March 19, 2019

Steve Slater: A reflection on 44 conversations

Producer and artist Steve Slater looks back on his time in Quarantine’s Tenancy house, during which he invited creatives to have one-to-one conversations about their work.

When Quarantine invited me to hold a number of ‘surgeries’ for artists and producers – informal, one-to-one conversations with me to discuss their practice and the challenges they face – it came at a time when I too was in need of advice, contact and direction.

For two separate weeks in January and February, the Tenancy project (Quarantine’s arm of the Meet the Neighbours project taking place in Salford & Manchester) and more specifically the two-bed house Quarantine is renting in Irwell Riverside became a lifeboat of the soul, full of hope, illuminating conversations and inspiration…

The house sits in Salford but is within striding distance of the Manchester border. This time last year it was still being built and from the kitchen table, out of the window, I can see the tell-tale signs of workers beginning to erect a new block of flats. Down the road, artists’ studios occupy a disused warehouse.

I entered the house with few expectations. To both Quarantine’s and my surprise, we were inundated with requests to talk and meet – resulting in a schedule where I would meet up to five individuals a day. In total, I would have conversations with 44 artists, producers and creatives working across a range of different fields, including producing, theatre, performance, writing, dance and visual art.

Why were so many creative people interested in sharing their practice? I’m not sure, but maybe today’s methods of connecting artists and their work within the industry – to its venues, galleries, funding bodies and those that work within them – are becoming more limited. As funding pressures mount and responsibility shifts from the Arts Council to institutions, the pressure from the top could be squeezing out time for the simple act of having a conversation with an artist about their work.

These conversations are precious. Both as an opportunity for artists to express themselves beyond the page or screen, and to grow and develop their ideas. Conversation can enable artists to see the possibilities their work offers beyond the realm of its own solitary existence and become part of a greater programme of work.

So many of the conversations I had in the house over the two weeks seemed to find their way like a small boat blown onto dangerous rocks to come to ground on the same issues of vulnerability, disempowerment, isolation, direction and validation of their chosen creative path. Risk was discussed a great deal – either as a catalyst for innovation and change or as a spectre to be avoided. The unknown and the unknowable are all part of what it means to be an artist. To seek and to create through trial and error – failing to learn – a phrase I like to interpret as positive….

While many artists’ studios in Salford and central Manchester are being lost to the tide of redevelopment, I felt genuinely uplifted by each individual’s need to be seen and heard. Despite and maybe because of these challenges, every individual had a steely determination to seek a way through the maze of funding obstacles while fighting for space. All were determined to fulfil their roles as artists, producers and creatives in a city that possibly can only see them as skilled civic decorators and societal healthcare monitors, when they should really be leading and defining the city’s beating heart and soul.

Greater Manchester is undergoing something of a reimagining – an architectural evolution evident in the dozens of new buildings and developments throughout the city. But there is also a crisis of identity that is not always seen. As the population swells with new opportunities, people and money, the people whose lives define the cities’ history are getting pushed further out of sight.

In this cauldron of change exists the necessary space for artists to define, question and offer up alternatives. People who can translate this development into images, objects and stories that are informed by the past and the possible futures of the cities. Such people are here. Everyone I met during my time in the Tenancy house gave me hope for the creative future of Salford and Manchester – but there is a need for more opportunities like these, for individuals to meet, talk and exchange ideas. There needs to be a sense of the possibilities on offer and a unifying theme or movement to get behind.

For me, the artist has always been at the centre of things – maybe because I occasionally still think of myself as one – but I believe it’s more fundamental than that. I truly believe the artist is the most important person we have in society.

Today you could argue that we operate in a world where this notion has been inverted – that instead of leading and guiding the way forward, the arts are increasingly positioned to ‘serve’ society; serve their audience.

The ‘audience’ or general public should almost be an abstract – needed, yes, but this should not be the driving force to make art. Rather art should be made as a response to an artist’s need to seek, question, confront and explore their own life and the lives and experiences of those they share this world with. Fundamentally, what counts is the idea, the exploration and where that could take our creative imaginations….

Photo of notebook on table

Sitting in the kitchen of the Tenancy house, I’ve seen exactly this need, this thirst to create, in everyone I’ve met. Talking to 44 artists, producers and creatives across a range of disciplines, I find myself ‘at home’ for the first time in a long while. Like them, I sometimes find it hard to equate what I do within this world of targets, numbers, bums on seats, value per head, public subsidy / responsibility, art for all, accessibly populist, agenda-driven arts industry. It’s an industry that I love and that I sometimes work within, but also increasingly rally against like some demented Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of conformity.

My two weeks meeting with such a broad swath of creative people left a deep impression on me; of a creative community with so much to give and yet so little empowerment to do so.

And what do I take away from all this? Fundamentally, I’ve been reminded that I am not alone, that as an artist and arts professional working in a community of individuals it can sometimes seem as though we are isolated and forgotten – that it is easy to forget we share so much with others and that all we really need to do is find the time to share our experiences and know that someone will always be willing to listen, offer advice and biscuits….

Steve Slater was resident in Quarantine’s Tenancy house from 14 – 18 January 2019 and 11 – 15 February 2019.

Photo of house

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