To Tell of the Telling

is a writer, artist and photographer from Doncaster, South Yorkshire. He is co-founder and manager of Bentley Urban Farm, an upcycled market garden which uses waste materials to teach people how to become more resilient and live more ecologically stable lives. He has written occasionally for Dark Mountain since issue 2.
Last Saturday evening (November 10th, 2012) we unleashed the first ever Telling on an unsuspecting crowd of good Doncaster folk, and thankfully they seemed to like it. In fact, they did more than like it: they welcomed it with warm, friendly, open arms and said ‘Let’s do that again!’ The important word being ‘let’s’, as in ‘let us‘, because that’s exactly how most people feel about The Telling; when they understand it for what it is, they want to be involved. More delightful than the waves of applause which washed over our performers (which were very delightful indeed) are the waves of ideas which have been filtering through ever since. For the last couple of days I’ve been busy planning an ‘open imagining’ event to get the ball rolling for part two of The Telling in February.

I’d love to take credit for the first event (and you can read about exactly what happened that evening here), but the truth is that it has grown organically from a series of chance meetings and it would continue to grow if I fell off the world tomorrow. I’ve already written a longer description of the events which gave rise to the idea, so I’ll briefly say that The Telling grew from a desire to capture the flavour of Tom Hirons, Rima Staines and Dougie Strang & co’s performances at Uncivilisation 2012, bottle it, and bring it (and hopefully them) back to my home-town of Doncaster. It would have remained a dream if it were not for added inspiration from local artist Rachel Horne (whom Dougald Hine speaks very highly of in Dark Mountain book 2, and who also spoke at Uncivilisation 2011) and the generosity of world-renowned street artist Phlegm and the Doncaster Central Development Trust (DCDT) who own Church View, the former art college where Saturday’s performance took place.

A few months ago I was invited to Church View on other business and I knew instantly that it’s post-apocalyptic courtyard was the perfect space for a fire-lit story or two. I sent pictures of the courtyard to Phlegm and he too fell in love with it. Rachel and I drew together a number of artists from Doncaster and Abi Nielsen and Iona Hine of the South Yorkshire Dark Mountain group brought in artists from Sheffield and it wasn’t long (ten weeks from our initial meeting to be precise) before we had a show… and what a show it was.

I’ve already written an overview of The Telling Pt1: Where were you when the lights went out? over on the The Telling blog, so rather than talk about the evening itself I think it would be more productive to talk about how a group of people who barely knew each a few months ago could come together and create something wonderful with a budget of £125. Especially as the initial idea was to have a series of ‘Tellings’ in different towns, if possible in each town where there’s already a Dark Mountain group.

Firstly, never underestimated how many people are willing – eager even – to put a lot of their own time, energy and imagination into making the world a little more magical, with little or no personal recompense save for the joy of creation. Phlegm himself is the perfect embodiment of this DIY/maker ethos. Everything which he produces – and he produces a lot! – is self-financed through the sales of his own prints and comics (he’s invited to paint all around the world, but sometimes he even has to cover his own air-fare – quick tip, if you’d like to support his work send him some air miles!.. or at least buy his forthcoming book). The only time he has done anything remotely ‘commercial’ is when a skateboard park in Sheffield was threatened with closure and he provided clothing manufacturer Paul Smith with artwork for limited edition t-shirts to raise the funds which eventually saved the park.

Everybody involved with The Telling gave their time for free. The £125 budget I  mentioned  went towards materials like paraffin and marine flares (which should give you something of a clue as to what the spectacle itself looked like on the night!) Most of the other materials we needed for the event were either found (in supermarket skips or on Freecycle) or donated by the artists themselves. Refreshments were served on a donation basis and tickets for the event were £1 each, yet we still made around £280 on the night (some of this will cover the costs of the food and drink and the rest is going to help set-up the two aspiring young street artists who manned the bar).

We’re looking into ways to recompense more people for their time and material costs for Part 2 of The Telling in February, but I think we’ve shown that an initial lack of money is no obstacle to making things happen. In fact, building an event like this from next to nothing – and expecting nothing in return – is a great way of critiquing the central ethos of the dominant consumer capitalist culture. It wasn’t a British Burning Man (a long-held dream of yours truly), but it convinced me of the possibility of a British Burning Man! Anyone got a spare field …?

As for the artists themselves: we found that you don’t have to look  far for some amazing talent. Every artist involved with the first Telling was from South Yorkshire; Phlegm, Tim Ralphs, Abi Nielsen, Iona Hine and Mr Fox all hail from Sheffield, the Pixies are based in Rotherham and everyone else is from Doncaster. Doncaster is often described as a ‘cultural desert’ by people who should know better, and the local authorities have spent tens of millions on a new ‘cultural quarter’ to try and ‘attract’ more talent to the area. The reality, of course, is that there is plenty of ‘culture’ in Doncaster, it’s just not the kind of culture which fits conveniently inside the tick-boxes of grant/publicly-funded bodies.

In truth, the voices that we really need to be listening to in constructing a counter-narrative to the stories propagated by the Machine probably won’t be appearing on daytime TV anytime soon. The people of Doncaster have known nearly three decades of economic collapse, and before that they witnessed the ecological destruction of their immediate environment during the heyday of industrialism. So it would be more incredible if the people of Doncaster didn’t have something worthwhile to say about the terrible situation which we are all currently facing.

What is true of Doncaster is true of every other town; our cities, towns and villages may have all begun to look the same on the surface, but in terms of talent – and potential tales – there is a deep and diverse seam of experience running throughout these fair isles which is waiting impatiently to be tapped. Our experience in Doncaster was that there were many people who wanted something like The Telling to happen, but very few who believed it actually could… at least ‘not in a place like this.’

In terms of organisation, I think what we did here could perhaps best be described as ‘horizontalist’. The Telling has been something of an organic process, coming together collectively with little, if any, central planning. We gave the very wonderful Tim Ralphs something of a shock when he asked who wrote the performance schedule and nobody could answer. We had meetings, but mostly these involved walks and talks and and lots of ‘what ifs?’ This is not to say that people didn’t take control of certain aspects, just that any leadership only came to the fore when needed, and then only temporarily.  Or as Abi Nieslen observed: ‘It doesn’t mean no-one takes charge, it means that when you are the best person to take charge, you do so.’ The experience was far removed from the hackneyed idea of the all-powerful, maniacally egotistical director. In truth, people didn’t need much direction, they just needed a space (both physical and mental) to develop and share their ideas; which brings us to the most important element of the performance.

The Telling would not have been possible without the DCDT. We’re lucky that the trust is managed by artistically-minded people who realise that property is only an asset if it’s actually being used. Most towns will have a space which is perfect for storytelling and, unless it’s in the hands of a ruthless money grabber, a lot of managers and landlords will appreciate the positive publicity an arts event can generate. Stories are best told around a fire, and fires are best kept outside; this gives The Telling an added advantage as it makes use of spaces which are often overlooked and which carry less potential risk to the owner. The success of our arts-based event has already opened up possibilities with regard to more practical permaculture and self-reliance workshops.

So if you have some people, some imagination and a building, you can have a Telling. Having done the risk assessment for Saturday’s event I can give you a hundred reasons why it might fail. But I can’t think of one good reason why you shouldn’t try.

So, come on Mountaineers: tell us a story.


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