Tam Dean Burn
Provocation at CS Open Session Dumfries April 25 2013
Written up from my notes
Thanks to Kenneth Fowler and Creative Scotland for inviting me to speak here. Its great to be back in Dumfries and Galloway. As the train came to Sanquhar, I remembered it is exactly a year since I toured down here, travelling for one primary school to the next on bicycles in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of children’s book The Last Polar Bears by Harry Horse, an attempt at carbon neutral theatre, brilliantly formulated by young director Joe Douglas.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m here. I’ve worked as an actor for 33 years now but I have often attempted to make my own work and have very occasionally received funding to do so. I should say I am in receipt of funding from Creative Scotland at the moment to adapt Jack London’s novel The Star Rover into a one man show.
I did sign The Letter. I was asked if I would by David Greig, as they didn’t have actors at that stage. I must confess I found it a bit wooly. For example, saying CS was setting artist against artist. When was it ever any different? And complaining about a lack of empathy with Scottish culture. I’ve got problems with any such generalisations about ‘Scottishness’
I hadn’t really paid much attention to Creative Scotland, as it didn’t really affect me. I had cringed at the revelling in their branding and logo and had noted they were saying they were as much about “advocating for the arts” as funding. No, I thought, let the artists advocate for the arts through their work and you get on with your job of distributing the money. And I could see that it seemed some theatre companies were going to be shifted to project funding. So I was very happy to sign in solidarity with those affected and thought no more about it. In reference to what’s come out earlier this week, aye, I am one of the “highly political” ones who signed but had no desire to destroy Creative Scotland. Well not except as part of bringing down the whole capitalist state!
I didn’t even know it was being published that Tuesday. I’d been to London for the weekend and got a call from my partner saying STV wanted to interview me about the letter and then BBC Scotland did too. My surname meant I was near the top of the list of signatories on it and they must have thought an actor should be able to speak ok. I looked at the press on it and did the interviews on Sauchiehall Street that lunchtime. Then STV got back in touch and asked if I would come on Scotland Tonight that night to debate live with Andrew Dixon! So I spoke to David and others and swotted up as best I could and went on and tried to represent what people were feeling. I was chuffed with the positive response I got from folk on Twitter and by text.
So since then I have been on catch up but increasingly interested in the whole subject. I joined the Facebook Group With No Name looking at it all and we’ve been having meetings, trying to grapple with the idea of writing a manifesto. There’s a lot of good folk involved. I’d particularly mention the input from those involved with Variant. Their stuff is really dense academic hardcore critique - if you find the language of Creative Scotland hard going, try this!- but it’s really worth it. I’ve learned how the Creative Scotland model is far from unique but part of a neoliberal policy shift of culture towards serving the market economy. It’s been happening right across Europe and Creative Scotland has been set up to serve that agenda. ( What I didn’t say here but should have and meant to was that for the past two years Variant has been knocked back for funding by CS. For years previously they produced a free newspaper distributed to arts venues across the country, full of such deep polemic, often from European academics. One of the major things they are calling for to find a way through this crisis is a Critical Academy, which, if I’ve got it right, would be a space recognised by CS for such deep critique and debate to take place. These Open Sessions are great but they can’t be that.)
So what sort of vision if at all do I have of where CS could be heading? Well, if I was being bleak, if we were to look at where capitalism is heading generally…Matt Baker said in his intro in Inverness…he’s here is’n’t he? We’ve never met but we’ve had oor ain wee stooshie on Twitter! Matt, at last! I agreed with everything you said in Inverness, a great provocation, except about capitalism, that it was shot and in decline. I’d say it appears to be moving into a full-blown general crisis of capitalism and the last one proves it won’t retire gracefully or just roll over and die. It took two world wars and millions dead to resolve that general crisis and the next one will be even worse. The way things are going, all of this could be just swept away at anytime and the only stark choices left again - socialism or barbarism. Recognising this is what made me a communist.
