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  • Playing for Time - finally

    OK, I made it to the other side. I have written a book. It's taken me nearly 4 years and has involved over 60 contributors all told. I have yet to see said book, it is being dispatched tomorrow from printers in Chippenham and should, we pray for time, be with us in time for the Launch the day after tomorrow. I have started to look back at my notes and found this one written in an email to my sister Tabitha in Dec 2012: 'I dwell on my dread of unachieving this task. It all seems overwhelming. Pushes through my head in the middle of the night. Striking image from the night before last: I was wearing a large crinoline skirt wading through water like a fishing net trawling for patterns of practice; it was falling off the skirt like seaweed..'

    Here is a blog posted the other day on the Free Word site where the book will be launched with my dear friend and LIFT colleague, Rose Fenton, now director there:

    Writer Lucy Neal anticipates this week's launch, at Free Word Centre, of her new book, Playing for Time, which identifies collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges.

    Don’t let anyone tell you that art can’t change the world because it can and it always has. Artist activist, John Jordan

    March 26th sees the launch at Free Word of Playing for Time - Making Art As If The World Mattered, a book I’ve been involved in creating and writing for nearly four years, exploring how artists change the world. Published by Oberon Books and inspired by the ‘engaged optimism’ of the grassroots Transition movement, the book identifies collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges.

    Playing for Time joins the dots between the large ‘macro’ stories of climate change, energy depletion and economic collapse and the individual stories of artists and community activists reclaiming ways of living creatively within the limits of a finite planet. In a practical handbook with recipes for action to take up and try, 60 storytellers, activists, makers, craftivists, land journeyers and writers, rethink the future to create a new story to live by. As one of the book’s endorsers, writer Stella Duffy, says, it’s a book filled ‘with wings: wings that are ancient practices, that are community arts, modernity, wings of global learning for local concerns....a book to help us grow.’

    The four year journey has taken me, imaginatively and emotionally, from melting ice caps, to the loss of the honey bee; industrialised food systems; polluted oceans; the dying of species and the slow, inexorable rise of global temperatures. Writing collaboratively, I’ve worked with inspiring, dazzlingly creative, committed individuals: contributors, who’ve entrusted their stories to the work as a whole. These include, energy expert Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology; writer Paul Kingsnorth; post-growth economics campaigner Beth Stratford; Transition Co-founder Rob Hopkins; Brixton Remakery’s Hannah Lewis; Scotland’s Dougie Strang; Graeae theatre director Jenny Sealey; Free Word’s Weather Stations writer, Xiaolu Guo; participatory arts practitioner Ruth Ben-Tovim; playwright and activist Sarah Woods; Platform’s Farzana Khan and many more. All have placed their trust in the whole, which as I write this, I have yet to see.

    In physical terms, I’ve travelled from a writer’s attic garratt at London’s Battersea Arts Centre; a residency with 15 artists at Arvon’s Lumb Bank in Yorkshire; celebratory gatherings in Wales, Latvia and Liverpool to a caravan in Suffolk, camped out in the garden for 18 months of my chief collaborator and editor, Charlotte Du Cann. Mostly though I was in my small room at home, at a desk, day after day after day, taking breaks to walk around Tooting Bec common to get fresh air and motivation from trees and open sky to attempt the next stage of the voyage, tossing and turning at sea.

    Writing can feel a bit like drowning sometimes. You set out from the shore, with no idea when you might return to land. A small raft built from your hopes is buoyed with no more than your wits and day to day doggedness to keep going; months, years pass. You think and feel so deeply you think your head and heart will burst. You collapse eventually like Sandra Bullock in the film Gravity on dry land, clutching a precious manuscript.

    The time between finishing the writing of a book and actually holding it in your hands is then fraught in unexpected ways. In production, working to a deadline with designer, James Illman, there are photo credits to double check; high resolution images to source; close work on proofing, footnotes and indexing that make you pass out with detail fatigue, whilst Oberon editor, Andrew Walby assures you ‘we’ll get there’.

