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This is the address I gave to the Creative Spaces Network Forum, convened by Arts Access Aotearoa on Wednesday 8 June 2011 in the Museum Hotel, Wellington.

Kia ora tatau katoa te whanau tapatapahi ana. Greetings, my creative family. If this was an episode of “Stars in their Eyes”, I’d be saying, “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be the Shirtless Dancing Guy.” But I’ll keep my shirt on. And I won’t dance.

By way of a brief introduction: You may recognise me from my ten-year career as a comedian and entertainer. I’m not as committed to comedy as I used to be, but it was a great way to get known.

l began my career as a counsellor and social worker. Over the past 15 years I've combined working with people, entertaining and running a consulting business to create innovative ways to manage diversity, creativity and change. For more about what I actually do, please visit www.diversitynz.com at your leisure.

Applying for funding

Sometime last year I was trying to complete an application to Creative New Zealand to record some music to add to my creative repertoire. Getting quotes and references, writing philosophies and budgets, creating plans and rationales. I had been writing and rewriting, questioning my motives for wanting to do this, feeling anxious that my 890 Facebook friends and 325 Twitter followers wouldn’t like my stuff and wondering if what I wanted to do was good enough to be funded anyway.

Then I got an email from an arts advisor: “You would need to outline a strategy to us that explains how this recording project fits into a longer term plan of your career development as an artist. You need to convince us that the work is high-quality and that there is demand for it.”

I stopped dead in my tracks.

I didn’t have a longer term plan of my career development as an artist – I just want to be creative. How would I convince someone that work was high-quality – isn’t that subjective? How would I know if there was demand until I had the music to sell?

I felt like giving up – maybe it just wasn’t worth it? I reread an earlier part of the email: “ … break this project up and come to us for a quick response in the first instance.”

Ok, it  wasn’t an outright no, it was a “slow down”. But I didn’t want to slow down, because I was ready to do it now – to quote my own lyrics:

“What’s happening is right, it’s good and it’s real.”

So how would I stop slowing down after a bit of a kick in the guts? Easy – I changed gear.

I thought, what if I fund it myself? What if decide to continue investing money into this project – as I have been doing since April – to create my own product, at my own pace, with no accountability to anyone else except me?

And then a strange thing happened – I got an email from a potential client, asking me to do some consulting work. Within the space of minutes my reality changed and the universe responded, as if by magic. It reaffirmed my belief that we do create our reality, both individually and collectively, through the power of our intent.

This morning I want to create some reality with you. Part of it is specific – it’s about creating the reality of a movement of disabled artists (or artists with unique ability, function and experience as I prefer to say) in Aotearoa NZ. The rest is generic: it’s about creating a possible new future for Creativity in Challenging Times.

And maybe, some of you will be First Followers.

DaDa – Disability and Deaf Arts

At the end of last year I Skyped with several artists involved in Liverpool's DadaFest. DaDaFest is a festival devised, developed and delivered by DaDa – Disability and Deaf Arts, an innovative disability arts organisation based in Liverpool UK, which has worked regionally, nationally and internationally since 1984.

DaDa works with many arts organisations and agencies concerned with the promotion of equal access for Disabled people from arts training to audience development and programming. But, most importantly at its heart is the ‘grass roots’ work; engaging directly with Disabled & Deaf artists and communities to ensure every aspect of delivery reflects the wants and needs of Disabled & Deaf people. I began the Skype conference by talking about how I came to establish the International Guild of Disabled Artists & Performers (IGODAP). The concept came in August 2001 after I attended and performed at the kickstART! International Celebration of Disability Arts and Culture in Vancouver, Canada. This Celebration highlighted the distinct perspectives and creativity of artists and performers with all types of disabilities. The four-day event provided an opportunity to explore new territory in visual and literary arts, dance, theatre, music, film, video, and humour.

I returned at a loss to describe the Celebration and the impact it had on me as a disabled artist/performer. I found it impossible to articulate the experience of being in the company of more than 23 international and 44 Canadian performers with disability and 38 visual artists with disability. I failed to explain the superior talent and richness of performance and artistic expression I witnessed. My belief was affirmed that art and performance — be they literary, dance, theatre, music, film, video, or humour — are magic and creative forces. Mixed with the experience of unique ability, however, I saw them become a miraculous expression of the illusion of limitation and proof of the existence of infinite human potential.

