“Basic Income for the Arts…. it’s a gift.”
“Are you having a laugh, and on Sept 11th ? Don’t be obnoxious.”
While areas of the UK and Ireland began mourning a monarch or ‘brushing up’ on their singalonga country cowboy star skills, Thursday September 8th 2022 saw 2000 artists and arts workers across the republic of Ireland awarded an individual grant from our government to enable us to sustain and hopefully nurture our practice and artistic activity for the next three years. In my own view this is a measure that begins to recognize the genuine human value of the arts to our Irish society. What might it mean to an individual concerned ?
Well I’d be concerned that from over 9,000 applications made under the scheme, 8,200 were assessed as eligible and included in the randomised anonymous selection process. Yes you read that correctly ‘randomized selection process’. I previously wrote a submission when the department were first canvasing opinion and artists’ views on their proposed process and the only aspect of it I considered in any way flawed was that very idea that final selection would be basically down to chance.
The 2,000 grant awardees include all art forms, age groups, ethnicities from all counties in the republic. This includes 707 visual artists, 584 musicians, 204 artists working in film, 184 writers, 173 actors and artists working in theatre, 32 dancers and choreographers, 13 circus artists and 10 architects.
I got the above breakdown from Visual Artists Ireland press release here.
As one of the 184 writers one of my own early heroes the legendary Liverpudlian comedian and family entertainer Ken Dodd was not merely an amazing comic, singer, gag writer, ventriloquist but also a lifelong student of comedy itself, he maintained that the greatest gift we humans have is the gift of laughter, the gift of humour. He spent his long lifetime studying comedy yet few thought to take him seriously enough as to really drill down into his expert knowledge and opinion.
“When you start out as a comic, you must learn to let people laugh at you.”Ken Dodd.
Encouraging audiences to laugh with us, or at us, was something I preached to every live comedy cast I’ve worked with, from amateur pub dramas in the 80s to various shows to TV pilots in the noughties, it’s not a matter of choice or taste, if you want to play a funny part in my funny script or be funny in our funny performance then please don’t bring some obtuse ego preservation idea about personal exclusive theatrical artistry as an artificial barrier to you being laughed at. If you harbour thoughts of being a writer yourself someday get used to being laughed at.
For some that is an understandably incredibly difficult place to be, specifically considering some of the insecurity journeys actors, writers, and artists must take to ‘make it’. I just remembered that very old cartoon with two cannibals eating a clown and one asks the other: ‘Does this taste funny to you ?” Being laughed at because you are being funny is a reward, being laughed at because others don’t or can’t understand you can feel like attempts by those others to steal your self worth, and feels so far from funny as is humanly possible to be. So when someone decides to satirize or laugh at some person, place, thing, or event there is always serious potential for damaging or hurting that someone, there is a line, and comedy writers in my view who funny walk it are usually the funniest.
Lines, walks, and cannibals aside, to paraphrase Doddy as purveyors of comedy we do steal people’s chuckle muscle and tickle it. Here Ken’s well-known joke: ‘I suffer from acute kleptomania. But when it gets bad, I take something for it’. In Ireland if an individual isn’t very good at their job wits observe: “He’s stealing a living” or in the specific case of highly over remunerated premiere league footballers, the oft heard recently: “That Maguire’s stealing a wage.”
But such observations are not reserved for far off, off form, sports stars or incompetent employees, and we can all assume that certain laughter itself is sometimes used not only as a weapon but also as a shield for perhaps more acerbic intentions, ‘insecurity’ for some is not a passive one way street nor that poorly texted limbo before an Aer Lingus Dublin departure.
Trying to ‘make it’ in whatever field of the arts in Ireland is rooted in insecurity and precarity, unless of course you are part of those beloved golden circles of awfully nice friends, know the good guys in Oar Tea Eeeeee, have a few bob, or attend exclusive tent, marquee, or similar hotel gatherings in Galway, trying to ‘make it’ independently without incurring financial ruin or accruing debts to others generosity means the business of show can indeed be a very funny old game to navigate successfully without causing (self)harm.
I saw yesterday the south Dublin Gazette piece about John Boyne ringing up his IT interviewer post the interview and post haste to say something like, I didn’t mean Sally Rooney when I said all the young Irish writers were writing the same stupid campus novel about nothing. He could ask Rosemary Jenkins what happens in Ireland if you observe the truth that there exist large swaths of published or lauded writers on the island of Ireland that are enthusiastically promoted by their own symbiotic circles without genuine literary analysis, impartial review, or honest critique. All great art may be parochial but the parish supporting their own brings with it reciprocated responsibility if not loyalty, to the central parochial value of solidarity under all circumstances and conditions to that parish and it’s members. The introduction of the concept of ‘conflict of Interest’ to Ireland’s small literary circles would cause more commotion than shamrock rovers fans at an English regal event.
