Recently UPGTeam's spokesperson Alister attended an EU conference on Street Arts and how Street Theatre can deal with issues of social justice. It was a big deal for us to speak at the world's most transparent and open parliament, and we've since been asked by quite a few people for a copy of what we said. You can find the full text below. It'll take 10 minutes to read. It does involve Brexit. Enjoy!
Panel Discussion 2. 'Artists at the crossroads of entrepreneurship and activism: their main challenges and opportunities and how the EU can support them':
The Urban Playground Team is a fundamentally European company. I’m an English born performer working on gaining the Irish Citizenship to which I’m entitled by descent. Miranda Henderson with whom I run the company is Cornish and we’re based in Cornwall. The Cornish are recognised as a distinct cultural minority by the EU first, and by the British only under duress. The third core member of our team is Malik Diouf, a French citizen and one of the co-creators of L’Art du Deplacement. He still lives in Evry, near Paris. The fourth member is our musician Chris Umney, a Welshman of no fixed abode, currently spending his life as a travelling artist in the manner of the original street performers.
The history of performance in Europe is a millennia old tradition of artists performing on the street. Often due to necessity rather than choice. Excommunicated and generally treated with suspicion, artists travelled constantly, developing on the road the performance skills they presented at court, at market, at carnival and fair. The history of European performance is a history of styles, techniques, skills and traditions developed on foot and always involving the cultural exchange between domestic and foreign traditions through countless waves of migration. Artists carried the news of the world with them, and we still do, even if now we disseminate it through our twitter feeds and instagram accounts.
The biggest threat we face now, as UK artists, is the loss of our freedom of movement. The biggest threat any artist faces in the world today is the loss of Freedom of Movement. Freedom of Movement is our lifeblood. Our company creates work that plays on the street and brings together, in our own, new, bastardised form of ‘Performance-Parkour’ or ‘2PK’ several distinct performance languages. Contemporary dance; pioneered in the UK and America relating to and reacting against the classical traditions of France and Soviet Russia. Physical Theatre; building on traditions from Central Europe, most notably Poland, and from Scandinavia where it was codified by an Italian director and his international company. Slapstick Comedy; made famous in Hollywood, but taken direct from the English Music Hall which in turn carried the DNA of the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte. And of course Parkour, or L’art du deplacement, created in France by the Yamakasi; a group of second generation migrants who bought together influences as diverse as Chinese Cinema and Marvel Superhero Comics with the dance of Michael Jackson and the French Navy's ‘Method Natural’.
For the last twelve years we’ve taken for granted that one of our performers can easily and cheaply commute to work with us from Paris. We’ve taken for granted that we can work in mainland Europe whenever we have the opportunity. On one occasion we drove from Brighton on the south coast of England across to to the Republic of Ireland, and having performed in Donegal, we took the van on the marathon drive back down to Dublin, across the Irish Sea, through the UK, across France, across Switzerland and into Italy, finally unloading 36 hours later in Naples where we performed all that week.
I want to be clear that we are a very small-scale company. We have two permanent members. The rest of the team are freelancers, signing up one project at a time. If each border meant an additional fee, or visa, or work permit, we would be stuck in the UK without one of our core players and with far less opportunity to develop. We receive funding from the Arts Council of England on a project by project basis but we wonder to what extent the Arts Council budget will be protected post Brexit. Like all artists we are entrepreneurs and we are good at adapting and finding the means of survival. Having recently relocated to Cornwall, for the next two years we will benefit from the support of Cultivator and the Real Ideas Organisation - both EU funded agencies, both helping us to strengthen and consolidate our business.
We are a Social Enterprise and we believe strongly that as a Community Interest Company we will be able to keep going forward, but the thought of the loss of freedom of movement haunts us. As does the thought of all those doors shutting come 2019, in terms of travel, the artists with whom we can work, the funding opportunities available and in terms of our audience. The loss of European City of Culture is a case in point.
Artists who work in the field of social justice are exemplars of the Social Entrepreneurship model and deserve to be recognised as such. As a company we specialise in working with at-risk communities of young people. For the last four years we have been partners to an Erasmus+ funded project ‘The Complete Freedom of Truth’ which is simply incredible. It grew out of work by a UK company; Opera Circus, engaging with young people in Srebrenica. It has grown to include artists and young people from Bosnia, the UK, Serbia, Italy, Romania, Georgia, Portugal, and beyond. And because of the artists involved, and because young people recognise no borders, it now also involves refugees and asylum seekers, migrants who have arrived in Europe in the latest waves of migration and who have an incredibly significant role to play in the project as they remind us, by their presence alone, of how precious the things we take for granted are, and how easily they can be lost. That the privileges those of us who have grown up in the EU take for granted are, just that, privileges. We might name them fundamental human rights, and they should be, but they are certainly not available to all and we’re privileged to live in societies where the rights to freedom, to freedom of expression, even to play, are protected.
