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Welcome to our month on Social Change and the Arts. It's a theme that has been long overdue for exploration. It could be subtitled "Why the Arts need Transition, and why Transition needs the Arts". The trigger for our finally sitting down to give it the attention it deserves is the impending publication of Lucy Neal's brilliant and remarkable new book 'Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered' (published early next month). Over the next 2 months we will be exploring the relationship between Transition (and other approaches to social change) and the arts, speaking to some of the contributors to the book and hearing about some inspirational projects and artists.
That sense of service runs deep through Transition, and Lucy's book puts it back at the heart of arts practice. It promises to be a fascinating eight weeks. It starts with an in-depth interview with Lucy herself about the book and about the overlap between Transition and the arts world.
In this post I want to reflect on one of my favourite places where Transition and the arts have overlapped. But first I wanted to share a section from the piece I wrote for the book, which reflects my sense of why the arts matter in Transition:
"When we started Transition, I imagined it as an environmental process. Now I see it as a cultural process. What does the culture of the place you live need to do in order to be best prepared for change? Transition can start to change that culture, introducing an invitation to work with other people who ordinarily you wouldn’t meet, and to create something extraordinary with them.
It reweaves connections, it brings people together with a creative impulse. Some might say, ‘Well that’s all very well, but in the context of the challenges set out earlier, it’s a drop in the ocean’. They may be right. But my sense is that Transition embodies the possibility of something that few other things can achieve. It is about what is currently politically impossible becoming politically inevitable. Transition can start to change the tone, change the background buzz, change the sense of what’s possible.
It has a tremendous ‘power to convene’, to get all manner of people in a room together, dreaming, planning and doing. It does so in ways that aren’t what people expect. Transition ‘shops’ on High Streets that invite people in to share their hopes and fears for the place, Open Space events where the agenda is created by those attending, fuelled with tea and cake, pieces of community theatre that invite people to be part of not just imagining the future, but spending time in it, walking around in it and discussing it with others who have also made that journey.
What we are seeing emerging around the world is a new narrative for these times. A narrative that says these are extraordinary times, and times that demand us to be extraordinary. A narrative that invites us to be entrepreneurial, to not just dream of a new economy, but to bring it into being, business by business. A narrative that isn’t about each place starting from scratch, but connecting communities in a ‘learning network’, in which ideas, successes and failures can be rapidly communicated around the world. A narrative that invites us to come together in new ways and to work alongside other people to transform our small corner of the world. You could think of it as the ultimate form of ‘impact investing’.
Perhaps one of the key parts of this has been how Transition has, from the start, consciously seen the arts as being central to its success. The arts can powerfully make the kind of future we want to see become an actual reality around us. It can invite us to step across into the future. It can open us to new possibilities and it can celebrate and document what we’re doing in playful and creative ways. Ultimately, it can spark change, and change is what we need right now. What Transition does is to give that a narrative, a context. What is most heartening, around the world, is to see how many people have already started to step up, and how much fun they are having in doing so. You will hear many such stories among these pages, I hope they inspire you to become part of them".
While there are many things I could choose from, one object stands out for me when I think of the power and potential of art being in service to Transition, and of Transition being in service to art, as well as harnessing the power of storytelling, good design, place and culture. It's a local currency note from London. The Brixton Pound £10 note, the one featuring David Bowie. Notice how you had already heard of it and, most likely, could already visualise it. In the event that you didn't, here it is, among its fellow notes.
It's bright, it's simple, it's colourful. I have taken it to many places. What has often amazed me is how its reputation has gone ahead of it so that, on at least 4 occasions, just my holding it up during a talk has generated a round of applause. When I went to Paris recently and visited a project run by Le Pre Saint Gervais en Transition, we were visited by the local Mayor Gérard Cosme.
Did he want to have his photo taken with the group of people there? With me? Not really. The key thing he wanted was a photo of himself with the Brixton Pound £10 note, "the one with David Bowie on" (see photo below). Sometimes after big talks, a group of young people will come up, wanting to take a 'selfie', and usually ask for the David Bowie note to be in there too.
It made an appearance in the recent excellent 'Scala Mercalli' programme on Italian TV on Friday evening (watched by over 1.1 million viewers). It starts conversations. It embodies the sense that a Transition future could be more fun, more delightful, than the alternative futures currently on offer. It embodies possibility. It is delightful. Why would anyone want to settle for the dull money currently on offer, when we could have bright funky money with David Bowie on? No, seriously ... why would you? And if you won't settle for that, why settle for anything else? It opens the possibility of actually refusing to accept the planet-trashing, attention span wrecking, community atomising, wealth concentrating crap that makes up so much of what we accept in modern society.
