Simon Sharkey from partner The Necessary Space has been having some fascinating conversations with fellow practitioners from across the world. In response, he wrote an essay.


Piloting through Chaos

The Covid-19 lexicon reads like a phrase book for a post-apocalyptic totalitarian state. ‘Self-isolation’, ‘Social distancing’, ’Quarantine’, ‘Non-essential travel’, ‘Daily death statistics’. George Orwell anyone? The phrase that worries me most is ‘New Normal’. I baulk every time I hear it. It fills me with dread, because contained in those two words is, an assumption that ‘Normal’ is to be the goal and that ‘New’ is progress. New Normal is an oxymoron that immediately displays our biases towards hierarchy, order and control. The idea of normal allows ‘abnormal’ into the frame. The idea of ‘new’ betrays our egotistic need to frame our contribution to the randomness and chaos of the world as progress.

The etymology of ‘normal’ comes from the Latin for a carpenter’s square which was used to ‘normal’ angles so that they fitted a pattern or construction. Normal means we are fitting a designed pattern. So, what is the pattern, and who will sharpen the angles to design our future life so that we might perceive it as ‘normal’?

If it’s the people who have brought us to the point of extinction and created a plethora of ills and pandemics with their greed, addiction to growth and casual acceptance of crises they expect will be solved by the next generation, then we are in deep trouble. If we are complicit, as we have been for centuries, in helping design a ‘New Normal’ built on the same values and principles as the ones that brought us to this crossroads then we must take stock. We must be still in the chaos and see through the fog and the noise to imagine a better future than ‘New Normal’.

We must think like artists.

Grayson Perry described the job of an artist as ‘meaning maker’. I like that, because what artists do is find form to allow us to interpret the world and its randomness.

I like to describe artists as ‘Pilots through chaos’. Humanity is striving for patterns and order and reaching to understand the chaos. Bob Dylan described art as ‘The perpetual motion of illusion’. I like to think of artists like the crew of the millennium falcon, flying through the perpetual motion of the universe and all its manifestations, values, forms, and opportunities, guiding the passengers through infinite discovery and adventure. In our recent history we have tried to ‘normal’ the chaos and in that process have come to a point where we believe we can control it. Oh, such hubris. No wonder we are in a crisis. We cannot normalise chaos. Gleike, the father of Chaos Theory describes it as ‘The science of process other than state, of becoming rather than being.’

To think like an artist, we must be alive to the processes of becoming and aware of our states of being. We must be accepting of chaos and make it our playground to find meaning and purpose. We must travel to new worlds and find forms to access collective consciousness, to co create, co devise, be responsive, be in flow, be in harmony and comfortable with disharmony, be prepared and be comfortable with shock, design and destroy, triumph and fail, be formless so we might find form, be in the now and access infinity, we must know when to be silent so the next sound we make resonates in the universe….

To be a participatory artist we must do all this in consort with our crew and guests so that we are realising our collective potential for living. We must learn and teach how to distinguish between being and becoming, between process and state and know when the interplay will serve us. In the face of Covid-19 we must be in the process of becoming. New Normal is the antithesis of becoming, it is built on our current state of being and Covid-19 has exposed that as folly.

Charles Eisenstein, discussed, at length, the effect of mankind ‘normalling’ nature. In his brilliant essay The Coronation he champions the need for sovereignty in our decision making about the future. He asks us to think about the many ideas, activities and ways of life that have been deemed non-essential in the Covid crisis, and advocates that we take the time to process and explore the meaning of this journey. He suggests that Covid-19 and many other shocks to humanity are akin to an initiation. An initiation into a world not yet imagined. A world where we can ‘build an intentional society on the love already shining through the cracks of the world of separation’.

Can you imagine it? An intentional society built on love.

Step forward artists, artisans and teaching artists working in participatory arts. We have been imagining and shaping such societies for millennia. From nomadic hunter gatherers to digital immersion in virtual reality the teaching artist/artisan, shamans and activists have created the space, forms, forums and journeys that allow us to ‘become’. Our process is imagination, our vehicle for the journey – a liminal space our fuel – the great ‘What if?’

The Great ‘What if?’

‘What if?’ or ‘The Suspension of Disbelief’ has fuelled our evolution for millennia. It is a unique ability that separates us from the animal kingdom and helps us understand chaos by designing culture. There is an explicit contract between artist and audience where we agree to ‘suspend our disbelief’ and become complicit in the act of make believe. Let’s believe these people here are not actors, that the set represents a real space, that the fourth wall can be broken or maintained, that the story reflects real life or is an abstract form that uses metaphor to lead us to catharsis and or enlightenment.

