Speaking to Their Time: Reflections on Anger and Anxiety in 2017

Faith Liddell


Faith Liddell is an experienced creative producer, programmer, cultural entrepreneur and adviser who has worked in key strategic and creative roles across art forms in the UK for the last twenty five years. She has specialised in the creation and development of high profile national and international projects, collaborations and festivals and has been instrumental in creating and consulting on the evolution of organisations, projects and approaches that aspire internationally on a creative level, while connecting to economic development, innovation, education and community agendas. From 2007 to 2015 she was Director of Festivals Edinburgh, a new organisation designed to take the lead on the joint strategic development of all 12 of Edinburgh’s major festivals and to sustain Edinburgh’s pre-eminence as the world’s leading festival destination. In 2015 she won the Creative Edinburgh Leadership Award, received an OBE for services to the arts and was made a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. She is now an international cultural advisor and creative producer currently working on projects across cultural policy, collaboration, creative networks, festivals and cultural diplomacy. She is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for International Cultural Relations in the University of Edinburgh and sits on the board of her local area trust, The Leith Trust, Vanishing Point Theatre Company and the environmental art company NVA.


 

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.28


Author’s Note: Our current cultural politics reveal a mood of widespread anger and anxiety on a global scale and profound disaffection with existing institutions. This year, the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh  Festival Fringe, impels us to look back, but forward to our new climate. The role and responsibility of creative and curatorial leadership to speak to its time needs examination.
I recently sat down with the directors of Edinburgh’s four major August cultural festivals to ask how they, as cultural leaders in an international festival city, should respond to anger and anxiety at home and abroad. What is their responsibility to their global times? How do they see the role of their artists? The following are extracts from our conversations.

Nick Barley, Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival

I feel at my most useful to society when I’m angry. That is not to say I manifest that anger in my behaviour. But it does inform my programming. And to put it more generally, periods when the writers and the writing community are not angry coincide with periods when literature is not all that interesting, as a general rule.

When people are angry about the Second World War or angry about poverty, they write good literature. And the period of what gets dismissively referred to as Kitchen Sink modernism—British middle class writers where all they had to write about was middle-aged relationships breaking up—tended to produce literature that is not all that memorable. Anger is a generator and motor that drives good artistic practice.

Similarly, for programmers, I think we have to be angry and to have passion. Unless we have passion for programming we should stop. I only want to do a book festival in order to try to answer questions I’ve got about why Scotland, the UK, Europe, the world is the way it is right now, about why globalisation has done what it’s done to us. That’s the key to all my programming. It doesn’t mean I have to stand on the rooftop and proclaim all my political beliefs. I’m creating a forum in which other people can do that, and acting as a conduit. The book festival works because it’s not authors speaking down to audiences. It’s participants speaking to one another. Everyone has an opportunity to exchange their views. In this I think book festivals have acted as participatory trailblazers.

Audiences trust our Festival to introduce them to new perspectives that they often haven’t thought about, to people from other cultures, other languages who see the world differently.

Artists can also express anger and anxiety in very different ways. It doesn’t have to be out of control. It can be very measured. I can think of poets who would never say that they are angry or anxious, but they can have an assured, incisive way of seeing things or expressing things that carries questions in it about why things are the way they are. They allow people to shift their perspectives.

When I think about the programme, my initial anxiety is about not being quite local or international enough. More deeply local has to go along with being more deeply international. That’s why we’ve been working on projects that are about trying to find out what local means.

 

 

 

 

I think we can influence our time. We need to believe in our power but also be humble and not pretend that we are going to revolutionise the world.

Being properly international means going beyond the networks you know. We, Scotland’s literary festival sector, have tended in the past to be most driven by the English speaking literary world in international terms. I feel strongly now that we need to go into Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Malian languages where writers have grown up reading completely different novels and have a different way of putting words together, of asking questions. If we wish to be properly influential we need to genuinely understand the anger and anxiety expressed in these places. I was involved in organising a festival in the Congo and their literary references were completely different. If you can connect to those networks, you start influencing them and being influenced by them.

This year we are working with Scottish writers taking transatlantic journeys in the company of writers from the Americas. They are definitely exploring anger and some of the initial first stage work is exploding with rage. This is an extended form of programming—commissioning things that need to be explored and said that are not there in the literary world from which we normally draw our programming.