    So, I anticipate March 26th with an intense mix of excitement and anxiety. 468 pages of lovingly-crafted text, beautifully rich with photographic imagery and illustration, are now rolling under a large printing press somewhere in the West Country. In front of me for so long, the book has now disappeared from view, round the dark side of the moon. Stunned and quiet, I await its arrival. When it re-appears as an actual object, there’ll be no going back. (Alain de Boton tweeted the other day that writing a book is a bit like telling a joke and having to wait two years to find out if it is funny...). How will readers respond? will it make sense? have I honoured people’s trust in me?

    The Launch gathers the book’s contributors together for the first time, with other guests, completing the first cycle of the book’s journey. A second cycle begins as a ‘transitional arts practice’ comes into view, making visible the role the arts and culture play in conjuring a liveable world; re-imagining a more viable future on the planet, shifting society’s rules and values away from consumerism and commodity towards community and collaboration. This has been the wind blowing my raft for the last few years: we can all ‘make art as if the world mattered’.

    When the facts and figures of climate change cannot catalyse the shifts needed in our world, the arts can open us to different ways of seeing and feeling, creating emergent space to re-think the future and change the world - collectively. With poetry and metaphor they can explore the language of the heart, the pain of what we’re losing and the deep yearning in us for the restoration and celebration of life.

    Image: Jess Allen in Drop In The Ocean, Photo by Paul Richardson

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  • Playing For Time week at Lumb Bank, March 4th-9th 2013

    “..it’s the job of the artist, poet or storyteller to point out the ground under our feet, to offer us images through which to wake up to our present condition, to show us anew the moment we stand in” Mat Osmond, Dark Mountain Issue 3

    Just returned from Lumb Bank, home of the Arvon Foundation, near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire as part of the Playing For Time residency, with 14 other artists and writers*. We were laying down the first tracks of a handbook to map creative practices emerging in response to the ‘carousel’ of ecological, energy and economic challenges we face.

    At this ‘moment we stand in’, I believe artists have an incredible role to play inspiring a wholly different way of living within the ecological limits of a finite planet, re-modelling society, re-inventing its rules and values.

    Drawing on the ‘engaged optimism’ of the Transition Town movement we looked at the patterns and methods of ‘transitional arts practice’: acts of creative community that help us imagine the world differently as the first step towards creating a more viable positive future. Several of the Lumb Bank artists have been active in the Transition movement for the last few years, myself included.

    As people bundled off their trains, I considered the task ahead. What was such a practice? What new stories does it create for us to live by? Does it even exist?

    The ‘ground under our feet’ was beautiful Lumb Bank on the wooded slopes of the Colden Valley. A cotton mill owner’s house, once belonging to Ted Hughes, it’s now a peaceful Arvon centre providing time and space to write. In the morning the valley was full of mists, shrouding Bob Mill’s derelict chimney stacks below, a reminder of our industrial past and the need to re-invent our relationship to energy.

    Our monastic ‘writers’ rooms were cosy. Each had a desk overlooked by pictures of Beverly Naidoo, Carol Ann Duffy and other eminent Lumb Bank writers, poets and playwrights. As the days passed we felt at home, cooking, eating and working together.

    Following the Arvon ‘formula’ writers, Gilly Adams and Sarah Woods led mornings of workshops and teaching; afternoons were for writing and tutoring. Days were full on, as people made and played: with story, clay, imagining futures, sustainable buildings, food growing, walking, activism and work specific to place. We talked about risks and the roles artists play as critics, disrupters, holders of space, celebrants, truth tellers, giving attention, building bridges, problem solving, activators, shamans, poets, dreamers and firekeepers. There was a focus on the participatory arts, along with critiques of it. We unearthed ideas and the roots of creative practice and struggled to find words.

