Last week I spent two days at Wild Conference, the latest try at an Arts Council England-commissioned national arts conference, following events like State of the Arts and No Boundaries. Delivered – brilliantly – by Slung Low, led by Alan Lane, this had a very different feel and format.
It was a conference in a field. We paid what we decided, in advance. (The average came out at a perhaps surprisingly high £63. I had matched the day rate of a Slung Low member of staff, and paid £108, as it felt right to pay more than I assumed some artists might be able/want to.) It had a camp-fire going at all times. There were tents of different shapes and sizes instead of conference suites. You wore headphones with which you could listen to any of the presentations. (Side benefit: you could nip to the loo and not miss anything said.) There was a creche. You made and barbecued your own kebabs together at the first dinner break. And, perhaps most unusual of all, it was in Yorkshire and you needed sun cream. If you were one of the 100 no-shows for this sold out event, you missed a treat, and I hope your crisis has improved.
As an ageing untheatrical male prone to catching the sun, less averse than many to the ‘listen to interesting speakers’ type conference such as the TEDx York event where I first heard Alan Lane speak*, and often more of a lurker than a networker, I was a bit nervous to be honest. But I am happy to report it was one the most stimulating conferences I’ve been to in a very long time – maybe even since the poetry conference in Grasmere when I sat behind Seamus Heaney and Melvyn Bragg. (Reader, I could have stroked Bragg’s lustrous quiff but didn’t, part of me regrets it to this day….)
I’m going to try and summarise the thoughts is sparked for me, around three main ideas: movement, acknowledging hurt and being human together.
If there was one speaker that struck home most for me personally, it was Penny Greenland of Jabadao, who spoke fantastically about the importance not just of ‘dance’ but of movement, especially the movement of play. She argued for ‘movement as the core of empathy’ and that ‘we grow culture around how our body learns to be in the world’.
The conference was proof of this: not confined to air-conditioned rooms and uncomfortable chairs, given freedom to wander, to loll and lay down whilst listening, to talk to the old friends and comrades gathered and to new folk, not feeling too guilty you were missing something, the conversations felt freer and somehow more candid than they often are, partly because many reflected on that very ‘freedom’ and how to use it. There also seemed to be a lot less policing of language and thought than happens amongst disembodied selves online.
So many of our practices within culture restrict movement and shift us into our isolated heads alone, rather than our bodies sharing space. Think of how most meetings are run, let alone the differences between the seat and street experiences of theatre or dance. How might we bring mind and body together in how we work? I’ll be thinking more about that when facilitating and when researching and writing. I’ll also simply be moving for fun more – and if anyone gives me that ‘Dad-dancing, eh?’ look, I’ll quote Penny Greenland on how young children move first for sensation, how it feels, not how it looks or the shape it makes.
There were some almost-practical sessions, such as that featuring a panel of people involved in Creative Civic Change projects, and more conceptual or issue-based discussions. The debate on arts education on the second day, introduced by a provocation by Erica Whyman, was especially interesting. It threw up practical ideas as well as reflection on the current difficulties. It also inspired a great interjection (shown in the photo by James Phillips above, which also happily captures my own reaction.) from Keith from Nigeria, one of the international artists and activists at the conference with the British Council, which boiled down to ‘lord, you over-complicate this stuff in the Global West, just fucking relax, eh?’ (There was no delegate list so I’m afraid I don’t know Keith’s full name – if you do let me know and I’ll edit/correct this.) There was positivity and encouragement, but very little show-boating.
What struck me most the more I reflected afterwards was how often this positivity and commitment to new ways of working or being was articulated in relation to what I might call ‘hurt’ – although pain, trauma and loss are wrapped up in that term too. Whether it was the ongoing traumatic personal, familial and structural legacy of colonialism; economic and social attack on places then forced into often clumsy regeneration; race, religion, gender or class-based exclusion or its flipside ‘erasure by labels’; or the dangers felt by people identifying as LBGTQI, something in the atmosphere allowed for these experiences to be articulated and heard, attended to. That’s not to say solutions were easy to find, but it felt like progress for people’s experiences to be shared in this collegiate or comradely context. (Like all good conferences it also served as chance to catch up with people you feel are working on broadly the same ‘project’ as you.) Acknowledging hurt, let alone healing it, may not be easy but could be an important step for people working in/with culture in any kind of social context.
In a session looking forward to 2050 Florence Okoye described her approach as ‘mundane futurism’, which I empathised with. The session also glanced back to 1989, before many present were born. Thinking back to 1989 though, I remember a Green surge in the EU elections, and a period leading to the Berlin wall coming down, Thatcher being gone, Mandela being freed…
Maybe we need to take long views to stay optimistic rather than dystopian and to heal hurt. Some, maybe much, of our current pain has grown out of older, often hidden, hurt. Some may even represent progress tracing its slow arc forward, as what was once unacknowledged or unspeakable becomes a source of pride and identity for some but resentment for others clinging to the old world. (This is not to downplay people’s current struggles in anyway.) The future may be ‘intersectional’ – there is a debate on how this plays out, I know – but it will also, I hope, be inter-generational. If you want to feel optimistic about this, or see why I might, watch this conversation in which a trans-girl and an older trans-women compare experiences. It contains both hurt and healing.
The final idea I took to heart, recently was something one of the speakers in the Creative Civic Change panel said, about how to do arts organisations should work in communities: Be human together. This sounds obvious, of course but it resonates with much I’ve been thinking about. It also sits alongside Alan Lane’s mantra: Be useful. Be kind.
But so much business and cultural practice pushes people to act differently: to see people as markets, customers, providers or material rather than other humans trying to live full lives, making and passing on cultures together. The very format of the conference encouraged us to avoid this, and to take ownership of our own contributions. Looking back through my blogs on previous conferences, many of the issues remain the same. We know this, wherever we sit, stand or lay down. The challenge then is to act differently, to go with the bits that feel awkward for us as try, to be braver, more useful, more kind. And to forgive others things that may not fit our preferences – I’ve concentrated on the positives here but there were niggles for me, as always, where I got frustrated with people or formats, or with myself for not just fucking relaxing as advised. You can start by forgiving this rather long, baggy blog.
Penny Greenland talked of there being two basic movement patterns. In ‘reach and pull’, which is encouraged in Western culture, a baby learns to grab things. Using ‘yield and push’ they learn to crawl and move. We may need to ‘yield’ a bit to hurt and trauma in order to ‘push’ not through but onwards, being human together. It might be fleeting, though I hope not, but I came away feeling hopeful and committed and with new stuff to consider, integrate and live up to.
*I wrote about this in 2011. Finding that link just now, I see I also said ‘Can I suggest there’s a sideline for theatre people in running/designing conferences, they seem to handle the ‘theatrics’ of them better than conference organisers.’ #justsaying….
Photo by, and used with kind permission of, James Phillips, one of a beautiful set from the two days.