I couldn't shake the thought that the energy of kickstART! — and particularly the union of the artists and performers — could not be allowed to dissipate. I saw a need for disabled artists and performers to communicate, share ideas, be represented and promoted, and continue to build a global presence, in both the artistic and disability communities in order for the disability arts movement to mature and develop.

I knew of many organisations that organise and promote disability arts and performance events. However, there did not seem to be an international organization of artists and performers with disability. I thought there needed to be. I thought it was time. So I created it.

The Guild now has nearly 300 members from US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, India and more. We share information, works, profiles and discussions via a social network.

Meanwhile, back at the DadaFest Skype, we went on to have a fascinating conversation about diversity, creativity, change and the arts but, as often happens with conversations, especially ones between creative types, we got totally sidetracked from our proposed agenda, which was:

  1. To explore the spread between the social and personal impact/experience of disability and how do we express these in our work?
  2. To explore, as disabled artists, how we support each other to continue to draw inspiration for our work and how we could more dynamically and more often celebrate the highs and commiserate the lows as a global community.
  3. To identify what has changed and still needs to change to make the work and role of artists who experience disability more significant in the cultural landscape.
  4. To suggest ways IGODAP, given its limited resource but virtual form, could assist disabled artists to achieve their artistic goals.

Instead, we started an indepth conversation about the meaning and language behind disability; the "social brand" of disability; the benefits and limitations of the social model and its impact in perpetuating a reality of discrimination, inaccessibility and social barriers; where to next; how can artists creatively lead the way; and how can we mobilise technology to do this globally?

Ironically, while I’ve been involved in this conversation quite extensively internationally, I haven’t yet succeeded in embedding it in the Aotearoa context very well. There’s a couple of good reasons for that I think: Firstly, we have a small, disconnected, under-resourced disabled artists’ community in this country. Secondly, most arts activities involving disabled artists are creatively, enthusiastically, competently and well-intentionally run by non-disabled people, which is great.

And it’s not enough.

In the same way I thought we needed disabled artists and performers to communicate, share ideas, be represented and promoted, and continue to build a global presence, in both the artistic and disability communities in order for the disability arts movement to mature and develop – we need that to happen in New Zealand, too. I think it’s time. So I’m going to create it.

With the help of Arts Access Aotearoa. And some of you too, I hope.

Creativity in challenging times

So that’s my vision for a unique ability arts movement in New Zealand — I hope to work to convene that with Richard and his team in the latter half of 2011. Now I want to move on to the future of Creativity in Challenging Times by going back to the issue of funding. At Diversityworks Trust where I am Director, we take a wider view of "creativity" than just arts and culture. For example we are interested in how creativity can be used for benefit across several sectors, including the arts, education, business and social/community sectors, and our work at any given time may span more than one area. We find that funding streams are usually so narrow that any hint of a project crossing streams is seen by funders as a reason to say no, because it doesn't fit one particular stream's criteria.

We’ve also noticed the all-or-nothing approach to funding application processes. We prefer the process of the Todd Foundation, who have generously funded our Peer Support Network for three years, where they ask for an initial one-page expression of interest. They then come back to ask for a full application, if they think your project fits their criteria, focus, priorities, etc at the time. This saves endless hours of needless effort on applications that may fall completely outside a funder's current gaze, for whatever reason.

We are also often frustrated by the "lottery-style" approach to funding that pervades —  you put in an application, sit back and wait for the draw and if you're lucky, your number comes up and you get your prize. Ok, I’m slightly exaggerating for effect but, for organisational sustainability having no idea what the outcome of an application will be, over a 6-12 week period between the submission and result, is virtually untenable.

To address these issues I think a dialogue-based, partnership approach to funding needs to evolve, where decisions are negotiated by both parties rather than made solely by the funder. Slightly more effort would be required by all, but I think such an approach would improve effectiveness and productivity in the long run.

Perhaps this would be only required when there is doubt over an application's likelihood to be funded. Maybe it's then that an approach is made to the applicant to see what other options may be. Sometimes a lesser amount for a lesser outcome may be appropriate and sometimes the best option may be to can a project altogether. Making these difficult decisions in dialogue make them more easily swallowed by a funding seeker than an impersonal, definitive ‘No’ from a funder.

