Here is Where We Meet
By Jonathan May
I’ll start this with a confession; I don’t know what I actually do. When I’m asked to describe myself and what I do for a living, to give myself some kind of title, I always falter. My response will sound like an apology littered with caveats. My work probably sits somewhere between arts ‘producer’, ‘commissioner’ and ‘programmer’. I work with artists and creative producers, and organisations and the public. I have had plenty of job titles in my time; ‘Programme Manager’, ‘Producer’, and now ‘Director’ (with built-in caveat of ‘maternity cover’). All of them are relatively ambiguous and none of them feel particularly comfortable to me. What all of my roles have in common is quite clear for me; I create environments for creative work and collaborations to happen. Nonetheless, being asked to give myself a title leaves me in a state of anxiety, as I feel charged with offering a pithy or impressive definition of ‘what I do’.
We work within cultural industries that have become dependent upon authorship and status. Money makes it so. In a system based upon capital, value is always underpinned by narratives of lack and finite resource which turns art to commodity and our cultural workers into human resources. It’s a grim fact that these ideas of commodity and human resource are accepted as standard across our lives, but our cultural institutions and practices are capable of so much more than that.
Going back to ‘what I do’; in her book Emergent Strategy adrienne maree brown writes of the principle that what you pay attention to grows; how we can respect the power of our attention, liberating it from reactionary and groupthink tendencies and putting it on practicing our values inside of our work. This year I have had the privilege of stepping back from my day-to-day work and given opportunities to reflect, aspire and explore new narratives and ideas. From this distance I have begun to look closely at and reflect upon my own implicit values, and where they are at odds with the sector I work within.
It is clear that the cultural ‘sector’ often upholds values and ways of working that need to change. Often the very artwork itself which the sector serves to support holds values which are not reflected within the organisations who deliver it. What would it look like to see a cultural organisation fundamentally re-examine their mode of operation, putting aside reactionary and groupthink tendencies, and explore how their core values align to their working culture? Who do they create space for? Who are the audiences they truly serve? How do they seek to serve them? And why?
In offering my own hopes for the future, I’m sharing some of the values I have been reflecting on and how they might underpin a practice for cultural production, collaboration and organising. I offer these as a collection of thoughts in development, born from personal experience, research and reflection. I don’t have answers, and I am sitting with a lot more questions than I ever have before. It is my hope that these questions might guide my own practice to be more engaged and responsible for communities of artists, audiences and cultural workers. And act as a reminder that organisations, as with individuals, do not hold objective space, but instead inhabit and act within the complex context they exist. That institutions should fill you up rather than deplete, and create a space to trust and to emerge.
Sometimes, in trying to define ‘what I do’, I flirt with the title ‘curator’. The pomposity of the proposition of applying this title to myself makes me squirm, but the root of the word resonates. In Ways of Curating Hans Ulrich Obrist talks of the etymology of ‘curate’ coming from the Latin cura ‘to care’. Here Obrist describes the practice of listening and dialogue. Supporting and nurturing artists to grow through this dialogue; to challenge, to make junctures and allow different elements to touch. And in that growth, you grow too.
Reading an early draft of Kat Cizek’s Co-Creation field-study for MIT, Opeyemi Olukemi describes co-creation as the ability for people to humble themselves and let their guard down, to create something that they cannot do by themselves. Here co-creation is described as “a process that gets you closer to reclaiming your humanity”. At the same time I was also reading bell hooks and thinking about trust, intimacy and opening yourself up. In All About Love hooks talks about love not as a state, but as a practice; a relational dynamic to nurture, to open oneself up and to encourage mutual growth. In this dynamic there is a reciprocity at play; a giving of oneself whilst taking what one needs to grow and expand.
I have been thinking about these ideas in relation to my work and the professional relationships we form. Relationships based on respect, nurturing and mutual empowerment result in a dynamic where you feel as open, possible and positive about yourself as you do about the other. This is something I’m now always trying to work towards. And as with love, you can’t achieve this without loving yourself first.
I want to cultivate a more flexible and open approach to my work, and to working with others.
To be open to influence and the unexpected, ready to find myself in the wrong.
I always remember a quote from John Ashford who used to be head of The Place Theatre in London, quoted in Certain Fragments by Tim Etchells. Ashford was speaking about devised theatre, a co-created and usually non-hierarchical process for making performance work, when he called it “a compromised art…a mucky, mutable, dirty, competitive, collaborative business”. To this day I genuinely have no idea if he meant that as a compliment or not, but coming from a devised theatre background myself, I took it as one. I hold on to this quote because it reminds me that a really important part of how I approach what(ever) I do, perhaps the part most rewarding for me, is rooted in play, collaboration, and the tension between difference and compromise. As Tim writes in relation to Forced Entertainment’s theatre practice, there is “no clean single visions in our work, no minimalist control freak authorial line — since by collaboration — impro, collage, the bringing together of diverse creativities — one gets an altogether messier world — of competing actions, approaches and intentions.” And as with improvisation, often a fair bit of misunderstanding. And within those misunderstandings come sublime moments of discovery. Sublime because they are discovered together, often through a mess of perspectives or confused intentions. And what’s messier than this complex world outside our walls, and its contradictions and misunderstandings, so in need of strategies of compromise that are empowering.
So this is a commitment I want to bring to my practice; a principled and contradictory commitment to push, to explore, and to compromise and to be changed.
In Ursula Le Guin’s speech at the National Book Awards the science fiction writer spoke of the task of authors to spark the imagination of their readers to help them envision alternatives to how we live. I loved this speech when I first read it, with its inspiring calls on writers to envision alternatives to capitalism and stand up to the corporate system. But when I returned to it upon her death last year, I was struck by the way she levels responsibility onto publishers for turning literature and the work of authors into commodities. It was a reminder to me of my responsibility.