 

Sorcha Carey, Director, Edinburgh Art Festival

Often the role of the artist is to sit out of time from the rest of society. They are often anticipating and expressing things that society as a whole only begins to feel collectively quite some time later. Then you have those magical moments when a work does perfectly express the mood of a time. Interestingly, if you think about it less in terms of the contemporary practice now, and look back over 70 years of making and producing culture in this city, it is often only in looking back that you see in a work a very clear expression of a particular mood and a particular moment that wasn’t necessarily felt right then.

An artist in some ways sits slightly outside, slightly on the edge of society. They’re part of society. They’re born of society, but they’re observing.

This year the Edinburgh Art Festival is going backwards to look forwards. We are going back 30 years before the foundation of the Edinburgh International Festival, reflecting on some of the other thinking that was going on in Edinburgh that may or may not have put in place, a community, a society that was open to hosting an international festival in 1947.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when I came across a pamphlet by Patrick Geddes called The Making of the Future, written in 1917, which was so relevant. What is shocking about it is that the war is still going on and he had just lost his son. Despite the horror, despite his antimilitarism, he also understood that war was necessary, that when it is a global conflict, it is a world’s way of saying we have to destroy ourselves in order to be able to build something new. It’s a really shocking image. When you talk about anger and anxiety, that is a very different take—seeing a necessary energy that can be channeled and galvanized and reformed into something new.

 

 

 

 

This idea also applied to creative production. It is a well-established mode—artists channeling these societal moods into creating something. Anger can be productive. But I think artists are angry before societies are.

Geddes was not an artist but he was a creative thinker. When he gave his farewell lecture to his students in Dundee, he said he wanted to allow everyone to see like an artist and that an artist always begins with the art of seeing. It was not first about making or production. Observing and the seeing were the critical actions. He was also interested in the conditions that would allow a city to see itself in action and allow citizens to see themselves in the context of their city, region, country, and world.

I do think that it is only through feeling the anger and anxiety, only through a sustained period of feeling really angry about something that you understand what you feel in the first place. It’s that rubbing up against opposites that allows us to define ourselves, our position. Our values are there, but we are only able to give voice to them when we encounter the opposite.

This matters in terms of what a creative process is and defining what the role of the artist is. By presenting a public, an audience, a society at large with an image of something else, they can help them to arrive at their own position.

For me, as festival director, it’s not always about chiming with or expressing a public mood because sometimes by running counter to a public mood an incredibly valuable dialogue happens. It’s about prodding.

I remember working with a curator called Man Rae Hsu from Taipei and he had this really nice idea of what he called “urban acupuncture,” which was the idea that you bring an artist into a city and when they make a piece of work it’s like poking a needle through a nodal point. Through that puncturing of the urban norm, you are releasing and channeling and allowing blocked up energies to flow.

A festival is as an embrace, a holding in which people with their individual perspectives, can come together in safety and be given the license to explore and test their own perspectives and to move away from polar positions.

 

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

This is very personal because of where I come from [Northern Ireland]. I see myself very much as a political person, sensitized to a wider context and how artists and curators respond to that. I see the arts as a place of sanity, a place of conversation beyond the political dichotomies. The reason I wanted to come to the Fringe was that I saw this as a massive space, an enormous frame of expression that the arts can offer in challenging times. This was the biggest landscape possible.

To be honest, from a distance the Fringe felt to me a bit middle-class cabaret, slightly divorced from society’s realities but of course, when you take a closer look there is this huge, angry response to the time and you can pull out serious and nonserious work addressing issues, and on a huge scale.

When we did the Fringe World Congress in Montreal with hundreds of Fringes from around the world, I had a light bulb moment. Was there a way we could harness the collective power that we have? Could we create something that celebrates Fringe—a World Fringe Day, where we think about the work we support and the platform for freedom of expression we offer. This is now a framework for a new digital space that has a Fringe consciousness.

 

 

 

 

The Fringe is the greatest platform in the world for freedom of expression. The Fringe is about the collective power that the arts community doesn’t understand it has. Fringe is the space where risk can happen where the unpopular as well as the popular can happen. We all want to find a space where challenging things can be said.

