Our second guest blog, as part of our May Leadership Series, comes from Mark Robinson, Director of Thinking Practice. Mark Robinson founded Thinking Practice in 2010, through which he writes, facilitates, coaches and advises across the cultural sector.
‘We are in a mess, we know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order and significance.” Unusual, clarity, order, significance, vividness. Undertaking that kind of dreaming we avoid complicating what is simple or simplifying what is complicated, soiling instead of solving, ruining what should be revered.’ Toni Morrison
‘Culture is ordinary’ Raymond Williams
Right now, the days seems to crash straight into dreams. Picking dough off my forearms with my fingernails while being interviewed for jobs I don’t want, in a pin-striped suit I should never have bought. Running between laptops in farce-mode having three Zoom meetings simultaneously like a bad cover version of Jimmy Stewart playing Eddie The Eagle. Being pushed up to sing at a succession of folk clubs, able to stutter only the phrase ‘blahblahblah shoals of herring’. Starting fights in the park. The details may be mine alone, the anxiety isn’t.
The phrase ‘new normal’ bounces off the empty walls of my brain too rapidly for me to make sense of it. It feels too early to be thinking of such things, or far too late. So much of what people talk about when they talk about the new normal feels like the old normal anyway, or how it looked sometimes through certain windows and gaps in the fences; ‘normal’ being, like the future, always already here, just not evenly distributed. This has not prevented me using the phrase myself.
Lots of people are writing good, interesting things about the current crisis, and the dangers and potential it might hold. I have put 19 of those together in a separate blog. For some people that maybe more useful than what follows.
But in this post I want to share some deliberately mundane waking dreams of the cultural sector and cultural policy in the future. I am interested in the glimpses a different kind of dreaming might give. I am inspired by the phrase I’ve used as the title, which found me recently in an essay by Toni Morrison. It’s in her book of essays, Mouth Full of Blood, and is actually advice from a Commencement Address she gave at Sarah Lawrence University in 1988.
‘Dream a little before you think’ is a helpful steer for someone like me. What follows is a series of images, not a full picture. There may be order, but also, I suspect, contradiction. They put strategy and tactics aside. I want to leave to others, or to other times, pandemic panegyric ‘case studies’, and ‘new normal’ calls that chant old abstract mantra phrases, wondering why the universe has yet to reward them. I want to be specific in the way dreams are, and to avoid what has lately felt like the ‘soiling’ effect Morrison refers to that cultural strategy language can have on lived experience. There have been and will be again, perhaps, times for words like education, sector, workforce, engagement, diversity, well-being, even care. But they are not what feel useful to me to right now. This might be a selfish feeling. The abstract brings out my anxiety, like polyester does eczema, the specific, the tactile, actual sounds and movements and tastes have helped.
Like dreams what follows may not make sense, may not cohere, or include ‘a call to action’. Some things might not be wholly positive. Some might seem entirely banal to you, dear reader. So it goes. Dreams often are banal, at least mine are. No salami-slicing eyeballs, melting clocks or tiktok-making hippos, no red flags from the opera house roof, sorry.
The artist is digging up an allotment, turning wet sods over in neat rows. They push an old wheelbarrow home, full of carrots and onions and leeks. The leeks are absolutely massive. They are feeling relaxed because they know the invoice sent in last week got paid today. By a university, too.
A meeting has broken out. The dreamer looks round the room, and at the people attending by Zoom as well, and no two people look or sound alike. It’s not exactly the United Nations, but you have to pay attention all the time. They keep getting surprised, or given new ideas. And every now and then, everyone laughs.
The artist opens their pension statement and smiles without irony at the amount the people and companies they have worked for in the last year have added to the pot.
The Chief Executive opens their pay packet, notices the bottom line figure has gone down. They read ‘The Fair-Dos Law of 2021 is now in operation, meaning no person’s pay and rewards package can be no more than a single-digit multiple of the lowest paid full-time employee’s salary and employer pension contributions. We do not apologise for the reduction in your pay.’
The speech has been circulated in advance, and plays as subtitles, surtitles and BSL during the keynote. The speaker is not waving their hands in that way people used to. I am up next and wave my arms around like Magnus bloody Pike.
The dreamer is unable to move. They always are. They breathe with the help of a ventilator. Their carer has a machine and painstakingly takes dictation by following the movements of their eyes in response to endless questions. This is how they wrote their last two books of poems. They are watching the RSC King Lear on a screen in front of them, live, with Robert Lindsay playing both Edmund and Lear. They would smile if they could.*
It’s Tuesday morning and chucking it down. A coach full of excited year 10s pour into the arts centre, spraying Lynx and hormones. Within 10 minutes they are dancing, working with people who have trained to make their bodies do what they are told, and to tell them things in return. Later, one of the group lingers by the lunch buffet just a little too long, and in the space on the evaluation form for ‘Best thing about today’ they write ‘All the food.’
