Liz Pugh: Scouting for opportunities

© Віра БалдинюкDSC00441
Liz Pugh is a co-founder of Walk The Plank – one of the most successful companies working with art in public space in UK. During last few months Liz did a lot to communicate with Ukrainian artists and organizations, she visited a number of cultural events and made an open lecture "Creative economy: art that builds communities" for the audience at Goethe Institute. This lecture was a part of of the CCA Foundation‘s Culture 3.0 series, which is aimed at cultural editors, arts managers and journalists. 

Over the next few months Liz will continue exploring opportunities for UK artists, companies and venues, and collaborators in Ukraine, by sharing innovative practice, and looking for partners to invest in the Ukraine’s Arts programme.

Vira Baldyniuk:
Why did you choose Ukraine for your activity? Did the British Council ask you about visiting our country?

Liz Pugh: I think that the British Council is trying to put new resources to the places where they can be most useful…to the area beyond Europe, so countries like Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, the Western Balkans and Israel.

My visit is part of a completely new scheme for the British Council, which they never tried before - putting creative consultants into different countries for a short period of time. They wanted to support that appetite for more knowledge, more contacts, more information exchange that came from particular country teams, like in Ukraine. When I applied I had to state which country is my preference. I only saw the advertisement on a Sunday afternoon, and the deadline was 9 o’clock the following morning, so I had very little time to do any research or talk to people. I was with my little nieces at the time, and we got out a big Atlas: I said “find me Ukraine, find Baku in Azerbaijan, or Serbia, let’s take a look at Kazakhstan” and we found these exotic locations so far away. I remembered Ukraine was described in my geography lessons as “the breadbasket of Europe”…a country with good bread is probably a good country to visit, I thought, and the opportunity to live in Kyiv instead of Baku or Belgrade? An easy question to answer!

Vira Baldyniuk: What is your mission as an expert?

Liz Pugh: British Council is a dynamic organization with offices in 110 countries, and teams working incredibly hard in three main areas – teaching English, Education (pedagogical work, improving teacher training within educational systems) and the arts programme, promoting UK culture. And all of it is about building trust, and creating conditions in which people can understand each other better. It’s a part of British government policy. I was nervous about whether it’s some sort of cultural imperialism. Do we go out and force Shakespeare on the rest of the world? But with the ‘Canny Creatives’, the British Council really want to bring in the expertise of arts professionals who are working in contemporary Britain. And ensure that people back home know about its work – and I think one of the things that British Council is trying to do is keep the organization relevant and up to date in terms of critical thinking. So, connecting professionals from the UK creative sector with country teams allows for a dialogue that is mutually beneficial. I know that I will go back to the UK with a lot of insights, and they could start only beyond the EU.

Vira Baldyniuk: What have you been taught by the situation?

Liz Pugh: My career has always been about putting myself into different places and learning in different landscapes (and not only in a geographical meaning). I’ve spent more than 20 years running my own company, and built a team of fantastically exciting people who, quite frankly, make me look good! So this opportunity was about going “wow that’s outside my comfort zone”: working on my own, in a new place & a new organisation where I don’t know anyone, where I don’t speak the language. It’s given me time to reflect on the value of culture, too.

I’m here to listen as well as to speak. Looking at how the country team work. The British Council head office in London has expertise in visual arts and performance, in music, creative industries. But those people can’t possibly have a depth of knowledge about a very wide region in terms of other countries. I’m here for 6 months and have a chance to dig deeper, and understand some of the complexities of the world in which the British Council is working in this region, and in Ukraine.

Vira Baldyniuk: You are very engaged in art life of Ukraine now. You run a blog, travel all over Ukraine. What are the main things you can see now, being inside of the country, which differ from the UK?

Liz Pugh: We’ll have to meet for another conversation in 4 months because what I tell you now is very much my first impressions…things are always become more grey, rather than black and white. My first impression as a visitor to Kyiv: people are much friendly then in a lot of capital cities. People understand my pathetic attempts to communicate and try to be helpful. In terms of arts and culture scene, I think, the landscape seems to me quite split between institutions that are quite old fashioned in their structure and small independent thinkers and artists that are trying to work differently, with little support.

