Theatre-maker and writer, Lucy Neal is working on a handbook mapping creative practices that inspire a sustainable future. Here she describes a residency with other artists* at the Arvon Foundation retreat. Playing For Time is funded by Arts Council England and Transition Network, in partnership with Arvon, the Centre for Alternative Technology and the new economics foundation.
'..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
I’ve just returned from Lumb Bank, home of the Arvon Foundation, near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, with 14 other artists and writers. We were laying down the first tracks of a handbook, Playing For Time, 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.
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.
Writers Gilly Adams and Sarah Woods led mornings of workshops and teaching; afternoons were for writing and tutoring. We 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.
Two inspiring speakers joined us, Geoff Tansey, a food systems expert from Hebden Bridge, who talked about paradigm shifts to create alternative systems. He said: ‘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 at our feet’.
On Friday evening, we read out 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’ to 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 we can see Imagination as 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