The kitchen table is scratched to hell, and clods of paint are stuck in the dents from the toddler years, where spoons beat out hungry rhythms. A song is being made to go with a painting. The dreamer and their children start to work out a short dance to share on Tiktok. It flows and jerks and waves their limbs about. They laugh.
The Home Office Border Control Officer blushes as they ask the new questions, and the interpreter passes them on. What creative skills do you have you could share? What is the most important activity from your culture you would like not to lose? They think about the old days.
The dreamer is being shown around an abandoned theatre. There is pigeon shit everywhere, massive posters of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart sprayed with the stuff. Another in the small group on the tour remembers that show. They thought it was funny, but would never end. They know they are going to reopen this place, but it will be different. They look around the space and imagine, panic rising in their chests.
The artist holds a glass of warm white wine in their hand. Inside the artist is someone who used to work as a carer, then a nurse, then a taxi driver, then a teacher, then something they’d rather forget. Two of their paintings are on the wall of this crowded, chatter-filled room. They think back to their oldest giving them a kick up the arse and a lift to the doctor’s, who prescribed art classes. They are wondering how they got to be in this awkward conversation with someone dressed in black who is, apparently, a curator. The curator is also wondering this, and rather enjoying the feeling. Over the p.a system, Gwen Verdon sings ‘If They Could See Me Now.’ The artist is feeling very proud of themselves but sad that their spouse is not here to see it.
In the school gym 200 people are gathered to decide how the Arts Council funding for their town is distributed, talking round tables, circulating, arguing, falling silent, finding agreements and points to move on.
There are rooms of people settling down who don’t know each other, but will. They talk in raised voices, and in quiet voices, blurred sounds that come into focus every time someone says yes. Some kind of timetable is on a flipchart and gradually fills up. The dream pans in and every word is yes.
The board member dreams of not being able to sleep. He is afraid he has not been brave enough in the conversation earlier, when the board heard the presentation from the latest apprentice to join the staff, who talked about how the job had helped them cope with their parents’ depression, and their own. The new board members jumped in so enthusiastically with their own experiences, he had nothing to say without admitting to things he had never admitted to before.
The Council newspaper comes through the letterbox and drops onto the mat heavy with its new ‘Citizen Creativity Supplement’. The dreamer opens it and out fall pens and crayons, seeds, recipes, beads, string, words on magnets to arrange on the fridge. The first thing to catch their eye say ‘What do you remember of last week?’ The second is ‘Make something that tells you what day it is?’
The dreamer finds themselves in a crowded room, with everyone looking at them. They seem to be admitting that when push comes to shove they don’t really care if the national theatre and the royal opera house never reopen, they are more concerned about music lessons in their child’s secondary school. The faces around them swirl into disbelieving paisley swirls, like a Disney acid trip.
The technician is representing the future in Lego, wondering if now being invited to the away days is such a great improvement.
Across town, a financial administrator taps the keyboard in time to Boys by Lizzo as they authorise that month’s payroll, each of the 26 employees receiving exactly the same salary, enough to pay a small mortgage in their town.
On Europe’s widest High Street, dancers dressed as hippos but out of Mad Max move through crowds in the dark, on stilts, with flame-throwers, while overhead a French artist dressed as Boris Johnson unicycles on a high wire. There are thousands of people watching, in ones and two and small groups, each group two metres apart.
By the bed, a pad was found, with the heading ‘NO DREAMS ALLOWED: STAY ALERT’ in neat handwriting. It bears the following bullet-pointed list, written in an increasingly frantic-looking hand.
· Universal Basic Income now!
· Pensions and CPD percentages on all freelancer invoices
· Training levy on all cultural activity
· Redistribution of funds to local level
· Place-based funding for commons not consortia
· Obligatory community (all types) membership of boards
· Everyday creativity and well-being via many channels
· Conflict resolution
· Community chests
· Ignore those that ignore you
· Community asset transfer of closing charity/commercial assets as well as local authority ones
· People not structure
*This particular dream is dedicated to my late friend Gordon Hodgeon, who taught me that creativity and culture, writing, reading, music, art, shape our world, even as they bend like light to to its shape, whatever the degree of calamity, isolation, joy and connection. They can keep going, even growing, through more than you could ever predict, though you should never forget, nor fail to grieve, how much might be lost in that process. This seems, right now, a useful example.
Arts & Business is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.