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My Bailout

The other day I received this email:

HM Serial Number: 768369
BATCH No: HM/03/2011/UK
Amount Awarded: Ј550,000.00 GBP

Attn Beneficiary:
We are pleased to announce to you that your Email Was selected at random as one of the individuals to be compensated with the sum of Ј550,000.00 GBP by the Royal House of Treasury (H.M TREASURY).Do Contact the Below Details via his personal email for immediate Claim:
Name: George Osborne MP (Chancellor)
Email:  george.osborne12@hotmail.co.uk

You are advised to provide Chancellor George Osborne with the following accurate information of yours,
for claim: YOUR FULL NAMES/ ADDRESS /COUNTRY /HM SERIAL NUMBER / PHONE NUMBER/ AGE.
Have a nice day and Hope you use this Money profitably.

Signed,John Thompson,
Finance Director,HM Treasury

So I wrote back:

Dear George Osborne,

Thank you very much for your email and offer of compensation. The money is much appreciated and certainly means a lot in these troubled times. I just wanted to ask a few questions before we proceed.

For what am I being compensated? Is this recompense for the difficulties of living under this Tory government? My initial assumption was that you have chosen to reassign all the money saved through benefit cuts by random lottery — certainly, that’s an economic strategy exactly as rational as using spending cuts to rescue a failing system. But then I realised that you were “compensating” me, and I wondered for what. Is it for the impossibility of finding a steady job that uses my two degrees? Is it for the difficulty in paying back mounting graduate debt for a new generation over mortgaged students? Is it to make up for how hard it would be to get disability benefit even if I lost all my limbs in a freak photocopier accident, because ATOS would determine that I could still operate an assembly line with my teeth?

Or maybe I’m thinking along the wrong lines here. Are you, in fact, bailing me out? It’s true I’ve made an awful hash of my life. Living in a capitalist society means that I suffer regularly from crippling anxiety, mostly around my inability to perceive myself as a success. Are you giving me a cash injection so that I can feel like a success, George? I too, once, thought that I was too big to fail. I too have collapsed my emotional assets through sub-prime lending to ungrateful borrowers. I too have tried to make things better by giving myself absurd bonuses. I could certainly do with a bail-out, so if that’s what you’re giving me, I’m grateful.

But then, maybe I don’t deserve one. I’m afraid, George, that I am a dissident. I have gone on protests. I have been arrested, and intend to continue commiting acts of civil disobedience to bring down the government. It’s true! But it’s also true that my activism is partly motivated by my desperation, my anxiety, my inability to see life as rich people see it. So perhaps your money can help. Is that what it’s all about, George? Is that what you’re trying to do? George, are you trying to buy my silence?

If so, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. £550k just isn’t enough. A cool million should do it.

I look forward to your reply, with the information I requested. I will be happy to send you my bank details and passwords within 24 hours of hearing from you. I’m more than keen to entrust my finances to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. You’ve done such a good job so far!

Regards,

Harry Giles

I await his reply.

Globalisation

So I’m lounging by a pool in Abu Dhabi, here to train street performers for an international Science Festival that isn’t allowed to talk about evolution. I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and there’s Western pop music pumping from a plastic rock behind my wicker lounger. The poolside bar sells mojitos. There’s a woman in a full black burkha, carrying an expensive Italian handbag, filming everything with an expensive Japanese camera. “National Express” by The Divine Comedy comes on,  followed by The Police’s “Roxanne”. The poolside staff, as with all the low-waged staff in this city, are all southeast Asian, but have nametags reading “Allan” and “Matthew”. Last night was English night at the restaurant buffet, and they would freshly fry fish and chips for you. The hotel is half-empty. It’s November and it’s 30 degrees. My bedroom window looks out onto a mosque lit in green neon, a ten-stack oil refinery, a motorway, sprinkler-fed grass lawns and several building sites. The team I’m training are from Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Sudan. Paul McCartney and Britney Spears are coming here this week; my team will be performing carbon dioxide experiments by the stage where Fatboy Slim is playing. Large military transports have been taking off all day, and we’re not sure why. I didn’t read the news today.