In his brilliant TED talk from 2007, James Howard Kunstler talks about 'Places Not Worth Caring About', and as modern architecture builds more and more of them we end up with entire places no-one cares about. And that has very harmful impacts in terms of peoples' wanting to make the world around them a better place. If you've never seen it, and fancy a hilarious and enlightening 20 minutes I couldn't recommend Kunstler's talk highly enough:
My point is that we need more things in our life that we care about. Personally speaking, I care more about a Totnes £21 note than I care about a £20 note. The things Transition does, whether urban gardening, new food markets, Transition Streets groups, are all about creating things that people care about. The remarkable 'Transition Town Anywhere' activity Lucy and others facilitated at the Transition Network conference in 2009, where 350 people built a living, working High Street economy from string and cardboard left me caring far more deeply about my own High Street than I had before. And art and design have a vital role to play in that.
Lucy's book quotes Isa Frémeux who says:
"Building alternatives is always an act of hope – the embodied refusal of the present".
This simple bank note embodies that. Every revolution needs its icons, its tokens, which embody much more than appears at first glance. But it's about more than art and design. It's about what those things can act as a gateway to. I always loved Jean DuBuffet's quote:
"Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to go incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called".
For me, the moments when Transition most touches and inspires me are the moments when it "forgets what it is called", when it comes up with unexpected and delightful approaches. A £10 note with David Bowie on is a perfect example of that. So is "a shop with nothing for sale but lots on offer". So is a project to plant fruit trees that is also an art project with oral histories, tours, poetry, maps and storytelling. So are the hundreds of thrilling stories that make up Lucy's book. Over the next two months we'll hear other examples too. May there be many more of them, and may this month blow your mind in terms of what you think it is possible for Transition groups to do.
Lucy Neal has lived in Tooting in London for nearly 3 decades. She has a background in the arts, used to run a festival called LIFT (The London International Festival of Theatre) and got involved with Transition in 2008, starting up Transition Town Tooting, which, she told me, "I’m proud to say, in its own idiosyncratic Tooting way, is flourishing". She is just about to publish "Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered", so we thought it was time to ask her more about it.
To a lot of people ‘the arts’ would be taken to refer to Cezanne or Monet or something you frame and hang on a wall somewhere, or sculpture, those sorts of things. When you talk about the arts, what does that mean to you?
My experience of the arts comes from the idea of being an active participant in the stories we make. The arts involve practical, day-to-day creative activities we bring into every aspect of our daily lives.
So, not just the storytelling, but the gathering, the hosting, the cooking, the making, the doing, and how we use a creative frame to interpret and translate that world in terms of the way we’d like to see the world.
It’s paradoxical, but it’s through these imaginary worlds that we can construct our own reality. They’re fundamental to our everyday living, as much as being the great works of art that we see over history and through civilisation.
It’s about how we connect to things and how we build connection. That can be in the smallest detail of our lives as much as in the grand operas.
You’re just about to publish a book called ‘Playing for Time’ which is exploring the role of the arts and Transition. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Where did the idea come from and what do you do in it?
Early on as a Transitioner, creating projects in Tooting, it struck me dramatically one day that Transition was a wholly creative process -it was inspiring people to work imaginatively, to re-think the future, to examine the art of the possible, whilst looking straight at the challenges faced.
Rather than be overwhelmed, we could hold for a beat and say “hold on a minute, there are possibilities we can work with creatively”. Together we can tap into our imaginative capabilities. It struck me that that was akin to what I’d always worked with.
The more involved I got with Transition, the more obsessed I became with trying to weave together what a Transitional arts practice would look like. What would a practice look like that was daily and carried with it an intention to bring about change in the world? That allowed the stories and the narratives we bring from our lives and the way we see the world together with others, that affected change, and that was ultimately a creative practice? That was where the book started for me, thinking about that practice and how we would define it.
I could see it happening in communities everywhere and amongst participatory and collaborative arts practices. One of the exciting things was to be able to see it, but realise it needed better definition; it needed to be made more visible for everyone to see. I describe it a bit as if it were an animal, a chameleon that’s there but you have to get your eye in to see it.
It might be a growing project in an allotment with a school, an arts project in a hospital, on the street, on the coast or in a bandstand: not everyday places people expect to see art making, but where art becomes part and parcel of people and place and a powerful transformative process is taking place.
The book has gathered up those stories with over 60 people giving voice to that narrative of change through the artwork they’re making. [Here is a short film that introduces Lucy].
That realigning of an arts practice as being in service to a community, in service to a wider process, somehow it runs counter to what one often imagines an artist’s practice to being, which is quite solitary, inward, quite self-indulgent some might say. Do you think that that kind of artist that you’re talking about with that Transition focus, that Transition motivation, that anybody can become that? Are they born or are they nurtured?
It is in us all, absolutely. The book is trying to make that abundantly clear by offering that redefinition. Sarah Woods, a playwright and activist, uses the phrase “live story making”. When we gather people, for example, to show a film like ‘Chasing Ice’ or ‘Gaslands’, drawing out people’s responses and shared hopes for the future - that’s a new situation.