It seems to us the fundamental role of all art is to remind us of our humanity and to join us in community. Street performance does this perhaps best of all the performing arts. It certainly can lead the way in terms of inclusivity, and accessibility. It can often seem frivolous, silly, maybe unnecessary or unimportant. But for a show to work on the street it must delight and amuse, play to a whole family audience, stop you in your tracks, catch your attention second by second, rely neither on long narrative or slow character development, nor accepted norms, expectations or traditions. It relies on spectacle, on surprise and astonishment. Because it doesn’t shout its politics or gather a big box office take, because it is largely ignored by art journalists and seen as a lower-artform by the establishment, Street-Performance can often be mistaken for being unimportant. But just try, for one moment, to conceive of a piece of art that might satisfy and capture ANY audience. Not an audience who have already declared their love of art or committed significant amounts of money to securing tickets. Not an audience who have decided together to support a particular art form or venue or who will benefit by being seen at the performance. ANYONE. An audience of ANYONE.
We cannot assume our audience will speak our language. We cannot assume they have ever seen a performance of any kind before, or, that they will have any idea of what is actually going on. They may be old or young, local or international, they might have communication needs, learning difficulties, any number of special educational or physical requirements. They may be here to see our show but they might simply be passing by, and yet; we are setting out to capture their interest moment by moment, right now, right here, on a street full of a hundred other distractions. We must create a genuine human interaction in a second and then we must build on it.
The most political action of Street Performance is not what in what is played, but where it plays, who plays it, who it plays to. Companies like ours stand at the cutting edge of developing participation in the arts - and we have included in our shows and events children as young as four and adults as old as ninety-five - often at the same time, and with a huge range of abilities and disabilities. This is why we have travelled globally, performing and teaching on five continents, on nine separate occasions representing the UK through the British Council - who recognise what great art can do.
All races, all creeds, all people are welcome. We have brought together audiences of strangers who would never usually interact and we have become the means of creating community. To give one example, in Qatar we presented a piece of performance-parkour based on the global banking crises in which a female performer stood at the top of the 3 meter high set throwing the men around her into the abyss. We played in the Souk Wahif market place to an audience including the British Ambassador and his family, along with ‘number one’ Qatari’s in full Arabic dress. They stood next to migrant workers who stopped digging the road up so as not to disturb the show. Local women in full Berkas stood next to western tourists, the children of them all mixing together in our front row, and together they laughed and applauded a women dancing in public and playing the highest status role. Street performance can do what more conventional forms are simply not allowed to. The lack of a formal setting means we can bypass all sorts of perceived restrictions and we can subvert, provoke, delight and inspire.
I asked my colleagues at the Edinburgh Fringe how they would describe Street Performance - its a loaded question because; at the world’s largest arts festival the abiding public image is of the street performers along the Royal Mile but in the hierarchy of performers themselves, street-artists are at the very bottom of the heap. Andy Meldrum who organises the street performers describes is at as a ‘Gateway Drug’. You see a bit of street performance and you think you can give it up. But after a few times you find you’ve bought tickets for a comedian and you’re on your way to doing some hard Shakespeare or mainlining a bit of avant-garde dance…
If we believe that every child is entitled to the right to play and every adult the right to freedom of expression then we should be supporting the development of street-based performance right across the EU and wherever possible we should be doing it in conjunction with protecting freedom of movement. The two have have been linked forever and will continue to be, whatever happens with Brexit. But for street-performers to be effective they need support, and if supported they can be extremely effective in tackling issues of social injnustice, in increasing participation and engagement in the arts and culture, and in reminding everyone, everywhere, that they have the right to their freedom of expression. They can reclaim forgotten spaces and bring them back to life and they can reengage forgotten communities and give them fresh voice.
Street Performance is democratic. It actively democratises art. Street Performance that includes participation - work by us and companies like us - not only democratises art as something to see but art as something to do. We have young people we’ve worked with over the years in the UK, in Ireland, in Serbia, in Bosnia, in America, Kuwait, and most recently in India who have already or are now, creating their own performance companies. They in turn are engaging more young people as artists and performers. They are another generation of social entrepreneurs. They will develop the next languages of art and they will spread them far and wide but only if we support them now, and that includes supporting their ability to travel so that they might collaborate, and exchange, and enter into the kind of meaningful dialogues that artists alone can broker between individuals and communities at a local, national and international level.
Alister O’Loughlin 5th Dec 2017