Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Abyss is Where the Newness Lies: UCLG Culture Summit 2015 by Fern Smith

A last minute invitation to go to Bilbao to the UCLG Culture Summit: Culture & Sustainable Cities threw me into a quandary. I was asked to go to do a presentation on the Emergence report ‘Culture Shift: How Artists are Responding to Sustainability in Wales’, to represent Wales and Wales Arts International. They would fly me there they said and cover all my expenses. My immediate reaction to tell the truth was sheer terror. I’m not a comfortable public speaker in such settings and the idea of a World Summit brought up all my insecurities. I had a look at the weblink they sent and my impression was that it was a forum solely for Mayors, Local Government Leaders and City Cultural Directors. I read the welcome from the Mayor of Bilbao and glanced through the programme. I was even more convinced by what I read and the language in which it was written, that this was not a forum I would easily sit within or relate to.  It sounded like there had been a party going on for some time that had it’s own points of reference, language and customs. The invitation did not seem to have my name written on it but I was being urged to go – informed that this was a great honour and an incredible opportunity for me, Emergence, Culture Shift and the whole of the Welsh arts scene. What had transpired, was that they had had a last minute drop out with only 10 days to go, one of the organisers had read Culture Shift, been inspired and had thought it would be perfect for the event.

Now the reasons for this particular gathering sounded very exciting. The network of United Cities & Local Governments were going to formally adopt Agenda 21 which would make Culture the ‘4th pillar’ of Sustainable Development. There had been enormous work behind the scenes for a decade to make this happen and this occasion was going to be a very big deal as all the literature on the UCLG website attested to. I’m not a great strategy report reader (so strange that I should have been involved in researching and delivering a strategy report myself - Culture Shift) and this one made me feel, as I so often do after trying and failing to take in such writing, ignorant, uninformed and just plain stupid. So pretty much all my instincts were saying "no, this one isn’t for you!" But the problem is, these last few years, I’ve given myself over to the unknown, the spontaneous and Emergence – both as a way of life and as an arts and sustainability project. I also have ‘challenge tourettes’ if there is such a thing. This is an irresistible urge to rise to a challenge and to feel I need to constantly be testing myself to get comfortable with discomfort! I felt compromised. Then I had one of those ‘duh’ moments…I couldn’t possibly fly to a conference in Bilbao to represent a report that was all about sustainability and artfully living within the ecological limits of a finite planet. I’m really proud of Culture Shift and feel that it is articulating a story of change, and a central role for artists in that change, that is potentially paradigm changing. I was pleased the report had had positive feedback, I was pleased that a big deal conference wanted to have it as part of the mix but the decisive factor was that I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t fly to present it. I worded a careful email saying pretty much all this in response to the initial invitation and gracefully declined the offer (after also researching and coming to the decision that travel by train, given the short notice was going to be impossible as I had commitments I simply couldn’t move in my diary).  I breathed a sigh of relief and thought that would be the end of the matter.

But in next to no time I received a very polite, equally sensitively worded but very persuasive email to say that my reservations were completely understood and respected and that WAI took their international travel and sustainability policy very seriously indeed. They urged me to reconsider and stressed that this was an invitation that simply shouldn’t be turned down. They would be very happy to book me tickets for the train on Great Western from Swansea to London Paddington, underground to Kings Cross St Pancras, Eurostar to Gare du Nord Paris, high speed TGV from Paris Montparnasse  to Hendaye on the French border, taxi across the border to Irun and then the 2 hour coach trip that would finally get me to Bilbao. I could manage it in a day plus an overnight in London on the way out and the return trip could be all done in one (very long) day by starting before the crack of dawn. This somehow swung it for me – even though my innards were still resisting it. I told myself (and my partner Phil did too) that it was my natural anxiety at speaking at such a gathering that was making me resist. We both decided that the universe was creating an opportunity for me, and so was WAI… In the spirit of “turning this opportunity yes” (ref: Sexy Beast) it was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse. I wrote an email back (feeling like a reluctant teenager) and said I’d be very happy to go, and thank you so much for the invitation. Within 24 hours my travel arrangements were all made and I was cancelling and rearranging things in preparation, writing in big capitals, “BILBAO” from Monday 16th to Friday 20th March in my diary.

