Why Now?

February 22, 2011

We have been meeting as a group for four months or so, exploring the way we work, and slowly making our way towards an analysis of its prime elements. We are all different – some of us are artist-creators, some of us are brokers – but our commonality is grounded upon a shared focus on the current context in which we live .

Why are we examining this form of work now, we asked ourselves, in one of our sessions. We each contributed a personal response.  An exercise in searching for our common vision, the responses will feed into an eventual Credo or Manifesto, to be shared.

Below, are seven people’s varying takes on the question, Why Now, and a partial look into our current work in progress.

1  Why now?

For me this intervention is really important as it provides a context to try and articulate and embed something I’ve long felt passionately about and that is the importance of people’s immediate surroundings on their quality of life, the small things that are perceived most regularly which are all too often taken for granted and frequently ignored especially if people are powerless to do anything about them. With a focus on the showpieces this is all too often ignored and yet contributes vitally to the whole.

So at a personal level it’s something that had long preoccupied me and now these concerns are coming to the fore within the political context, and more widely, but it would seem with little real understanding of how the rhetoric can be translated into meaningful action, for the less advantaged as well as everyone else. What we know is that in order to be effective immense amounts of time, leadership, experience and knowledge/skills/ imagination are required but all too rarely acknowledged or recompensed, and certainly not at the outset. The challenge for us is to contribute to an understanding of this, not as a whinge, but in such a way as to enable the fine words and intentions to have some credibility  and be grounded in such as way as to enable positive change, for people and places, and not be a superficial idea of the moment.

2   When thinking about my ‘Why Now’ I read again this text by Paul Hawkin.  So I’ll let him answer for me.

My main lines would be:

‘Civilisation needs a new operating system, you are the programmers , and we need it within a few decades…….

The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.

This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it’

3   Because things have changed. Community arts in retrospect had a straightforward agenda. They stood like Joshua with trumpets outside the walls and blew and blew. And the walls here and there crumbled and passageways got blasted, some mega, some small.

Now is another matter.

The concept of inside and outside is gone. Instead we have an unfixed and unfettered set of elements – a population with no commonly-held core, politics that attract little respect and support, values that challenge and conflict (gender, age, tradition, class),a world that is menaced by forces no single nation can solve, society that focuses on the individual as consumer and at the same time via the Big Society but at the same time expects individuals to act as communities.

Tossed around in the melee of uncertainties, in the spaces in between, we need navigators to recover our sense of connection and true community.

Our work addresses this space. It creates language where tongues are dumb, identifies partners and peers, arguers and advocates. It generates vivid conversations and brings half-formed thoughts into being. It gets into the cooking pot and emerges with a different meal.

We urgently need this now not just to guide us through the white water rapids but to find the wisdom of the rapids themselves.

My favourite koan  –

If you don’t want to get rained on, don’t put a roof on your house.

4 Because ….. we get lost in the dust of everyday events, bombarded by facts without analysis or understanding –  information overload works towards confusion, cynicism, a sense of being overpowered and powerless

Because … industrialisation has gone so far as to manufacture  virtual reality, where things are cut off from work – the work of digging out source material and cultivation, the process of making products and services has been magicked away, abroad, out of sight and consciousness; craft  and caring are devalued.

Because …. financial means have become so liquid, so inflated they mimic reality becoming products themselves, producing phantoms, they predominate over making real things or satisfying actual needs, diverting resources from useful production to speculation, specious futures and illicit trades. Public service is disparaged over private greed and ambition.

Because …. politics capital P and small p – the only civil, collective and rational antidote to illegitimate power and failure of government to contest economic power  and create a just society has been hollowed out and disgraced, inducing cynicism, disbelief that people can change anything for the better and a dispersal of energy

Because the arts speak to our better selves, our desires, moral agency, curiosity, imaginative empathy that  link us to others, to history and nature – the wider systems of life in which shape us and on which we have effect.

Because … we need to build an alternative form of globalisation that challenges the drives of financial and multinational capital, to deregulate and undercut local labour and locally produced food, goods and services. An alternative that seeks to equalises rather than intensify inequalities, and builds collaborative networks of local places, enabling them to be more open, cosmopolitan and dynamic enhancing their local economy, political control and cultural distinctiveness.

Because ….. there are no integrated policies – green industrial policy, regional policy and environmental policy being proposed by mainstream political parties  in Europe although there are many elements of such policies being enacted by trade unions, environmental, community and pressure groups from below and supported by Green parties.

Because …. we are all growing older, and that sharpens the time horizon and brings into focus the question of continuity, passing on to younger generations and passing on ourselves…..

Because….. I want to be part of the change I long for,, bringing  together my disparate skills and imagination with others to bring about positive political change and feel more visible and valued.

Because…. insights, innovation and problem solving are thwarted by compartmentalising knowledge and ideas so they do not contaminate… but cannot cross-fertilise and socially and culturally this is true of people… without bringing disparate people together, we will not learn to pool our strengths and capitalise on our potential and the potential of a place, of our locality

5   My response to Why now? is at two levels: the personal and the wider social/economic/ environmental.

Personal: I need colleagues with whom to think and experiment to give to ‘airy nothingness’ a name.