    Inspiring guest speakers joined us: Geoff Tansey, a food systems expert from Hebden Bridge, talked about paradigm shifts to create alternative systems. “We’ve gone as far as we can with facts and information. We must tap into emotions and values.” Jenny Sealey, Graeae Theatre’s Director, talked about the work of Deaf and disabled artists and the need to 'look up at the stars not down at our feet'. The earth’s resources maybe finite, but human capacity for art and action is infinite as the Para Olympic’s Opening Ceremony showed.

    The week created shifts for us: ‘subtle’ as Maria said, ‘but seismic’. The task of writing became pressing: we got up early and came to meals minutes late. On Friday evening, we read what had been written: engaging personal accounts of a deep need to make art and make change in the world. I was reminded of poet Manley Hopkins:

    “Each mortal thing....

    Selves - goes itself;

    myself it speaks and spells,

    Crying What I do is me:

    for that I came”.

    We glimpsed a transitional arts practice, identifying patterns and qualities of an ‘art of living’ that contribute to the acts of creative community that can help us ‘rethink’ the future. These will be articulated with Charlotte Du Cann, the editor, as the book and project come together - translated into something others will recognise and be inspired to take up.

    The times abound with notions of scarcity but at Lumb Bank I saw clearly the great gift of the arts; how they open us to change and an abundance of possibilities, not least in our own capabilities on this planet and for what ‘we came’. After all, “Imagination is a Source of Renewable Energy”: (Owen&Fern, Poster Series no.1 2008).

    *Feimatta Conteh, Maria Amidu, Fabio Santos, Dougie Strang, Anna Ledgard, Julia Rowtree, Ruth Nutter, Ruth Ben-Tovim, Anne Marie Culhane, Ellie Harrison, Hilary Jennings. Led by Gilly Adams and Sarah Woods with Charlotte Du Cann and Lucy Neal.

    The project is funded by Arts Council England, Transition Network, in partnership with Arvon, CAT and nef.

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  • March Outing North

    This weekend I am packing my bags to head to the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge for a week on Playing For Time. I have spent some time planning this week with Charlotte Du Cann, editor ofthe book, and more recently with the week's writing facilitators Gilly Adams and Sarah Woods. We have invited 11 artist writer collaborators to spend the week mapping practices and methodologies that can feature in the book, so I am of course inordinately excited.

    March is here and daffs are pushing up. A good time to be looking at the roots and shoots of new possibilities.

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  • Taking Yoghurt To The Next Level

    A Playing For Time field trip to walk and talk with Eva Bakkeslett. She’s baking rolls for a picnic and is about to collect me from Haslemere station.

    I’ve questions I want to ask about Playing For Time. The connections Eva makes between the philosophies of art and the practical immediacy with which she manifests ideas - through yeast cultures and yoghurt - fascinate me. Her work feels essential and important - as though she were drawing from some ground source energy.

    She collects me and we return to her house to collect Clive, her husband, the picnic and Ella, their dog.

    My eye is drawn immediately to a wooden trug by the kitchen sink. It reminds me of the carved aboriginal coolamun I have at home - given to me by artists Waiata and Karl Telfer in which fire was lit and carried for the Adelaide ceremonial festival opening 10 years ago. I suspect something as magical as fire has been concocted in it today. It has; the bread rolls are ready and off we go.

    I’ve so many questions in my mind I want to blurt them all out but I wait til we’re into our stride on the walk. Clive’s making a film for Transition Norway and is keen to know about my experiences of Transition Tooting. He and Eva lived in Totnes for a while and there are many overlaps in who we know.

    From my first meeting with Eva, I was drawn to the way she talks about art and culture, and how make sense in our lives - through our senses. She’s collaborating with a Portuguese woman she met at The Emergence Summit at CAT in September: ‘We are going to take working with yoghurt to a new level’. Wonderful!

    Just as we’re getting hungry a bench appears with a view of the three counties we’re pinned between: Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey. We eat warm bread and I’m reminded of the practical ease with which my mother baked every day - the rising dough and the woomphf as loaves came from the tin.