An Open Letter to the Harry Potter Alliance, asking why they aren’t blowing things up

The Harry Potter Alliance is a US-based charity and campaigning group which takes inspiration from JK Rowling’s books: “Harry and his friends start a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army when the adults and politicians of their world fail to address the concerns of the day.” When I fund out about them, something bothered me about their mission — and it wasn’t that it seemed a bit cheesy, and it wasn’t anti-pop snobbery. It was that they took inspiration from a guerilla fighting force (albeit a fictional one) that takes violent direct action, and yet HPA’s tactics are the usual liberal rote of petitions, letters, votes and charity. So I wrote them a letter about it.

Dear Harry Potter Alliance,

Well done! You’re doing tremendously well in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, and I think you deserve to be congratulated for the way you’ve used your increased profile to continue to bring awareness to some very important causes. While it’d be easy to be cynical about your mission – and I admit when I first heard of HPA I did smirk a bit! – I think it’s genuinely wonderful that you’re harnessing the power of popular culture and a dedicated fandom to do something important in the world.

But I do want to talk to you about something, which is the way you’re undertaking your mission of creating a real world Dumbledore’s Army. I think you’re right that there’s a useful analogy – that the adults (politicians, parents, journalists, teachers . . . ) of Harry’s world ignore the severity of the crisis they’re facing, just as those running our world are keeping us on a track toward global disaster. But here’s the key thing: Harry and friends don’t raise funds, donate books and videos, sign petitions and register voters. They don’t even hold peaceful protests, act as human shields, create non-violent human blockades. They don’t even stop at theft and property damage in the name of their cause. In fact, what they do is train a guerilla fighting force that can engage in an aggressive covert war. So why don’t you?

The real world equivalent of this would be direct action. Direct action is when we stop asking people to change the world, and undertake it to change it ourselves. It encompasses everything from strikes and sabotage, which seek to cause economic damage as a tool of persuasion; to workplace occupations and thefts, which seek to take control of the means of production and consumption for those exploited by them; to tree-sits and assassinations, which seek to actively prevent destruction and oppression. (You’ll note I’ve used a range of possible actions of different levels of severity and violence; I don’t necessarily approve of them all, but I don’t necessarily disapprove, either. More on this in a bit.) Basically, direct action is everything which isn’t electoral politics, diplomacy and charity, but which seeks to create change.

Direct action is often classed as either violent or non-violent, with property damage occupying a middle ground. Non-violent direct action is what was advocated by Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks’s bus-sit is a good example of a peaceful direct action. Mohandas Gandhi is one of the foremost philosophers of peaceful action (not just protest, but action): Satyagraha is the name of the body of theory and practise he helped develop. To keep examples from struggles against racial oppression, John Brown and Nelson Mandela, for example, waged violent direct actions in their struggles.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the civil rights struggle in America had been waged only by letter-writing and fund-raising? You might think that violence is counter-productive, but surely not the whole non-violent civil resistance revolt which led to the independence of India? And is violence always counter-productive? Would you have opposed the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Second World War? So if states can wage justified violence on each other, and if Harry Potter is justified in fighting organisations and individuals, why aren’t we, autonomous citizens and groups? I don’t mention HP in the same breath as real world wars with any sense of frivolity; I genuinely think it’s amazing that you’ve taken inspiration from a work of fiction to do good in the world. But I want you to follow through on that inspiration: what is it about Harry’s fictional world that makes it so different from our world that you don’t think his tactics are justified in your causes?

Maybe you’ll argue that you want to bring as many people on board as possible, that you want to harness that power of mass culture, that you’re frightened that this kind of militancy, even a non-violent militancy, might alienate people. I have two responses: the first is, did Harry Potter seek to gain a majority of public support, or did he seek to fight his war with a small core of loyal followers? I know HP is a work of fiction, but it’s worth considering why you accept vanguard tactics in fiction and not in reality. And the second point is: maybe a popular movement like yours is exactly what’s needed to really encourage people to engage in mass direct action. Imagine what would happen if Harry Potter fans across the world started occupying threatened forests, barricading corporate headquarters, assassinating murderous politicians! (Again, I don’t see all these actions as equal, or as equally valid, but I do raise them for discussion.)