Picasso said: ‘We all know art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.’

The suspension of disbelief is an act of faith that has produced some of the most exquisite experiences and put us in touch with the sublime. ‘What if?’ has been at the root of our evolution and brought us to where we are now.

We are amid the greatest paradigm shift in the history of mankind. We are at the crossroads that lead to the precipice of an evolutionary Armageddon or enlightenment. There is potential for a cataclysmic culture of disconnect from nature, collective consciousness, and the visceral primal need for each other. There is also the possibility that we can take another route – the artists way – and follow what we know to be the truth – take flight on a course to ‘becoming’. Covid-19 is a warning from a specific ‘state of being’ and an incitement to pause and take stock of our processes and ask, ‘What if?’  In doing so we must reveal the truth and point to the other lies.

Our ability to suspend our disbelief has also allowed us to ‘normalise’ systems of control and oppression; cultures of disconnect, individualism, otherness, avarice and the dominance of science over wonder.

We suspend our disbelief in nature to ask what if that noise in the sky is a giant with superpowers, or the wind were breath from a god – pantheistic religion is born. What if, instead, of hunting and gathering, we corralled our animals into pens, and planted the seeds and fruits we eat – agriculture is born. What if, instead of bartering our goods this coin represents this amount of grain, or wine, or effort – money and economics are born. What if we harness the forces of nature with machines that can power pumps and drills and hammers and wheels – the industrial revolution is born. What if we measure things and give them values that capture the natural laws and behaviours of the universe – maths and science and time, and algorithms are born. What if we divide the labour, mass produce and create demand – capitalism and consumerism are born. What if we place our faith in one god, or one man, or one system of government, or one corporation, or in one culture, or in borders that define where these systems are best operated? What if we label otherness so we might organise our hierarchies? What if we abstract our intelligence and memory and knowledge into zeros and ones? What if we abstract everything we have ever evolved, into systems that allow us to receive exactly what we need or want almost instantaneously, by pressing a few buttons?

What if we suspend our disbelief and avoid mortality and vulnerability – hubristic growth and progress are born and we can disconnect ourselves from the responsibility and consequences of the impact on our planet, our lives, and all humanity.

What if our suspension of disbelief could disconnect us from our physical being – avatars and emojis and dateline profiles and Instagram stories are born.

The suspension of disbelief has allowed us to abstract reality into states of being that we artists reflect and refract in galleries, theatres, cinemas, screens, print and a myriad of other forms. If Grayson Perry is right, we search for meaning in the chaos we have created. If Picasso is accurate, we are revealing the truth about our faith in our own deceptions. We are like the captives in Plato’s allegory of the cave, mesmerised by the shadows we cast on the wall, while reality plays on without us, outside the cave.

In our ‘post truth’ era, can you feel the ‘perpetual motion of illusion?’

I can. I can feel exhausted and exhilarated by our journey through the early 21st century. We have been reacting to the shifting paradigm of the technological and online revolution, globalisation, rising inequality, capitalism, consumerism, commercialisation, sustainability, misinformation, the collapse of civil society, the rise of the right and nationalism, the collapse of democracy, a mental health pandemic, the dominance of hierarchies in all their forms, rises in opioid addiction, a suicide epidemic, the commodification and commercialisation of everything… I needn’t go on. The disintegration, disconnection and chaos we have created is fertile ground for artists who are meaning makers and seek out truth, but what do we do about it other than ask our audience to continue to suspend our disbelief; to watch the shadows dance?

Edward de Bono said: ‘The purpose of art is to reflect new emerging values and define the heroes and heroines so that people can absorb them into their perceptions.’ How do we mine the new values and who are the new heroes? How do we turn from the shadow play and step out of our cave into the bright light of becoming?

Step forward the artists, the artisans, the teaching artists, and activists who work in participatory settings. Step forward the pilots who can guide you through chaos. Step forward the artists brave enough to go beyond the suspension of disbelief and build from the suspension of disconnect.

The Suspension of Disconnect

In our post truth, information shift age, we are more connected than ever. Over five billion people have a smart phone and can access a seemingly infinite proliferation of online content, classes, zoom chats and dance meetings, TikTok memes, Facebook and Instagram stories. An explosion of online activity has happened, prompting Nicholas Berger to argue brilliantly in his essay The Forgotten Art of Assembly  to stop it. He suggests that the central ‘yearning’ (I love that word) of human nature is to assemble.