The next week saw me brooding over my presentation trying to put together something that might speak to the gathering whilst also representing the authentic voice of myself, Emergence and Culture Shift. I decided to do a bit of power-point guerrilla action. I spent a couple of days planning my ‘art intervention’. I would deconstruct a 'death by powerpoint' talk – beginning with a slick, professional looking presentation which would include all the deadly sins you really shouldn’t do, including reading what is written on the slide at the same time as showing it and putting up lengthy blocks of text too fast. I would then undercut it by displaying a number of witty and clever statements drawing attention to the fact that whilst I was going on, everybody else in the room had switched off. After that I would meaningfully ask “Is there another way?” – with the final slide in my powerpoint presentation timed cleverly so as to say  the same thing. I was set – the only thing I had to sort out was what I would say after my punchline rhetorical question. So this took another three days of making notes, notes on the notes, putting the notes in order, then trying to remember what I was supposed to say after I’d gone 'off script' (and of course reading and highlighting Culture Shift again, appendix and all). For good measure I also read Steven Emmott’s book “Ten Billion” for some more cracking quotes and to give myself an even stronger certainty that THIS STUFF IS REALLY  IMPORTANT.

Feeling as prepared as I could be (with the possibility of four more days of preparation whilst travelling and at the conference) I set off on my incredible journey on Monday 16th March, on the 3.28pm from Swansea to Bilbao.


I reached Bilbao and my Ibis Hotel late the next evening, having caught all my connections with only a couple of hairy just-in-time moments. I was chuffed with myself at being 'a train pilgrim and not a plane tourist' inspired to “Travel responsibly/ Tread lightly” as it said on my Eurostar ticket. I was ready for the UCLG World Summit.

Meeting my companion, Sian Tomos, Director of Enterprise & Regeneration at the Welsh Arts Council, the next morning at breakfast, we set off to represent our country. Bilbao is an incredible city – regenerating and rebranding itself as a world class City of Culture after its iron and steel industry collapsed in the last century. The conference centre was a testimony to the cities pride and confidence. The combination of hyper modern fluorescent furniture and stair ways, highly polished black skating-rink like floor, airport departure-hall sized lobby with an enormous video art piece of the pre-eclipse sun couldn’t fail but to wow.

We were each given a couple of very big lanyards and a swish looking black shoulder bag emblazoned with the conference details that contained a T-shirt with the same printed on the front, a very good quality hard-backed A3 size notebook, pen and a wad of publicity extolling the success story of the City that is Bilbao. I did have one of those uncomfortable moments wondering why we were being given so much “stuff” at a conference about sustainability and gave my bag and T-shirt back after pocketing the nice looking imitation-leather black notebook. We were given our headsets and ushered inside the cavernous auditorium.

No, I’m not going to go into every detail of the conference. The aims of the event were ones you really couldn’t refute – making Culture the 4th pillar of Sustainability for World Cities & Local Governments. Speaker after speaker reiterated in many different languages the importance of Culture, and not just Culture but culture too. I sat there in my large plush and comfortable seat,  took copious notes, managed quite successfully to tweet at the same time as listen, write, applaud, take photos, check the twitter stream (#UCLGCulture) and put my headphones on or off according to whether or not the speaker was speaking English.

I was swept away by the content and energy of conviction of the many speakers, having some kind of sense that history was being made in the room. Simultaneously I felt slightly overwhelmed by the number of things I was having to do at the same time as listening, in order to not just engage, but be seen to engage on social media – after all this was an expenses paid trip courtesy of public Welsh money. I felt an obligation to do all I could to ‘include others in the conversation’ by tweeting and retweeting my own bodyweight in sound bites, statistics and memorable quotes.

The programme was packed, speaker after speaker, Mayor or Cultural Ambassador of country after country, panel after panel of academics, dignitaries, officials and representatives of UCLG  were invited to speak.

There was also a peppering of Culture/culture – a short burst of basque folk music and dance to officially open the proceedings and before lunch a number by a dance troupe fusing contemporary with traditional dance where I split my focus between enthusiastically watching and trying to catch up on a backlog of tweeting.

