– reflections from different types of ‘meanwhile’
The solar eclipse on a cold, grey morning in Bilbao was somewhat underwhelming. Huddled together with other delegates from the UCLG 21 Culture Summit, I peered at the live satellite link up to clearer skies in northern Europe while a corduroy-clad professor from the University of Bilbao explained that we would have to wait a very long, long time until the next total eclipse. I lifted the cardboard eclipse glasses to my sad eyes in awkward compliance for a group photo. I wanted to be somewhere else.
There was absolutely no danger of being blinded by the sun that morning. And yet, while we might not have been able to see it, the powerful energy of the sun, moon, and other things we don’t fully understand, was all around us. There was a heightened sense of awareness.
The Culture Summit in the Basque region of Spain gathered together mayors, academics, lawyers, and artists from across the world to consider the intrinsic and instrumental role of culture in sustainable development, particularly with regard to cultural planning in cities. The premise being that while the last century was about state to state international relations, we are living through a transition in the twenty-first century towards city to city leadership linked in a global network (If Mayors Rule the World). Cities might be able to promote and protect the right to cultural life where nation states have failed to do so because of realpolitik and a reluctance of many to adequately legislate for economic, social and cultural rights in general.
As the right to cultural life becomes embedded in the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, it is appropriate that city planners borrow the maxim from international development of ‘think global, act local’ (see the reports of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed). And so, acting local, I wanted to understand the impact of the Guggenheim Museum on Bilbao’s broader cultural ecology. (My home city of Dundee has begun the construction of a new V&A Museum and it is hoped that, much like the original vision for Bilbao’s Guggenheim twenty years ago, the multi-million pound investment will bring increased visitors to the city, become an architectural landmark and put Dundee on the map for design and fashion. Time will tell.)
I visited Zorrozaurre in the Deusto district of the city. This man-made peninsula is industrial wasteland between the river and canal and is about a mile from Frank Gehry’s iconic building and the quaint bars of Bilbao’s old town. Our small group unpicked a trail through the abandoned ruins of old factories and urban decay. Stopping to look at the shell of a former paper mill on the banks of the river, our guide discreetly moved us on when I asked a question about the authorities’ response to the squatters living inside. The long-term regeneration plan is to annex the peninsula to create an ‘island for culture’ (“Manhattan is an island”, remarked one local without a hint of irony) but while Spain waits for the hangover of the economic crash to wear off, all regeneration work is stalled. It seems that in this transition phase, city officials will tolerate informal and imaginative uses of the dead space and its skeletons of concrete.
We met with the organisers of a community arts collective called ‘Mientras’ (meanwhile). Faced with a likely ten year delay before the bulldozers and town-planners return, artists have reclaimed space for murals, small market stalls, craft workshops and a fully functioning theatre. It’s an altogether gentle, positive act of civil disobedience. Without links to regular public transport, street lighting, or basic utilities, projects like these are cut off from the main infrastructure of the city and disconnected from the footfall of visitors spending in the gift shop and restaurants of the Guggenheim.
Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin and, for some, knowing that your community garden could be flattened or the theatre show cancelled at any moment might add adrenaline and a sense of urgency to creative experiment. There is no permanence, only ‘meanwhile’ moments of cohesion and cultural dialogue suspended between a fragmented past and the contested offer of something else to come. The artists in Zorrozaure looked like they were having fun.
From northwest Spain to northwest Scotland a few days later when I travelled to Ullapool for the Changin’ Scotland ‘festival of politics, culture and ideas’. After 25 previous festivals, organisers Jean Urquhart and Gerry Hassan brought in Mairi McFadyen and Andy Summers from National Collective to curate a programme with new voices. I was humbled to be one of those new voices and led a session on ‘Be the change you want to see in Scotland’. Somewhat daunted by the challenge of how to structure the only workshop in the programme (other sessions all being panel debates) for an audience of 150 people, I took time in preparation to reflect on the relationship between civic action and our emotional responses to change. I also sought advice from my friend Simon, an art therapist, about how to create a safe and inclusive space to let go of attachment during a time of transition.