“ All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.”English Novelist and Poet Thomas Hardy
There was something wholly tragic and not at all funny for the 6028 Artists and arts workers who applied and then waited months for the department’s decision on a scheme that opened for applications from 12th April – 12th May 2022. Some waiting almost four months only to be told: apologies you were not selected in the randomized final stages and will not receive the grant. To a younger more insecure me that could also suggest, I will not be seen, not be acknowledged, I will never be helped nor realize any of my ambitions. So understandably my own heart sinks and genuinely goes out to those individuals so close and yet so far, David Walliams ‘computer says no’ as genuine human tragedy. The linguistic ‘luck of the draw’ for so many talented artists a line even this irreverent writer struggles with.
Yet open minded writers, if they have been around for as long as I have, are already intimately acquainted with rejection, actors and artists similarly so. I was genuinely shocked and surprised to be awarded a place on the scheme, I obviously fulfill the professional criteria and passed the eligibility tests, it’s just (as you may know if you’ve read any of my other posts here) As a working class writer from a border town I have long-standing ideological issues with the arts council, and similar organizations like Create Ireland, etc, specifically in a similar vein to that of the monarchy in England with their endowed soft power of their role in shaping society in their own image. So with this scheme coming directly from the Government Department itself directly responsible for the arts, it efficiently cuts out that entire administrative layer of time wasting middle management data obsessed quangos that often make offers of friendly guidance while usually demanding their logo must be seen on everything you do. uncertain and unnamed entities that associate with the wins yet are rarely seen in the vicinity of personal losses, those that want the associated comedy without any of the underlining independent sorrow of the tragedy.
From the age of 18 I was completely self-funded as a writer, theatre maker and game developer until our then local arts officer Mary Cloake gifted me a year as a paid writer in residence with the UDC (Urban District Council). It was the equivalent of a dole payment but it was briefly being paid to write full time for the first time in my life, so I got to write and produce my first semi-professional two act play called Issac’s Legacy. Alas the UDC is no more and Mary Cloake joined the Arts Council as Regions Officer in 1993, was appointed Development Director in 1997 and ascended to Director in 2004, eventually leaving in 2011.
In the years between writing and performing my first comedy scripts in 1982 and before Mary’s various elevations I applied to the arts council for numerous grants for playwrighting and theatre without success. During the early 1990s there was little analogue artwork being done let alone any digital or interactive artifacts being created. Windows 95 really started the PC revolution but I made my first game in 1983 on a C64, I already had qualifications and practical experience working in electronics when I married in 1988 aged 23 with a 1000 pound bill for my first electronic word processor, it took me a couple of years to pay that off but I was rewarded when my comedy writing work saw me invited to the BBC young scriptwriter of the year competition finals in Belfast.
I joined various Irish based writer societies and groups, I spent a half a year designing a theatre based training course with the generous help of Abbey Theatre and École Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau personnel but ultimately found myself usurped by parochial apparatchiks from FAS. Despite attempted oppression by various closed minded philistines, I eventually got some professional work going, raised the money to establish a travelling theatre company, wrote and toured my multimedia one man play ‘Ham Let Loose’, applied again to the arts council for various grants, received nothing other than rejection after rejection. So I went to study theatre part-time in Maynooth, thumbing lifts from Dundalk to Maynooth and back at all hours of the day and night for a couple of years.
When Mary Cloake was appointed development director of the arts council I had already stopped applying, the fact that we had a very basic prior funding history I felt would create more spurious questions than answers if I ever did actually manage to get any type of grant, and up to that point, among all the wasted hours and crumbled paper, I had zero evidence to support the idea that the Arts Council would ever encourage me to apply for any grants, despite putting all my eggs into the national arts basket. Consequently since I was already highly PC and Mac literate I channeled my energies and expertise into founding Ireland’s only SCEE Licensed game development studio Taintech Creative Studios, I was using primitive 3D modelling software and state of the then art desktop printing QuarkXPress to visual ideas and designs I had already begun making digital work under the moniker clevercelt and made my first version of that ‘digital text art’ website in 1996.
Meeting internationally renowned developers across the world at various game developer events and being invited to Japan in 1999 by the Head of Development of Sony Computer Entertainment based purely on my various game designs, design documents and game bibles for SONY Playstation, that specific trip to Japan changed my own perception of my actual potential talent, of my imaginative story making gifts, the length of the road already traveled at that point seemed long, it changed my understanding of a then emerging and morphing craft.
