Activism in the Guise of an Arts Festival: Precarious by Ann Jaeger
When I was a kid, a local church used to hold an annual Strawberry Festival. A fundraiser for the church, it was held outside on the lawn, with tables of strawberry jam, strawberry pies, tea towels with strawberry needlepoint set out on strawberry printed tablecloths, boxes of fresh strawberries, and paper plates of strawberry shortcake that featured an inordinate amount of whipped cream. My family weren’t churchgoers, so it seemed odd and festive and a place where you ran into people you don’t see often, perhaps by design. Who knew that strawberries could knit a community together? All in all it was a pleasant local celebration of spring that momentarily removed me from the complexities of daily life while exposing me to another side of it. Clearly it left a vivid impression on me.
I still get a rush at most any kind of festival – festivals of seasonal changes and good harvests, festivals of light and colour, festivals of words and music, of spirit or sorrow or liberation. Others, mostly strangers, surround me too. We glance at one another with knowing smiles. My ordinary life collapses, my heart swells and I am taken away. It is a monumental gift. If nothing else, a festival should be a way of reminding us what is worth remembering.
In 2016, Ryan Kerr and Kate Story of The Theatre on King produced Peterborough’s Bernie Martin Festival through their production company, Fleshy Thud. It was to be a month-long celebration of the multidisciplinary work of a prolific, sad-faced, lesser known, but highly influential local artist. As a multi venue festival it also celebrated place, this place, Peterborough / Nogojiwanong, and the eclectic, persistent arts community that infuses it with perhaps more life than it deserves.
Through exhibitions and presentations of Martin’s music, painting and theatre, the festival offered opportunities for 50 artists to work with, or in response to, his prodigious output; to remember him, his connection to here; and to talk about reasons why he, or other under acknowledged artists should not be forgotten.
What is Peterborough after all? The place at the foot of the rapids, the traditional territory of the Michi Saagig peoples for tens of thousands of years, a university town, a bellwether riding, a gateway to cottage country, a company town for General Electric for over a century, a vortex, an “uncanny basin of culture,” a sort of Hotel California that you can check out of but never leave. There are unique layers of culture here that make us rich in spirit, even though our art community is usually taken for granted.
One of the biggest gaffs that Peterborough perpetuates is its inability to document, preserve and archive its cultural treasure. Try to find the story of Christo’s exhibition and visit to artist-run centre Artspace; R. Murray Shafer’s downtown production of The Greatest Show featuring a cast of hundreds; Ode’min Giizis, a festival of Indigenous arts that, for several years, featured high caliber performers like Tanya Tagaq, James Luna, Thomson Highway and A Tribe Called Red; or the story of museum worthy mid-century modernist furniture ending up in a dumpster at Trent University. Historic opera houses and other architectural gems have been demolished or sold for $1, spawning the local hashtag #beyondrepair. Ironically, two of the three presenting venues from the Bernie Martin Festival are now closed. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
Picking up where the Bernie Martin Festival left off, the following year Fleshy Thud, with help from Public Energy, produced the first Precarious: Peterborough ArtsWORK Festival, and it took on a more political tone. There was a talk by activist Chris Hedges with his very bleak take on political decline as well as the power of theatre to reach and speak for the incarcerated. There was Festivus Rattus Rattus 2035, a dystopian spoof of municipal policy based on the Pied Piper fable. Through multiple events and round tables, there was an emphasis on the considerable unrecognized labour that the arts community contributes to a community, both psychologically and economically. The very real poverty experienced by artists was exposed in the Status of the Artist survey conducted in partnership with EC3, Trent Community Research Centre (also defunct) and the Precarious Festival.
But little changed.
The next iteration of Precarious came two years later, with events that brought the voices of marginalized artists into focus – LGBTQ2S+, Indigenous, senior artists that face additional barriers. The idea of basic income and generational hopelessness was explored, as well as the devastating impact of inflationary real estate on the problem of homelessness and on the working lives of artists from all disciplines.
For the first time, six residencies offered artists the luxury of space and a chance to explore without hindrance. The public may not realize the degree to which artists contort their practice to fit granting categories, market trends, available studio space or venue requirements. Funding to experiment or to pursue a project with no constraints or expectations is one of the best gifts you can give an artist. A project may fail or it may succeed, but it will be a worthy step in an artist’s career.
A business leader who attended a panel expressed shock at the scarcity of local arts funding and acknowledged that money was out there, just not for the arts. It became clear that artists were the canaries in the coalmine for the larger community.
But still nothing changed.
Until Covid-19 smacked us upside the head, that is. While the stay-at-home public came to grips with a major shift in their lifestyles, they lavished praise on the importance of the arts. Netflix binges became the norm. Publishers Weekly reported a 10% rise in book sales in 2020. People took up music and painting as hobbies in record numbers.
While small businesses struggled with on and off partial openings, theatres, galleries and music venues, here and around the globe, have been notably dark for over a year and a half. Some artists found ways to present, teach or network online, but everyone agreed it paled next to live experiences.
