11 February 2016
In March 2015 I was fortunate to participate in Creative Carbon Scotland’s second annual artists’ residency on the Isle of Mull (I also attended the first, in 2014). CCS have recently published a report, written by Stephanie de Roemer and Allison Palenske, about the residency, which was structured around a weekend-long discussion on the extraordinary and ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As in 2014, not only did the weekend’s discussions feel timely and useful, but I also met a very interesting group of artists from different disciplines, including the visual arts, writing, dance and theatre.
17 December 2015
Last week saw the first ANTHEM! workshop take place at the CCA in Glasgow. ANTHEM! is a workshop about protest and song in which I lead participants to collectively create and perform a single new protest song, written by the group, for the group, on a subject dictated by the group. ANTHEM! is open to all, no previous experience of songwriting or musical performance is required. ANTHEM! was part of ArtCOP Scotland, a local artistic response to what some are calling the most important event of this century, the COP21 UN climate change negotiations in Paris.
To get us warmed up, and to introduce the group to a variety of different styles of protest song, we began the session by singing three existing songs: the 17th century Diggers’ Song, Phil Ochs’ 1964 anti-war song I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Ding Dong Dollar, a Glaswegian anti-Polaris song from the 1960s.
Despite being part of ArtCOP, there was no compulsion for the participants of ANTHEM! to compose a song about climate change and/or sustainability. However, this was a large part of the conversations that proceeded our songwriting — ANTHEM! is all about open discussion, finding common ground and collectively creating something new. The discussions were wide-ranging and interesting, and eventually the group settled on a topic for their song, the complicity of one’s money in warfare and environmental damage. Group members told of their shock on finding out that their electricity bills were paid to companies that contributed to environmental damage and discovering their pension funds had invested in the arms trade — actions which did not meet the ethical approval of the customer and pension holder.
In protest songs, text is key. Having decided upon the subject matter for the song, I asked each group member to write a short scenario where the simple payment of a bill, or other everyday action, had directly or indirectly financed an activity the group member found morally offensive. These scenarios were then distilled into the verses of the song. Next, the music was composed collectively as group members argued for their preferred twists and turns in the melody.
This is the song written by the group: Not in my name (but with my money). Within five minutes of finishing the song, we performed it to an unsuspecting audience in the cafe at the CCA. As you’ll see in the video below, we stood on the balcony above the cafe and sung to anyone who’d listen. I hope to run further ANTHEM! workshops in the future.
21 April 2014
I recently spent a weekend on the beautiful Isle of Mull, the second largest of the Inner Hebrides, as part of a residency which aimed to explore the question “What would it mean to be an artist working in a sustainable Scotland in fifty years’ time?”. Organized by Creative Carbon Scotland in partnership with Comar, the residency comprised eight artists who work in diverse disciplines (including textiles, the visual arts, theatre and music), who consider their practice in terms of environmental sustainability. Through a series of discussions and workshops, facilitated by producer Suzy Glass and composer Dave Fennessy, the group considered how the arts could help shape a sustainable future for Scotland.
This was a new departure for me. My motivation for composing usually comes from wanting to explore through music something from the outside (non-musical) world. However, I hadn’t previously considered how sustainability could be expressed through musical performance. The concert hall, despite its propensity for pastoral-themed works, feels to me very unattached to the natural world – an artificial and contrived environment. Only my most recent work, Elbow Room, comes close to the topic of sustainability: this new piece is about the mid-twentieth century plan to demolish Glasgow and replace it with a car-heavy concrete utopia (more on this piece in another blog post!).
After travelling from Edinburgh, through Glasgow, to Tobermory on the Friday afternoon, the discussions began in earnest first thing Saturday morning at Druimfin Theatre, a short walk through the woods from our hotel. We started the day with a series of introductions: each participant presented to the group a single object which represented their work. There was a wonderful, wide range of artistic practice amongst the group, all well-considered and of very high quality. After small group discussions about the role of art and artists in society (prompted by a series of quotations from high-profile artists), we undertook a listening/recording exercise whilst walking back to Tobermory.
For this exercise we were grouped in pairs and asked to either find and record sounds that represented Utopia, or sounds that represented Distopia. I was paired with Natalie McIlroy and we were asked to find sounds that represented Utopia. This forced us to question what our ideal future would consist of. The two of us had similar ideas: there would still be people in the future, they would have food and there would be water. There would also be art and fun. Like all pairs who were asked to record Utopian sounds, we also prized quiet, tranquillity and a sense of space. This contrasted with the numerous Distopian sounds of diesel engines and general noise. Generally the Utopian sounds hinted at a future where people lived in harmony with the natural world, the Distopian visions highlighted the most unsustainable practices of today’s everyday life.
On Sunday, having listened to the recordings made the previous day, we discussed the opportunities and problems of artists working in the field of sustainability. Several stories were told about the (unrealistic) expectations upon artists who explore these themes – many are expected, quite unfairly, to know the intricacies of recycling and energy conservation. Also, when working in a residency, there is often confusion over what form the final artwork will take, particularly when working amongst scientists. In the early evening we held a public forum at An Tobar: although attended by only a handful of locals, those who came shared their belief that the arts can (indeed, should) communicate environmental issues. This gave us a sense of validation for the weekend as a whole.
I’d like to thank Gemma and Ben at Creative Carbon Scotland for the opportunity to participate in this residency, and also thank Suzy and Dave for stimulating our conversations. Despite the serious subject matter, the weekend was great fun – we laughed a lot! – but I felt my lack of experience in the area of sustainability prevented me from making a significant contribution to proceedings. However, from a personal point of view this hardly matters as I found the weekend to be of great inspiration for two reasons: firstly, asking questions of ourselves in relation to sustainability is undeniably important if we are to build for ourselves, for our children, a comfortable future. I left Mull with a moral imperative to address these issues in my work (somehow!). There is a relationship between art and sustainability: ultimately we are all responsible for our future and this responsibility needs reflecting in artistic practice. However, this doesn’t mean that artists have to be experts in the everyday practicalities of recycling, energy conservation etc. Artistic practices that embody sustainability can also be subtle; it doesn’t have to be about ramming-home big messages with environmentalist slogans.
Secondly, I was fortunate to meet a wonderful group of artists, possibly the nicest, most interesting bunch I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Each combined artistic excellence with a desire for relevance that stretched beyond the traditional scope of their field. There was a common desire to create bold and useful work that engages with the wider world in a positive way. Hearing how these artists took their practice out of the studio, possibly to work within a community or to explore a new creative process, was of great interest to me and reinforced my growing frustration with the isolation of the concert-hall and introspection of the new music world.
Find out more about this brilliant group of people: Creative Carbon Scotland: Ben Twist on Twitter, Gemma Lawrence on Twitter. Facilitators: Suzy Glass, Dave Fennessy. Artists: Alex South (clarinettist), Angharad McLaren (textiles), Hannah Imlach (visual art), Jake Bee (visual art), Katrin Evans (theatre maker), Natalie McIlroy (visual art) and Rachel Duckhouse (printmaking, drawing).