Here is an article by my friend Catherine Henderson, who was our creative and moral support as we made Suspended, and who wrote the commentary sections. I found what she had to say encouraging, given the current political climate.
“In the early 1980s I attended a meeting where the artist and co-founder of the German Green Party, Joseph Beuys, was speaking. He was mesmerising. In his trademark hat and coat he strode to and fro, describing with his arms as much as his words a world where money flowed through the veins of society – a vision of a living, green economy. It was a completely different way of seeing things: his imagination had conjured up another way of being.
Much later I read about ‘social sculpture’, his concept of human activity shaping and influencing society and the environment. Art had the potential to transform society, and society itself could become one great work of art created by all of us.
Encounters with people who can open up windows in the mind like this are rare. But art in all its forms is constantly scattering the seeds of change, to borrow a metaphor from Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book Hope in the Dark. These seeds may or may not germinate at some point in the future but, over time, can bring about ‘pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination’.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growth of the environmental movement and the slow dissolving of the division in our minds between ourselves and the rest of the natural world. Robert Macfarlane, in an article written for the New Statesman in September 2015, writes of a ‘culture of nature’ changing the way we live: ‘Literature has the ability to change us for good, in both senses of the word.’ Writers including Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin (whose book Waterlog led to the wild swimming movement) and Richard Mabey have all contributed to a deeper and richer understanding of our place in the natural world.
It is not just literature, of course. For theatre maker and community activist Lucy Neal, author of Playing for Time: Making art as if the world mattered, communal celebratory events can act as a catalyst for change. ‘Imagination is the most important thing in the whole wide world,’ she says. Her involvement with the Transition Towns Movement is all about imagining different futures: ‘The imaginary helps us transform and renew the real.’ Speaking at the Royal Society of the Arts about participatory art, she describes how ‘the arts energise people’s capacities for action, activate their skills and transform their capabilities’. Harnessing our innate creativity is vital if we are to thrive, come together and help create the world we want to see.
The arts can extend our human experience, make us question the perceived differences between ourselves and others, and build empathic connections. Fiction, poetry and drama all give us opportunities to walk in another’s shoes. Visual art can literally change how we see things. Music crosses boundaries to bring us together. The South African musician Johnny Clegg, who died last month, performed alongside black musicians, defying apartheid laws and openly celebrating African culture. He rejected the label of ‘political activist’, saying instead that he stood for human rights. Reflecting on his life in 2017, he said: ‘It has been a rewarding career in so many aspects… to be able to unite people through song, especially at a time where it seemed impossible.’
If the arts have contributed to a new understanding of our relationship with the natural world, there is much further for us to go in changing our understanding of our relationships with each other, I think. The dominant political stories in many parts of the world are stories of division, though these are constantly challenged.
Propagandists know how to sow division, how to play on people’s fear and insecurity, and how to unite people against a perceived enemy – immigrants, bureaucrats, the EU. The seeds they scatter go to the same dark subconscious places as Rebecca Solnit’s seeds of change. But, like dragons’ teeth, they have the potential to grow into something much more destructive. We need stories that celebrate connection and bring us together to address the problems we share, and that are powerful enough to counter the myths of once-great nations brought low.
‘The arts as agents of change’ is one of the main focuses of a forthcoming conference at Woodbrooke this September, ‘Envisioning a world that is open to all: let us see what love can do’. The weekend will include performances, presentations and workshops by invited guests, some of whom have sought refuge in the UK. They include: the Daholl Kurdish Band, poets Malka Al-Haddadi and Ambrose Musiyiwe, artist Mohsen Keiani and author Gulwali Passarlay. We hope art and imagination will help us explore together how a world open to all might look, and how we might get there.”