The final day was a change of process: a collective project involving the whole festival community of 40-50 artists. Most of this post reflects on the use of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making in artistic contexts: for more on what this stuff is about, try Seeds for Change.
The Festival has been organised by a collective working on non-hierarchical consensus principles. Throughout the week, they’ve encouraged us to be part of that process – invited us to meetings, opened decisions. I’m not sure how much this has been taken up by participants, though: the invitation is there, but I haven’t felt hugely empowered or motivated to join in the process, whether through tiredness or having so much to do already, or through something more structural.
Yesterday, however, the group as a whole very much entered the organising process. The collective had planned an ensemble project – the idea was that we’d spend the day in smaller groups devising a series of performances to be given in the town of Arezzo. As the format was explained, a number of concerns started coming from the group about what we were doing: Could we develop a quality performance in time? What was the point of performing in public? Were we parachuting in with a message that didn’t respond to the town itself? What kind of responsibility did we have as artists to show the importance of art, given Italy’s funding crisis?
These questions gradually transitioned into a full collective decision-making process. This is not something we were prepared for, or which many of the group had extensive experience with, which made it challenging, exciting, rewarding, tiring – all of that. I was struck by the willingness of the group to embrace what was happening, even though it was emotionally difficult. The longer the decision-making process went on (about four hours in total), the more willing people were to make it work, and the harder they worked.
A lot of what happened confirmed my faith in consensus, because the more we applied formal consensus strategies, the clearer the process seemed to get for the group. As we creaked into discussion, there was a lot of distress, confusion and frustration, but as we gained trust in each other and our ability to reach a conclusion, things began to feel exhilarating.
We did achieve a consensus: we agreed to try and create not so much a performance but a happening, an exercise we could conduct in the town to explore our responses to it (and to crisis). This, we hoped, would keep the stakes low, make it less a definite communication to the audience and more a way of taking the artistic process to an outside space. Having got this far, the applause we gave ourselves seemed deserved.
What happened next is also very interesting. As we moved into preparation, the group’s lack of consensus experience showed: we reverted to type, relying on the guidance of a clear director, and as a result defaulting to rehearsing a performance rather than preparing an experiment. When concerns were raised about the direction of the work, the pressures of time and the need to perform, plus the presence of clear leaders, prevented fully engaged discussion from taking place. In the end, it reached a point where I personally didn’t feel comfortable performing what we’d created, because I didn’t feel ownership of it and didn’t feel it addressed the concerns we began with.
I didn’t feel too bad about this. I didn’t feel any anger or frustration, really – more guilty that I wasn’t to keep going with the process and had to explain why, which would inevitably hurt feelings a little. Despite doing a lot of consensus work, I’ve never before felt that the group was going in a direction I couldn’t support – I was going to need to stand aside from the decision to take the performance into town. This cost me, emotionally, as it did the other three who felt similarly.
These negative feelings, though, were very much outweighed by a real sense of pride in the group. I was so pleased that we had tried to go through this process, that we had attempted to embrace the collectivity we were aiming for. It’s hardly surprising that I felt the process failed – given a group of 40, with very little consensus experience, was trying to make a piece of art that mattered in just eight hours total, from scratch. It would have been surprising if we succeeded! I was delighted we gave it a shout, and it was one of the most productive artistic failures I’ve ever been part of, as such a learning experience for everyone involved.
We reached the end of the festival. It’s been the most intense festival I’ve ever been part of. My brain hasn’t felt this awake in a long time. I’ve had so many brilliant conversations and debates, done some really good thinking about what my work is and where it’s going. As an artist-led project, the combination of workshops, discussions and performances was particularly valuable, creating a real sense of shared learning, and an excellent format for combining theory and practise into praxis. There have been occasional failures and frustrations, but I’ve mostly been excited by them too. I’m delighted to have been part of it.