An Open Letter To Artists Throughout Wales

Yesterday I attended and spoke at the Arts Freedom Wales Symposium at Chapter Arts Centre. The central theme was ‘Is Wales enjoying its right to artistic freedom of expression?’

The afternoon allowed various people to deliver 3 minute presentations about issues allowing or inhibiting their right to artistic freedom of expression. The topics covered were vast and important – too much to fully cover in one afternoon. The opening speech was made by Meltem Arikan, a Turkish artist living in exile here in Wales. With an outsider’s eye she was able to make some very astute observations about the artistic scene here. Vitally she pointed out our reluctance to offend anyone and our willingness to be offended, both in the work we create and in our discussion of other’s work.

In keeping with this theme I am going to exercise my right to freedom of expression and discuss this event frankly. I left the symposium really fired up – in part due to some great things I had heard and discussed, but mostly in annoyance at some of the things happening.

This is my personal response to the event as a young artist living and working in South Wales. I’m sure that others in attendance had a very different experience.

That one afternoon perfectly demonstrated why people in Wales (dare I say Cardiff) often don’t express themselves honestly and fearlessly. During the break out discussion there were spurious claims being made against institutions and individuals, there was suspicion of anyone new or different, anyone who expressed themselves passionately was quietly mocked, there was bullying with various people ganging up on one individual and many were unable to leave old allegiances or grievances at the door – allowing this to colour their opinion in every discussion.

I didn’t conduct myself as well as I would have liked – I was so shocked by the attitudes of some that I got quite angry.

In the final panel discussion of the day representatives of various artistic institutions in Wales were pressed to give concrete answers to some of the obstacles facing the freedom of expression in Wales. John McGrath of National Theatre Wales quite rightly refused to do so, saying “there are no quick fixes to this.”

The fact these events are happening is a great thing. Even if they can bring out the worst in some people, they show the passion for the arts in Wales and the passion to defend our right to express ourselves how we want. Let’s have more events like this and get even more people and opinions in the room.

Predictably, the young artists and the next generation were pointed out as one of the various answers. Although I appreciate the belief and support of those who expressed this opinion, I have to say we are not the answer.

At what point do I get to look at those younger than me and pass the buck to them? At what point did those expressing these thoughts stop believing in their own power to make change?

As a young artist I have a lot of passion, anger and determination – basically I’m still full of teenage angst that should be long forgotten. Yes, I have relevant things to say to my generation but that doesn’t make my voice more valid or powerful than others who have more experience than me. Most importantly I am yet to gain much perspective on the world around me – something that those older than me definitely do possess.

So I’m willing to make a deal with anyone who believes the young are the future:

If you are willing to express yourself honestly and passionately, being a role model for me, then I will work tirelessly WITH you to be the change we want to see. We won’t always agree about everything but let’s agree to be honest, passionate and fair.

This offer may fall on deaf ears, but I’m young, naive and optimistic – I don’t know any better. 

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Comment by nigel streeter on December 1, 2014 at 16:36

Hello Chelsey,

I was very interested to hear your thoughts and in particular how bold you sound in support of what you think. I can't make any comment about the specifics of what was said and done at the event as I was not there but I certainly do, in general terms, recognise many of the points that you made.

In any group of people you will find individuals who seek, by fair means or foul, to influence that group to think as they think and do as they wish them to do. Such manipulation can be quite subtle and pursuasive or can be quite blatant and aggressive (see you reference to 'Bullying') I understand that I come from an unusual background that could well be described as a bit more abrasive and in your face than many others and I happen to think that a lot of this behaviour is inevitable but I am intrigued by your willingness and enthusiasm to point it out and confront it.

Yes, we do seem to have a very British attitude towards not causing upset or offence (at least not openly to peoples faces anyway) maybe that is deeply ingrained or bred into us as children and we would have to conciously 'go outside' of that conditioning to look at when it might be appropriate. 

And I have to wholeheartedly agree with your comments about this not being all about the 'young' who are the 'future' etc etc We don't live in the past or the future, we only ever have 'the here and now' and that is relevant to all people of all ages, colours, backgrounds blarr blarr blarr. Older people do have a wider perspective on life and the world around them - not because they are more clever or superior in any way, but just because they have been around longer and had the chance to experience more. (I have done young and hope to do quite a bit of old) and the young can be firey, energetic and enthusiastic to bring a sense of immediacy to what is going on around them. So that is why I am mildly obsessive about intergenerational working and trying to harness what different people at different ages can bring to the table. So please do keep on questioning and querying what is going on. In truth that is just about the only way we learn and develop as individuals and groups of people.

Comment by carmen medway-stephens on November 29, 2014 at 17:14

Thanks Chelsea, Sad to hear that during the break the things you mentioned happened, perhaps you can enlarge on what 'the old grievances are' (if you can?)

Comment by Chelsey Gillard on November 29, 2014 at 10:44

Hi Owen,

Thanks so much for getting involved in the discussion. In general Wales is a very wonderful place to work. 

Index - the organisation who organised the Arts Freedom Wales events filmed the whole thing so hopefully some of this footage will become available or they will provided some form of write up of the topics covered. I know you can see some of the online conversations that happened previously on YouTube. Here's a link to the one featuring young artists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yi_sy7O2kME

For me Meltem hit the nail on the head - we are too afraid of causing offense. Often the lines between professional and personal are blurry here, so I can be difficult to retain any kind of professional distance when discussing work.

I'm not sure that any outcomes were reached - we needed a lot more time to filter through the numerous issues raised. So hopefully this discussion will continue and grow.

I'd be really interested to know what the others present would say in response to your question.

Thanks!

Chelsey

Comment by Owen Lindsay on November 28, 2014 at 16:16

Hi Chelsey,

I'm a newcomer to the scene here in Wales, although many of the frustrations you express seem common to numerous regions; I'd be interested to know exactly what you would define as the foremost obstacles present in Welsh cultural life that make free expression difficult - is timidity, manners, cultural cringe or something more deep-rooted?

Intrigued to know what you felt the final outcome of the debate was, besides your own personal reaction.

Best Regards,

Owen

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