Reflective Conservatoire Conference 2018: The Artist as Citizen

From 20th to 23rd of February, the Reflective Conservatoire Conference (RCC) took place at the Guildhall School for Music and Drama in London. This was the third and last in a series of three conferences and seminars regarding the artist in society (after the ICON seminar on listening in October 2017 and the Protean Musician conference in Oslo in November 2017), and by this represented a wonderful closure of a huge amount of input to be processed, specifically in regarding to conservatoire education. It was particularly fascinating to experience the three very different formats of these events: ICON’s interactive modes of engaging practice, Oslo’s small core group of “bright minds” (Darla Crispin) working on the theme of the Protean for three days, and the large scale and extensive program of the RCC.

⇒ the RCC on Twitter: @rconservatoire, and #rcc2018.

Next to being an engaging conference, these days were a gathering of many friends and colleagues, from HKU, ArtEZ, the team of ICON creative directors, many former ICON participants and international networks such as the AEC or EPARM. It has been wonderful to experience these days with so many well-known – and new – people together. As the conference had an extremely extensive program, I could only attend a part of the presentations. I chose a few of them to write about here that I think were most remarkable, or most useful in the larger endeavor of developing a concept on the musician in society. Seen the length of this post, I also decided to write about the collaborative presentation with Christina Guillaumier, as well as the overarching ICON session in which we presented, at a slightly later moment in one or two weeks.

Opening by Helena Gaunt

On the first afternoon, after the initial welcome from Guildhall principal Lynne Williams, Vice-Principal & Director of Guildhall Innovation Helena Gaunt introduced the conference theme, its issues and challenges, and asked a few intriguing questions to inspire the participants’ thinking and engagement during the next few days.

Gaunt started with an elaboration of the theme of the Artist as Citizen – and why it is such an important one at this moment. We live in a time of both great pressure on, and enormous opportunity for the arts. Pressures are reducing of public subsidy, a lowering political will and, specifically in Great Britain, the very real threats to the quality of the arts coming with Brexit. Opportunities are digitalization, the rise of the creative industries, the process of moving into an experience culture, the continuous exploration of co-creation of artistic experiences, new domains of artists working as populations age; strategies of how we meet marginalized groups of society such as refugees, prisoners or mentally ill people, and addressing humanity in a time when we see major failures of leadership in our global corporate economies. According to Helena Gaunt, these pressures and opportunities ask us to dig down and think about what our purpose as artists is, or can be. What can the fundamental elements and characteristics of the arts – provoking, disturbing, illuminating – bring to the wider world?

Regarding changes and challenges that are provoked by the discussion of the artist as citizen, Gaunt touched on one aspect that is crucial to the fundamental values and principles of musicians in particular: the notion of craft. She observed that craft and academic or professional skills don’t seem to combine very well in our daily practice as musicians, and that there is a tension between them.

craft vs.jpg

However, craft is so much about utility as well. The case of a glasblower illustrates this, as one who creates a most beautiful and artful object, which has a clear function at the same time as being artful. Gaunt suggests a shift in our understanding of craft towards being embedded in purpose and identity on the one hand, and expression in the world on the other. She calls this “expanded craft”: a partnering of values, rather than their separation. The interesting question for our practice and our education is then: How do we get these values to become partners?

embedded craft.jpg

Gaunt further elaborated on embedded craft, as being a concept that works across disciplines, sectors and cultures. Her elaboration was marked by four terms that each connect to a powerful pair of seemingly contradictory terms, which provide food for further thought:

  • Innovation: imagination and enterprise
  • Sustained purposeful work: doing/creating and reflecting
  • Connected communities: individual and ensembles
  • Resilience: perfection and lifelong growth

Especially the last pair is an interesting one for music education: Craft is often associated with perfection, exacerbated by virtuosity and the recording industry, among others. At the same time, however, the process of failing and trying again is utterly critical in order to develop continuous and lifelong learning.

Scan 02.03.2018- 05.39 Seite 5.jpg

At the end of Gaunt’s introduction we turned towards a more practical and explorative work form, in which the conference participants were asked to take a few minutes to collect “burning questions” about the conference theme of artists as citizens, and collect sources that illuminate the relationship between “artist” and “citizen”. Both could than be tweeted under the hashtag of the conference, and by this collected online. The resulting feed was projected onto the large screen, and be discussed further.