Maybe you’ll argue that Harry Potter faced a different sort of problem, a different scale of problem. Well, I have some sympathy here. With issues of violence and non-violence, I agree with author Derrick Jensen, who in his inspiring and frightening book Endgame argues that we have to see these decisions as contingent, relative to a situation. He refuses to utterly proscribe violence, or to say it’s always justified (or useful), but he does suggest that we should consider it as a potentially justified tactic. (Remember: why should states wage wars, but not individuals?) And violence aside, non-violent direct action also has to be seen as contingent on circumstances: Gandhi was part of a culture in which he was able to organise mass armies of non-violent resisters, and maybe you aren’t.

But. What scale of a problem are we facing? We live in a world of ever-increasing inequality, in which 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population only have 1% of the wealth, and half of humanity lives on less than £2.50 a day. In which runaway climate change threatens the planet, with the world’s scientists concluding with an extraordinary degree of consensus, that temperatures and sea levels are rising in a way that will cause death and destruction for millions of humans and other species. In which, as you well know, genocide is still rampant. In which millions upon millions of hectares of forest are destroyed every year, and in which we as a species have caused one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Need I go on?

I think the question should instead become: how bad do things have to get before you reach the conclusion that we must fight back? I think the question should instead become whether or not we’re being disgustingly irresponsible by salving our consciences with petitions and protests, instead of taking arms together. I think the question should instead be: those in power have already declared war on the world and its people, so why aren’t we, the other side, fighting back?

Just imagine if Harry had attempted to stop Lord Voldemort by gathering petition signatures and delivering them to the Ministry of Magic! – instead, he saw the urgency of the situation and took matters directly into his own hands; he recognised that adults weren’t doing enough or accepting the severity of the crisis, and so took direct action to solve the crisis himself.

I don’t mean to attack you. I do admire you. And I hope you don’t mind that I’ve posted this publicly. I’m writing not to poke fun at you or to condemn you, but to try and understand why committed moral individuals don’t see the scale of the problem and the necessary solutions. And I include myself in that, because I believe myself that I do far too many protests and petitions are far too few strikes, sabotages and occupations. I’d very much like it if you found the time to reply and helped us to reach an understanding together.

Yours in struggle,

Harry Giles

Israel/Palestine: What do we do now?

(Words of explanation: in April, I directed an interactive theatre project about the Middle East conflict which toured the UK; I’ve also been a Palestinian solidarity activist for the past couple years, although that theatre project spoke/questioned from a more neutral, explorative position.)

Directing Israel/Palestine gave me a deeper insight into the Middle East conflict than I’d had in years of working as an activist: I began to be able to grasp the conflicting narratives and gain an understanding of why things are as they are; it even helped me think more and better about how I and we (my social group? my actors? my country? my society?) could positively act. That’s also what I hoped our audiences gained: if nothing else, then a better understanding, and a more focussed attention on the issue — a willingness to understand, a desire to be involved.

But one of the anxieties of live performance is that it’s quite difficult to keep track of what happens to your audiences afterwards. Immediately following the show they can let you know how moved they are, how much they want to engage better with issues — but what about days after? Weeks after? Months after? I was thinking this a lot as yesterday’s terrible news unfolded; these were my first reactions:

@HarryGiles:

Whenever Israel/Palestine news breaks, I look at my theatre project and think: what did we achieve? Do our audiences now pay more attention?

Of the 200 people who came along, are they really now more empowered to engage with events? Do they care more? Do they ask more questions?

And what about me?… faced with the appalling news of the #FreedomFlotilla attack, do I react differently? Can/will I do more than tweet?

A good friend of mine replied “the ramifications of discussion are not a precise science. It is not a chess game, it is a gesture of hope.” That’s encouraging and partly true, but a part of me still wants to know whether or not my work as an artist-activist is effective, offers practical results.

