October 15, 2009

Crisis? What Crisis?

In 2006, the Arts Council of England (ACE) decided that as an arts organisation it should commission some new works itself, rather than its general remit of funding other organisation’s. It coincided with its new intranet/finance computer system. So the brief was that they would commission 9 new works – one for each of the Arts Council regions – images of which would be suitable for as desktops or screensavers for each individual officer to use on their computers. It was a strange internal selection process which they didn’t advertise. The first I knew about it, I had been the shortlisted to the last 2 for the north west region – I never knew whom the other person was.

So in response to the invitation to submit, empathizing with the existential antinomy facing individuals with a commitment to the arts in the context of a bureaucracy, I proposed a new text work which would set out to consider the question: how can a creative individual function (and survive the pressures of conformity) in the framework of institutional rigidity? It was a question which artistically resonated with my context too working in local government. As there were then 900 ACE staff (and therefore that many computers), and ACE’s logo is the three words in a circle, I envisaged a 900 times 3-word poetic form – ie a 2700 word poem. The final work would have at least 3 forms – a full 900 circle limited edition print; a 5 circle neon-text which early meetings indicated would be installed in the North West regional office; and the version on the intranet system.

My proposal ‘won’ the commission and I broke off work on 50 Heads to create the poem, which I’d called ‘Arena’. Everything went well and in a couple of months, I had pretty much finished the writing. I had a progress meeting with 3 ACE officers which was very positive except for right at the end, when one of them wondered whether my form crossed over onto ACE’s logo copyright. The consensus was that it didn’t but if it did, as ACE was commissioning the work, it could just grant use of copyright style for the work. It’s a bureaucracy so it was only to be expected that someone covering their back suggested we confirm everything was alright with their legal department. No-one expected a problem and I was told to proceed with costing the neon and getting the design specification sorted with my designer – which I did.

A week later, ACE email to say that the circle design is breach of copyright so the poetic form needed to re-configured. I asked for a meeting to discuss this judgement, duly arriving with about 30 examples of other company 3-word circle logos ready to argue that ACE couldn’t possibly have the copyright on the form. When the meeting happened it was a very strange thing. We met in the early morning before anyone else seemed to have turned up for work. In empty offices, it felt vaguely furtive. One of the deputy directors led the meeting and with slight embarrassment explained that the copyright issue wasn’t actually the problem. Instead, the word coming down through the organisation was that under the current government, ACE could not be seen to commission a work that suggested that there was an existential problem for creative people in a bureaucracy: the official position was that creativity was a valued element of the organisation and the staff had none of the problems that concerned me: there is no crisis. Note here, that no-one had actually read any of the work so they couldn’t know what it said. In one bound ACE had taken an existential crisis and thrown in some Kafka. After the meeting I had to re-write sections of the poem because I had not realized just how dark the constrictions on creativity went. Still embarrassed though, the ACE official offered to pay me not to continue with the piece – I was being offered a commission not to create the work!

There didn’t seem much point in going on – especially as I was now regretting breaking off from 50 Heads to be messed about like this – so I accepted just to get out of the ‘Trial’. And the poem was actually written so it could be published as some other time despite ACE.

For some reason this memory has resurfaced this week.

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