This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

Manifesto: A New Role for the Artist   

Population growth, global warming, scarcity, religious and cyber wars, famine, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation and refugees, signal EMERGENCY.  As our financial and religious frameworks are also collapsing, and our media drives anxiety, DEPRESSION looms. So how do we celebrate what is worthwhile and gives us peace of mind? Traditionally some artists have offered inspiration. In our consumer culture however, many of us, including artists, are hi-jacked by spectacle, novelty and celebrity, and encouraged to create investment product. 

In this unsettling time we must look to process to find the ground rules of a culture, which may be less materially based, but where more people will actively participate and rejoice in moments that are wonderful. A culture where more of us grow and cook our own food, build our own houses, name our children, bury our dead, mark anniversaries, create new ceremonies for rites of passage and devise whatever drama, stories, songs, music, pageants and jokes that enable people to live more creatively.

Dominant fashionable so-called art, currently perpetuated by a small number of cultural gate-keepers, their institutions and their manipulative dealing, needs to be re-colonised as a mode of intuitive knowledge with a vernacular root. (vernacular - any value that is homebred, homemade, neither bought nor sold  on the market).

A new role for the artist as catalyst, hands on facilitator and celebrant who recognises the artist in us all and liberates the innate creativity of every age through participation and collaboration. A society where re-generation is of the soul and not of economics.

JOHN FOX. MBE.  22 January 2018

In 1968 Welfare State International (WSI) was born in Bradford proposing  ”An Alternative, an Entertainment and a Way of Life.”  The sixties were Vietnam, apartheid, Paris protests, the Situationists, art school sit-ins, and then Thatcher’s  destruction of  mining communities. We wanted to extract art from the ghettos of theatres and galleries and restore it to participating communities. As our new manifesto states, we still do. 

WSI continued to 2006. We trucked on, from street theatre with rough Punch and Judy, Mummers Plays and the Arabian Nights to invent influential prototypes of site specific theatre in landscape, fireshows, installations, lantern parades and new ceremonies for secular rites of passage. We became an Arts Council England RFO (Regularly Funded Organisation) with, in 1999, a £2m Arts Lottery refurbishment of our Old  National School in Ulverston, so creating Lanternhousea hands on producing venue.

The full story is in Engineers of the Imagination (1983, ed Coult and Kershaw) and Eyes on  Stalks, by John Fox (2002). Briefly, after creating world-wide celebratory mayhem with scores of shows from Poland to Vancouver, mainly outside at festivals, we ended our touring phase with Raising the Titanic on Limehouse Dockside for the  London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) in 1983. This was an allegorical three act pageant, including lantern boats  and a public dance, reflecting Thatcher’s Britain  mirrored in the arrogance, class structure and disaster of the Titanic.

Barrow in Furness is where BAE build Trident submarines. Through participatory workshops during1983–90 we created the 60 minute film King Real, Adrian Mitchell’s Cinderella version of King Lear located in a nuclear submarine; a Tattoo for the Town Hall’s 100th anniversary with Queen Victoria on an elephant gun carriage; a Tapestry of Shipyard Tales, with sit-coms, musicals, song cycles, Brechtian documentaries; and Lord Dynamite, an opera about Alfred Nobel. In the final Golden Submarine event Lord Shellbent fails to achieve Armageddon because the Trident sheds are moved by women with their nuclear vacuum cleaner.

Nine miles from Barrow is the market town of Ulverston with a population of 12,000. When our family moved there in 1979 there were 44 empty shops. Now, following cultural regeneration, much of it generated by our lantern parades, flag fortnights and a comedy festivalit thrives as “The Festivals Town.”

We started the first lantern parade in September 1983. Now it is an annual event when hundreds process in four rivers of light with their large sculptural candlelit lanterns made at home from willow and tissue paper. The skills are in the hands of the community. The quality totally professional. In an entirely non-commercial celebration of place, family and community, the event has become for some a moment of excess and a secular rite of passage. Now extensively copied world-wide, it was originally inspired by a Buddhist/Shinto procession experienced by WSI in Japan in 1982 - a Japanese blessing, a cross between entertainment and a way of life, between spectacle and a significant rite.

Lanternhouse, our customized sanctuary in Ulverston, gave us the space to research such cross-overs and write manuals on secular rites of passage ceremonies for funerals and baby namings. WSI’s last show, created from stories, photographs, songs and poems, gathered over two years, with hundreds of people who live and work around Morecambe Bay, was Longline, the Carnival Opera (2006), an accessible community performance. In her 4 star review in the Guardian Lyn Gardner wrote: Longline is about what we have all lost and in its quietly moving, highly ritualized second half how we might retrieve it

By 2006 Sue Gill and I felt that spectacle had been hijacked by tourism and entertainment industries and the edge for art had moved to ecology, perception and a creative life. So we handed over Lanternhouse and its grant to another company (defunct since 2009) and started Dead Good Guides.

We are now creating Wildernest a half acre  strip on the west foreshore of Morecambe Bay. In a liminal zone between land and sea, this devotional secular space is for people to connect with themselves and with  the elements. The iconography of image based art works of Icons for an Unknown Faith - poster poems, whirly-gigs and weather vanes - includes mythological, scientific and historical stories. A 100 metre land art installation in longship form provides an open access garden next to Natural England’s proposed coastal path. Wildernest will be a joyous enclave to celebrate the spiritual in the everyday.

John Fox MBE,
Dead Good Guides

John Fox MBE has a world-wide reputation for creating celebratory participatory art with communities. Artist, printmaker, published poet, film-maker, lecturer, cultural provocateur and occasional musician, he founded Welfare State International (1968-2006) with Sue Gill and others. Now their Dead Good Guides creates ecological sculpture trails, secular ceremonies and celebrant training for rites of passage. Current work includes Wildernest a sanctuary garden on the shore of Morecambe Bay and On The Edge Of A Rising Tide (with Sound Intervention), a processional fable with musicians, tricycles, off grid amplification and digital projections. John is an Honourary Fellow of the Universities of Cumbria and Central Lancashire  and a Companion of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts with  numerous awards for a lifetime’s contribution to the arts. His publications include Eyes on Stalks Methuen 2002, Engineers of the Imagination Methuen 1983/1990 and (with Sue Gill) The Dead Good Guides to Funerals and Baby Namings. John and Sue can be reached at [email protected]

Next week, on Wednesday 28th March, Robin Simpson, CEO of Voluntary Arts talks about cultural commoning in the context of an emerging Brexit.

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