The Covid-19 lockdowns deny us our assembly and neatly redirect us into the world of the algorithm. There is much to be discovered in this new world, including new forms of art and connection, and I am excited to see how it pans out, but if, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, in his book Homo Deus; the algorithm, Artificial intelligence, data and online interaction replace assembly and human contact, we will be creating ‘the useless class’. A class of human that has no worth.

Thank the universe that we still assemble, and our yearning will never die. Every week we assemble on our doorsteps, balconies, and rooftops to applaud the heroes and express our togetherness. In this act of connection, we are exercising our innate human need for self-actualisation through togetherness. It may not be art, but it is an act of participation played out across the globe.

As we adjust to our ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ we project into a chasm of doubt, and fear. I am reminded of a quote from a shaman to a youth on their initiation:

‘As you go the way of life, you will come upon a great chasm. Jump, for it is not as wide as it seems.’

So, let us take the jump. Let us leap to imagine a world that builds on the unique superpowers of participatory practitioners. Let us begin to design a new paradigm that can hold the chaos, suspend our disbelief, suspend our disconnect and deliver on the potential for enlightenment. Let us not be fearful or despondent and instead call up our superpowers. Let us not be complicit in the design of a “new normal” and instead enter the liminal space for creation of a new consciousness.

The Necessary Space

Artists working in participatory settings have been working with people who feel isolated and socially distanced from mainstream society for quite some time. The contract they have with their participants and audiences is explicitly to suspend the disconnect. They go beyond the suspension of disbelief to collaborate in a non-hierarchical relationship and create the sublime in an act of participation. To do so, we create ‘The Necessary Space’ – both physical and metaphorical- to bring to life that which is calling for form.

In the process and evolution of that work they have found new forms, new inspiration, new contexts, new meaning, new cutting-edge hybrid multi art form collaborations, new tribes, new audiences, and new purpose for art. Some of what they have discovered and pioneered has made it into ‘mainstream’ programmes and opened traditional institutions up to the possibilities of great art, with great purpose. Some artists wouldn’t label themselves as ‘working in participatory settings’ or ‘Teaching Artists’ – Jeremy Deller and Olafur Eliason live in the world of visual art, but check out we’re here because we’re here or The Battle of Orgreave or fog tunnel.

Whether your work is in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, a classroom, or favela, artists who work in participatory settings have built new relationships, established new processes, created new forums, new potential and new freedoms that bring release from the controls or ‘normalling’ of society. They have created liminal, equal space where it is safe to experience a live and visceral shift in consciousness so that we sense new horizons, take action, connect with ourselves beyond our ego, commune in a collective consciousness and create new pathways to sustainable harmonious living? Our ‘Necessary Space’ is a dynamic as well as a concept. Where else can we go on a journey with others to test and shape our view of the world and our place in it? Where else can we participate in ensemble devising of a collective consciousness that transcends borders, ideologies, dictates, dogmas, capitalist systems, algorithms and the best and worst of humanity. We create space where we can dream, rehearse, triumph, fail, die, be reborn, reshape our inner and outer being, suspend our disconnect and exercise our empathy. We create space, processes and activity that awakens an awareness and participation in the ultimate reality of who we are and who we can become. We create the space to live.

In my experience, great art goes beyond ‘meaning making’, ‘exposing truth’ and ‘heroes and heroines’. For me, the purpose of art is connection to a greater consciousness that offers freedom and homeostasis. In a world of chaos art is a process of becoming, of yearning, and dreaming and giving form to freedom and happiness.

The Call to Adventure

If you are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a thousand Faces’ and his writings around the monomyth, you will recognise ‘the call to adventure’. If you are unfamiliar, here is an attempt to summarise the monomyth and use it to call all artists in to adventure……

