We’ve been asked to talk about innovation in art.
And so I wanted to begin by telling you about a really radical piece of theatre. A participatory project engaging with working class communities in the north of England. A collaboratively-devised site-responsive promenade performance through the streets of the city.
That’s the Fourteenth Century Yorkminster mystery cycle.
Which is, I suppose a way of saying, that talking about innovation is difficult. Many of the things we consider to be innovative are merely new ways of talking about very old things.
Art is not a circumscribed object, like an aeroplane or a sock. The kind of object whose evolution can be measured and remarked upon and its future predicted in the same way they used to do on Tomorrow’s World.
For me, art is a process. Not a thing but something that is happening, or more particularly something that is happening to you. Perhaps you might call it a political strategy. Or a set of tactics for re-appropriating, re-imagining, re-purposing. A particular kind of attentiveness to the world and consequently a revolution in the way we experience that world.
For that reason, where exactly innovation happens in art, and why innovation is important, are a little more difficult to discern than in aeroplanes or socks.
Back in 1995 Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment made their own mystery play, called Nights in This City. A collaboratively-devised site-responsive performance through the streets of another city in the North of England. And during the making of that show, Tim wrote:
Sometimes it seems that all we have to do is gesture to the window and ask people to look.
Now, what you see when you look out of that window, or even the way in which you look, can be, for the audience-member, the most innovative experience imaginable. It can transform the way you think about everything.
Yet the history of gesturing towards windows is older even than the Yorkminster mystery plays.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that far from being defined by innovation and evolution, the art that I believe is most radical and most important is consistent in its intent. It is persistent in its desire. It takes its place in a great historical trajectory of art and artists (some of whom undoubtedly would never have thought of themselves as artists).
What changes are the circumstances in which those artists find themselves. The circumstances in which we all find ourselves. The world is changing, ceaselessly, restlessly. Dangerously and unpredictably.
The desire to point. To gesture to the window and ask people to look. That remains the same. It’s the view out of the window that changes, not to mention the window itself.
So what about now? If there were any windows in this room, what would be the view from them, over to Westminster on the other side of the river and the wide world beyond.
It’s patronisingly disguised ideological assault on our public services.
It is a three party system in which the third way has surrendered to the first way and the second way that has utterly lost its way.
It is an assault on the value of knowledge.
It’s revolution in North Africa.
It’s the mighty towers of late capitalism shaking and splintering, whilst down on the street we try to avoid the falling masonry.
It’s unprecedented inequality.
It’s an imminent environmental catastrophe that our present political and economic system has proven itself incapable of dealing with.
It’s a way of communicating and spreading knowledge that has utterly changed our relationship to each other and those that deign to lead us.
It is a once-in-a-century moment of cultural, social and political upheaval.
The art that I’m excited about is engaging us with this tumultuous socio-political landscape in unexpected ways. It is art that doesn’t just talk about change, but enacts it, in the form that that art takes. Art that is, in its own way, a means for us to embody the kind of change that I believe we have the need and desire to achieve.
And as innovative as these new ways of looking at and engaging with the world may be, they do not necessarily require innovative new forms of art to realise them. In contrast to the commodified rhetoric of ‘innovation’ – the desire constantly for an innovative new product – the most exciting work often recycles old forms. This art might borrow from Tim Etchells or PT Barnum, Joan Littlewood or John Cage, Marinetti or Sylvia Pankhurst or William Blake and the anonymous authors of the Yorkminster plays.
Their ways of looking, their strategies and desires are re-purposed as a means of engaging with and transforming our own world.
I’ll very briefly finish by mentioning three pieces that I think do just that.
Last summer the artist and performer Lucy Ellinson created a project for our Forest Fringe programme in Edinburgh called One Minute Manifestos. It offered anyone who wanted it exactly one minute to say something they believed in. Every night as the crowds gathered around waiting for the headline show to go in, five people would get up and say something, anything, to first respectful silence and then rousing applause. Every night it was a moment of transformative power.
Every single day of this year Tim Etchells is creating a new programme of imaginary events as part of an online project called vacuum days. A deranged collision of popular culture, current affairs, violence, absurdity and advertising – it brilliantly presents the sometimes ridiculous sometimes horrendous ways in which we learn about the world.
And finally, Uninvited Guests Make Better Please uses the model of a quaker meeting as a means of forging a wild, hopeful, collaborative space for people to collectively come together to think about the world and our relationship to it.
A public speech, a fly-poster, a quaker meeting. Old forms re-purposed and re-imagined as innovative ways of encountering the world we presently inhabit.