Like the publishers who are the primary targets in Le Guin’s speech, the work of cultural producers is too often focussed on delivering the finished cultural product or event for the market. We present and fetishise the product with notions of excellence, completeness and newness. But creativity and transformation doesn’t always happen in a linear way, and isn’t defined by a finished product. It happens within a process of cycles and iterations that emerge within a complex system of connections and other influences. I am interested in instilling a culture of iteration in my practice. Indeed, a recognition that I have a practice; where enquiry, making and relational-processes are at play and require resource, investment and equal focus to the product.
In A Fortunate Man John Berger writes how culture acts as a mirror which enables the individual to recognise themselves through emotional and introspective experiences. In this study of a doctor and his community, Berger describes the cultural deprivation of this town situated in my home county, and how the community’s chief means of self expression exists through action: “this is one of the reasons why the English have so many ‘do-it-yourself’ hobbies. The garden or the workbench becomes the nearest means of satisfactory introspection.” This description has always stuck with me. What if our cultural institutions shifted their focus from presenting the product to an audience, and instead onto facilitating process; supporting exploration, curiosity, repeated attempts, learning, adapting, trying again. Iteration as a value for our artists, audience and cultural workers. Would this break these titles down? Would a practice of iteration offer resilience to our endeavors?
John Berger once described the trend of “mystification” of art under capitalism. Mystification occurs as an artwork or artist is elevated so that we cannot apply our perspectives to it. It can be disempowering, and often I fear leads to the disempowered continuing to serve the means of the powerful. I don’t want to participate any longer in this practice of mystification. I want to focus on nurturing curiosity and action, to encourage introspection and discovery through practice.
To relinquish control
Implicit in the values I describe — to love, to change, to iterate — is a necessity to relinquish at least some control and accept a multitude of complex possibilities. We all exist within a complex world beyond our own artificial walls, and so chaos is a process we need to engage with. Complex systems include so many differing and interacting elements that unpredictable behaviour begins to manifest. This unpredictable behaviour is known as emergence, and as with flocks of starlings in murmuration, successful navigation of this depends on interdependence that begins with your immediate connections.
To allow things to emerge, to influence and remain open to be changed, you have to relinquish control, and this can take many forms; generosity, vulnerability, trust, transparency, faith, honesty. When I try to think about my own practice, control is always a balance. If I become stressed or I lose confidence, I recognise the desire to concentrate on what is worrying me in an attempt to fully understand and control it. If this concentration persists I can leave no room for outside influence, or chance or growth. If I stay too much in control I am containing. I remember my friend Andy Brydon saying that if you want to dismantle existing power structures, you need to give up some of your own. I’m trying to develop a practice that can be defined as a distribution of power.
To build solidarity
For many years I worked within a trade union, and over that time I developed a nuanced and complicated understanding for the idea of solidarity. We live in a time of profound cynicism about our institutions, where our cultural bodies are often perceived as out-of-date, inaccessible, elitist and where arts practice is often commodified and divorced from its social connection. Audiences are treated as consumers, bums on seats, or fans, after some cultural capital for the gram, or a stroll through a good book shop. The work of artists within these spaces often shines through, but often I feel that the capitalist context and power-structures that hold these institutions are compromising the art and contaminating its cultural workers. But when some argue we are transitioning from the age of consumers — where individuals influence the world by where they put their money — and are entering a new age of citizenship, I still see hope. I see we can have the advantage.
Whilst criticisms levelled at old power structures grow, I can see a growing thirst to be involved in nurturing ourselves and our communities. To enact our citizenship is to participate in public life — that complex world just beyond our walls. In a time when market forces drive our mainstream politics and shape our culture and environments, our cultural institutions have never been more important as a space to organise. And huge, and clunky as they are, I still believe they can be re-framed and revitalised to be the spaces of solidarity we really need right now. Cultural spaces, be they venues, festivals, programmes or events, are spaces of contemplation and introspection, of salvation and transformation. Spaces to love, to share, to iterate and to be changed.
Bibliography and References
A Fortunate Man (1967), John Berger & Jean Mohr
All About Love: New Visions (2000), bell hooks
As radical, as mother, as salad, as shelter: What should art institutions do now? (2018), Paper Monument (Ed.)
Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment (1999), Tim Etchells
Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating Media within Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms (2019), Katerina Cizek
https://wip.mitpress.mit.edu/collectivewisdom, Emergent Strategy (2017) adrienne maree brown
The Producers: Alchemists of the Impossible (2007), Kate Tyndall (Ed.)
Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturing Culture (2019), Nora Samaran
Ways of Curating (2014), Hans Ulrich Obrist
Ways of Seeing (2008), John Berger
#newpower (2018), Henry Timms & Jeremy Heimans
*Making Space essays were commissioned and written in 2019
About Jonathan May
Jonathan May is a multi art-form programmer and creative producer. From projects in Tate’s Turbine Hall, to building-wide takeovers in Bogota, Jonathan’s work commissioning and producing spans theatre, installation and participatory contexts. Jonathan has worked with artists, producers, designers and thinkers across the globe with commissions in Europe, Middle East North Africa, South Asia and the Americas. Through this work he has forged a global network of some of the most radical and forward thinking producers, makers and doers in the cultural sector, exploring arts practice in non-arts context.
Jonathan is currently Director (maternity cover) for Abandon Normal Devices. At British Council’s arts team, his work focused on developing and commissioning new projects, collaborations and global programmes which explore digital culture, cross-disciplinary practice and social engagement.
Jonathan is Trustee of the Live Art Development Agency and Strike A Light Festival, sitting on the Digital Board of LIFT and smARTplaces editorial board. He is a 2019 Clore Fellow.