The Hero journey has several stages: it goes something like this…

Something is wrong with our ordinary world; it could be a niggling internal doubt, or it could be an external existential threat. The hero notices and gets a call to adventure. At first, they refuse the call, it can’t be for them. Then they meet their mentor – think Obe wan Kenobi, or the master figure in any martial arts film. The mentor awakens or gives Supernatural aid (super power) to the hero and lets them see they are the one to go on the journey.
The hero Crosses the Threshold from the ordinary world in to the extraordinary world – think Harry Potter crossing in to Hogwarts on the train. It is in this extraordinary world that they meet friends and enemies; where they are tested and triumph over adversity; where they learn from tricksters or seducers or malevolent forces and they survive all the tests and grow stronger until…..
They fail and enter The Belly of the Whale. In here they are defeated, they fight for their life and they die, not literally, but the version of themselves that they know, dies because they have to give up all notions and sense of who they were in the world or what they knew for sure was true.
It is in giving up and dying that they can be Reborn. In being reborn they can take up their quest anew and win the Ultimate Boon or Reward. They win what they sought and begin The Journey Home. On the journey home they are pursued by monsters, fears, and temptations from the past. Their nemesis may have been defeated but rises one more time. They race from their past and Re-cross the Threshold to gift the prize. Everything returns to how it should be – think hobbits in their shire. Everything is as it should be until someone else gets a call to adventure.

Covid-19 is a call to adventure. It is an existential threat to humanity and an existential threat to our way of living and practice as participatory artists. We must connect with our peers and mentors and let them awaken our superpowers (empathy, vision, playfulness, openness, togetherness, devising, confidence in chaos and ambiguity, leading, following, becoming) so that we might cross the threshold into the new paradigm, to an extraordinary world. We must be tested, and we must fail. We must enter the belly of the whale and let go of all that we thought that we were. It is here that we will discover our superpowers are not armour but intrinsic innate abilities we have developed in order to seize the prize. We may feel we are in the belly of the whale, but it is here that we must surrender to our metamorphosis and emerge stronger than before because it is our adventure. To design the ‘New Normal’ is a denial of the call, it keeps us firmly in our ordinary world. To step into the extraordinary world to be tested and fail, to have the courage to be vulnerable (see Brene Brown for that)  and triumph through adversity will lead us to the prize. We do not know what that is yet and we don’t know how or where we will find it, but if we are pilots through chaos, we will find it.

I had a call to adventure in 2005 when I was invited to be one of the founding directors of the National Theatre of Scotland. I had the privilege to lead on the design and delivery of our participatory arts programme. I travelled the world with our ‘Theatre without walls’ methodology and invited the world to Scotland. It was an extraordinary adventure where I forged my ‘Theatre of Opportunity’. On my path I met many mentors, the most influential of whom are Eric Booth who leads the ITAC Collab and the legendary Liz Lerman. I also met inspirational fellow adventurers.

People like Fred Leone a first nations Australian who selflessly strives to preserve the dreamtime stories, dances and culture of his tribes and free them from the oppressions of poverty. Inspirational women such as Puneeta Roy – director of Yuva Ekta and Lesley Anne Welsh who is CEO of Manifesto Jamaica. Both women dedicate their lives to working with disadvantaged youth. Directors like Renato Rocha who activates and animates the favelas of Brazil  and carries the legacy of Augusto Boal in to the 21st Century. Pioneers like Miriam Tscholl who created the Burgherbuhne festival of participatory arts in Dresden. Jess Pillmore (sadly now passed) whose play filled ‘creatively independent’ pedagogy refreshed my passion for life and art and rescued me from the belly of my whale. There are hundreds more and hundreds more examples of how our work will shape the new paradigm.

In Jess Pillmore’s article for Howl Round Magazine ‘From Inside the Fog’, she talks about embracing the unknown:

In the fog, we can breathe in “I don’t know” and start again. In the fog, we can engage our senses, our instincts, as they override the “reality” of our gaze. In the fog, we can sit down and be fully present in the suspended liquid droplets in front of us. Suspended. How gorgeous is that? Tiny worlds of what if…? suspended all around you, each fully encapsulated.’

Whether it is a fog or the belly of the whale, we will emerge because we are alive to the power of connection and we are equipped with vision, perspective, empathy, openness playfulness and togetherness. We build The Necessary Space to become, and make a Theatre of Opportunity from the controls and normalising that surround us.

We are not alone.

Another artist expressing a sense purpose in the face of chaos in one of my favourite songs is Leonard Cohen. He is one of the best pilots I know. It’s called Anthem. I think we should adopt it as ours. Listen to it and enjoy, then strap in, check your instruments, plot your course, and take flight.

Simon Sharkey

Simon Sharkey was one of the founding directors of the National Theatre of Scotland where he pioneered the ‘theatre without walls’ methodologies in participatory arts. He is now Director of The Necessary Space, an independent collaborative of artists and arts mentors.