The Fringe was born out of defiance. This 70th anniversary year I wanted to look back at that idea and ask, have we still got it or have we lost it? It was uncensored, open access, bold and yes, angry, and I wanted us to think about that and our role now. This is not a clichéd discussion about commercial versus art—there is wonderful work like the Requiem for Aleppo piece in one of the bigger Fringe venue networks, Assembly, then great work from Palestine in a single specialist art form space, Dancebase. We need to think about what we can uniquely do now.

I think we do have responsibility to reflect the anxiety and anger of other places. We didn’t chose to leave Europe but you can’t talk about how unhappy you are about that then not engage with the wider international experience.

We made a deliberate decision to engage more ambitiously internationally. This year we’ve seen a 20% increase in international work. We have shows from Argentina and Brazil. We went to China, Korea to meet artists and producers. There is responsibility on any festival to be proactive in that space, in our times. Audiences are shifted by hearing these unfamiliar voices.

There is a counterbalance to international working and supporting artists who have something to say about the broader political landscape—you also need to make sure you are doing the same at home. We have really targeted efforts to reach out to the wider city not just the center, not just give lip service but take responsibility for actively listening and responding.

The Fringe is where you can feel the pulse of societal concerns: aging and society, social care, and a coalescing of global concerns. And it’s not just the Fringe. I can’t imagine there is a single topic that is not going to be unearthed in this city in August.

The responsibility we’ve failed in, as a cultural sector, is not in responding to our times. It’s in articulating our relevance. We have failed to find a new language that engages, failed to allow the best of what we do and offer to be asserted. And no political party ever talked to me about the arts on the doorsteps as they campaigned. It’s the language of the intermediaries that has failed, not the language of the artists.

 

Fergus Linehan, Director, Edinburgh International Festival

There’s the question of speaking to your time and speaking self-consciously to your time, and you can speak to your time in all sorts of different ways. You can just play a piece of music differently.

When I’m programming I’m not really scanning for responses to our times. I think it’s just there. It’s in the Zeitgeist. But the Zeitgeist turns up in different ways and sometimes there is a response that is protest and then there is another response that might be respite.

I don’t feel responsible for reflecting the mood of our time. I do feel responsible for making sure the people from across this city are involved in our festival. I feel when I have a really important piece of work by an artist, I want as many people as possible to see it.

I think you’ve got to pull it back to the artists in a way and artists speak to their time in their own ways. Poetic ways. They have a capacity to stand back and look at things with a bit of distance. In a lot of cases, artists’ responses are not sociopolitical references. They tend to be much more abstract. Most good artists just exist within their own time and they cannot help but respond, but it tends to come from the aesthetics of it rather the politics of it. Responses from artists are often about large overarching issues or frustrations. For example, migration, not immigration or emigration, but the idea of migration, is present in a number of works in our programme this year.

 

 

 

 

In particular, at the moment, artists are fascinated by what absolute totalitarianism might look like and that comes from an anxiety that we are in the early stages of something—from Europe and the US to Turkey, Iran, and Africa. There is also an anxiety about the strange, different kinds of morality that is coming through at political level. Take someone like Ivan Fischer, who is doing Don Giovanni for us. He is responding to that anger and anxiety—not in the most pointed of ways, but there is a serious passion and anger bubbling away in that piece about what is happening politically in his home country of Hungary. Murat Daltaban, from the Dot Theatre in Istanbul, is doing Rhinoceros, a play that explores conformism, nationalism, facism, and fundamentalism, and will be very, very conscious of this anxious mood.

Interestingly, I don’t think that ages of anxiety are times of enormous innovations. It’s not that we want the absolute familiar, but we seem to want reassurance, then as now.

Structure is important at the moment. Really great song writing is important at the moment and beauty, which was really a dirty word for a long time, is important. We also return to the big narratives when we’re anxious, when we’re angry and when we’re confused.

Maybe that was the thing back in 1947, at the founding of the Edinburgh International Festival, when they were looking for the North Star that would take them back to civilization. When we’re in a state of confusion, we need to ground ourselves in something, whether it’s the Greeks or whether it’s the great narrators of opera, or pieces of affirming music that we adore.

I think it would be overstating it to say you can influence the mood of the time with a festival programme. I think you can draw attention to things. The sheer scale, resources, and capacity of our platform means you can choose to do something that can impact on the ecology of things. But I’m not sure about the degree to which a festival that is as broad a church as ours can really influence the socio-political environment.


Image: By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Advertisements