On another level, I started thinking about the new perspective on the conflict the project had enabled me to have. More than anything else, I now see the war as a war of competing narratives: so much of the work we did involved discovering why people thought as they thought and delivering their own versions of events. We’re dealing here with sides who have competing historical understandings, competing visions for the future, and for every new series of events there is a new narrative division. As news breaks, every news source suffers (often justly) accusations of bias from both sides — every word is loaded with meaning, every reader extra-sensitive. It’s never clearer that there is no such thing as an objective fact. Understanding what happened becomes difficult, and so everyone resorts to their knee-jerk reactions, siding with one narrative or another — because it becomes more or less impossible to do anything else. Here’s what I wrote about these thoughts:

Hashtag lines drawn: #terroristflotilla vs #freedomflotilla . Twitter’s cardinal virtue/vice: brevity makes ideological division so clear.

That Israeli/Palestinian narratives r mutually incompatible & antipathy utterly entrenched never clearer than in responses 2 Gaza flotilla

Follow the war/crisis on Twitter and understand that it is overarchingly a battle for historical narrative.

Territory, faith, revenge, fear, security, cultural imperialism/defence: yes, all of these. But the ends and means are narrative and history

And, of course, historical narrative is here, as ever, delivered through the barrel of a gun.

See, I do take a side, but I take it now with rather more understanding of what the other side is experiencing. When I read a site like Mere Rhetoric, which spins every news item on Israel/Palestine firmly and vitriolically in one direction, I no longer react with disgust and anger — instead, I appreciate the insight into the other side’s mind.

And yet, I do take a side, I can’t maintain neutrality out of the theatre space, and so what am I supposed to do with this knowledge? Ineffectually plead for an end to mutual antipathy and a beginning for understanding? I mean, this isn’t just an argument, these are two narratives fighting for their very existence — for life. Do I want to see the triumph of one? The resolution of both? I don’t really know. I understand more now, but I’m more lost.

I’d greatly appreciate the thoughts of anyone who came to the show.

One Down / Politics of Political Theatre

(crossposted)

One show down. Last night’s debut of Israel/Palestine went, I felt, very well. With interactive theatre — with any theatre, really, but especially with theatre that relies on audience response at its heart — it never really comes alive until you get an audience in the same room as the performers. And we had a good-sized audience, basically a full house (although numbers are fluid), and a very responsive one. We’d had a chance to test our ideas at our scratch, but this was the real test — what happens when we try with 50 people what we’ve never tried with more than 8? Will they move where we want them? Will they feel what we hope? Will they ask what we’d like? Will they do what we really, really want, which is to react in entirely unexpected ways? And will we be able to respond fluidly, with improvisation, to genuinely take their input into account?

Mostly, it all worked smoothly. A hitch here and there, but nothing major, and each risk we took seemed to pay off. The actors kept the pace rocketing along, and the audience took that desired trajectory from enjoyable participation to serious reflection. But what, really, is the measure of success?

It’s whether or not the audiences felt genuinely informed, empowered and moved. There are three aims I have with this piece: to get some basic information about the crisis across, to encourage people to think about and be involved with the crisis in a genuine way, and to bear witness to death, atrocity and sorrow. So if people tell me afterwards that they want to find out more, or if they cry, or if they engage the performers in an argument about politics, then that’s a success. And they did.

As I left the performance space, I found people having a fascinating argument about the purposes and problems of political theatre. Should it try and get a particular message across? What’s the difference between art and propaganda? What’s the difference between coercion and the emotional manipulation common to all art? Are heartstring-tugging and thought-provoking in opposition? What should theatre do, in politics?

Dan Rebellato asked the same thing in a Guardian article called “Can political theatre change the world?” Like George Hunka in his blog, I rather wonder if he’s not asking the wrong question. I really don’t see my theatre, this piece of theatre, as a major actor in large-scale public discourse and action. And I’m sceptical of whether any theatre could be; as Rebellato admits, theatre plays to small audiences from a restricted range of social backgrounds. I also suspect that the majority of theatre, which only allows freedom in the sphere of thought, and not in movement and suggestion, is restricted in what it can do with audiences: impart new information, at a pinch, and maybe provoke a new thought or two, but certainly not empower, and certainly not involve in genuine debate. So I don’t see how theatre could change the world.

