Blog – Strategies of subversion

Tanuja Amarasuriya was invited to give a provocation at an event bringing artists, academics and Arts Council England representatives together to talk about the development of artists and new work. She talks about reflection and representation in how we make and programme new work, and how strategies of subversion could normalise rather than fetishise difference.

Incubate: Propogate is a research initiative led by Liz Tomlin at Glasgow University, in partnership with the universities of Leeds, Birmingham and Central School of Speech and Drama, looking at how universities might better collaborate with the professional theatre industry to support the development of emergent artists and new work. They are beginning the research by holding a series of workshop discussions around the country, inviting people involved in teaching or professional artist development (or both) to reflect on the current landscape – what’s working well and what’s really not working well – and how we might team up to make things better.

I was invited to the first workshop day in Birmingham. There were about 16 of us – from universities including Birmingham, Liverpool, Lincoln and Glasgow, and from professional organisations including Theatre Bristol (obvs), Derby Theatre, Birmingham Rep and Arts Council England. Given the small group, it was great to see that independent artists and producers were also represented strongly in this mix.

Frankly, I’d gone into the day a little suspiciously. I’m not an academic, and I’d found the framing of it quite unclear. But I chose to trust it, and I’m glad I did. It was great to hear about models like Derby Theatres’ Plus One scheme and the long-term artist AND audience development commissions from both Birmingham Rep and Derby Theatre. It was great to hear about how Pippa Frith’s independent producing spirit has been allowed to influence the shape of courses at Birmingham University and it felt useful to be able to share Theatre Bristol’s belief that artists are experts in artist development and the impact of employing practising artists to lead TB’s artist support programme.

As the first of these discussion days, it’s hard to know what will come of it and I’ll be interested what emerges from the other regional discussions. There was loads of talk about the difficulties of dealing with “Management” at universities and the devastating impact of tuition fees in making degrees something to be bought rather than achieved – all very disheartening. But there was a lot of good listening and hopeful thinking in the room too. What I found most interesting was how much the independent artists and producers in the room (many of whom were working within as well as outside organisations) refused to take institutional inertia as a barrier to change – sure, it’s a major obstacle, but small creative shifts can significantly change cultures in the long term.

Liz asked me to make a provocation thinking about gaps, alternative strategies, and underrepresented artists and practices (no biggy!). I’d made the assumption (wrongly, as it turned out) that there wouldn’t be many artist voices in the room, so I thought use statements from artists as the basis for my provocation. Here’s how it went: 

First up: how many people in this room would identify as a practising artist?

–       Because you need artists in the room if you’re going to talk usefully about how best to develop new work. 

I ask this because what I think underlies this provocation is me thinking: who gets to set the terms? So I think it’s helpful to recognise who’s actually in this room, and what perspectives are informing the discussion.

So with that in mind, here’s who I am:

I’m an independent artist. A director and dramaturg. I’m a British Asian woman (‘British Asian – Other’ if you like boxes). I’m also Director of Research at Theatre Bristol. So I’m a practising artist and a woman of colour in the senior leadership of an organisation (an NPO, currently…) Our mission it is to strengthen the theatre ecology by empowering and supporting independent artists and producers. We work directly with around 150 artists and producers each year – some are just starting out, many are a long way into their careers. 

A couple of years ago we did a consultation with mid-career artists and I just want to read you a few direct quotes that came up when we were talking about frustrations around making new work:

“It needs to go beyond ‘scratch’ for both artists and audiences.”

“I feel that venues sometimes don’t know why they are commissioning an artist. Venues don’t know what they’re trying to achieve with the programming choices they’re making. They don’t talk about their programme as a whole story and instead try and sell everything as one-offs.”

“I want to see better work in Bristol. Especially dance and bigger scale work.”

“As an artist I often feel the need to big up the success and underplay the weaknesses because I’m worried about losing a relationship – the thing about staying in people’s good books. What are the spaces in which we can be completely honest? Are there any?” 

“There’s a feeling that you can’t make work with more than 2 – 3 people in a company because the costs would be prohibitive. But is this actually true? Would venues think differently and programme differently if different work was being offered?”

“I’d like to see venues working more closely with artists to connect with audiences. I’d like to feel like I’m being given the tools to reach the audience. Sometimes I wonder whether venues actually want audiences to see this work.”

“Development ‘opportunities’ feel like cheap programming for venues.”

(I haven’t used the quotes that talked directly about money)

I think the key things these statements point to are: 

A desire for programmers to believe in and back the artists and work they commission. We’re on the same team. If you’ve commissioned it, you need to believe in it, and stop ‘protecting’ your audiences from it by ghettoising it.

If you want to cultivate ambition and vision, you have to invest in it and you have to manage risk IN to the process, rather than managing risk out. So that could be about enabling honest, non-hierarchical collaboration; or about embracing processes that are different to what you’re used to or aren’t set up to do; and it’s also about presenting brilliant and surprising programmes for audiences, including artists, for them to be inspired and challenged by.

Which brings me to the importance of reflection and representation (I’m going to use these terms today). And the importance of reflection and representation as an invitation, as well as a statement. Because culture is reflexive, right? And art reflects on the now, but also imagines alternative nows and imagines possible futures.

So in terms of how we make and programme new work – especially if we’re publicly funded – it’s our responsibility to be conscious about how we reflect and represent “new work” outwardly and internally, as organisations and as individuals (it’s important we take responsibility as individuals within organisations too). Because the systems we use to support the “new” say something about our relationship to it, our assumptions about it and our biases – as organisations and individuals.

We need to be mindful of the assumptions and generalisations that inform our language, systems and decisions.

So I had a think about some of the generalisations and assumptions I’ve made or encountered recently, over the last few months. For example:

If all the new work we see involves 2-3 people in a company, it becomes easy to assume that new work equals small scale.

If what we identify as ‘Black’ work is only work which explores ‘Black issues’ or autobiography; it would be easy to assume that all other work is White work (whether it’s led by artists of colour or not).

If we constantly remind audiences that work we label “new” or “experimental” might fail, then it becomes easier to associate failure with the new or experimental; and reaffirms the notion that success aligns with familiarity and convention.

If organisations are involved in designing artist development, it would be easy to assume that artists would be involved in designing those organisations’ development.

If we don’t integrate access costs into general programme budgets, it will always suggest that being accessible costs more. 

If we only pay artists for the delivery we see, it becomes easy to forget that most of the work artists do is invisible. And artists have overheads too.

If critics only review work in London and at Edinburgh Festival, it would be easy to assume that all the work of note happens in London or Edinburgh.

If the way we talk about “diversity” is funding-led, then we end up talking about protected characteristics rather than actual human beings. And because funding-led usually means output-led, it makes it easier to look outside the room first, before recognising the privileges, tastes, and even diversity that might be in the room already.

So I guess what I’m arguing for is less generalisation, fewer assumptions and more ease with complication. More strategies of subversion that might normalise the “new” the “underrepresented” the “alternative” rather than fetishize them or ignore them.  Strategies of subversion that change how we operate systemically rather than merely the opportunities we offer. Supporting the “new”, the “underrepresented”, the “alternative” is so often dependent on public subsidy, which means we have to define its outcomes – basically build a box to make a box-shaped thing. Maybe this is what academic partnerships can help us subvert?