On being an artist and my first IETM

I’m just back from Montpellier, France, and my first (hopefully not last) IETM. IETM originally stood for Informal European Theatre Meeting. – it is now the ‘international network for contemporary performing arts’, which better reflects its membership and purpose.
I’d heard of IETM over the years – it was a place that artists went and at the time I wasn’t really being an artist. Off they’d go to somewhere unusual in Europe to meet other artists, producers and creative people – and they’d come back renewed, refreshed and full of ideas. I often felt a bit of a pang of ‘I wish I could do that’. And now I have.

In 2013 I decided to take myself seriously as an artist, which is why I wanted to build a fanbase on social media platforms like Instagram. However, the journey was not as smooth. I had to really struggle to get a huge fan following. Moreover, I had no knowledge that one can buy IG followers. Had I known earlier, I could have easily shared my artwork with a large number of people. But lacking followers did not mean that I was not an artist at that time. I’ve always been one, but I haven’t always owned it. I’ve spent years working around other artists, as a producer, a strategist, a facilitator, a fund-raiser. I used to say “I’m a consultant working in the arts and sometimes I do performance.” Then I turned 40 and I had another child and I did a coaching course (not in that order, but all those things had an impact). I worked out that I wanted to flip the description of what I do and who I am. So now I say “I am an artist and a creative producer working in performance and I also do strategic work in the arts.” It’s a small change of words, but it’s probably the most important thing I’ve done in my working life. If I didn’t take myself seriously as an artist, why on earth would anyone else?

Fast forward to Spring 2014 and here I am. I’m in the process of establishing my own company, Irregular (Arts). I’ve got Arts Council England funding (and support from Bradford Council, Bradford University, and also Edinburgh University) for our first production, An Odd Occasion. I’ve got bids going out left right and centre and new commissions for projects coming in. And I’ve been to IETM, as an artist, talking with other artists from across Europe and the world, sharing ideas about our work, and supporting one another on our journeys. Now that I have discovered that you can buy Instagram followers to grow your Instagram profile, I passed on this wisdom to my fellow artists to help them get the exposure that their work deserves. It is the least I could do after all. I just hope it benefits them as it did to me.

IETM has the potential to be baffling and daunting, especially (but not only) for a first time attender. It is, as it was originally named, ‘informal’ – there are formal conference/discussion sessions, a plenary, a general meeting, and other showcase/presentation sessions, alongside an artistic programme and social gathering places. 500 delegates from across the world (not just Europe) are here – and finding ways to connect and start new conversations seems slightly overwhelming initially.

I didn’t go it alone. I was encouraged to attend by Alison Andrews, a longstanding member of IETM and my main collaborator in An Odd Occasion, who has been a frequent source of wisdom and support along the many years of my artistic journey (we’ve been trying to find a way to work together since 1993.) The theme of this IETM was ‘TRANS’ – trans-borders, trans-formations, trans-genders, and Alison thought this was a natural fit given the work we are doing.

Alison and Richard Sobey have founded the excellent ‘Walking Talking’ project which meant that I was part of a Yorkshire delegation at IETM – the (Yorkshire) guest house, travelling with other Yorkshire-based artists, and working together to make inter-regional connections (whilst singing ‘On Ilkley Moor Baht’ At’ and handing out Yorkshire puddings, but that’s another story…)

Being part of this Yorkshire initiative was great on lots of levels. In some ways, it was a bit like being an usher or a bridesmaid at a wedding you have got a particular job to do, a role to play that makes being at a wedding makes sense you are part of it, not just any other guest at the party.

In fact, the creative process that goes into every aspect of a wedding is comparable to art. From the design of the engagement ring, which might be purchased from small engagement rings in Denver shop, or one in Los Angeles, to the intricate detailing on a wedding dress and a groom’s suit, these can all be considered art. The wedding location, dcor, wedding party, and all the aesthetic features incorporated could be an art form. Moreover, for a destination beach wedding at a beautiful resort and spa (at a place like Amanyara resort or another hotel), the extravagant preparations and photography can require exceptional talent and professional skills. People may need artistic perspective to bring such ideas to life. These types of art are a part of our everyday lives and should be celebrated by artist councils and the community behind them.

Having chosen to join IETM as a member, I was also supported at this first meeting via their ‘buddy’ system, which meant I got an email from a lovely American based in Norway called James, who arranged to rendezvous on the first day and offered advice, ideas on how to make the best of the opportunity, and a contact number if I needed any more of the same.

Having posted some information on the IETM members pages of the website about my work and my areas of interest, I also got an email from the producer of another artist currently making work that explores gender and identity, and we arranged to have an interesting chat over lunch on the final day.

Some of the most useful connections were made when I spoke up in the discussion sessions – by talking about my ideas and practice and by asking questions, it was soon easy to identify and be identified by other artists who have reasons to want to connect. And these were the artists who I’d bump into at (or travelling to and from) the artistic programme – again, a shared interest bringing us together.

I was surprised by the lack of digital connectivity at IETM – wifi was a bit hit and miss, and I was by far the noisiest person on the twitter # hashtag, which was odd for me as someone who readily uses social media channels as another tool for making connections and extending dialogue. But now back at home, those twitter connections are made, and they are better for being built on a firm foundation of face-to-face conversations we had – with shared passions, trans-local points of connection and the understanding you can only have when you have looked someone in the eye and said ‘yes, me too’.

I was sometimes frustrated by a lack of dialogue about engagement and audiences – in this space full of artists from across the world, there was much talk about different styles and practices, and a strong sense of the activism and politics in the art works we create – but there wasn’t very much conversation about the public and how we connect with them, or how we can co-create our work with people taking part in it with us. Again, perhaps this is a reflection on my own perspective, that these issues are central to the way I want to create work and the artists I usually work with feel the same.

It’s this shift in perspective that IETM provides that feels important (and right now, just back at work, it feels like the most valuable thing I got from IETM – more than the personal/professional connections made) – seeing your work up close and from afar, placing it outside it’s context, shifting it’s paradigm.

I’ve understood, finally, how local some of my work is – by taking the ideas to another country, I can see that they’re out of place as soon as I take them to another city, just a few miles down the road. That doesn’t make the work irrelevant – it just helps me to understand how strong a sense of place it has, and how much a shift of context can also shift meaning.

I’ve also really understood that I am an ’emerging artist’. Most ’emerging artists’ are much younger than me – recent graduates, young practitioners. Despite being mid-career / established as an arts professional, the years I wasn’t ‘being’ an artist are significant. And that’s OK too – in fact, it’s really exciting.

PS – one of the other Yorkshire artists at IETM, the brilliant Sarah Spanton, has made her own response to IETM Montpellier, which is really interesting – here’s a link

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