Keynote 1: Geoffrey Crossick “Arts, citizenship and civil society”

Professor of the Humanities, and Director of the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project Geoffrey Crossick offered the first keynote speech of the conference. He distinguished and elaborated on three dimensions of arts, citizenship and civil society:

  • artists as citizens
  • participants as citizens
  • how civil society & citizenship constituted through the arts

He discussed these dimension on the background of the report of the Cultural Value Project: Understanding the value of arts & culture; a large scale research project of the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC, see here for the final publication, written by Crossick & Patrycja Kaszynska). The leading question of the report was how we obtain evidence of that value of arts and culture in society. One of the report’s objectives was questioning claims of this value that weren’t supported by adequate evidence.

I found this notion of “adequate evidence” particularly intriguing, as it reminded me of the importance of artists as being researchers, as we ourselves are responsible for actually delivering data on the importance of our work, which goes much further than just telling our own stories and vision. From this perspective, Crossick made an important argument towards research in the arts: for a narrative about the arts’ values in society, from the perspective of the arts themselves. This narrative should not just consist of artists’ anecdotes, but should include research and outcomes based on actually useful data, which is essential for making specific aspects clear about one’s projects, their value and impact.

Crossick thinks of the report as a response to four key questions about the value of arts and culture:

  1. Who wants to know and why? Governments always want to hear, but mostly in relation to economical values.
  2. What is the phenomenon whose value we’re trying to understand? Most analysis’ look predominantly at subsidized culture, neglecting commercial areas of cultural production and activity, including streaming & games, amateur production and participatory co-creation.
  3. Are we looking in the right places in our search for value? Looking at impact outcomes is not always the most appropriate, or enough: The report includes six full chapters on what is called “components” of cultural value.
  4. By what methods should we find and evidence that value? Quantitative methods can be valuable, but are not more rigorous or useful in themselves per se! The equal validity of methods from the arts, humanities or qualitative sciences has to be accepted, which include close reading of texts, language, images and performances. If these are not taken into account, the value of arts and culture will never be understood.

Crossick’s argument here is that the methods have to follow that what we try to understand, not the other way round. But artists’ stories and anecdotes are not data to sufficiently support a value-related narrative, but artists do have to take ownership of evaluation; so that they can construct narratives they believe in, about why the arts matter, about what are the values of arts in society, from the perspective of the arts! – And based on good evidence.

“We should understand the variety of methods that flow from the arts, individuals and society, and we should insist on the need to explain how we know what we claim is indeed the case – including what we as artists achieve when acting as citizens.” (Geoffrey Crossick)

In the final sections of his talk, Crossick offered a number of case studies, and elaborated more on how artists actually position their engagement as citizens in relation, or as a part of their artistic work: “It’s what many artists do, and what they want to do.” Many artists who work in these areas do not do this because they cannot “make it” as “pure artists” (as others often claim), but because social engagement is part of what drives them as artists. They see most of this work equal to their own artistic practice, and don’t necessarily make a crucial difference between both. This also underlines how outdated these traditional images of “autonomous” artistic work are, which often seem to suggest that a total detachment from artistic work to external influences. The kind of work is extremely varied, and is situated in the areas of health, aging, dementia, criminal justice, education, youth and community work, urban planning and development, up to the design of new urban spaces. Some of the projects here connected specifically to improving of life quality, while others were broader oriented, towards experience and appreciation of arts and culture in general.

Crossick closed his keynote with a few interesting questions about quality of the artistic within this kind of work: “If engagement with the arts has beneficial, social or health outcomes, does the excellency of the artistic product itself make any difference to the outcome? We know that it does, from research in literature, self-understanding and empathy.”

Keynote 2 – Vikki Heywood “Old wood and green shoots. Clearing the way for young artists as citizens.

In the second keynote of the conference, Vikki Heywood focussed more directly on education, and on the relation between education and the students’ training in becoming citizens. Heywood shared a few tendencies in current practice, addressed several aspects of critique on the institutions as they are now, and then presented a new institution, Mountview, which seeks to address these issues.

