical about these sort of gatherings but hopeful of being able to infiltrate debates here and there. This one was different though. #NB2014 was a bit more constructed than most conferences. Perhaps this was a constraint imposed upon organisers by their own wish to push technological boundaries? This made me feel that, as the two days progressed, there was little space to talk or even think rather than no boundaries. For much of the conference I felt talked at rather than involved. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, broke the mould by inviting an open debate at York about ACE’s new draft document snappily entitled The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society: A review of research and literature. It was a good discussion and the document looks promising. The trouble was that that much of #NB2014’s content did not really challenge the status quo. There was much talk of economics, many platitudes, some self-congratulation, shrieking google goats, big new buildings, lovely food, ‘provocations’ that often were not provocative, perfume sniffing, tech glitches, dad dancing disco… You get the gist.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the speakers or the conference. It was what I expected. More constrained than I had imagined given the choice of moniker but, more or less, to be expected at events aimed at established and emerging ‘cultural leaders’. It was interesting and infuriating. That is good. I expected it. What I didn’t expect was elements that made me feel like UK arts and culture ‘leadership’ might be becoming more authoritarian. The need for a ‘common language’ with which to convince the masses they need to take art and culture more seriously made me think Orwellian Newspeak. The heady blend of technology and scent wafted words from A Brave New World around my head. These books informed my childhood and remain firmly resident. Literary influences such as these (and my hard-line non-conformist Christian upbringing) inform my cynicism. They make me watchful, anti-authoritarian, rebellious and playful. I seek potential space, sometimes sense Bad Faith. I play the game. We all do. That’s why we were there.

I didn’t expect a posh bloke from New Zealand explain in a smugly sentimental manner how a theatre was quickly re-established from the ruinous Christchurch cityscape (even though many local houses in poor neighbourhoods still haven’t even been assessed yet.) I certainly wasn’t ready to hear him ask the audience to stand, one hand on heart, the other in the air, and pledge something about how it’s all about the audience! Hallelujah! What did I do? I remained seated. I did not pledge. People looked at me. Some asked why? Wasn’t it obvious? I laughed. Now things were getting interesting. What next (2013/4/5/6/7/etc.)? I wondered if we should all synchronise our clapping (physically and digitally) for the rest of proceedings. Maybe an orchestrated dance with #NB2014 flags et al. would follow? It didn’t of course. Instead, I felt angry. I went to open space events and met nice people and talked more openly. I made contacts. I thought new thoughts stimulated by people who were there to be open, to talk openly. And, by the end of the conference, likeminded people eventually gravitated towards each other, mumbled, argued, agreed, smiled, and went home with old-new ideas.

There were some really inspiring moments at #NB2014 too. Joy Mboya from Godown Arts Centre, Nairobi (a good old school ‘arts centre’) illustrated how artist-led initiatives can lead to democratic(ish) creative placemaking that engages different classes and people across a post-colonial conurbation; Benjamin Barber talked some sense about people, politics and place; Alex Fleetwood said ‘fuck off’ and wanted to flip funding on its head; Jake Orr passionately pleaded for critical writing’s role and for paid work in the arts; and Jo Verrent’s three minute blast about the important need for disability to be taken much more seriously. But my two highlights were performance pieces by two talented young poets: Henry Raby and Luke Wright. Raby managed, in an interactive poem about best friends and dinosaurs, to get the entire York audience to repeatedly chant ‘Rex’ over and over again. Wright, as is alter ego Fat Dandy, took things a whole lot further and produced the only truly antagonistic moment of the two days when he said he had expected to be welcomed at the conference as an artist but felt like he’d wandered into the wrong office then went on to attack NPOs and arts elites in a brilliantly fast-paced poem about how young artists and arts workers are expected to work for free as interns (although these positions are usually filled by endemic old-school nepotism.) Some people shifted positions uneasily. I (and a few others) cheered and laughed. More! More! But there wasn’t any more.

And that is my final overarching feeling. There needed to be more antagonism, more discussion of the flaws in the present system, more talk of fairness and rights for artists and employees and paid apprenticeships not internships, more talk of people who visit and don’t visit arts venues, more talk of participation, socially engaged practice, broader communities outside of the arts, amateurs, class, politics, disability, the need for much more diversity. In short, more radicalism. Now I know this conference wasn’t officially for that and I respect that it there needs to be a space for ‘arts leaders’ to meet in their own ways and that some of them might not be comfortable with free, open critical discussion and debate. But I think No Boundaries (or whatever clever new name they come up with next year – because there will be a ‘next year’ – there always is) should in future feature a fringe event as well as being itself more open to debate. Often the fringe is where new thinking really springs forth. It is more fun, more honest, more shocking, and more radical. For me, and I think many others who felt they shouldn’t go to #NB2014 or were uncomfortable with the formality of proceedings and lack of space to talk freely very often, future ‘state of the arts’ fringe festivals would complement the main event and really be A Tale of Two Cities – the haves and the have-nots. That would be a start…