‘The Future is Ours to See’
Hot foot from Wales, I twizzle from one conference to the next, from Welsh mountains to London’s pavements. Last week
at Emergence The Summit at the Centre for Alternative Technology, this weekend the Transition Conference at BAC in Battersea. At both, my venturing is the same: am I gaining a clearer sense of how artists open imaginative space to create the future in our twizzling, turning, changing times?
I’d taken 5 days walking 98kms to reach the Summit as a ‘North’ route walker on artist Simon Whitehead’s Land Journey. An elliptical perigrination up and around the giant arms of Cadair Idris, Simon designed the two walks (‘South’ up Plynlimmon) to make creative space for a dialogue with the land. We encountered and questioned people who came up out of the land across our path: Ben Stammers in the fast flowing River Dyfi, a poet Rhys Trimble, who’d slept the night up on Cadair Idris, Alun the Sheep Farmer, Raj a Bollywood dancer and Mike the writer in ancient forest now turned ‘green conifer concrete’. Arriving damp and sunburnt with mud on our boots, we brought a physical presence of the land to CAT, and found stamina to throw ourselves into the 3 day conference looking at how we step into the unknown to create the future: intense, creative, invigorating.
The Welsh Arts Council helped to bring vivid life to how artists play an absolutely central role in imagining the future. The commissioned Institutes for Imagined Futures and Unknown Lands, by Owen Griffiths and Fern Thomas; 9 yr old Gabriel and father Gary Anderson’s Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and soundscapes of Ansuman Biswas were layered into the conference as a whole along with comedian Rob Newman on democratising corporate power, Rupesh Shah on emergence itself, John Fox and Sue Gill’s opening and closing ceremonies with bread, song and explosions, and delegates making films, taking photos, writing poetry, collectively creating a zero carbon vision of the future. Foremost amongst these were a group of young delegates and children from Platform, Phakama and locally from Machynlleth, whose straightforward appraisal of the situation combined hope, responsibility and humour. In ‘The Roadless Trip’ by Sarah Woods and Richard Gott, we saw a workable vision of the future, with hilarity and seriousness combined. We heard from scientist John Houghton, invented a self-perpetuating universe (in 90 seconds) and sang ‘The future is ours to see’ (to the Che Sera Sera tune of Phantom of the Opera) and hope this show can be brought to next years’ Transition conference.
So, emerging from emergence we now have convergence on London, heading back to pioneering BAC, where they are already gloriously ‘reinventing the future of theatre’. Artistic Director David Micklem, (handed a Transition Handbook in January 2009 by me!) has explained how the May 2009 Transition Conference helped BAC think with coherence about ways in which they might ‘transition’ themselves, taking account of the physical energy challenges being faced, becoming a dynamic part of holding a public space, a ‘Transition Town Hall’, where such imaginings of the future can take place. I am thrilled by such exciting news: it underlines the central premise that artists make public space for thinking differently, nurturing change as we push our boundaries and perspectives, making us, Rupesh Shah would argue more ‘viable’, able to cope with change: the greater the diversity a ‘system’ can handle, the greater its viability as a system. So rather than a solo artist having to take the load on in addressing climate change et al, the system to nurture that artist needs to vary its ways of supporting how we all re-imagine the future. New ways of relating to each other open up.
BAC is taking steps to be such a system. Not for the first time, the building has been at the forefront of radical cultural change: in 1913 John Archer, London’s first black mayor was elected there to champion the poor and Emmeline Pankhurst spoke in the Grand Hall in 1920s to champion women’s suffrage. The future was theirs to see...
The three year pairing of an arts centre and transition network culminated for me in being artist writer in residence at BAC in the Spring of this year, perched in a freezing attic, putting together proposals and structure for Playing For Time, the transition book on the arts, (now, fingers crossed awaiting Arts Council approval).
This week back at BAC we still have September sun and a cauldron of energy from everyone piling in from transition corners all over the world. We can see the conference, as a participative event placed right in the middle of BAC’s Cook Up Season: we will all be ‘appearing’ alongside shows such as Kate Tempest’s transformative, sacred sounding Brand New Ancients, (‘fierce and shy" Andy Field’s audio piece for two Motor Vehicle Sundown in a parked car outside Theatre Street, Yeti, Puffball, Ruth Cross and Holocene by David Shepherd. You can participate in this feast of shows whilst you’re there and you are urged to dive in.
Everything comes together in Saturday’s fabulous Transition Cabaret Line up. Compered by the inimitable Matt Harvey, it includes Ben Mellor’s Everything We Need Now, the social arts project, In Your Own Skin with live vocals by Juliette Russell, crowd-sourced poetry and a dancing round off with the Holly Molly Crackers. In there as well is Platform’s James Marriott who has undertaken a land journey of his own, to the heart of the oil economy, walking the oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Northern Europe. Platform are the UK’s heroic long-term pioneers of art activism, and have recently pushed the boundaries of the modern art world, by citing the Museum and Galleries Act of 1992, in ‘gifting’ the blade of a wind turbine to the Tate Modern, Trustees and Nick Serota debate. Platform’s arts activism has moved public debate about energy security along in leaps and bounds. They hold governments to account, provoke the status quo, suggest alternatives, and make change happen. In the Niger Delta they have give voice to the Ogoni people against BP and its destruction of the land and living.
Artist Ruth Ben-Tovim and Chrissie Godfrey will honour the fact we are at an arts centre, taking us by the creative horns to facilitate the conference holding, shaping imaginative space for us all. (Ruth recently created the Encounters Tooting Transition Shop with us in Tooting and Charles Whitehead and other Tootingites look forward to welcoming you on a Tooting well-being land journey 5-8pm on Saturday + a dip in the Lido 7am on Sunday morning...).
On Sunday, from 10am we pick up the story of Transition Town Anywhere’s two-hour EDAP enacted with gusto in the Grand Hall in May 2009. ‘Transition High Street’ will start with an empty Grand Hall and involve us all in making, creating and bringing together our ideas for how a High Street could look in a low carbon future. We will barn raise the town once more with sticky tape, cardboard, scissors, chalk and 384 blackboards, filling the space with our collective imaginings. What role will each of us play? What can we improvise this into life together? How will we do it? We do not know! but we trust to an explosion of energy and play. ‘Theatre’ said Joan Littlewood who died 10 years ago next Tuesday ‘takes the energy from a place and hands it back as joie de vivre.’
We must dive in. (The dadists got it about right: ‘Let yourself be thrown by things, oppose all sedimentation. To sit in a chair for a single moment is to risk one’s life”) We do not know everything in the great unknown we are stepping into, but we can trust that by creating with others, new ideas and possibilities, even new meanings will emerge. We’ll get a renewed sense of excitement about our purpose right now; reflection, action and how to improvise.
At CAT, Paul Allen quoted works of art that had catalysed deep shifts for subsequent generations to reshape the values of their parents: Cathy Come Home, Grapes of Wrath, Roots, To Kill a Mockingbird. Which of our creations from 2012 could affect these transformative shifts in how we think about ourselves to conjure the future we want?
The arts can help us get from here to there. They help us be adaptable and flexible. We do this by interacting with each other, being open to difference, learning through doing and participating. We create a system to imagine the future, fed by everyone’s perspective and everyone’s skills and potential.
So, curtain up on the theatre of transition. The future is ours to see. Step well and enjoy the view!
Theatre is better suited than any other medium to reveal, in genuinely compelling and challenging ways, not only the dark forces that are dragging the world down, but also everything bright and luminous, in which its hopes are contained (Vaclav Havel)
Lucy Neal Tooting Sept 13th 2012