    In the open air we talk about art. How imaginary space opens you to new ways of seeing the world, and your sense of what’s possible is utterly changed. ‘Culture means to cultivate’ says Eva ‘preparing the ground to grow something new’. She talks about microorganisms and bacteria - coolly and rationally but with a passion. I could listen all day.

    I explain where we’ve got to with the book - about its three sections being grounded in physical ways: hand, artisan, bones, tools and she likes this. I know she has something key to offer.

    The connection between cultivation and the everyday is exciting - how you bring the right ingredients together with care at the right time in the right way, returning to something lost - a knowledge of processes happening at our finger tips. We admire Suzi Gablik and Joseph Beuys with their ‘expanded concept’ or ‘re-enchantment’ of art.

    Eva weaves together climate change, a disconnection with nature and the centrality of community in new ways for me; sensible ways to wake up to acting each day - as artists. Playing For Time seeks to tap into all this. I feel dizzy with excitement and confusion about how to map this practically so that as many people as possible can ‘join in’. She has written a thesis on Bread as Social Sculpture - ‘culture, poetry, activism and sustenance in a loaf.’ I write a list in my head of her writing as I walk and look forward to reading as though I would a meal.

    Inside again, we have tea. I’ve redeemed myself by bringing some good marmalade which we eat on toast by the fire.

    Playing For Time can trigger ideas and methods to play with, offering people the ‘end of a piece of string’ for making things themselves, but coming back always to the idea of the collective, the community.

    As I leave Eva hands me her film The Magic Table Cloth, which I watch over lunch the next day. It’s exquisite. A Russian grandmother, Nelly, in the Northern (polluted) industrial town of Nikel in Northern Russia is baking Pirogues with her grandson Gleb. Filmed intimately (by Clive) the focus is a small table in a tiny kitchen as cold winds blow snow on the window. The child sifts flour, sprinkles sugar and kneads the risen dough. Nothing could be more special and timeless. Nelly philosophises about how she is happy with every minute and how, despite hardships, she would not change anything in her life. The table is like a stage - with entrances and exits and lots happening. Eggs, leeks, flour, a child’s hands. What you are watching is everything: all life’s ingredients are distilled here. As the yeast rises, so the child rises too - making and creating his own life through direct engagement with berries and baking.

    Eva’s eye is clear. Without hammering points home, she guides our attention to something true and important. Human relations, love, care, attention, baking, making, feeding, a quality of relationships and something to ‘come home to’ in terms of what we need now: a balancing back to a world overrun by the rational, the transactional, rather than the relational. She speaks a lot about magic: how bacteria collaborate with humans in the process of fermenting. These transformations are her passion. John Fox called this connection between art and everyday life, vernacular art.

    I catch the train home from Haslemere and fall asleep. After walking 10 kms, I was tired. I think of Wendell Berry:

    to be

    quiet in heart and in eye

    clear. What we need is here.

    I do hope that Playing For Time can be a Magic Table Cloth: the right ingredients brought together from which something as yet unknown, new and magical can appear like bread from flour and fire from breath.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROcIDwB4QGc

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  • AT RIGHT ANGLES TO THE REAL WORLD

    'AT RIGHT ANGLES TO THE REAL WORLD' This blog was posted earlier in the summer on the Transition Network Social Reporting site. It gives an account of the Encounters Tooting Transition Shop May 12-20 2012.

    I promise to stop short of organising my own funeral, but I am a bit fixated by events; especially of the celebratory or ceremonial kind. Initially this was as director of the London International Festival of Theatre, today it’s writing the script for a friend’s partnership ceremony, closing London’s A24 for a Tooting community carnival celebration of the earth or opening a Shop, on the same High Road, with ‘nothing for sale but lots on offer’. I find celebratory events transformative, and rich in the rehearsals they provide for everyday life.

