The lessons of punk

Introduction from Maddy Costa: The last in the present series of pieces that I’ve commissioned for this blog comes from Hannah Nicklin, who is far and away one of the most inspiring people that I know: a theatre-maker, games designer, someone who gets involved in grassroots political campaigns, a really sharp thinker on questions of privilege and power, a poet and zine maker – I mean she pretty much does everything, and does it all brilliantly, with commitment and compassion. A few weeks ago, I noticed her having a debate on twitter with a mutual friend, taking issue with an American blog which suggested that theatre-makers could take a few touring tips from punk bands. I invited her to respond more fully in this space, and this piece is the result.

Since Hannah sent it to me at the beginning of the week, we’ve had a further conversation about it on email, with Hannah pointing out that there’s a whole other article that she could have written about the places in both (and other) art forms that are making or have made the ideas she discusses here a reality: places like the HUB in Leeds, Stoke Newington International Airport and the Bussey Building in London, the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, the Milk Bar in Bristol. The fact that, as she continues, many of these places have been seized by developers and councils and pushed out as part of the process of gentrification raises another question: how a truly community art can avoid perpetuating inequality. I hope that she’ll be able to write that piece for this space next year. In the meantime:

By Hannah Nicklin

“Theatre Belongs to Everybody; Ideas Belong to No One.”

Chris Goode, zine given out free at the end of an early version of Keep Breathing

I am a theatre maker, I am a punk fan – I make work infused by the values and aesthetics of both of these worlds, and I have many friends at the heart of the DIY math/punk/post rock scene in the UK, as do I in the DIY end of contemporary theatre. I’ve also run events where I specifically highlighted the similarities between the two communities: Performance in the Pub in Leicester, which put on pay-what-you-can nights of DIY performance for the local DIY gig-going community. I am excited by how DIY communities can inform one another.

And yet, I am fucking fed up of people saying things like this:

“DIY bands raging against the corporate machine have been cobbling shoestring tours out of nothing but talent and grit for decades. Why can’t other independent arts groups use the same tools and structures to tour?”

That quote comes from a column published by the American website HowlRound, called How To Tour Theatre Like a Punk Band, and it’s typical of an increasing trend positioning the inventiveness that arises out of scarcity as desirable rather than necessary.

People do damage when they uncomplicatedly hold up the DIY scene as a desirable alternative to the subsidised or professional arts sector. They do damage when they point out what we can learn from people Doing It Themselves without considering the infrastructure and privileges that make even that possible, and the damage done too when the grit runs out, and the talent is worn down.

First off it’s useful for us to pin down what exactly we mean by DIY. I’m not talking about the punk/DIY aesthetic (though that might arise from the practice), but rather the do it yourself ‘DIY’ aspect of punk which is about circumventing mainstream ways of making and touring work. Daniel Yates of Exeunt magazine sums up ‘DIY’ as “small scale, culturally distinctive, alternative producers of experience”. I would agree that the root of the ethics of DIY is something born of a place and community, and which offers a distinct alternative to the monoculture that thrives on top-down structures – the mainstream music industry, or the Arts Council funded establishment – and ‘one size fits all’ models of entertainment.

However, let’s not be romantic about what that entails. Fundamentally, it’s an anti-professionalism. It’s about stepping outside of models (restrictive and antiquated though they may be) designed to provide a means of living.

I know many DIY bands who have toured internationally, some extensively, most of whom are lucky if they come away from the tour having broken even. Most of the band will be in insecure day jobs that allow them to be away for three months, they will spend the time away sharing €250 per night fees between six people, after petrol, van hire, flights, food while they’re on the road, merch outlay, all while they sleep together on sofas and mattresses, showering every couple of days, and getting by mostly on vegan chillis and beer and crisps provided by promoters. They will have made the music in their spare time. They will have got a mate to design the poster, made their own website, written their own press releases, sent the record out to reviewers, they will have booked the tour, they will drive, provide most of the equipment. They will all of them have put in £150 each for the cost of the recording, engineering, and pressing of the records they hope to sell along the way, maybe splitting the pressing cost with a DIY label if they’re lucky.

They will have had complete creative control. They will have reached communities that are de-centred, locally grown, alternative, culturally distinctive, and they will highly likely be involved in sustaining the one they call home; putting on shows, dealing with punters complaining tickets cost £8 these days. They will have stories to tell. They will have made best friends, met lovers, they will have screamed words and sounds that they mean into a crowd of ecstatic heat and sticky-shoed joyous beloved fellow humans.

Both of these things are true.

