Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Tales of the Imagination

Are you stuck in a rut? Are you struggling to find a way forward? Are you continually coming up against the same problems? Then the answers may be provided by consulting an artist. That was what I was promised when agreeing to see one of the country’s up-and-coming artists and would-be shaman Marcus Coates. He put his theories to the test by providing his “Unblocking Service” to invited guests in Kendal, Cumbria. He outlined to me why he believes skills learned by artists can be used by the rest of the population. “Art is a solo activity, necessarily self-indulgent, but the skills we use can be very helpful for other people. “The trick is to find a way to communicate those skills in a functional way, teaching people to use their imagination to explore a different way of looking at rationality.” Coates has outlined his theories in a book Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning, about how to use the imagination for practical purposes. He holds workshops for people “encouraging them to go into their unconscious world, and allowing solutions to appear in front of them.” He believes that indigenous peoples naturally use this method of thinking, and it is a skill that the Western world has lost. “Only 2% of decision-making is conscious, meaning 98% of the unconscious does the work. It is a matter of tuning into that.” During his sessions at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Coates had one-to-one sessions with people helping them resolve issues. I was his first victim. As a journalist based in the Lake District, I was interested in how to overcome the London-centric view of most of the national media. He related to that as an artist. “The Art World has a set of set ideas about what is valuable. That comes from a cultural elite propagated in London. “The answer is to forge something new outside of London, which is now happening all the time, but may not be recognised. “More and more artists are no longer looking to London to valuate what works. We should all bypass London, especially in these days of the Internet, to Europe and the Rest of the World.” He also predicts that artists will have to leave London as they will not be able to afford to live there. “They will be a cultural backlash where the producers will no longer live in London and form their own groups and networks elsewhere.” Coates works with video, photography, sculpture and performance. His extensive knowledge and understanding of wildlife has led him to create unique interpretations of the natural world and its evolving relationship with society. At one point in our session, we both yielded to our imagination. True to type he conjured up wild animals behaving strangely. This represented a lack of understanding, a sort of chaos, he explained. He then drifted into a dark, sub-marine environment that culminated in him taking on the form of a sea-otter anchored to a strand of kelp. He said this made him feel relaxed and it brought him relief to be at the mercy of the current. Coates was born in 1968 in London and graduated from the Kent Institute of Art and Design in 1990. He completed his MA at the Royal Academy in 1993. He is recognised for his performances and installations that employ shamanistic rituals and contrast natural and manmade processes. A key element to these explorations is his use of shamanism and rituals to help resolve social issues, such as Journey to the Lower World (2004) in which Coates sought guidance from animal spirits for tenants in a condemned Liverpool tower block, At the Baltic in 2007 he showed Dawn Chorus, in which the human voice accurately mimicked birdsong. In this multi-screen video installation 19 singers reproduced a recording of a group of wild British birds singing at dawn. In The Plover’s Wing (2009) Coates performed a shamanic ritual to help answer questions put to him by the Mayor of Solon concerning the Israel/Palestine crisis. Underpinning all his work is an absurdist streak and deadpan humour that allows him to communicate complex and difficult questions to a wide audience. Marcus Coates has exhibited internationally and was awarded with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists in 2008 and the Daiwa Foundation Art Prize in 2009. In 2013, he was shortlisted for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. He needed all his ingenuity at Abbot Hall. His sessions were due to be held in a wooden structure, a bit like a space-pod on stilts, designed by the architectural practice Sutherland Hussey. Called Anchorhold, it was built from 25 sheets of ply, precisely machine-cut in such a way so that all pieces interlock with minimal wastage. Unfortunately it wasn’t up to the Cumbrian weather and let the rain in. So Coates had to carry out his sessions in a small room in the gallery.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

How Rights are a curse for communities

Read, if you so please, this press release from Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team and then I will try to explain how Human Rights/Data Protection legislation makes this sort of nonsense ever more common: “At around 8.30 p.m. on Saturday night, a late evening but with many groups still out on the mountain, a ‘999’ call was received by Cumbria Police from a pair of walkers in their 20s who reported themselves as lost and stuck on large rocks somewhere on the summit of Scafell Pike. Their location was digitally established by the team leader using the SARLOC system as being on a rocky path within 100m of the summit. They were very lightly equipped, no spare clothing, no map or compass but did have torches. They had ‘gone on ahead’ of the father and friend on the way to the top and became lost. The father had the only map and compass in the group. If the couple had a map they would not have known how to use it. As they were so close to a busy summit, the team leader worked hard to encourage them to make their way to the top and find some helpful walkers. They were unwilling to move as ‘legs were seized up’ even though they knew the team would take a further two hours to get to them. A limited callout followed, with four team members setting off plus one team member already on the mountain working with a group and a further team member from Penrith MRT already on the mountain. The father and friend, who had presumably given up, were descending via Lingmel Col. They were quickly located by the team member on the fell but the father was not willing to re-ascend to assist in locating his daughter and friend even though their location was now accurately known by the team leader and they were safe on a path although cold and wet. The team eventually brought the pair back down to the valley bottom, after a very frustrating night for the team leader, and reunited the pair with the father who was asleep in his car at the bottom. The incident was closed at 2.30 a.m. Inexperience, lack of equipment, insufficient preparation, inability to get themselves out of trouble, not staying together as a group and a less than helpful group leader (the father) – another avoidable rescue to add to the many the volunteer teams are having to deal with.” So what has this got to do with Human Rights/Data Protection? Well before these twin curses came to dominate British legislation, the MRT would have been more than likely to name the parties involved in their press release. The family concerned would have been humiliated and ridiculed by their peers. Anyone tempted to repeat their follies would have thought more than twice and probably decided to act more responsibly. In fact when the Government first brought in data protection, to safeguard us all from bankers and other pushy institutions selling on our personal details, the Commissioner appointed to police the Act took it upon herself to use the law instead to attack the media. Her name was Elizabeth France and her first case actually involved a newspaper publishing details of a teacher who took a school party to the top of a mountain in bad weather and inappropriately dressed. When the MRT told the Press the name of the teacher and the school, he appealed to the Commissioner under data protection legislation. The result was the start of a remarkable clamp down on details given to the media about all sorts of information which ought to be in the public domain. Never mind that crime victims might want to talk about their experiences to elicit help for the police in catching the culprits; Never mind that traffic accident victims use up public monies for ambulances, hospitals and police; never mind that fire victims are already known to everyone in the neighbourhood and may want to talk about these very public events; none of them any longer have their names released by the police to the media. Of course the media have other sources and you will notice the commonly used “named by local sources.” But police are now so fearful of upsetting “human rights” they won’t even confirm names obtained from other sources. That is why they will never get to hear about any useful information the community might have about these “victims” and which may be pertinent to the police inquiries. And that is why people will continue to act irresponsibly, and make demands on our emergency services with impunity. They know that their actions will never face the scrutiny of their peers. Human rights now trump the right on the wider public to know, at least in the eyes of our misguided legislators and law enforcement agencies.