Even if things don’t get quite so catastrophic and overwhelming, it’d be easy to be negative and doubtful about the future for CS. The changes proposed don’t affect in any way the fundamental structure of the organisation and the neoliberal model it’s based on is not being dismantled. Even the appointment of the new CEO looks really dodgy. I really can’t get my head round the fact that as these meetings take place, they are conducting interviews for the new CEO. Surely it would have made more sense to have the meetings before or after the appointment? And the interviews make clear that we can’t discuss whether a CEO is needed at all. If it turns out that these meetings are just pointless talking shops, there’s going to be a lot of angry people…
But we can only but try to paint a more hopeful vision. Things are still very fluid. We are talking and seeing things from others perspectives, arguing amongst friends, as Matt put it. We have sensed our power and hopefully won’t be bought off easily.
If we really set our minds to it, we can get rid of the neoliberal model -Fiona Hyslop said in response to Maria Miller’s guff yesterday that the Scottish Government rejected looking at the arts as commodities- that’s a great start. We could aim to create a new model for 21st century arts funding that gets those cultural academics desperate to come here and learn from. As Pat said, this is a small country and real communication is possible.
A wee anecdote to illustrate that- I love harassing politicians on Twitter and the day Harriet Harman came out saying that the Labour Party saw the arts as needing subsidy and that it’s not about returns on investment, I tweeted Fiona Hyslop about this. I was up very early with the bairn before setting off to Edinburgh for rehearsals with David Greig for the Traverse. I popped into Boots at Waverley Station and there was Fiona Hyslop! She saw me and immediately said “I read your tweet and haven’t used that language about the arts” we then had a lovely wee chat about Ane Satire of the Three Estaites going on in her home town Linlithgow and how she’d done what she could to save the catwalk from the Karl Lagerfield event at the Palace there for Three Estaites. Then she confided, and this was Valentine’s Day, that her first date with her husband had been to see Three Estaites! Wonderful! You really couldn’t make it up! But it does illustrate how we can communicate here.
(Pat gives two minute warning)
I really better get a move on here. I didn’t rehearse how long it would be…
Ok, I’d say above all Creative Scotland must be about cooperation not competition. And I don’t just mean the “economic” argument for the arts. I don’t give a shit what it contributes to GDP and growth. I’m not interested in propping up the capitalist system. I’d use the same slogan as for politics generally- we must put people’s needs before profit. CS must be creative in looking to fulfill people’s needs.
And that starts with the CS staff. They must feel valued and stretched, attention paid to their needs. I remember someone saying about the staff at the Arts Council that they couldn’t do their job serving us because they were too worried about their own jobs. Making sure that perceptions are clearly and precisely shared is vital. There’s a term used in Linguistics and psychology - nominalisations - to describe terms that are used and can sound great but have no substance. Now, Kenneth Fowler, please don’t take this personally, but as Director of Communications, you really have to look at this. You are continually using nominalisations. In the job advert, it says the new CEO should have integrity, vision and imagination - meaningless without giving substance - a vision of what?
We operate through using metaphors and generalisations to increase our capacity for conceptualisation - that’s what art’s about - but it also makes us vulnerable. If perceptions are not shared, it makes it very difficult to cooperate, interactions are therefore crude and we become selfish. This goes for the staff but can be played out all the way through the process and ultimately produces selfish art.
(One minute warning)
CS must reach out and find the artists it aims to engage with. Yesterday I came across the new Cultural Value Project, which aims to show just how valuable in so many ways artistic endeavour is and how deep and widespread. They had a meeting in Glasgow recently apparently, I didn’t hear about it. But perhaps CS can link up with them and get some understanding about who is making art, because most don’t apply for funding. And those who do - I realised this recently, when our band The Bum-Clocks was knocked back for being part of the Made In Scotland Music Showcase at the Festival this year. The letter said 17 out of over 50 who applied had been funded and I realised then that the vast majority of people’s relationship with CS is one of rejection. Can we not use our imaginations to make all those relationships about cooperation and find ways to help artists feel valued? It’s not all about money.