An example of the first case would be the Opera House I visited in Donetsk with a permanent staff of over 500 people, giving 116 performances per year. (The Royal Opera House in London in comparison gives 428 performances with around 250 full time staff) Donetsk doesn’t have many other cultural institutions and yet this massive opera house produces only 9 shows a month. However, their recent collaboration “Flying Dutchman” with Goethe Institute & SKM did bring different designers, singers and directors into their mix, signalling a good example of more open work with other partners outside the institution. And then, of course, there’s Izolyatsia – a really exciting contemporary art space, also in Donetsk, and home to Ukraine’s only FABlab.

Vira Baldyniuk: What do you think about the frequency of cultural events in big Ukrainian cities, is it enough for the “normal” cultural life of a citizen?

Liz Pugh: Definitely not enough. I get “What’s on Kiev” emails every two days. And the email usually is not very long. Too many cover bands and not enough exciting artistic events for my taste. (I’m excluding the extraordinary events of Maidan from this view, of course) It doesn’t feel like a very cosmopolitan city - I expected more underground stuff going on, a lot more events (but maybe I just don’t know about them). I visited the “Small Opera” and it was exciting to see that venue being used for live music. We have a tradition of squatting old empty buildings - in 1980/90’s, in the north of England young people & artists began to occupy derelict industrial spaces and put on parties, exhibitions and performances and there was a lot of “civic energy” created as a result.

One of my impressions about Ukraine - from talking to young people here, I feel they have an appetite for knowledge, they want to travel, experience new stuff…which is maybe common for all young people. But here they have less understanding of how important culture is in terms of helping to create “new traditions”. And I don’t mean folk traditions, although they have a place… I mean a sense of how you might pay respect to the past, but recognize that the future depends on people, young and old, being engaged in creative discussion. Talking about the difference between Ukraine and UK, young people in England talk about culture like they are a part of making it and they own it. I don’t get much sense of that from the young people I’ve met here in Ukraine.

Vira Baldyniuk: Your company choose quite spectacular kind of arts. The performances involve a lot of people, whole cities sometimes. The shows are for free. Don’t you feel like you are indulging the audience?

Liz Pugh: My journey began with feeling disappointed that I was sitting, watching new work with only a few people in the theatre. My initial aim came from a desire to put great new work in front of an audience. How do you make sure that people are battering down the door to see the work? My first answer was – put the work on a ship and turn up in ports and harbours, which are still at the heart of many communities in the UK. So we set up a touring theatre ship.

The second answer was – if you want those people outside the door to see the work, maybe you can put the work outside the door, taking it outside of traditional theatre spaces. Which means that far more people will see it. And my third answer was about engaging people as participants, not just spectators.

The desire to work in public space comes from a sort of impulse not be constrained inside a traditional space where people have to buy tickets in order to experience the work. Which brings a big economic imperative: when you’re working outside traditional institutions – you are also working outside traditional investment and funding. You have to become smart about becoming sustainable and we did that by making spectacle that people or festivals or cities are willing to pay for and to commission.

So if somebody pays us to put on fireworks for a civic celebration, we always say “yes” because we need that work too. These things are not about “art”, but they are all about running a sustainable company. And if you have a sustainable company, which doesn’t rely on public funding, there is more opportunity to make the “art” - the shows we want to make, on our own terms - as well. I think that there has to be a balance between different kinds of work.

We wanted to develop our own infrastructure of artists, but we can’t afford to keep them in work fulltime. We created opportunities for people to work together and to take risks, earn a living and support a family. You have to create a balanced economy, which means that sometimes people are employed to do corporate fireworks - for Sir Paul McCartney’s wedding, for example. But the main thing is to develop a shared artistic vision and to be able to tell a story – of a town or a place, for example. We’ve grown a team who have learnt to do both very well, because they have knowledge, as freelance/self employed people to sustain the economy and ecology around themselves as well as around “Walk the Plank”.

Vira Baldyniuk: How long did it take to become such an economic model of a company, and how many times did it change?