It would be fair to say that most of the regular Changin’ Scotland participants were Yes voters in the September 2014 Independence Referendum. The festival weekend had to move away from a Yes/ No dichotomy while acknowledging that many are still hurting from the crushing disappointment of a No outcome and uncertainty about how to sustain authentic leadership and direction from within Yes campaign groups. Scotland is in a ‘meanwhile’ transition all of its own- from the recent past of IndyRef hysteria where our anxiety and excitement built in momentum towards a defined calendar date that punctuated time, to an unpredictable future in which a buoyant SNP may hold the balance of power between political parties after the May 2015 UK Parliamentary Elections.
For me, many of the most energising conversations in the last two years of political debate took place around fires. Sometimes these were real fires but often they were the fiery, shared spaces of pubs, offices and bus stops. If a ‘meanwhile’ phase can feel ambiguous, unsettling and a bit existential, things that are real and tangible provide reassurance. I introduced three physical states of firewood – ash, timber and kindling – as metaphors for past, present and future; asking Changin’ Scotland participants to explore in small groups what each meant to them.
We apparently utilise 80% of our cognitive thought process over-analysing past events, 15% worrying about the future, and a mere 5% focused on the here and now. All the workshop groups chose to spend most of the allocated time dealing with the ash– grief, loss, memorialisation and perhaps also the need for decomposition before new life. This was despite people admitting to a negative association with ash: “reminds me of death”, and, “I’m always sweeping out fire grates”.
The kindling was a metaphor for energy and collective action. It is wood with purpose, committed to the fire. Being small, and light, people seemed to like holding the kindling bricks in their hands while they talked or built small structures with the wood. When I invited people to record a personal, one-word mood reflection on a piece of kindling before throwing it into a real fire later that night, I was surprised by how many did. Words like ‘heal’ and ‘repair’ fueled the stove back at the Ceilidh Place as we ate, drank and sang together.
Then timber. The moss-covered silver birch and oak rounds represented roots, knowledge and truth. Completely by chance, the logs had been collected by Mairi on her drive through the Great Glen the day before – an entire woodland blessed by His Holiness The Dali Lama when he visited Scotland in 2012. We might not have reached an inner peace at Changin’ Scotland exploring our transition between past hurt and future aspiration, but I like to think that we travelled some distance on the path to acceptance of the ‘meanwhile’ phase we are in – a time of regrouping as activists, building new political and economic alliances, and learning from mistakes. We certainly had a fun weekend trying.
03/04/15, Constitution Street
I like stability and certainty so am most instinctively drawn towards the tangible, solid roots of the wood/ tree metaphor. And yet I admit that my most productive periods for creative output coincide with when I feel the jagged splinters of human ups and downs most intensely and events don’t necessarily catch alight in the way that I had planned or expected them to. To use a yoga reference, when we anticipate the possibility of a big change to come – career, housing, health, relationships, relocation- our root chakra can become damaged and the body compensates by over-activating our heart and head chakras. That over-activation results in repetitive and sustained emotional hurting and mental confusion until we regain our firm footing or grow new roots.
If you could reassure an unemployed friend that they are about to secure a full-time job, they would enjoy the extended leisure time free from worry and stress. Or if someone feeling single and alone could see into the future and know that they will one day meet their soulmate and start a family of their own, a lack of commitments and compromise would be treasured like the gift the present is meant to be. Obviously life isn’t like that. Reflections only become clear with the benefit of hindsight looking back.
Perhaps anxiety and insecurity are painful but necessary precursors in a transition to being fully ready for a calmer, lighter state of being in the future – whether that is about strong, loving relationships; an independent social democracy for Scotland; or an integrated cultural plan for Bilbao. And so, there has to be value in embracing different types of ‘Mientras’ – releasing the pause button of expectation, pressing play on acceptance and dancing with an open heart and mind into the heightened sense of awareness of here and now- not waiting and worrying for something better to begin that is completely beyond control. Everything could be a lot more fun that way.
So I’m staying put, for the meanwhile. And trying to be comfortable with it. At least, I think that’s what I’ve learned from recent travels. But i’m far from ‘being the change I want to see’. Much like the next solar eclipse on a clear day, that will take a long, long time.