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Political Art: A User's Manual

Stages of Resistance
Color headshot of Andy Field. He wears red glasses and doesn't look directly into the camera, and doesn't smile.
Photo Credit: Briony Campbell

This piece is part of a new Lark blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called 
"Stages of Resistance." This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and ​aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.

Political Art: A User's Manual


It starts with being angry
This is always a good place to start

And I want to offer you a minute of anger to begin with

We are in the front room
Of a house in
A quiet corner of Edinburgh
There is thick carpet
And sofas
And Table lamps

But there are also other things
That you wouldn’t normally expect to find there
There are large speakers
And guitar amps
And mixers
And microphones
And a music stand

And we are more people than have ever probably squeezed into this living room before
People on the floor
And the sofas
And people standing squeezed into the kitchen area to one side
And everyone is watching
As three people
Make an incredible amount of noise

We are watching the wonderful performer
Lucy Ellinson
And she has just told us
about a writer
called Paul Reekie
And the two letters he received
One from the Department of Work and Pensions
Telling him his incapacity benefit had been cut
And one from
Edinburgh Council
Which informed him his housing benefit had also been cut
And Lucy told us how
Paul had laid these two letters out carefully on his desk
And then he had taken his own life
And she told us
That sometimes
One minute of silence is not enough
Sometimes you need one minute of noise
And that is what we are now listening to

And it sounds like a howl of unreason
It sounds like a fox with its foot torn off
It passes through us
And you can feel the sound
Like the physical thing that it is
I can feel my body
Moving with Lucy’s anger
And the room is crowded
And electrified
And I realise the important difference
I am angry
And we are angry
And I realise that theatre is the perfect place
To transform
I am angry
Into we are angry
And whilst I am angry is always a good beginning
We are angry is where things get really interesting.

So I want to ask you.
Are you angry?
And if you are angry
What are you angry about?
If you aren’t angry
Well, why not?

How do you make an audience not hear anger but feel it?
How do you transform
I am angry
Into we are angry,

I want to invite you to be brave enough to be angry about something in public
Be angry without apology and without elegance
Be angry even if it makes you red and stupid
If it makes you vulnerable and embarrassed.

Make something angry
Make it one minute long
Take one minute and make it yours
This is your time to be angry.


There is an event score
Created in 2004 by the artist Ken Friedman
Which I was first introduced to
By the my friend Chris Goode
And this event score reads
In its entirety
As follows

Imagine a Life

Live it

For me
Exists somewhere in the unstable territory between those two imperatives
It is the imagining
And making that imagining into doing
Making it into something real
Theatre is where we go to know what our hopes and fears and fantasies would feel like
If they were made of real bodies and real spaces

Freud described dreams in a similar way to this
As a way of thinking through doing
Dreams are never dreamlike when we are experiencing them
They are visceral and real
We feel them
We cry
We jump
We make our hopes and our fears and our fantasies
Into something that is
And by doing so we are thinking
These are ideas running
through our heads
The in shape of real bodies that we can see
And feel
And touch
People we talk to
Or imagine we are talking to
But it’s all just us
Painting an imaginary world
With things we’ve learnt from the real one

And the most exciting thing about this whole process
Is that once they have been dreamt
These wild experiments
These immersive environments
These chaotic unfiltered ideas
They can’t be undreamt
Once you’ve dreamt about kissing someone
Or killing someone
Or someone being killed
You don’t look at them in the same way again

Dreams bleed into the world
Full of possibility
And desire

You don’t need to believe
That dreams are the expression of some unconscious longing
To know that they are important
To me they are important
Because they are dangerous and exciting
Because they are full of ideas that we are having before we know what to do with them
We are thinking in ways that are undisciplined and chaotic
Messy, full of flaws and longings
We are being changed in ways we can’t control
We learn from dreams without understanding them
They stain our perception
Leaking out into the way in which we see and believe in the world
We can touch

We can even allow ourselves to dream
said Georges Perec

Could theatre be a place in which ideas
Are made out of bodies
Nonsensical scenarios
In which we think not by listening
But by doing
Figuring out a way of living
In the shapes that form in the space between us
Out of chaos
And play
And possibilities
A theatre that is actually, properly dream like
Because it feels like a real life
That we might be living
But aren’t

If you could decide upon your own dreams
What would they look like?
What things might you want to explore?
What might you want to experiment with?

And if you could decide upon somebody else’s dreams
What would you put in their head?
Where would you lead them?
What would you want to make them feel?

