We recently were interviewed by Louis Bebb for a Coventry University research project exploring
“How creative agencies are able to maintain themselves in a post-industrial society”
Louis asked a series of questions via email and we have posted them here. Louis asked:
There are two elements within creative agencies that we are interested in looking at with this research: Firstly, the spatial aspects for creative agencies to maintain themselves, and secondly, the use of CA’s in society. To begin, I will ask some of the questions I have about the spatial aspects.
>>Why does Mercurial Arts and Dance operate in the area it does, are there practical benefits of being able to work within creative production hubs like the Coventry Canal Basin?
It was a deliberate move to take an office in the Canal basin and started with a space share with another artist we had been collaborating with in 2007. The trust offers affordable space for artists and so coincidently forms the best incubator space for new creatives in the city. It is quite competitive to gain spaces. Some current occupants have been part of the warehouse since its start 30 years ago. Being part of a collective of creative businesses enables us to draw on the strengths of the other companies in the warehouse, using services such as graphic design, digital art, photography from the other inhabitants and maintain a relationship between contracts easily as we get to know each other.
>>Do you also see the Industrial Heritage of the Canal Basin as playing any role when choosing to set up Mercurial Arts and Dance here?
No, but it is a beautiful place to work in.
>>As a creative agency, what do you believe is the role of your art in society?
Hmm, society is a loaded word, eg ‘high society’ etc. But I think what you are asking is what is the social impact of our art and work? A few things, firstly every charity has to benefit society, that is why it is a charity i.e. run for the benefit of the people it seeks to serve, as set out in its constitution. The charities commission sets out strict rules so worth you having a read. All charities publish their annual returns here and the larger ones produce reports on how their money is spent to the benefit of ‘society’.
What we do, and the role our art has had for ‘society’ is evidenced in the evaluation of each project. Each project is different so I will give you three examples. Civic regeneration in the Bubble Chamber, Community regeneration at Hobmoor and personal skills development in a boys dancing project.
1) the bubble chamber 2009-13
This was a series of projects in our pop up place for performance and art which we called the Bubble Chamber. Taking temporary occupancy of a series of empty shops we created performances and worked with young people. They took a journey, developed skills and enhanced their confidence, alongside this teachers practice was changed and along with two other arts organisation in the city, working in city arcade we offered a new narrative of what a city centre could offer, following the effects of the financial crisis. A provocation that art can and should be sited at the centre of daily life. Through our first shop residency the tenancy in the arcade when from less than 50% of the units let, to 100% as we left. The council changed their approach to the uses of culture and long term I think has contributed to the council bidding for city of culture and some of the programming.
2) Hobmoor Community Centre. 2013-2017
Through a partnership with Oasis Academy Hobmoor, we have run a number of in-depth projects that are placing culture and art as a central part of the creative and educational development of the children in the primary school, and used our art to launch and subsequently support bringing a new community centre into use in a deprived area of Birmingham. This started with the Chaotic Liquid Network project, which opened a community centre – built in 2007 but never used due to complex arrangement between birmingham city council and the developers which meant it was unaffordable for the local community. Our project created a new show, formed partnership with the cultural institutions in the city and drew together the right people together to discuss its future. Through a series of steps over 1000 people access this space every week. Our project in this instance act as a catalyst to bring about change. The Academy has since invested in staff and time to grow this mission for the community centre. This summer it opens in the holidays for the first time, with a project we have produced and supported by the HLF.
3) Fort in 2010 was a boys dance film and part of the london 2012 west midlands cultural olympiad, created in partnership with warwick arts centre. We made a dance film with 70 young men. Here is a great example of an uplifting project that offers inspiration, art and skills to the young men involved. It challenges stereotypes – young men dancing together – and also promoted future work destinations both in arts but also by the boys filming on location at fort dunlop, one quote was ‘I’d like to work here in the future’ – referring to Fort Dunlop building.
So we have real impacts on society through the creation and prevention of our art. A couple of end of year summaries are attached for your reference that give more details.
>> Also, does Mercurial Arts and Dance involve working directly with Coventry City Council at all?
Yes. To qualify. We apply to coventry city council arts development grant scheme for funds to match against arts council or other applications for projects taking place in coventry.
We have also been supported by the city council, through having empty shops rent free in order to deliver project that benefit the public
We worked with the city libraries to deliver our Fair Youth performance project in 2015 – a performance for libraries with accompanying workshops.
We contribute to the arts ecology in the city, for example advising on the cultural strategy as it was being developed and the role that dance can play in the city.
>> Do you think that working with Coventry City Council means that you have to hold back the critical edge within your art? For instance, some may think that creative agencies in this sense are being co-opted by the status quo, in order to maintain the status quo, rather than challenge it.
The question is still a bit clumsy.
If your asking if my art has a commentary to make on local social/economic issues? then yes.
The Bubble Chamber was a provocation that
a) the council should (and did) make some of its unused portfolio of buildings available to artists, we helped change policy. So with reference to your status quo comments in the first question, I think we can demonstrate that working with the council can engender change and that change doesn’t have to be confrontational.
b) financially – and I have made this point to councillors – at the time of making use of empty shops there was an economic driver from the property department where they were saving more money in rates by enabling charitable use of the buildings, more money in fact than we were gaining from the arts department in grants, something that I thought was not entirely right, but we were benefiting from receiving space rent free. The law has now changed this situation, but research 3 space.org for more about this approach – they did rates trading on a big scale.
c) art should be made available to all, and making work in ‘fringe’ venues is a statement about reaching specific audience profiles who do not normally engage with the arts – in this case art at street level.
secondly working to enable access to the arts for people from low socio economic background is also a stance that art speaks to us as humans, it helps us to understand the world around us and every one needs this. This is part of our philosophy and approach to making art.
Jon Lord, Chief executive of Boulton housing (a social housing company)http://www.boltonathome.org.uk/percent-for-art talked at a recent conference about why as a housing association they employ arts workers and spend a significant amount of money on the arts. He put it simply, i paraphrase, but he said – putting a roof over peoples heads who live in abject poverty, still means they live in abject poverty. We have a responsibility to improve their lives and the arts is a key way we can do that. [to develop community]
Am I critical of the council? Depends, its a big organisation that does a lot of things, from keeping streets clean to housing to supporting some arts infrastructure. They are not as forward thinking as Boulton in terms of employing four arts workers to work on the most deprived estates in the city. [yet!] This part of your question is too big to unpack.
Is there a level of compromise in my art when being paid to deliver work by the council? No.