The idea of dramaturgy - the shaping of a story into a form that can be acted - leads to the question about how we can act in the narrative of our own lives. In a film evening, for example, we’re making small choices in the moment about listening, interacting and acting. This is ‘live story-making’ and theatre in its broadest sense.
Other work might be around the creative potential of water, or leading a land journey as Fern Smith does, where the journeying introduces a dialogue with the land, meeting artists and others who emerge from the landscape.
‘Being an artist’ you become a circuit breaker, interrupting the familiar to create a different way of looking at things. The arts and being an artist create emergent space for us to do that. That’s precisely what Transition’s doing - presenting us with a new context to live our lives and a coherent narrative.
That’s what interests me about the arts - how they tap into that emergent space, opening out possibilities for people, changing the way they see things.
One of the projects we did in Tooting with Ruth Ben-Tovim, was a shop where ‘nothing was on sale but lots was on offer’. People came off the High Street and in quite a gentle way connected with the spirit of Tooting in terms of what their memories were, what their hopes and fears for the future were.
An imaginative, celebratory space was created which was utterly different to anything ordinarily on the High Street. The possibility allowed people to express deeply and personally what it was they yearned for. That depth of connection changes a place. It changes our behaviour and how we engage with each other.
When you first came to Transition, you mentioned about how you were taken with the idea that you could see this as an arts practice and re-imagine that. What was it about Transition when you encountered that, that made you feel that was possible? If you joined Greenpeace, for example, the chances are you wouldn’t think “ I’m going to redesign my arts practice around this particular campaign”. What was it, when you encountered it, that you felt there was a space there to innovate?
‘Culture Shift’, a document published recently in Wales by an organisation called Emergence, which maps sustainable practice amongst artists responding to climate change mentions a wonderful phrase - that the planetary challenges we face create “an art-shaped space”. The situation requires a space for uncertainty, for our feelings, yearning, the language of our hearts, poetry, metaphor.
These are powerful ways to connect to the values we live by, whether they are values of community, connection and collaboration, or of the dominant narrative of commodity and consumerism. Having an “art-shaped space” allows us to dream and experience empathy and make meaning.
This is the depth of what’s required at present: to build a culture between us that can come together around these things. When you’re operating in a literal way, dealing head-on with facts and figures and the ‘reality’ of the situation, it doesn’t afford us that more complex, transformative space to be able to change: not only at a personal level, but also collectively. We need collective social spaces in which these celebrations of possibility can take place.
If there are people reading this who are involved in a Transition group who may not be artists themselves, they may not yet have this idea of integrating and incorporating the arts and arts practice into how they work as a Transition group, this might be their first encounter with it ... what would your advice be to them in terms of how they might invite that in or make space for that, or find people who could bring it to the Transition group and how would they present that as an idea?
Well to be straightforward about how the book is structured, as a start. The first section frames the drivers of change with chapters on our relationship to energy, localisation and building resilient communities (by you Rob!), money and economics; the commons; food systems; art and climate change; kindness and restoring ecological community. These set the stage of the planetary story we’re talking about, and the possible ways in which our story can go.
The second section, opens up the story of Transition and art and what that might look like. Ten chapters map land and our connection to it; home and a sense of belonging and rites of passage, (which I find fascinating around how we mark the transitions in our lives, and how by marking change we can accelerate change). Then food growing’s centrality to culture; activism itself; water; body and relating to the physical world. There’s a chapter on hands and how reskilling, a core part of Transition is fundamental to how we relate to the material world and see new possibilities through working directly with our hands. And finally there are chapters on how key words are to the stories we can live by and one about streets, public events and how we make them happen.
The third section, ‘Recipes for Action’ carries a gorgeous treasure chest of ways in which any of these things could be picked up and played with: digging up clay; running a collective poetry making event; working with kefir and yoghurt, or knowing your place on the oil road, written by James Marriot from Platform to better understand how to investigate where carbon appears throughout history, including your own ancestry or locality.
A section called ‘Tools’ gives practical ways of holding space, creating your story of change, running your community blog, finding resources or running group creative processes, to build on what people have to give and gain.
There is a way in for almost anyone whether they’re a professional artist but they’ve not worked directly within this context before, either from a planetary or community perspective. Or whether they’re working as community activists feeling instinctively there’s already something they’re doing which is creative: looking for some ends of pieces of string to try. It’s called ‘Recipes for Action’, not saying “you should do it like this” but with artists and activists in the book saying ‘this is how we did it.’ We organised a land journey and this is how we went about it. It’s an accessible book with possibilities for developing a daily transitional arts practice.
