(Presented to an audience of artists, politicians and cultural managers at 'Beyond the Obvious' conference, Budapest January 2017)
On June 23rd 2016, 52% the British pubic, voted to leave the European Union. A union we had been part of since 1973.
The successful Leave campaign offered voters an enchanting vision for our future: it offered us
- a Democratic Britain,
- a Global Britain
- a Britain free from interference
- A Sovereign Britain
- It was going to make Britain Great again…
The Leave campaign offered us all this and more – we would protect our borders, save our national health service and take back control.
During the lead up to the referendum ISIS Arts initiated a creative writing project with local partners asking young people what they thought about Europe - it was called ‘Should we Stay or Should we Go…?’ and I’d like to read a small poem written by a young woman, a teenager at the time in Newcastle. This is the 'Leave Campaign Manifesto' by Dani Watson….
A scourge upon our brilliant nation,
Can’t pay your rent?
Bad weather in Kent?
Can’t find a council house?
Got divorced from your spouse?
Can’t get your kids a school place?
Can’t find a parking space?
Did you read the Daily Mail?
200 million refugees are going to sail,
Here from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Kos!
And they’re going to turn Big Ben into a mosque!
Let’s make Britain great again!
Let’s bleach this multicultural stain!
British jobs for British workers!
No more migrants flipping burgers!
Nothing gives us more anxiety,
Than migrants contributing to our society!
Don’t let these faceless bureaucrats tell you what to do!
Let’s build a wall between us and the EU!
Who the hell needs democracy?
When we’ve got our own hypocrisy!
After all when it comes to immigration,
There’s no more reliable source of information
Than Nigel Farage and Boris bloody Johnson.
The leave campaign made an emotional connection to people with an appeal to nationalism. The REMAIN campaign on the other hand failed make an emotional connection to the EU which would resonate with ordinary people…
Despite this, the vote was very close and showed how divided we had become:
In Scotland and Northern Ireland people voted to remain whilst England and Wales we voted to leave
Our Cities were in and our rural areas mostly out.
Our Younger people chose to stay, and our older people to Leave
Those on the left were more likely to vote to stay and those on the right were more likely to go
Our parliamentarians overwhelmingly supported a remain vote. Yet their English constituencies overwhelmingly did not.
Last week our PM Theresa May outlined her principles for our European Divorce in a bid to save our fragmented islands. Her much awaited speech drew heavily on the need to unite our country … our country that had been now divided in two (or four or six or eight.)
Perhaps, unsurprisingly 96% of the creative sector supported REMAIN,
But I’d like to touch on a quick story about a town and its people that overwhelmingly DID vote to leave. Blyth is a port in the former coalfields of Northumberland, a county which borders Scotland. In a county that has pockets of extraordinary wealth yet a town that has some of the most deprived neighbouroods in our country.
Once a thriving community whose shipyards built the worlds first aircraft carrier it has suffered from increasing economic decline and now has 20% youth unemployment , some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy with 24% of young people leaving school with no qualifications. Unsurprising, Blyth has benefitted, more many, from EU structural funds…
This image here of a 8m€ workspace on the quayside…recently support by the EU to support business start ups.
Last summer as part of our large scale Creative Europe programme Corners we brought 25 artists and producers from across Europe to Blyth. These artists came, from Italy, The Basque Country, Ireland, Serbia, from Croatia from Sweden and from Kosovo. The were artists, they were writers, they were musicians, they were dancers.
The project drew threads between communities on the edge of Europe. The artists sought out stories that were shared and commissions were presented in unlikely public spaces.
Windows was an exercise in direct democracy and posed questions which were voted on by participants by moving to the pools of red or green light. These questions were repeated in neighbourhoods across Europe and their results shared. Artists asked the communities what question they would like to ask of their neighbours and these included the one you see here as well as ‘do you trust Politicians’,
Artists Valeria Simone, Michael Hanna and Asier Zabeleta.
Bridging the Silence was a audio walk set up on the quayside in Blyth telling and retelling stories that bridged the silence of those whose voices had been suppressed..
It focuses on representing the emotional journey survivors move through as they pass from the storm inside to peace. Crossing the bridge therefore becomes both a symbolic and literal reflection of this inner journey. The artists worked with groups and support workers to tell stories from domestic abuse survivors and shared similar stories from across Europe. The Audio walk brought the stories together
Hrvoslava Brkušić, Croatian multimedia & sound artist; Deirdre Cartmill, N. Irish poet, and Beatriz Churruca, Basque visual artist & Performer.
We spent many months getting to know the people of Blyth bringing together local politicians and youth groups, library users and survivors of domestic abuse. We worked with mums and kids with dads and granddads. continuing to do so now.
We worked with local artists and those who would never step into a gallery or visit a theatre.
The residents were welcoming and generous, but their Europe was very far from the Europe we see here today.
In the Brexit vote Blyth is a portrait of a community in search of a brighter future, where the factors that that shape their lives were not within their control…
If Brexit can be seen as part of a fragmentation process taking place Europe then this fragmentation needs to be seen on many levels.
For Blyth it was local, national and, in this context, European. It was between them and the big city, but also between north and south and between the UK and the rest of Europe. It was between those who could make things happen and those who could not…
Yet this project showed that artists could find new and interesting ways to reveal stories and make at least some of those voices heard. For some, perhaps for the first time…
In the lead up to the referendum, our then Justice secretary, Michael Gove announced Britain has had enough of experts telling us that the battle was a fight between ordinary people and the 'elites'.
This powerful message running through the Leave campaign spoke to those who had the least.
The question that we now need to ask ourselves as the culture sector is whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution.
Our sector has an extraordinary ability to bring together those who are different, to create spaces for shared experiences, to reveal stories that are hidden and to give voice to those who are silent.
It is up to us to choose how we make best use of these superpowers….
Clymene presented these thoughts at the Annual Pan European conference of Culture Action Europe in Budapest in late January 2017.