What I do think political theatre can do is be an active participant in the world it finds itself in. That might sound a bit abstract, so I’ll try and explain: in this show, we bring a few dozen people into a room with seven performers, and spend 90 minutes exploring a major political crisis with them. We use our own names, we never pretend that the audience isn’t there, that the performers aren’t performers, and that the space isn’t what it is, even if we occasionally ask the audience to use their imaginations to be transported elsewhere. We are in the room with the audience, and we’re asking the audience to be in the room with us. That means that they’re in the crisis with us, and throughout the performance we’re directly asking them to be involved. We are asking them to act within that world, and so within the politics of the crisis in general. We are working to find a way to use theatre to speak with this small group of people, in this small room, and to act with them. Together, we are changing that world. It’s a sort of “Think Global, Act Local”, I suppose, however problematic that statement is.

So this is an idea for a kind of theatre, a kind of performance technology, which we hope can be spread and used widely. As the manifesto we wrote under What is OST? says, we think that everyone should make theatre. The politics of our political theatre is small-scale, viral, local, interconnected, variable. It’s not big story changing the world, it’s about being together with our communities, working with them, understanding the local performance space. That’s a world I can be part of, not to change from the outside, but to develop, together.

Taking Sides and Coming to Terms

(crossposted)

Israel/Palestine, of necessity, entails dealing with some very difficult material. As a company we’re dealing daily with appalling death tolls, appalling suffering, and seemingly interminable warfare; at the same time, we’re wrestling with the political hot potato, the crucible of world politics, possibly the most complex and over-determined debate in the contemporary world. How are we coping?

How we deal with death and suffering — how we come to terms with it — is, strangely, perhaps the easier question to answer: we make art about it.  This is what artists do, daily; we use performance as a coping mechanism, as a catharsis, as an expression of how we’re feeling. In the context of Israel/Palestine, we’re working an act of mourning into the piece — a performance which both expresses out feelings and serves as a remembrance of the many dead, a serious recognition of why the issues matter.

And, though it may seem callous, we play games. If we’ve been working on particularly difficult material, we’ll bring ourselves back by playing a silly game, by finding something to laugh about. And it isn’t callous, really: we have to find reasons to keep living and working, we have to remind ourselves why life matters and so why death matters. We need to do the same thing with the audience: as we move to the stage where we’re putting the show together, we have to balance the serious with the energetic, the appalling with the comic, in a sensitive way that keeps our audience’s attention and enables them, too, to cope with and appreciate the material.

How we deal with the sheer difficulty of the arguments is another question. The first answer is that we’ve adopted a policy of not taking sides but showing sides. Each of us has their own opinion, but we each take responsibility for portraying multiple perspectives throughout the piece. “Neutrality”, as a correspondent pointed out to me recently, is not neutral, and so we’re not aiming for a “balanced” argument; instead, we’re making all the arguments we can, and allowing the audience to choose, if they so wish.

And this is the second way we’re approaching this difficulty: by making this piece, ultimately, about the audience. We want to make it clear at every point that we’re not making a coherent argument, that we don’t believe everything we say (there is a difference between performance and reality) — and the best way of doing that is directly asking the audience to interpret the work independently. And the best way of doing that is to simply ask the audience what they think. I believe fervently in this: as part of a performance, as a form of theatre in itself, having a direct conversation with the audience. We plot this, and we manage this, but we insist on it as well.

We’ve taken on something huge. And it often seems absurd that we, 8 Europeans from however diverse backgrounds, think we have something worthwhile to contribute. But we hope that, in some way, we do. That we can help people come to terms — and, if not take sides, then certainly begin to understand them.

New Video! Very Serious Art Rant

I got quite worked up yesterday morning, and decided to make a video about what I was thinking while still in my pyjamas. I’m afraid it’s all rather earnest.

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