Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline. JB

Our focus in the gallery today was very much on politics and Beuys’ concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole is seen as one great work of art to which each person can contribute creatively. We talked about 7000 Oaks, Beuys’ action involving the planting of 7000 oak trees in the town of Kassel, Germany. And we wondered whether those trees – now 27 years old – and the basalt rocks positioned next to each of them, have survived the plots and schemes of town-planners and developers to ‘improve’ the town! We thought that they probably have survived because their status as ‘artworks’ gives them a kind of protection that ‘ordinary’ trees don’t always enjoy. It’s a strange world we live in!

Talking about trees, I told one of my favourite traditional tales about a greedy landlord who threatened to evict an old woman from her house and the field next to it, where every Spring she grew beans or corn. “Please let me plant just one more crop,” said the old woman. “Very well,” said the landlord. “But when the crop is ready, you must go.” After harvest time, the landlord returned to claim his property. “But my crop isn’t ready yet,” pleaded the old woman. “Look!” She took the landlord out to the field and triumphantly showed him what she had planted: acorns!

In the context of planners and developers, I mentioned an adamant Bexhill taxi driver I recently met who told me that the DLWP was “a waste of public money” and should be immediately pulled down! He was also convinced that the local council shouldn’t have spent public money on refurbishing the town’s Edwardian train station and that what the town really needed on that site was a car park! I thought of a verse from American singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi:

They took all the trees

And put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people

A dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go,

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Til it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

On a more positive note, in the gallery today we stopped in front of Rose for Direct Democracy (1973) and Capri Battery (1985) to talk about how Beuys’ political/environmental ideas chime so well with contemporary movements focused on direct action and localised campaigns. This took us very neatly into the subject of today’s Speakers’ Corner – the Transition Towns movement, which is trying to find new, community-based solutions to the issues of climate change and the depletion of oil supplies.

In the middle of this discussion – and as a kind of aside – one person was very keen to know what happens to the red rose, when it needs to be replaced in Rose for Direct Democracy. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’d really love to have one,” he said. “As a kind of souvenir.” “You’ll probably need to write to the Exhibitions department and make a formal inquiry,” I said. But just then one of the curators appeared in the gallery holding in her hand … a fresh, red rose. “What are you going to do with the old one?” I asked, after she had removed it from its scientific-looking vase and replaced it with the new one. “Throw it out,” she replied. “Can we have it,” I asked. “Why not?” she said.

So the man got his red rose and left with the biggest, beaming smile I think I’ve ever seen.

A smile for direct democracy.

It is impossible for human beings to bring their creative intention into the world any other way than through action. JB


I find the concept of politics increasingly impossible. JB

transition: from the Latin transitionem, meaning ‘a going across or over.’ A noun of action from transire meaning ‘go or cross over.’

Beuys’ 1974 lecture tour in America was called Energy Plan for the Western Man. Of course, he wasn’t just talking about energy in the literal sense – nuclear versus solar, etc – but also about the creative energy of individual human beings and their potential to transform society. This is the orbit of politics which seems to have interested Beuys the most: the politics of personal transformation or transition from one state to a better one.

Our speaker today was Martin Grimshaw, who spoke about the Transition Towns movement and in particular the movement’s work in Brighton & Hove. Martin explained that this work is based on a wonderfully positive premise: that the skills and energy which have brought us to this stage in our evolution can take us forward to face future challenges and opportunities. Transition Towns is about very localised initiatives that seek to harness the skills and expertise of individuals for the greater good of the community – creating a kind of ‘collective genius.’ It’s about imagining positive visions of what kind of society we want to live in and then thinking backwards – ‘backcasting’ as opposed to forecasting – about how these visions can be realised. Above all, it’s about enabling a kind of ‘personal alchemy’ which acknowledges that meaningful transition can best take place when an inner transition has paved the way.

That’s why the Transition Towns movement looks to the world of therapy and personal counselling – as much as to the world of political activism – as a paradigm of effective change. Martin put it quite simply: let’s look around and see who’s actually making a difference in our communities and then let’s learn from them. What is it that drug counsellors or Alcoholics Annonymous or psychotherapy is doing that manages to change peoples’ lives? Isn’t it all based on building personal resilience so that individuals are stronger and better equipped to face change? So let’s use this model of building personal resilience but then extend it to help us face the two big global issues that have to be addressed now and in the coming years: climate change and peak oil.

Peak oil is the point at which we reach the maximum amount of oil that we will ever be able to pump. The beginning of the downward slide may already be happening. The point is, as Martin said, that the repercussions of climate change and peak oil can’t be fixed by a wish or the fantasy that someone else will magically fix it for us. It’s not about them. It’s about us.

How did previous generations negotiate radical changes in their lives? What can we learn from our elders? These questions yield another source of inspiration for the Transition Towns movement and Martin gave several useful examples. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist and its oil supplies to Cuba dried up, Cubans found ways of bringing agriculture into the cities – digging up areas of concrete, growing food in gardens and window boxes – so that they weren’t reliant on tractors and oil-derived fertilisers. Closer to home, in recent flood situations it was often the older people who knew what to do because they’d faced the problem before.

Martin kept his account of the Transition Towns movement brief as he wanted to hear about the ideas and experiences of the group. We had a wide-ranging discussion in which we tried to focus on the small, practical things that we can do to change our towns and our experiences of living in them. Of course, it’s sometimes easier to cite examples of how NOT to improve our environments and we heard plenty of examples of incompetent or insincere initiatives! Some of us felt that the financial pressures on younger people to conform to the standard, ‘business as usual’ model mitigated against involvement in movements for positive change. Towards the end, however, somebody raised the question of how the arts can help to generate transformative ideas or give sharper focus to issues and this seemed particularly appropriate as the discussion was taking place in the entrance to the Beuys is Here exhibition!

According to Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met not through ‘things’ but through the “production of spiritual goods” in the form of ideas, art and education. We didn’t change the world today. But the air was filled with exciting ideas that made us think about our small place in it. And that’s a start.  

Posted by Ryan Coleman on Sunday 30 August 2009