    I am particularly entranced by the space they afford us to imagine things differently. This truth was crystallised for me recently when a mathematical analogy was explained to me. Travelling on a train down from Scotland, a Jenny Patient, patiently explained to me how mathematics makes use of imaginary numbers. The square root of minus one, for example is an imaginary number. The square root of a minus number cannot exist but imaginary numbers, denoted in this instance as ‘i’, are used, apparently, to solve problems with real numbers. ‘They exist’ said Jenny ‘as though at right angles to the real world’.

    How wonderful! I love the idea of the imaginary existing at ‘right angles to the real world’, and of having a practical application for ‘solving’ the problems of the real world. This is exactly what I have experienced over the years in staging celebratory events - they take us out of time and our ordinary lives for a while and we return from them changed, sometimes for ever. Known as ‘liminal spaces’ they can be foundational in how we renew, reinvent and re-imagine ourselves and our world.

    For nine days last month, I and around 700+ Tooting residents existed at right angles to the real world, in our fine and beautiful Encounters Tooting Transition Shop: a Shop with ‘nothing on sale but lots on offer.’ Each day, we created an imaginary, magical space for passers by to reflect on their lives, recall their pasts and imagine their futures - practical application for solving the problems of the real world.

    Seven shops had been created by Ruth Ben Tovim and Encounters Arts in cities around the country. This was their first in London and the first commissioned by a Transition Town.

    Could the Shop evolve as a place of dialogue and exchange between the public and a Transition Town initiative? As public art and social project it was a distinct experiment - one that had received funding from Wandsworth Council and was featured in the Wandsworth Arts Festival, (alongside another May event ‘Treasuring Tooting’ a day long well-being walk around Tooting’s key landscapes and buildings.)

    What was the idea behind the Shop? Starting empty, it would be brought to life day by day with stories of the town. A neutral public space for people to reflect on everyday life and what it is like to live now for themselves and their community? What memories do they have? What places hold special significance and what world do they long for? Could a positive future be collectively imagined there? Could it build resilience in helping people look at the challenges of the times, in Tooting and the world. Key to the Shop’s success would be the ‘Invitations to Join in’: activities that invite people in in different ways, engaging with what’s on offer and with each other. Over nine days the Shop would map people’s lives, making visible what lies beneath the surface of everyday life and the interior worlds people carry inside them.

    The experiment would test whether the Shop could be maintained, once set up by Encounters[1] Artists, Ruth Ben Tovim and Ruth Nutter, by a local transition initiative. We would be left to mind the shop, until Ruth Ben Tovim returned at the weekend to gather up the week’s stories to create a performance of Tooting Stories on the last day.

    It felt an enormous responsibility: a nine day ‘event’ with as many ‘events’ within each day as numbers of people who walked into the shop. Sue Rentoul, one visitor commented: ‘I loved watching people change as they entered the Shop, from closed to open’.

    I also watched as the ‘art’ of the Shop opened people: their own curiosity created the smallest intervention in their lives - from an elderly and lonely man who came each day to whole classes of primary school children.

    To cross the threshold was to suspend what they believed, what they knew. At that moment they seemed open to something new. For a fraction of a second, at that point, everything became possible for them. As the days unfolded, I was in awe at the goodness, kindness, humour and humanity the shop was opening out and revealing in people. Their stories and willingness to leave some trace of their lives was close to the surface. One inkling of permission and there in front of you; their pain, their joy, their spontaneity.

    There were three key components that allowed people to be ‘open’ like this:

    1. The fact that we were on the High Street - curiosity led people in. Even those who initially said they were ‘too busy’ to stop ended up staying and spending time inside.

    A team of ‘Shop Hosts’ trained in guiding people around the activities inside. Ruth said “The heart of it is people out there coming in through the door. The most important thing is how you are in relation to people. They may walk in or need coaxing. They are customers. We are the hosts – we offer a sense of attention. We aim to get them to leave a trace of themselves in the shop, but they can leave when they want. It’s important to follow your instinct – consider how you’re going to encounter each person – be aware of how you are yourself. The shop is a neutral space for communities to come together – to express what it’s like to live in Tooting, in the world now – and imagine different futures. It’s a place to be moved in, charmed in, to come back to – it’s about you.” We found also that the barriers to overcome are often within oneself.

