Green is not a creative colour (or: the problem with mass participation arts)

Yellow guy from Don't Hug Me I'm Scrared with his clown painting

COMMENT: Mass participation events at arts festivals are fun. It should not be used as a substitute for supporting people’s creativity – and especially not by Manchester International Festival.

For those of us with sufficiently obscure senses of humour, there is a cult series online called Don’t Hug Me, I’m ScaredI can best describe this as Sesame Street if David Lynch had directed it, where innocent-looking “educational” songs turn into surrealistic drug-fuelled nightmares in the final two minutes. My favourite episode of all, however, is the first one: a notebook singing a catchy tune to “get creative”. However (ignoring the upcoming drug-fuelled nightmare for a moment), when you listen a bit closer, you notice that this notebook has very exact ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute permissible acts of creativity. Incorrect art is decried or destroyed; even picking the wrong colour is a serious offence, because “green is is not a creative colour”.

This may not seem relevant to what I’m about to discuss, but please bear with me.

So, in July I spent a little longer at Buxton so I could spend a day checking out the neighbouring Greater Manchester Fringe. I will talk about this more when I do my Buxton Fringe roundup, but the main takeaway I got (for reasons too complicated to go into here) is that Buxton has nothing to fear from this neighbouring festival, even if Greater Manchester overtakes them in terms of numbers. But there is something else I’ve noticed that’s very different from the other fringes I’ve been to: in Brighton and Buxton, the festival and fringe are very supportive of each other; even Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe has learnt to co-exist – but it turns out Greater Manchester Fringe really does not like Manchester International Festival. Not the fringe organisers themselves as such (who broadly stay out of this feud), but I’ve noticed a very poor opinion of MIF from a lot of the fringe participants.

As far as I can tell, this is the combination of a lot of grievances, but the dominant one is that the established arts scene in Manchester ignores the local talent in its own city, instead importing big names from outside the city and heavily publicising it. This means grass-roots artists – so a lot of them believe – don’t get a fair look-in. It’s only fair to note that Manchester’s not the only place to have this grievance; I’ve previously complained about similar practices in Durham. However, Durham isn’t a big city and there isn’t much of a fringe theatre community to alienate. A better comparison would be Newcastle, which does have a big fringe theatre community. Live Theatre and Northern Stage do programme and develop headliners from outside the city, but also have a lot slots that go to local groups. Whether they offer enough opportunities and whether everyone gets a fair chance at it is open to debate, but they do more than enough to keep the local fringe theatre scene on side. Something evidently absent from MIF.

Things seem to have come to a head this year for two reasons. One is the alleged plagiarism of the play “Tree” by the Young Vic, which was a key part of this year’s International Festival. That’s an issue that deserves to be addressed separately. (I am slogging through the claims and counter-claims now – I’ll need to think this over, but on first read-through it doesn’t make the Young Vic look good.) The other thing – and the one more relevant here – was the “Bells for peace” event, where you turned up in Cathedral Gardens with a bell to ring, for up to an hour. With Yoko Ono. That’s it. Apparently, the fact that Yoko Ono can ring a bell and get other people to ring bells with her is more culturally significant than anything the people of Manchester are offering. And in the end, she didn’t even turn up, instead appearing on a screen. That, many people thought, was just taking the piss, especially given the uncritical media coverage bestowed upon her.

However, I think “Bells for Peace” is symptomatic of a wider problem in the arts, that extends way beyond Manchester – and this brings me on to the subject of this post: mass participation events. The event wasn’t just turning up to ring a bell – there were workshops earlier in the week where you could design and create your own unique handcraft ceramic bell. I should say at this point I don’t object to the concept of mass participation as such. If you like that idea of making your own bell and ringing it in front of a video of Yoko Ono, go ahead, enjoy yourself. Likewise for acting in a community chorus, bringing your musical instruments along to a playaway, singing in massed voices or anything else done under the banner of “get creative”. But you have to be aware of the limitations. People find it fun, and it might encourage them to do other creative projects – and yes, those are good things in their own right – but as far as nurturing creativity goes, it’s really not that great. Almost all of these projects are the vision of somebody else in charge. Your creative input as Joe Public is going to be tiny at best – seriously, how much artistic freedom is there in choosing how to decorate your bell? It will be them, not you, that gets credit for whatever’s produced. As for the chance of being spotted as some emerging talent, dream on.

Even then, none of this would matter if this was part of a balanced programme of support for that arts at all levels. Unfortunately, in reality the support is polarised to two extremes. There’s mass participation events like “Bells for peace” (along with numerous “Introduction to ____” courses offered by almost every arts organisation), and there’s support and development for a those artists that arts organisations choose to champion. One of them is open to anyone who wants to do it but offers little benefit beyond the fun of taking part; the other has lots of career-enhancing benefits but excludes all but a lucky few. There is very little on offer in the middle ground, and if you want to pursue your own ideas and aren’t lucky enough to have an artistic director whose tastes sufficiently match yours, you’re on your own. Now, in Manchester there are a couple of mitigating factors: there’s a big choice of independent organisations and venues you can approach, and thanks to the inclusive culture promoted by Greater Manchester Fringe, there are people who will give you a chance with or without a producing theatre’s backing. In other places we’re not so fortunate: there’s a much less inclusive culture, such that anyone without the backing of a producing theatre is assumed to be not worth anyone’s time.

To be clear, I don’t believe anybody’s actively trying to control who can and can’t get into the arts. My guess is the reason things are as they are – plenty of activities open to everyone but meaningful support only given to a precious few – is because … it’s easy. If you concentrate your development efforts on to a few artists, they have a good chance of succeeding and you share the credit. If you hold an event with the masses taking part, you also get the credit, shared with the people who chose the artistic direction of the event. But what about the people who want to choose their own artistic direction? How do you support their projects, with so few resources to go round so many? Few people hit the ground running from the outset – many more will have to get things wrongs before they get things right. As soon as you encourage people to do their own thing when a good portion is going to crap or medicore, you might get linked to the crapness or mediocrity. Or you might not – after all, this is how all the big festival fringes operate and they are all highly regarded. So far, however, regional theatre has shied away from this. It’s either back a winning horse or mass participation events where you stay in charge. Very little in the middle.

And this is where the first episode of Don’t Hug me, I’m Scared resonates with me – and, I suspect, a lot of their fan base. “Green is not a creative colour” is a metaphor for the top-down culture that’s intrinsic to these mass participation events – somebody else will be instructing you on how to be creative, and if you show any individuality or initiative not to their liking, they have the power to dismiss it as wrong. As I said, it wouldn’t matter if there were other ways to be creative on your own terms, but my strong suspicion is that if Manchester International Festival was challenged on how they support creativity for the people of Manchester, they would argue that events such as “Bells for Peace” are all that’s needed. As opposed to, I don’t know, encouraging people to support new artists doing their own thing, like Greater Manchester Fringe does. Green is not a creative colour. An open festival is not a creative festival.

When I first heard about Greater Manchester Fringe, I was curious as to what made the artists of Manchester embrace an open festival so enthusiastically, whilst in other cities they settle for a top-down cultural model. Originally I assumed it was down to the large number of fringe groups and fringe theatres in the city. Now I wonder if it’s motivated more as an act of rebellion against an establishment who doesn’t want them. Regardless – and this applies both inside and outside of Manchester – the question of inclusion must be taken seriously. The answer – one that empowers artists to be creative on their own terms without major arts organisation ending up as gatekeepers – will not be easy. All I know is that mass participation events like “Bells for Peace” are not a substitute. If our idea of getting creative and public engagement is a big name to telling everybody what to do, that’s a very poor return.

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