During those previous years basically 1982 to 1996 I also wrote assorted television and theatre scripts, RTE accepted my ‘Friends’ script for the Access Community Drama Series and cameras were all set to roll in Dundalk until the equity union objected to amateur involvement in professional television, when so many actors were unemployed (or resting) thus the entire series was unceremoniously shelved. After that RTE television rejected outright every single script I sent them, telling me I needed an agent if I wanted them to read my work, yet jokes I’d written popped in here and there unacknowledged, that’s what really put a stop to my unsolicited submissions. So obviously while working professionally in other places, interacting with various professional bodies my career was progressing on certain artistic fronts but failing miserably on the financial or traditional creative industries inroads front and I received zero support from anyone other than my immediate family. That journey becomes an even harder road when there is no sustenance to be found.
The story of Taintech is something I am writing in detail about elsewhere thus I won’t rehash it here, but suffice to say that in March 2001 post Taintech and a 50K research project I conceived and managed, I joined Microsoft’s Xbox and PC games Division. Within Microsoft I had Dublin program management responsibility for the Xbox Launch Title Rallisport Challenge and also the EMEA editions of Microsoft’s then flagship PC entertainment product Flight Simulator. We were nearing RTM and preparing for the October launch of tens of millions of dollars of Flight Simulator product and promotion when the Twin Towers tragedy began to unfold. In the initial speculation about flying into the towers our product was all over American media, it was said the hijackers had trained to fly the planes using the MS FS product, there was a series of calls and meeting hurriedly arranged, again that specific time, Microsoft, media lab, IGDA, Havok, etc are some things I am writing about in more detail but I offer it just as a snapshot of the fact that from the first moment that the news that a plane may have hit the world trade centre went out on the wires our entire team became transfixed to the unfolding human tragedy, then our full floor of staff, soon the entire office, the whole site, then the country, then the world, a horrendous tragedy on a scale never before witnessed by so many, it was, and remains, a societal traumatic event, much like the thirty years of terrorism by the IRA, the UVF, various paramilitaries and the state sponsored terrorism of the British state itself during my own lifetime. And as Yeats observed in his Easter 1916: “Too long a sacrifice, Can make a stone of the heart.”
Living through the 1981 hunger strikes and another economic recession that saw further waves of emigration, twenty years earlier amid weeping thronged streets of black flag protest marches, mourning and anger, injustice, powerlessness and general malaise, it was a world away from warm International Television conferences, brightly lit Networking events, foreign food, exotic sights, the various and numerous invitations to parties which I readily accepted twenty years later when I decided to leave Microsoft and later again after leaving the Midas Media Cluster, a time when I also went back to school to do an MA in Creative Writing and New Media in DMU in the UK in 2006, it was thee only one of it’s kind in the British isles at that time. Again like my return to theatre education in Maynooth, it was part-time and required a couple of trips to the UK but entirely worth the considerable effort and expense as it was truly and highly innovative, it was mostly online, so I could do what most working class artists, writers, and students must do, which is to work while you study. I may therefore consider myself to be more than simply lucky to have received this grant, I may be fortunate, blessed, steeped in luck..
Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luckF. Scott Fitzgerald
Sadly Chris Meade (RIP) a unique talent, also the other male from our initial DMU course cohort, passed away recently, and Chris a few years after finishing his MA, like me, decided to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing. I went to UCD and that is a book in itself, for another day, I finished writing up its 120K words of poetry, code, prose, video, commentary, analysis in 2013. I thereafter got sucked back into doing some consulting and teaching. Which I did up until my dear mother became really ill in September 2019 at a time when I was working 60+ hours a week as a head of department, course and programme leader, lecturer, until the very weekend my dear departed mother went into a care home on Thursday I wrote this article on linkedin late on the following Saturday evening, an article which ultimately resulted in my parting company with my then employer. I wrote it as a funny article but institutions do not have a sense of humor and many insecure people mistakenly interpreted the well worn memes as something I specifically created to be about them, have I mentioned insecurity yet?
Since that time the covid pandemic curtailed a world of plans and ambitions for so may creative people, not just me, as I became unemployed just as the pandemic hit, I got only basic dole payments as opposed to my 70K+ per year. So nearly two years later when the opportunity to apply for this grant arose, I applied throwing my hat in the ring with zero expectation, the financial worth of the grant to me is less than 25% of my pre pandemic income, but as outlined I have been writing on and off for almost forty years, now at this vital juncture it’s again a choice between commercial magnetism and three years of the creative life; lived. I have an Ikigai diagram somewhere about this stuff..
As my previous entry states I lost a second uniquely creative friend when Jeremy Height shuffled off his mortal coil and evaporated into a cloud of interstellar mimetic intelligence merely a month ago now. If not now ? when ? is my question with regard to full time writing… What this grant does for me personally is exactly as promised on the tin, it gives me basic income security to follow my creative vision without constantly worrying about where I will get the money to pay my mortgage.. it enables me to write full time.
For me, and perhaps only me, it also places a responsibility on me to produce work that justifies my selection for this grant, this luck, this gift that I have been given, approximately 40 years after first hoping I might get one, is more than welcome, and I am grateful for it.
peace out… more to follow…