My sense is, too, that there may be some interesting solutions that may emerge from these conversations - for example, a funding adviser may see an opportunity and broker a partnership for collaboration between two or more individuals or organisations who may be unaware of each other.

How would the world be without money?

So far I’ve talked about changing my idea about how to fund a personal creative project; starting a unique ability arts movement in New Zealand; and rethinking funding processes. It seems to me that an emerging theme might be one of uncertainty and not knowing what the future may hold.

Most societies in the modern world invest a lot of time, money and importance in creating certainty. Religious leaders preach about a certain god. Politicians debate over certain policy. Businesses plan for certain outcomes and profits. The media provides certain commentary. Accountants assure us of certain financial strategies. Funders decide using certain criteria.

Then Nature, in the form of weather, earthquakes and other events, says, "Just a second, let's get one thing straight. Nothing is certain."

We respond in shock, terror, disbelief and, sometimes, even outrage. How could this happen? What will we do? All our planning gone to waste. How dare our security be ripped from us, without warning, planning, consultation!

Nature is a gorgeous bitch and she knows it. She's a dictator, an autocrat. She has right of veto. Everywhere. Everytime. In that caring way of hers, she doesn't give a toss.

The question is, when are we going to get real and acknowledge that?

It's an interesting dialectic (my favourite word at present). We need security, stability and safety, yet when they're taken from us we discover how resilient and adaptive we are. Unless we – or our organisations – die, we survive. But the more secure, stable and safe we feel, the more we fear losing security, stability and safety, and the more we react to the possibility of losing them.

After the Christchurch earthquake, I blogged about noticing my own feelings of anxiety, fear and vulnerability, imagining what would happen to me if something of Feb 22's magnitude happened in Auckland. My physical function is unique and I live alone. I have no idea what would happen to me. I was driving around, imagining an earthquake, or volcanic eruption, or tsunami. What on earth would I do?

I didn't know. All I knew was, I'd either live or die. If I were to die, I'd have to do nothing. If I were to live, I'd have to be creative, patient, resourceful, smart, enduring. I'd have to communicate, negotiate, navigate, re-organise, prioritise, in order to survive.

It was only in writing the last paragraph that I consciously realised this: nothing would change except the context. Whatever the situation – be it an emergency or day-to-day life - the behaviours needed to survive don't really change. The intensity, the risk and the unfamiliarity may increase but surviving is surviving, whatever the stakes.

Humans are infinitely adaptable. Creatives are extremely adaptable humans. The future of the economy and how our creative sector will be funded tomorrow, next month, next year, is extremely uncertain. As a creative sector we need to be mindful and trusting of our creative, patient, resourceful, smart, enduring nature. We have to be prepared that, in the future, we are going to have to communicate, negotiate, navigate, reorganise and prioritise differently, in order to survive.

Especially when it comes to money.

So here’s a new conversation we could have over the next two days: How would the world be without money?

Society the world over is ruled by the monetary system. It is a system based on debt and interest, scarcity and profit. It pervades every institution, from education to entertainment, religion to politics, law to sport. It pervades the creative sector too. We measure just about everything we do in financial terms. Money makes the world go round, money is the root of all evil and money changes everything.

I don't really believe in evil to tell the truth, I was just reciting cliches and an old Cyndi Lauper song. But our financial system is corrupt. If you want a beginners guide to how corrupt money really is I thoroughly recommend the Zeitgeist movies, available free at www.zeitgeistmovie.com.  These documentary films provide a fascinating and, at times, alarming account of how big business, particularly the banking business, is the puppeteer behind politics, religion, education, law and all the institutions that make up established society.

Even art and creativity.

I don't know about you, but I've always struggled with the business side of my work. Many of the people and organisations I work with don't have a lot of money and can't afford to pay my usual costs, even when I discount them. And I have the dilemma that, the less I charge, the more work I have to do. So money is often a barrier to, rather than an enabler for, my work.

What the Zeitgeist Movement proposes is a resource-based rather than a money-based system. Their proposition is that if you take money out of the equation and manage resources well, there is enough for everyone in the first, second and third worlds to significantly improve their standard of living. Technology, which is often stifled by money, could be freed up to solve many of the world's social and environmental problems by developing, for example, crash-proof cars and geothermal energy.