BT blocks path to global market

THE message is loud and clear. The future prosperity of the nation and viability of our businesses are inexorably linked to the world-wide web. This is especially true of rural economies. The Internet is crucial to sales and profits in a global market. TV Troubleshooter Lord Digby Jones reinforced the point when he dropped in to Ambleside to launch Cumbria University’s business hub. He urged the county’s companies to tap into the rising Chinese middle-class market, which cannot get enough luxury goods from us Brits, apparently. Well, I am sorry to be a prophet of doom. But if we rely on British Telecom, the monopolistic IT provider, our efforts are doomed to failure. The company has become so big and global economy focused that it has lost touch with its customers. I didn’t want to bother Lord Digby with our little local difficulties, but at the very moment he spoke to the cheering audience in Ambleside, the village where I live was without the Internet. The householders didn’t even have landline telephones. This was three full days after a cable collapsed and lay between the grazing sheep in a field. It took another three days for BT to get their act together and fix the fault. That meant that for six days this journalist could do no research, or access e-mails or communicate with his potential markets. Next door a doctor could not research her ground-breaking thesis, or offer her services as a locum. The other side a bed and breakfast business couldn’t book in any guests, even though one provisional booking was for workers from Open Reach, BT’s arms length repair service. Oh irony of ironies. The mail order business over the way could not sell or dispatch anything; the caravan site owners up the road couldn’t take bookings or even pay its staff through the electronic system it uses. A week is 2 per cent of a year. 2 per cent can make the difference between profit or loss, viability or administration. Yet despite the crucial nature of this very obvious fault, could we get BT to respond? Not quickly enough. Like most of the villagers, although not all, I have a mobile phone, so as soon as I became aware of the lack of Internet and landline phone on Easter Sunday I contacted BT, or their agents, in Asia. They told me that as it was Easter, they had no engineers and the clock wouldn’t start ticking until Tuesday. They then had four days to fix the fault. I said that wasn’t good enough and asked to register a complaint, which is what I was told would happen. The next day, Easter Monday I found the fault, the cable lying in a field. My neighbor tells me he has been telling BT for years that their cables are slung too low across the fields and are bound to get snagged in farm machinery. Some of the telephone poles are rotten. One even has a woodpecker nest in it. BT ignores these little local problems until there is an emergency. Then they take four days plus Bank Holidays to respond. I rang my friend in Bangalore or wherever to tell them my exciting news. I don’t think it was even the same city I was talking to, and they confirmed it would be the following Thursday before they got started. When I squealed they said I was the only complainant and it was being handled as a single customer problem. I then toured the village to find that every other resident (nine households) had complained their businesses were completely blocked by the fault. I also found out that the caravan site owner was actually a BT business customer and was thinking of quitting as his upload speed was one third of one Mega-Byte. I confirmed mine was less than 1MB. Stress levels were rising and the only conversation when we met in the lanes was how BT was ruining lives and businesses. Then joy, on Tuesday an Open Reach engineer turned up, climbed one of the offending poles and with his little hand-held computer tried to fix each connection in the junction box. After telling him how pleased we were to get some action, I said that although I am no expert I thought he was wasting his time and pointed out the offending cable in the grass. He looked shocked, even though I had told BT the problem two days previously. He descended and was joined later in the day by a van load of clip-board holders, who took notes, shook their heads and disappeared again. On Wednesday an Open Reach van appeared and said that new cables, poles and junction boxes would have to be ordered and it would probably be the week after that before work started. Another neighbor went to the nearest Open Reach depot, in Kendal, to make his views known. On Thursday a van and a cherry-picker turned up and the cable restored. Within minutes Internet and land-lines were working again. The poles are the same rotten ones. The cable still hangs low over the fields. If rural areas are really to be given a level-playing field in the global economy, then the infra-structure needs to be in place to support them. Cables slung over fields are susceptible to wind, ice and tractors. High speed broad-band is not even an option on such copper wires on Victorian technology. It doesn’t matter which Internet provider you use, unless it is satellite, the Internet comes down wires maintained, or not, by BT. In the long term, fibre-optic cables, laid underground are the only answer, unless you are lucky enough to live near a business hub. In the short to mid-term, BT needs to drastically improve its customer service. Until that happens rural economies are destined to lose out in the global market.