The lunch break saw us ushered into an enormous anteroom, looking like a wedding reception where we took our seats, a fancy canapĂ© style lunch with wave after wave of veal, chicken, squid, fish in and on little platters, presentation slabs and little glasses; a bottle of uncapped, mostly untouched wine at the centre of each large white-clothed table. A networking opportunity, an opportunity to socialise. An awkward lottery – do you sit down and wait for people to join you, knowing you may well be left on a table with few guests to network with or take the plunge and sit down at one of the almost-filled tables? What was the best strategy for meeting and brokering  conversations with others? We took our chances…

After lunch, we returned to the main auditorium for more waves of speakers, panels, simultaneous translation and tweeting. A coffee break with some sweet delights – fruit on sticks and pastries - under unforgiving neon lights. The building and the facilities were impressive but as the day wore on you could feel the fatigue in your light-starved senses and air-starved lungs. Culture & Sustainability, culture and sustainability, Sustainable Cities and SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals for the uninitiated)…

Towards the end of the afternoon there were welcome opportunities to participate in more intimate round table sessions – but the tables weren’t round – three separate groups sat around desks with their laptops out, three parallel ‘round tables’ going on simultaneously where you were just as likely to overhear the adjacent table as you were to hear those in your own group. Each short presentation was listed in the conference brochure as being followed by a discussion. The format more generally mirrored that of the plenary presentations with mainly one or two speakers followed by a traditional Question & Answer format. As the day wore on I craved for a one to one conversation – something hard to squeeze into the overfull schedule. More common was the format whereby the floor was given to one or more speakers, the majority of us, passively spectating. There was a proliferation of talk about Culture/culture and Sustainability/sustainability without the visible presence of very much of either.

My presentation, which I was advertised in the programme to give on the graveyard shift of 5.30 – 6.30pm on the second day of the conference, relied for it’s coup-de-theatre, on a very particular room dynamic – I needed access to a powerpoint, projector screen  and a quiet room for the ‘stagey’ delivery of the more ‘performed’ part 1; then I needed to create an air of intimacy and the possibility for genuine connection for part 2. Neither was possible to do given the layout and 'parallel' nature of each separate session. When I read 'parallel sessions' in the programme, I thought this meant 'at the same time' – I didn’t think it would be literally – you know – 'parallel'!

Many of the other presenters of the parallel sessions were also having to make adjustments – each had their own powerpoint presentations which ended up being played on little portable computer screens with all of us straining to see the image simultaneously. As the day wore on, the harsh neon lights and absence of any windows in the bunker-like parallel session room, sitting at a distance behind desks or huddled around the glow of a computer screen added to conference fatigue. By the time we were let loose on TheGuggenheim later for our official welcome speeches, feeding on little canapĂ© balls of meat or mostly sticking to the sugary stuff if you were a veggie made for a sugar-fuelled, hunger induced (as there was no time programmed in to buy yourself a proper meal in one of Bilbao’s great looking restaurants) stupor. I felt exhausted from sensory deprivation and information overload – and that was BEFORE I had a chance to look at any of the art...

It was good at last to see some Culture if not much sustainability – but then, as one of the other delegates told me when he expressed incredulity that I had come on the train, when many talk about Sustainability at such gatherings it’s more often than not economic sustainability i.e.: “Do you have the money to do what you want to do”?

By the start of the second day I felt I had the measure of the conference. I had relinquished myself to knowing that my 'powerpoint guerrilla art intervention' was never going to work given the set-up of the parallel sessions. The format of the deadly plenary panel sessions wasn’t going to change, even with the efforts of the most engaging and dynamic of chairwomen. There wasn’t even time to ask the obligatory couple of questions on the roving mike after each raft of six presenters had all given their contribution. I slumped into a bit of a depression and couldn’t even bring myself to tweet, needing to leave the auditorium on more frequent occasions just to go outside and look at the pavements of Bilbao and breathe some fresh air under natural light. As the event drew wearily on there were a few “cri-de-coeurs” from the stage – one speaker revving himself into self-induced apoplexy at his country’s miniscule arts budget; another, a brave lone voice declaring to the auditorium that he had no idea what an “SDG,” or was it “STD,” was? A moment of beauty and poetry when he called for an end to indicators and jargon and implored instead for “soft hands, sympathetic ears, and an enquiring mind.”

My colleague and I discussed ways to overcome the limitations and restrictions of the parallel sessions bunker and attempt to create more of a human, relational space – after all that is what the art in Culture Shift proposes. The whole idea of our report is that we need to bring about a paradigm shift in our way of living on the planet – a shift of behaviour, attitude and consciousness. Artists can  help us do that by creating transformative spaces and processes in which our imaginations and our hearts as well as our minds are engaged. It seemed that the UCLG event dearly needed some of that, otherwise, however ground-breaking it’s ideas, it would remain imprisoned in an old paradigm of it’s own making – one in which specialists get to speak to us on the microphone and the rest of us, in various states of engagement, get to watch from a distance, in the darkness - however comfy our seats. If we operate from this place, the only participation we can ever hope to have is with our twitter feeds, designed to include others virtually in the conversation we are meant to be having ourselves.