It offers a different way of looking at art. John Jordan and also Platform, both writing in the book, say art is something that “represents reality”. We’re moving art into being about transforming reality: not about showing things, but about transforming the world directly. That’s incredibly exciting, because that’s not about art being something we consume, but it’s a new purpose for art where it has responsibility. It has moral, social, ecological responsibility. That, for me, means it matters. The book is not called ‘Making Art as if the World Mattered’ for nothing!
Could you maybe tell us about two of the case studies in the book that you think are most exciting and move Transition forward into places that we might not have otherwise imagined it?
Anne-Marie Culhane is currently working with Exeter University on Fruit Routes, planting trees around the campus. Around that activity, there are imaginative events, workshops and wassails drawing a line through the connections that can be made at university, around the food we eat, around learning about trees and how the land is managed. Anne-Marie writes also about ‘The Diarykeepers’ looking at the future of the Tamar valley. It was inspired by a market gardener, called Joseph Snell who kept an economically-worded diary.
Anne-Marie cycled around post offices, dropping off these beautiful little red books, soliciting people to write two sentences a day in a diary over a month. The diaries - and diarykeepers - gathered in formed the basis of an installation in an old market garden greenhouse and a performance. It was part of longer-term planning for the future of the Tamar valley, where local small market garden businesses have fallen by the wayside.
It’s an example of how arts practices embed themselves into places and become vehicles for people to see things differently and seed different ways of coming together around how the future can be imagined and be empowered to not just imagining it but make it too.
We live in a society that separates us from such the simple activity of connecting with each other. We get cut off from things we can produce and make ourselves. A paradox runs through all this that a new script for our lives can arise, but it will arise from an imaginary world. That’s the thing that I find most exciting, but of course it’s the thing that, in a fact-orientated world, gets a bit left out sometimes.
It’s alchemy. These are alchemists. We can be alchemical, and I wanted to make that so palpably clear to everybody that there would be no hesitationa anymore, we could just run out and get on with it.
Tell us a little bit about how you actually produced the book.
The collaborative process of producing the book exemplifies the way in which transitional arts practice takes place. I’m the author and my narrative runs through the book, but over 60 people have contributed and collaborated in creating it.
Two years ago, a core group of 15 artists to a residency in Yorkshire with Arvon up at Lumb Bank in the Calder Valley, where we laid the first tracks and narratives layers of the book. Each person wrote about their practice and how they worked, whether with their hands, with clay, in community, with words, with theatre or whatever form they were working with. We distilled ten principles of transitional arts practice, such as working with commonality, holding space, collaborating, facilitating, framing and working with community.
On their own, these things don’t sound like much, but when you consider the context in which Transition is working and the creative intention that runs through these things, I hope with so many examples given, these principles of transitional arts practice are robust in terms of how people can use them as a checklist to build on. ‘I know about that and I can do that but maybe I could learn a bit more about that.’
The above is an edited version of our conversation. You can hear it in full, or download it, below:
Our theme for these couple of months has been 'The Power to Convene'. It's been another busy couple of months. We opened with an editorial that set out what the term means and some examples of it, setting up the exploration that followed. We then looked at different aspects of convening. We talked to James Furse about the importance of good mediation in bringing people together. Transition Stroud talked about how they increasingly use the idea as a lens through which to see their own work. We heard how the Atmos Totnes initiative has been built around the concept. Pamela Boyce Simms told us about her work using the Power to Convene to bring faith groups together.
Transition Town Tooting in London, in an inspirational post, shared how they use imagination and creativity as key tools for convening their community. "We looked to involve not just the community of Tooting, but the communities of Tooting" they wrote. We heard about Transition Buxton's Economic Resilience Study, and how they are seeing that as the foundation for some serious convening. Rob Hopkins looked into the power communities have to undermine unpopular and damaging planning decisions by withdrawing their consent.
In parallel we also looked in more depth at our Support Offer theme for the two months, which was 'Starting an Initiating group'. We asked a number of Transition initiatives to tell us their stories about "how we got started", hearing inspiring stories from Transition Stratford, Transition Black Isle and New Forest Transition.
Our Agony Aunt has also been on good form, answering questions about cohousing, when theme groups fail to form, reviving failed initiatives, how to talk about peak oil, and how to manage groups that can't agree on anything. If you have any questions for her, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We also mourned the passing of the very wonderful Transition Free Press.
We introduced our Transition Story project into which we'd love your input by Wednesday 4th March please. Should only take you a few minutes, but it would be hugely appreciated. We also explored in more depth the recent paper from UCL about unburnable carbon, speaking to its co-author, Christophe McGlade.
Lastly, we reviewed a truly dreadful book called 'The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels', which somehow seemed to capture the essence of all that this month's theme wasn't. Our theme for March/April is 'The Arts and Social Change', and for March we will be looking in more depth at the Transition Healthcheck. If you have any ideas for things you think we should include, please get in touch.