If you could imagine a life for someone
And give them an opportunity to live it
What would it look like?


In the Tom Hanks film Big
The child who will become Tom Hanks
Makes a wish on something
Called the Zoltar machine
He makes a wish to be big
And when he wakes up in the morning
He has turned into Tom Hanks

In the adult world
Child Tom Hanks
Gets a job designing toys
And he’s really good at it

He is really good at his job designing toys
Not because he is big
But because he is still little

He is not burdened by the things that adults need to consider
By the obligations and responsibilities
By the social conventions
By taste
By reputation
And when he realises that this is what being an adult
Seemingly entails
He decides he needs to be a kid again

For the last 10 years my friends and I 
have hosted our own venue each summer at the Edinburgh Festival
The Edinburgh Fringe
More than almost any other festival
Edinburgh is in thrall to scale
Every year it celebrates a record-breaking number of shows
and a record breaking box office return
Every year it declares that it will return bigger and better
As if the two are the same thing.
It remains steadfastly committed to the same ideology of perpetual growth
That nearly destroyed
it’s former lead sponsor
The Royal Bank of Scotland

Why does live performance remain so enamoured with size and scale?
Especially when bigness in theatre is so often such a fiction?
The combined audience of every show at Brtain’s National Theatre for an entire year
is still significantly smaller
Than that of my favourite clip
Of a mariachi band singing to a Beluga whale on youtube

We are not big
And when we try to be
Like Tom Hanks
We are prone to forget what it is that might make us so good.

A few years ago my friends and I
had the chance to work with a big artist
On a big project
It was a revealing experience

The big artist in question
Spent less than two days working on the show
And didn’t even experience the completed piece
He got paid an astronomical fee
Whilst the majority of the volunteers performing the show
Recent graduates
Local people
Artists interested in the work
Were paid absolutely nothing
The audience knew none of this
And neither did the press
who were full of praise
For the artist in question

At the launch event for the show
These volunteers were told not to eat the canapés
As they were for invited guests only

This is not the kind of dream I want to be living in

I think we can do better
Than to rehearse the kind of privileges
And hierarchies
That we are already living under

Becoming the biggest arts festival in the world hasn’t made Edinburgh Fringe the best
In its myriad inequalities and exploitations
In its artistic regression towards a financially expedient norm
It has become the mirror of the society that produced it

And the place that we might go to imagine a life
And live it
Is only spitting back at us the life we’re already subjected to.


We are small
All of us
Whether we realise it or not
And its time to start acting like it
Because if we celebrate this
It can be our strength

We needn’t believe in the assumption of growth
In the importance of territory
In clumsy articulations of progress and value
We can produce new ways of operating
That are evasive and subversive
That turn that power back on itself

In The Species of Space
Georges Perec quotes in full
This old French children’s song

In Paris, there is a street;
in that street, there is a house;
in that house, there is a staircase;
on that staircase, there is a room;
in that room, there is a table;
on that table, there is a cloth;
on that cloth, there is a cage;
in that cage, there is a nest;
in that nest, there is an egg;
in that egg, there is a bird.

The bird knocked the egg over;
the egg knocked the nest over;
the nest knocked the cage over;
the cage knocked the cloth over;
the cloth knocked the table over;
the table knocked the room over;
the room knocked the staircase over;
the staircase knocked the house over;
the house knocked the street over;
the street knocked the town of Paris over.

I like it.
I like the way in which it suggests
change happens
Not from the top down
Or even necessarily from the bottom up
But from destabilising something fundamental
Right at the heart of things

Like Lucy’s anger
Amplified by the speakers
washing through our chests
In a living room in Edinburgh

In these small spaces
In these lucid dreams
We can propel ourselves outwards
Carried on the shoulders of those who were there
Carried by rumours
And heresay
And old photographs
And breathlessly excited descriptions written on blogs or twitter
Or wherever

The performance is never just the thing that happens
It is the accumulated evidence that it ever existed
Perec also approvingly quotes Jonathan Swift:

Elephants are generally drawn smaller than life size, but a flea always larger.

Already the fifty or so people in that living room
Have told others
Have written words in newspapers and on websites
They drawn that event larger than it was

In a world overwhelmed by information
We have the opportunity to create spaces in which that information
And that world
Can begin to be recalculated
Spaces in which people can come together equally
In which we can dream

A space in which I being angry becomes we being angry
Spaces in which to learn new kinds of love
Spaces that hold open the possibility of a better way of living
And provide us with an opportunity to try to do so

We gather
We breathe together