‘Why’ articles such as the one from HowlRound argue: ‘can’t we go it alone?’ And in glorifying the outcome they miss the point that ‘alone’ isn’t desirable, it is necessary. To pretend otherwise is to valourise the suffering instead of the fight. The fight is beautiful and alive, but if we are to embrace the energy of the amateur, we need to do so carefully, lest we argue for the abolition of profession. Professionalism is, in and of itself, simply a way society has of saying: ‘this is worth something’. Currently, the most recognised way of doing that is to pay someone money. There are many other currencies at work in our life (as Bill Sharpe points out in this incredibly useful study on Patterns of Health and Wealth in the arts); DIY practices tend to work with fewer monetary ones, and have alternative currencies at their heart. However, short of overthrowing capitalism (something for the three-year plan, not the six-month one), the way to learn from DIY practices is to understand the full complement of currency, not to simply exchange one set of currencies (and related problems) for another.

So, let us instead talk about what the profession means, how it works, how it can be reshaped by amateur artist and community rather than top-down policy. While also understanding that the reality of the amateur is also a kind of privileged position within our current society. To be able to make while also living requires a level of personal, financial and social security, an infrastructure of goodwill, and a powerful creative confidence, which is most typically available to (and safe for) young white men. Anything else is a fight, tooth and nail. It’s a fight that produces alive, breathless, beautiful art – but at a cost.

Bristol-based performance duo Action Hero talk about how their consciously DIY approach to making performance produces aesthetic and formal qualities which reshape their relationship to their audience in a way they find politically important:

“[…] seeing what happens when an audience sees you genuinely trying to make something empowers the artist and the audience in a way that we think is actually quite political and I think similar to the ideologies of DIY music.”

But they also say that:

“All that said, we could never have made anything we’ve made without funding support from the Arts Council and massive amounts of support from subsidised organisations such as [In Between Time] or Theatre Bristol. […] theatre is less commodifiable.”

I invite you to imagine all of the music we have lost that was never made. Never made because women with children couldn’t pay for childcare while they went on tour; because a trans person felt uncomfortable travelling cheaply and sleeping on strangers’ floors; because it had to be made weekly in two-hour rented practice rooms and not quietly and thoroughly throughout six months of full-time living breathing thinking; because the confidence to believe you had a story worth telling was something you’ve never seen in fellow people of colour.

Public subsidy and its infrastructure offer the opportunity for everyone to stick with making for longer; it offers training and learning time. Theatre also has industry bodies and members’ organisations like Equity, the ITC, a-n, that actually work for their members’ interests: they set living wages and shape suggested contracts. Subsidy allows the non-commercial sector to exist without eventually destroying the artists who give their time to make it.

We should not be arguing for ways to survive without subsidy and infrastructure, we should be arguing for better subsidy, better infrastructure. Studying what it is about the mixed bills, shared venues, the relationship with fans rather than the attention of an audience, the ability to add a new show at a day’s notice to a touring schedule, etc, that DIY practices make possible and exciting.

And so with all of those complications in mind, let’s learn from DIY. Let’s urgently revise:

– The means of production (and who can access them)
– The places of presentation (and who can access them)
– The communities that join maker and audience (and who can access them)

Theatre still operates, for the most part, on a distribution system that is hundreds of years old. Big, old, dedicated buildings, weighed down by running and staffing costs. It’s time to leave these, or use them differently. And for people in the subsidised sector to start working beyond simply borrowing rhetoric from other art forms. Let’s ask DIY communities how we make spaces for everyone to make, how we co-build places people go to, and what a community looks like that envelops us all. The Arts Council should be begging the DIY Space for London community to talk to them – and also giving them money.

Campaigning for a basic income wouldn’t be a bad start (and long-term solution). But also, let’s talk about systems of programming and collectives of resources and spaces that together can offer more than one form of making, development and touring. Funding streams that embrace radical failure. The end to the necessity for match funding. Honest discussions with audiences and fans about what art costs us to make together – money and soul. Spaces and resources that are ingredients for things we can’t even imagine. Building bridges to people who would never begin to think that they had a story to tell, or the ability to tell it. The end to art-form divisions so we can connect with DIY videogames, DIY fashion, DIY architecture and zine making. The end of the obfuscation of value at the heart of upfront fixed ticket prices.

Give away the means of production.
Open up the places of presentation.
Art belongs to everybody, no one.

Hannah Nicklin is a theatre maker, writer, game designer, and academic. She has written a PhD about how theatre-influenced games and games-influenced theatre can destroy capitalism (mostly). Hannah is most interested in DIY, community storytelling, tools that break systems, and the spaces between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ where new thinking happens. She makes theatre and games in public and community settings, and has worked on games and interactive work with organisations such as the RSC, Slung Low, Invisible Flock, Hide & Seek, Coney, the V&A, the Wellcome Trust, the Space, Gamecity, Videobrains, Rock Paper Shotgun, and on housing estates, on the internet, in swimming pools, on the streets of cities, and rural market towns.

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