A world without money is hard to imagine. Most people would argue that human beings have an innate greed that would create havoc if money or at least some form of barter or trade did not control our desire for more. But Zeitgeist filmmaker Peter Joseph and his colleagues believe that this greed is learnt behaviour, given that civilisation has, for millennia, been governed by a philosophy of scarcity that creates the need for such exchange-based systems.

They believe that human civilisation could relearn an attitude of abundance and emergence to replace our existing mindset of scarcity and establishment.

It seems to me that artists, entertainers and creatives could be instrumental in leading this change in paradigm. So many of us already see money as secondary to our passion to create beauty, happiness and wonder. Imagine if our basic needs were well taken care of, so that we didn't have to charge for what we did in order to eat, have shelter and enjoy life to the full?

Imagine if the only decision we had to make is whether we had the time and energy to work, not whether we could find a paying customer or willing funder? And imagine, rather than the if the rewards being money, burdened with accounting and tax and financial administration, they were simply the delights of expressing, telling, creating and amazing?

Do we as a sector have the courage and foresight to even begin imagining such a system? Can we dream it, without worrying how, or if, or what if?

I'd like to think so. Do you?

Targeting our collective actions to be more effective

Often in the creative spaces sector we have to work against the status quo, challenge the power brokers, break the rules even. The drawback of holding our unique and sometimes unpopular ground, which is so important to us and the people with whom we work, is that it can create resistance and reduce impact. Our actions can make people defensive, particularly the people we most want to influence — those with power and influence.

There’s a need for quite a significant change in modus operandi, I think, for creatives, along with activists, agitators and social change agents. Often we are taught to be oppositional in our approach to changing an oppositional system, which is not only ironic, but also ineffective and counterproductive.

We need to change this tactic and a way forward came to me quite recently when reading the book, “Influencer”. Written by a group of surprisingly aware businessmen, the book outlines three powerful "principles of influence: Identify a handful of high-leverage behaviors that lead to rapid and profound change. Use personal and vicarious experience to change thoughts and actions. Marshall multiple sources of influence to make change inevitable."

It really caused me to think deeply about how we can better target our collective actions to be more effective. The key thing I realised is that we often alienate people in power because we challenge the laws and rules that they have pledged to uphold.

The challenge is to work with these people, not to try and convince them that their laws and rules suck (which often they know are paid not to admit), but to find a way within those limitations to make a meaningful improvement to how the systems they govern affect other people.

That, I think, is the key to creating influential change in the creative sector and, in particular, the creative spaces sector. And in order to make this change, we need to admit and be comfortable with the idea that, in the past, we may have been wrong.

I happened upon a fantastic TEDTalk a couple of weeks ago by Kathryn Schulz, entitled “On being wrong”. Schultz confronts directly the human need to be right all the time, exposing it as a fundamental flaw in logic. She acknowledges that, though we often grudgingly admit we learn from our mistakes, we still feel bad, embarrassed, even a failure, when we are wrong.

Actually, she insightfully corrects, we feel those things when we realise we are wrong – the act of being wrong (before we realise) feels exactly like being right. And our attachment to being right (or our denial that we could be wrong), she cautions, is precisely what keeps us from preventing mistakes that can cause catastrophies like nuclear meltdowns and wars.

I notice in my work with artists, performers and other creatives, that we are naturally rather good at being wrong. An artist may start with a blank canvas and an idea of what they may paint; but the outcome may be somewhat or completely different. A playwright or novelist may start with an outline of a story; but the act of writing may itself change the original course of events. In my own experience on stage, many a fluffed line or tangent of thought, when left uncorrected, have created new routines and ideas, not to mention an unexpected laugh.

So I felt very grateful to Schultz for this insight and for reminding me that, as humans, we get it wrong all the time. It’s in our nature and it is the very trait that allows us to improve, progress and evolve. And I think it’s very important for us, over the next to days, to be prepared to be wrong about the challenging times ahead. We need some new, original ideas and, as Sir Ken Robinson so rightly points out, we can’t have an original idea if we’re not prepared to be wrong.

It’s been a pleasure addressing you today and thank you, Richard, for letting me go first – for allowing me to lead this conversation. But remember, as you saw in the clip I started with, we get leadership wrong too. I look forward to sharing further discussions with you about new ways of thinking, new priorities, uncertainty, identity, resource-based societies and more.

One thing is certain: some of it we may get right — and the rest, we’ll get wrong.

Disability arts, leadership and other things

 
 
 
 
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