    The Invitations to Join In - these were the key structure that held the way people engaged and conducted what Ruth described as ‘a remote dialogue’ with themselves and their community. 12 in all these included:

    A Blackboard with a different question on it everyday (What holds you back? Who would you like to thank? Who or what do you miss? What is the Spirit of Tooting?)

    A ‘Memory Map’ where people could mark a place in Tooting that had special significance for them

    ‘I Told a Story About’ which invited them to sit on a sofa share a story with a friend or stranger around ‘Home’, ‘Loss’, ‘Belonging’ and other headings written on a pack of cards

    Tooting Micro Worlds which invited people to create their own worlds from cut out photos - these were very popular and gathered up and exhibited on the wall

    ‘What is it Like to Live Now?’ - a chance for people to honestly express their concerns about the world today in answer to a question posed by an imaginary figure on the wall visiting Tooting from the future. ‘What happens to my pets when I am not there’ to ‘What actually happens at the end of world?’. This activity led onto another question about the future that people wanted to create that they longed for and another about what they wanted future generations to thank them for. This ‘journey’ around what we called the ‘concerns corner’ proved the richest and most powerful aspect of the experiment. The ‘remote’ dialogue between young and old was most sincere and powerful here. It set up a resonance and energy throughout the Shop.

    Emilio Mula’s final film will show how the shop changed each day to create a richly layered story of Tooting. My own blog [2]documented some of these also.

    We have a rich resource to feed our ‘transitioning’ over the next months and years: the question “What do you want to grow in Tooting this Spring?’ (answered in black pen written on whittled sticks and planted in pots around a blue wheelbarrow in the window) conjured a collective plan for the future as rich as any energy descent plan.

    On the final Sunday, Ruth gathered up all these stories for a final ‘event’; a performance reading of Tooting Stories performed brilliantly by Ruth herself, Nicky Malin and Saira Naizi. ‘Tell me a story about Home, about Accidents, about Love, about what it was like before’ - a kind of Tooting Under Milk Wood that I found immensely moving.

    Like nectar gathered in a hive all week from everyone’s contributions, here was the honey. Honest, ordinary, moving, sincere, magical. What if in everyday life, I wondered, we could always be so sincere with each other? so open? so honest? so affectionate? so embracing of life’s possibilities? so straight about what bothers us? so clear about what we long for? At the end, we each read out a statement of what we would like future generations to thank us for. We were all involved, all accountable, all connected. Transformation indeed.

    “This sort of place should be offered on every high street.” wrote several people in the visitors book. “It was very calming and reflective. Well done Thankyou” wrote another.

    “Lovely space. Makes you think about the things that really matter.” ‘Time to reflect and anchor one’s feeling on the purpose of existence’ wrote Naseem.

    The Tooting Transition Shop has closed but we will exist at ‘right angles’ to the real world for a while longer as along with the 700 plus people who crossed the threshold, we ponder on what the Shop with nothing for sale but lots on offer has shown us we can newly believe in: ourselves and how very very capable we are of creating the world we long for.

    When Suzy Gablik refers to the ‘re-enchanting of our culture’ she refers possibly to what was happening both in the Trashcatchers Carnival and in the Encounters Tooting Transition Shop: a co-created knowledge that a sense of precarious future can be transformed collectively into a potentially hopeful future. In this context art, and its accompanying events, has a useful role to play. Personal creativity can connect to a social, moral and ecological responsibility. [3]

    Events provide critical incidents in people’s lives: a trigger for a new start, a new slate to begin again from. When this becomes a shared experience, the possibilities for re-invention are endless. Why, even funerals can become places of celebration and renewal!

    Images: Who or What Would You Like to Thank; I Told a Story About . . .: What Concerns Me about the World Today Is . . .; Memory Map (all photos by Lucy Neal)

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