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Power in culture and the arts part one: Playwright Martin O'Connor reflects on writer Chrissie Tiller's teachings

In November, our Creative Learning team hosted a professional development event in Perth, with renowned writer, thinker, teacher and advisor Chrissie Tiller. The day was all about power. Power in the arts, power in culture, and the way that power operates in the world.

In this guest blog, playwright Martin O’Connor reflects on what Tiller shared at the event, and what participants were left to take away.

Here are just a few of the observations that writer, thinker, teacher and advisor Chrissie Tiller has experienced in her exploration of power in arts and culture around the world: a group of artists and activists in Devon challenging assumptions of migration. A panel of artists in Oslo who define themselves as ‘women of culture’. Reclaiming public spaces in Japan to combat increasing isolation. Students and teachers who take up their desks and chairs and continue the business of learning after their school has been destroyed in Palestine.

Such a global and diverse opening to the day’s proceedings sets the tone for ideas that continually arise around power, power shifts and power sharing. These observations have arisen through politics, struggle and division, but, Tiller says, can be shifted by focusing on democracy, community, solidarity and collaboration. Tiller articulates that in the present climate of great inequality, those who are working in arts and culture should think together about how we can work in different ways, and challenge traditional notions of where power lies.

Tiller has many terms that can help us understand these ‘fierce and urgent questions’, not least when she mentions ‘the aesthetics of justice’: what does the art of these political and global issues look like? And how does this help us in shifting our sense of what is possible?

Power up: a toolkit for participatory practice

Tiller’s approach to pinning down these ideas led to the creation of Power Up: a document and toolkit that sets out the complexities and challenges, as well as reminders and cautionary notes, to think about when aiming for truly participatory relationships in the arts.

At the heart of the document are 10 questions that serve as a guideline as well as a provocation. These questions were inspired by Open Enagement’s 100 Questions initiative, a collaborative response to Corita Kent’s 10 Rules of the 1960s. The original questions were reduced to nine, with the 10th left open as an invitation to artists and practitioners to complete, based on their own experiences, desires and needs.

In the pursuit of a 10th question to complete Tiller’s list, the participants of the day embarked on sharing their own experiences, and exploring possible ways forward. In one exchange, the idea of shifting the word power itself was mooted, or even redefining it in order to reduce it’s status. And for some, the recognition that power will always lie at the top or the root of any organisation or venue means that artists will always be the ones at the bottom, sticking plasters on the most hurt by austerity, marginalisation or societal neglect.

Asking key questions about power, privilege and agency

We were left with many unanswered questions, many of which could contribute to the creation of question 10:

- What is the difference between power and agency?
- What is the difference between power and privilege?
- What does power really look like?
- What do we share so we can continue to develop mutual understanding?
- How do we support and sustain a cultural change?

In the discussion that followed, Tiller also re-iterated the importance of listening to history, and resisting the urge to replicate existing institutions. For her, collaboration and solidarity is everything: to speak to artists across generations; to take care of ourselves; to seek and create new networks and partnerships; to share power through cultural democracy; and to keep having conversations. The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.

This is the definition of power that Tiller gives in Power Up. If we consider the impact that this word has, and the connotations it has (to empower or disempower) then we can start to unravel its definition in particular contexts.

Realising the force of power

It’s obvious that power is a negative force in the world, especially when one, or the select few, at the top of a traditional structure hold all of it. But when that power is shifted to a young black woman who has lived at the bottom rung of the ladder for so long, then that definition of power is one we should all get behind – because her type of power is needed and it is welcomed.

This event is part of a series of events planned by Creative Scotland’s Creative Learning team taking place from November 2018 to March 2019. The events aim to inspire practice and support networking and skills development. For more information and to keep informed of events visit the Creative Learning events page.

This blog is based on the event Sharing the Power/Collaborative Decision Making, which took place at Perth Concert Hall on Tuesday 20 November 2018.