June 24, 2009

How relevant is the Text Festival to Bury?

The other day, someone higher up the bureaucratic food-chain asked: “How relevant is the Text Festival to Bury? Is it something that the ‘ordinary people’ of Bury can appreciate? Or is it something just for specialists?” The word ‘specialists’ was said with that wary intonation suggesting something dirty. The conversation was short (with the question of how will we answer the charge of elitism formed with the single word – “elitism?”). This is of course a dangerously phrased question: not in whether it can be answered but that it can be asked. The root of this is the cancer of State-control and audit validation of art. Public money is spent so art must be accountable (primarily in the financial meaning of the word); as the bureaucracy can’t actually compute ‘art’, it has to count the audience. As often mentioned here, the Government Performance Indicators for the arts are all audience counters. In this context, poetry is a form that is doomed. Poetry has either a solitary audience (the reader) or tiny audiences (the reading). Almost by definition then, Poetry is irrelevant (although the Text isn’t just poetry). The logic of relevance is that poetry shouldn’t be programmed. The problem for the fools who count art is that like many public galleries, Bury has an audience figure that floats and doesn’t really vary from around 45-50,000 visitors per year (except the year when someone proposed to close it to save money and the figure went up to 68,000 – an indication that even people who don’t visit think that there should be public galleries). Although I haven’t had the visitor figures for the Festival yet – because it hasn’t finished – anecdotally the audience figure is on the high side of normal and the response has been positive - almost like the visitors appreciate it. It does ‘feel’ like there are people coming specially to see the exhibition – the scary ‘specialist audience’ - but observing the majority of people in the gallerys they are ‘ordinary’ people who have just come in to see what is on, school groups, families with their kids, etc.

This picture raises the counter questions: ‘ordinary people’ looking at a Ming Wong video – as mentioned on 17 June, Wong achieved special mention by the Venice Biennale judges; in the eyes of the art accountants could Wong be dangerously close to being an elite practitioner? Not only that, he is from Singapore but lives in Berlin: Blimey! He must be elite and irrelevant to the experience of ‘ordinary folk’ in Bury. Except Wong’s videos are universally enjoyed, they are funny and challenging and full of filmic references that are part of the global culture that informs the local.

Fundamentally the question is the Corporate failure of aspiration. In the boring bits of my job I frequently see government policy directives that insist that services should assess community aspirations and then design services to meet those. Only today I read a funding bid project description that said that the project must “ensure [that] residents understand and support the project aims and objectives by development of a Community Learning Agreement plus individual agreements mapping out people’s own targets.” This is supposed to be aimed at disenfranchised communities. How about having an objective to empower residents to tell someone ‘ensuring that they sign up to a Community Learning Agreement' to fuck off? This is the problem: the ‘ordinary people’ are allowed/expected/ensured to aspire to ordinariness. Why not aspire to have one of America’s most important living poets do his first UK reading in Bury? Isn’t it aspirational and even, (dare I claim it) inspirational to see contemporary art from all over the world in a small northern town? Maybe if we could get the audience to sign Learning Agreements when they enter the gallery or the theatre there wouldn't be a problem.

Ron with ‘ordinary Bury person’ Florence

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