The introduction of CERB by the Liberal government was unprecedented. It was an income that may have been below the poverty line, yet for artists it was a lifesaver. For many, perhaps for the first time in their working lives, they had a steady income. They were not dependent on part time jobs and government funding that even for seasoned grant-writers seems like little more than a mystifying
lottery. The local fundraiser Arts Alive also partnered the city with the private sector to bring aid to some of the critical arts organizations and venues.
While the pandemic brought the plight of artist poverty out of the shadows, the problem existed long before COVID-19. A slow degradation has occurred. The arts have been assaulted in turn by government under funding, the increasingly extortionary cost of an arts education, the inflationary cost of real estate, the cuts to liberal arts and culture from both the public and post secondary school systems and the philosophical shift of funding bodies from national pride in the spiritual and representational value of the arts, to the arts as an arm and engine of the economy.
Speaking as an artist, I want to break that arm. I defiantly refuse to be an arm, an artrepreneur, part of a “vital” arts organization. My practice has nothing to do with the economy unless it is to reflect on its destruction and reinvention.
The funding emphasis has evolved to creating jobs, drawing tourism, and transitioning to digital media, both to force artists into a business model and to capitalize on their output. Make it big, make it splashy, make it financially viable. Even the grant names underscore their focus on money: The Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, Ontario Blockbuster Fund. The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport forces culture in bed with Tourism whether it likes it or not.
Despite an understanding of municipal limitations, there is a sense of injustice when grassroots arts organizations have to compete not only with one another, but with community groups like special needs hockey or the Elizabeth Fry Society for just over $250,000 from the Community Investment Grants Program; when funding is adjudicated by councillors with no knowledge of the local art scene; when city funded arts administrators make the sunshine list; when music festivals that book out of town tribute bands receive more funding than those that feature local musicians.
In addition to their creative work, and their menial day jobs, artists write endless rounds of proposals and funding applications. They write press releases and letters and presentations to various levels of government advising them of their economic plight, but also of their unseen worth. In the theatre of politics and the economy artists are cast as beggars; they are used as pawns.
Precarious talks about these things, often with humour, always with an earnest desire to add new voices to the table along with ideas for change.
A pattern of cognitive dissonance is the hallmark of our society. Here in Peterborough, we support local businesses, but local artists not so much. We shop local at farmers’ markets but ask the panhandlers to move along. We declare a climate emergency but make sure there is adequate parking for cars. We give millions to developers to build affordable housing yet the evidence of homelessness is everywhere –
the fire pits, soggy sleeping bags and cardboard slabs in the parks, the shopping carts, the bike thefts, the desperation of those evicted from the city centre that radiates through the outskirts. We pat ourselves on the back for all the cans we collect for charity, but fail to address the root causes of poverty. We laud the uniqueness of the arts community and its contributions to the vibrancy of downtown, but fight tooth and nail against more arts support at every turn.
While artists are painted as “liars, flakes and thieves,” Kate Story points out an immense disconnect in public consciousness about the arts: a study from the Urban Institute found that 96% of respondents said they value the arts, but only 27% value artists.
Story calls the Festival a cri du coeur. Her goal is to get money into the hands of artists. A little known fact about artists, is that if you give them money, they usually pass it on to other artists. Story and Kerr have sacrificed considerable time and effort in their own practices to bring younger and more marginalized artists forward.
As supplementary pandemic funding dries up, even while theatres and music venues cannot open to full capacity, how will the arts community survive? How do you stage a festival, when theatres cannot open, artists cannot rehearse or work together due to Covid restrictions? In a small city, how many artists will be forced to relocate due to lack of work? After limping along for months, how many arts organizations and venues will be forced to close? There comes a time when a call for artists yields sparse results, because they have lost their critical mass.
For the moment, despite three postponements and logistical complications, the 2021 Precarious Festival is still providing that critical mass, by assembling dozens of artists from vastly different disciplines and demographics. This year Victoria Ward, Niambi Tree, Mithila Ballal, Justin Million, Jon Hedderwick, Hilary Wear, Jenn Cole, garbageface, Elisha Rubacha, and Brad Brackenridge have been awarded residencies in their chosen disciplines. The work may or may not be presented to the public.
Part of the charm of the Precarious Festival is its goldarn unwieldiness. One can admire the shear scope of the festival, the extraordinary amount of midwifery that goes into producing such an ungainly offspring. The results are surprisingly rewarding, if unnoticed, connecting a host of community sectors, providing mentorships, and shining a spotlight on distinctive, Peterborough-spawned creatives. It is truly a home grown festival, that reminds us what matters.
We live in times vastly different than those of my Strawberry Festival days. The global population has grown from two and a half to almost eight billion people in just over half a century, with all the suffering that entails. In many ways the Precarious Festival is activism in the guise of an arts festival. In other ways it has become an educational event that mentors and provokes the hard questions. It does so while soulfully reminding us that art has persisted throughout the human experience, in every culture and civilization. It reminds us that art work is work, beautiful and important work.
You won’t hear the word resilience without some eye rolling in the arts community. Who better to pick at and unravel the threads of poverty and injustice better than artists? Who better to imagine and create solutions to societal challenges of every sort?
Ironically, the Precarious Festival continues because artist poverty continues. Over and over it keeps asking: what will it take to truly make a place at the table for the artists?