Liz Pugh: We are still evolving; and I think it constantly changes because the environment in which we are working changes so fast. And one of the advantages of being a relatively small organisation is that you stay flexible and you have to think very quickly; and be a company that is able to expand or contract. So when we take a new big project (say £50,000 GBP/ 700,000UAH), with a team of people who are working for 6 months with up 30 people working on it in the final week, we have to manage expectations because “this is only a project”. I mean that all those people may work together only for that short period of time, and the core team is very small.

We have to be quick to respond to opportunities and work out how we meet them. My job as a producer is scouting for opportunities, talking to city authorities, big institutions, potential partners and people who have money. They tell me the things they want – to bring more people to Blackpool, or to celebrate 100 years of this bridge or whatever, and my role, my job and my skill is to find the way between what they want and what the artistic community needs and desires. That’s not an easy process, it requires compromise and flexibility. Sometimes we go to a client with a really strong artistic idea and it doesn’t get approved. Sometimes we have to say “Sorry, we cannot do what you want”. Can we hold on to our idea and story, or are we willing to change our vision? This involves much more dialogue, and I think this is the difference between how people used to work 20 years ago and how successful companies can make work now. We are shaken by the circumstances.

Vira Baldyniuk: This is one of the main questions - how to be flexible and at the same time how to keep to the big idea and to stay true to art?

Liz Pugh: Let’s take an example of brilliant Ukrainian choreographer & stage director Radu Poklitaru. Someone said maybe he’d “sold out” by working at the Winter Olympics in Russia. But let’s try to see it as a unique opportunity for a Ukrainian artist to work on a large stage before a large audience, with a big budget. That will allow him to grow & to learn, and he will come back to Ukraine with another dimension, another tool in his tool box to benefit artists here. By doing that project he may also be able to earn enough money to say “yes” to a small company from Lugansk who might want to work with him on a small project, for example, a year later. I’m just projecting how this might be. It’s about a balanced economy – personally, organizationally, and culturally at a national level.

There should absolutely be a space for artistic dialogue and discussion and experimental practice. Fight for that space - and personally I think that’s the space that should be supported by the core, by the state or the community of citizens, there should always be a place to take risk.

Vira Baldyniuk: Walk the Plank is a good case of doing important things for ordinary people. How to connect and communicate with the audience?

Liz Pugh: There is always a light tension between “highbrow” art and “popular” projects. That’s a productive tension. Our work uses the vernacular of popular culture, and what we do is rarely covered by critics. There are very few culture commentators and theatre critics who ever write a review about a show which takes place outdoors, or which engages people as participants. They often see us as “community art” with “local” relevance, not worthy of any criticism in national newspapers. I’m quite used to the fact that we sit absolutely outside the world of high art.

I would say it took almost 10 years before we were really recognized as doing worthwhile work. We had to prove, and keep on proving, that the way we work has impact and is hugely valued by audiences and participants. And the British Council has consciously chosen as its “Canny Creatives” people who are NOT working within big institutions in London. They’ve chosen people who are working in different ways, and who can share new thinking.

What’s going on here and back home in Manchester is quite similar in terms of navigating space, trying to engage people in more active roles as citizens and getting hold of opportunities and making them work for all people in this country.

Vira Baldyniuk: The main idea of “Walk the Plank” is that art can change the world. What did you already change in your art-environment?

Liz Pugh: Because we started on a ship – we’ve got mobility in our blood. We turned up, did the show, and sailed off again. I think that was important – the ability to arrive and do something extraordinary, and then disappear. It’s the secret of our success and it’s also one of the biggest challenges. If you are a local – it was like the circus coming to town for one night or one week. And then the circus goes. This moment of transformation, and then the magic disappears. I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot. Is it irresponsible to turn up, get money, and go away? I think that moments of inspiration are fine.

The moments of magic – that’s what I do and it’s absolutely great, but we have to work and live in such a way that we leave something behind too. An echo of that moment of transformation that lasts, and spreads like a ripple across a pond. And what we leave is never a permanent piece of art or sculpture. We try to work with local artists as well as people from local communities who become part of the team - this is a training opportunity and a moment of inspiration for them, and for us. It’s an exchange - they become “Walk the Plank” experts. But what we do is almost always temporary. Because that’s sort of how life is.