Two of the tendencies Heywood observes are that it slowly becomes the norm that arts venues act as a hub for the local community, and that the gap between professional and amateur players is breaking down and disappearing. She addressed the need of institutions to react on these developments and actually reflect the society we live in. According to Heywood the institutions should become meeting points for students, creative professionals and the community, and by this reflect the society and community in which the institutions are situated, as many arts venues already do. “We don’t want our kids to learn in a bubble.” This includes the challenge that our organizations and institutions are not diverse enough, in terms of ethnically, gender and sexuality.

“None of our institutions perfectly reflect the society we are living in.” (Vikki Heywood)

Heywood presented an institution that is still very young, as response to these challenges: Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. It is an institution that takes the historical meaning of the word “conservatoire” serious: looking after people, rather than looking after repertoire. The institution provides space for professionals, students, teachers and the community. One of the basic stances from which Mountview works is that students deserve to have their culture to be reflected in their training.

“There are no road maps for training artists as citizens, so we created one.”

I found it particularly interesting to hear that Mountview’s team scouts talented youngsters, as part of a socially motivated attitude – “not because we need applications, but because we are convinced that the system is not fair.” (Heywood) They are specifically looking for candidates who might otherwise never opt for auditioning, among others because of their seemingly low social or financial status. The next quote, which closes my report on this keynote, connects beautifully to this, as it defies what I often perceive as a sense of hierarchy and raking between institutions, closely connected to the problematic notion of excellency: “We are us, and we are very good at being us.” I would love to see more institutions, and more conservatoires, sending out a message such as this.

Keynote 3 – Helen Marriage

In the last keynote presentation of the conference, artistic director Helen Marriage presented the work of her company, Artichoke. The company produces large scale artistic works, events and experiences, with the aims of reaching the largest audience possible, and providing disruptive and live changing experiences.

The Sultan's Elephant, Royal de Luxe, 2006. Produced by Artichoke in London. Photo by Matthew Andrews.
The Sultan’s Elephant, Royal de Luxe, 2006. Produced by Artichoke in London. Photo by Matthew Andrews.

Artichoke set the tone of their work already with the first production,The Sultan’s Elephant, created in London in 2006. It is a work that takes over the city and disrupts public life quite literally, as it required closing down the inner city of London for four days (!). Marriage specifically elaborated on the process that lead to these four days, which took seven years of negotiation – the idea that an artist would lead the stage of the city was entirely unnegotiable to the city’s council. In the end, it became a transformative moment for London: The events were engaging with an audience that weren’t trapped by a building such as a theatre of a concert hall, and the happenings and huge moving objects shared public space with people who would otherwise never meet.

“Our cities don’t have to be dedicated to shopping and traffic. They don’t.” (Helen Marriage)

After Sultan’s Elephant, Artichoke was asked to do more work such as this. However, they chose not doing work exactly like it, but continued exploring public space with this kind of work. One of these projects is One & Other, London 2009:

Another good example of this is London 1666 (2016), a “festival of arts and ideas” marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, in which Artichoke “invited artists and academics to respond to the Great Fire and consider the modern threats faced by the world cities today: from climate change to conflict.” Centre of the Great Fire 350 umbrella season of events was a 120-metre-long sculpture of the 17th century London skyline, London’s Burning, set alight on the River Thames. To me, one of the strongest aspects of this work is that the wooden sculpture was built by a group of young people from the poorest areas of London: The artists trained these young people in order to do everything necessary to build the enormous sculpture, including wood work, coming in time and, in one case, “eating a tomato because the young boy had never seen a vegetable in his life.” Just as in Sultan’s Elephant, Artichoke devised a project that many others deemed impossible, even more so as they did not just develop memories, but real opportunities: Many of these young people found work through this project.

”What we are saying to these young people is: You can do this.”

The final remarks and statements of Helen Marriage finally sold me to her and her company’s work and vision on the arts in society and artists as citizens: Although one hallmark of their work is the deliberate disruption of daily life, of what people think is normal, they do not not aim to do only that, but commit to a quality of the work that is so high that it offers an even bigger payback to the citizens than the disruption they are faced with. To offer them an experience that stays with them for life.

The team of "London's burning."
The team of “London’s burning.”

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