As day 2 wore on, Sian and I felt a lot was riding on us being able to create a space for at least some dialogue at the eleventh hour, in the graveyard slot of the summit. We had thought about seeking another space to take our little group – outside, somewhere else in the enormous building that was the Bilbao Culture Centre. Neither looked possible. We decided that the most radical thing we could do would be to push the tables together and make room for a small circle of chairs – after all, on the basis of the other round tables we had attended, we were only expecting a small group of between 5 and 12 people. It came to the time of our session and we left the auditorium behind and returned to the bunker. We found that the steward was getting worried that Mr Fern Smith (as misprinted in the programme) hadn’t turned up to run the session. We assured her that Senor Smith was me and we began to push back the tables and set a small circle of six or seven chairs in readiness.

And what happened next? Perhaps you’ve already guessed...

No-one turned up.

No-one turned up to have a dialogue about paradigm shift and how artists can create spaces for transformation and talking about those things which really matter to us...

No-one turned up to hear that artists who put themselves in service to people and to the planet can help us become re-enchanted with the world, to fall in love with the intricacy and diversity of all living forms, to become hospice workers for the old paradigm and midwives for the new...

We were going to tell, of how Culture Shift was shining a light on imagination and creativity and the many people and organisations in Wales that are readdressing, re-assessing and re-making what they do in the light of an awareness that “business as usual” is now not an option...

We were also going to toot our tin whistle that the Welsh Government had just passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill earlier that same week. This now means that Sustainability/sustainability is a central organising principal of Welsh Government and this is now enshrined in law.  Even more relevant given the topic of our conference, a late amendment at the last minute was added to include Culture/Dwylliant as the 4th Pillar of Sustainability. ..

We were going to mention during our presentation that the Arts Council of Wales had shown themselves to make radical choices in their commitment to sustainability by opening up a genuine dialogue with artists and with Emergence. This was made manifest by their commissioning of a group of artists rather than a group of consultants to produce a report on how artists in Wales are responding to sustainability and for artists to offer recommendations to ACW on future strategy in this area...

We were going to speak about the history of non-conformism and activism that has been a part of Welsh history. Hopefully there would have been time to speak about the geological, ecological and linguistic distinctiveness of Wales and that our two official languages mirror the beauty and diversity of the mountains, moors, coastline and the valleys...

We might have also plugged the game-changing Ideas People and Places or the Arts& Creative learning Plan from ACW that now give major funds to artists working in the areas of Regeneration and Education. We might have mentioned all of this but we would almost certainly have run out of time – and there definitely wouldn’t have been any time for any dialogue, let alone questions...

So, our group who didn’t come, didn’t hear about any of that. Although a 'Rapporteur', charged with chairing and writing up our group’s discussion for the UCLG archive, did join us. She became instead our witness and our reason for continuing in the absence of our group. She offered “soft hands, sympathetic ears, and an enquiring mind”. These offered us all we needed to tell our story of change and know that we had been heard. 

I am left with trying to answer what are for me the most crucial questions in all this - how do we engage people in co-creating a liveable planet for future generations? How do we invite people into that conversation? How do we offer the depth of listening and witnessing our rapporteur offered to us? This is too important a conversation for only a few of us to be having.

I write this, sitting on the TGV midmorning on 20th March, rumbling between Hendaye and Paris, around the time of the solar eclipse. Was it worth going all that way to the UCLG Culture & Sustainability Summit?  I’d say it was worth it, for what I saw and what I didn’t see (I didn't see the solar eclipse by the way). It was also worth it for what I learned, heard and experienced - and what I didn’t. Staying with Emergence, sitting between the demise of an old paradigm and the birth of the new. It’s a scary, frustrating and awkward place to be, but as Margaret Wheatley (the other unofficial patron saint of Emergence) says: “The abyss is where the newness lies…" I wish it wasn’t there. I wish it was somewhere else – somewhere more certain, more comfortable. I was going to say, “I wouldn’t have it any other way” as that would be a neat way of rounding things off… but I can’t.

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