Wider: the ‘airy nothingness’ that preoccupies me is the conviction that a space of free cultural exchange is vital to adaptation and survival.  This space might be called ‘a cultural commons’ in which people from diverse backgrounds, age, culture, economic power, professional expertise, can encounter and engage with one another on equal terms to imagine and reconfigure the future. But how are these encounters facilitated and on whose terms? How are they resourced and on whose terms?   The arts have a capacity to facilitate multiple cultural commons over time.  Patronage is an important dimension of cultural life but inevitably implies relationships with economic power and status.  How are the civilities of patronage reconfigured for our times?

6   For me the Why now is everything and cannot be separated from the crisis we are in. The crisis also being the opportunity of course and both being systemic. We are trying to wriggle ourselves out of a Catch 22 that stems ultimately from a broken relationship to the natural world.

Our social and political structures are in the grip (at the mercy) of powerful short term self interest and greed.

“We appear to have fallen as if by mistake into a world where money matters” (John Fox).

The ‘anthropocene era’ means we’re entering the 6th period of mass extinction on the planet of which humans will be victims and perpetrators. ALL solutions to stop this are there but they are not being implemented due to said greed for short term gain.

The only positive way forward is to create an alternative picture for our lives in which we matter to each other; we care about the long-term; we are creative, kind, and value beauty, love and truth.  We need shared space to do this and to rehearse a different possibility. Day by day, project by project, like drops in the ocean, we etch out a cultural commons in which we can all see ourselves as we are and capable of change. We connect to the natural world and understand how we’re part of it.

Hildegard Kurt called this work ‘social sculpture’ and that it came from ‘an expanded concept of art’ – the work of the imagination. From Joseph Beuys’ – ‘every human being is an artist’

Others may see the Why now differently, but this is definitely how I see it. We are part of a movement to build a community of imaginers to turn the world on its axis and back to a place of shared opportunities rather a place of greed and destruction. Engineers of the imagination, again was a Foxy phrase. It’s a good term.

7   Because we exist in a culture where the individual has been valued more than the collective yet in a world whose resources are being depleted and the only way to address this is to work collectively and globally.

We have an opportunity to counter our professional ‘invisibility’ the ‘nobody really gets what I do’ phenomena and articulate the vital role that culture has to play in affecting change. Our cultural practices are respected and admired the world over, yet what is perhaps less understood is that the nature of the collaboration which underpins these practices.  I suggest that our practice represents a range of ‘best’ or  ‘good’ practice in facilitating collaboration, so describing and laying down its principles so that they can be a resource for building understanding/learning of future generations is an urgent need.

A formula which goes some way towards summarising the crossroads at which I work is ARTISTIC ENDEAVOUR + COLLABORATION = LEARNING + CONSCIOUSNESS.  One of the ways we find out about ourselves and our world is by engaging with the lives of other people. If through artistic endeavour we understand how others experience life, then we understand better how to experience life ourselves.  Collaboration is essential to this because it is through collaboration that we learn, we explore together, and we pick up new ways of thinking and doing.   In the best of all worlds good collaboration breeds more collaboration and this can only produce a better world.

A Glass Half-Full

January 11, 2011

This report, from Ruth Ben-Tovim – on the effect of community-based working on health:


Special Events

November 5, 2010

‘For the Best’ – at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, and booking fast…


Who are the Eight?

November 5, 2010

The core group for Taking Up space was selected via an open application process, and is:

Ruth Ben-Tovim: creative director, Encounters Arts

Jude Blomfield: poet and social researcher

Liz Kessler: urban planning

Naseem Khan: writer, researcher and community organiser

Anna Ledgard: teacher, arts practitioner and creative learning producer

Lucy Neal: artist-producer and community activist

Julia Rowntree: producer, researcher

Clare Patey: artist – participatory and socially engaged arts practice

The process is being facilitated by Rob Bowden, Lifeworlds Learning, and evaluated by Timothy Mason

Who are we?

October 22, 2010

This is a holding blog for TAKING UP SPACE  – a pilot grouping of eight individuals sharing a signficant track record in the arts. We have come together – with the support of the Cultural Leadership Programme – to explore, enquire and formulate ways in which the arts can operate distinctively in today’s environment.

Coming from a range of backgrounds and working practice in the arts – from urban planning to policy-formulation, from festivals to education – we believe that working across disciplines and sectors grows community engagement, can develop resilience and find new strategies of living together.

TAKING UP SPACE has been set up by Naseem Khan and Lucy Neal, inspired by their experiences – in Shoreditch in East London and Tooting in South London respectively – and by the nature of the current challenge: uneasy societies, global inequalities, conundrums created by new types of migration, climate change and shrinking resources.  We are all being urged to embrace the concept of ‘the Big Society‘ and for power to become more vested in local communities. Experience has shown the potential of the arts in all these areas to imagine and model change.  Can these lessons be pulled together and focussed?

Taking Up Space is located in the space where the cultural and the political meet. It aims to be both freewheeling and precise: inventive and analytical, novel and respecting its roots and forebears.

As the project develops, we will invite people to contribute to and share in the debate, and to help us in the ambitious but crucial aim of defining and articulating the role of the arts and its potential to model social change.