As has been pointed out by others more educated and informed than me the name is NOT the biggest problem with this site, but it 100% does illustrate is the clearest possible terms what is badly wrong with Castlebrook and Stepladder and their plans.
‘Isn’t cultural imperialism amazing’ I joked with my fellow gig goers as we stood in awe of the amazing line up at last weekend’s Biggest Weekend in Belfast.
I mean as a spectacle and an experience it was amazing, but also I would file it in the column marked ‘Things that we definitely wouldn’t be getting in the event of Northern Ireland leaving the UK’. I would always say pre-Brexit, if I HAD to make a choice that probably the BBC was the clincher. Culturally Lauren Lavern, Doctor Who and Match of the Day ground me more than any flag. And here was that connection made flesh on my doorstep. Without at doubt the best line up I will ever pay £18 for.
Something has been bugging me though, and not just the beer prices. The Biggest Weekend wasn’t just about the gigs, all week BBC6 Music has been telling us how amazing Belfast is, promoting the Oh Yeah Centre, talking about local music and retelling the story of NI punk and how important it was. All fine… except something wasn’t sitting right with me.
I think it started when a trail for a documentary about Belfast had a clip of a young woman saying something like ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, everyone’s welcome in Belfast’… Oh right… are you sure you’re talking about my Belfast? You know the one with the highest incidents of racial attacks in western Europe? The one that has homophobic legislators? The Belfast where we still haven’t managed to agree on what basic human rights are?
I guess from then I began to think about the sort of Belfast that was being promoted. Who was advising 6Music about the stuff they should talk about? It all seemed a bit safe. It all seemed a bit whitewashed.
I’m not sure what I expected. I’m not sure that bad news sounds great shouted through a microphone between songs in front of 18,000 people. But where was the edge? I’ll always tell journalists that you should come to Belfast and witness it in all it’s twisted energy, the dark with the light, the anger with the elation. It’s an angry town, it’s a fuck you town, and we didn’t hear much of that. We got loads of Van Morrison and 70s punk, no ASIWYFA, no Robocobra Quartet, not even any Joshua Burnside. The ‘fuck you’s were all 40 years old. (OK OK, Touts)
So while on Friday I was joking about how the BBC had come to Belfast in a cunning plan to remind us all that the UK wasn’t all about the DUP, by the Sunday I’d begun to think of it in a very different way. By Sunday I was beginning to think that the Biggest Weekend was the opiate of the middle aged. We forgot for the weekend about the utter mess that we’re in, and felt good about now.
What did I expect? I’m not sure, there’s still a lot to love about Belfast. I love it. And I’ve certainly found out through work that it’s a great city to visit. But for those of us who live here… don’t we need a new punk? Don’t we need a new fuck you? There was so much talk about how much better it was than 30 year ago but nobody was saying ‘Hold on lads, it’s worse than it was 10 years ago.’
So here I am again, finding something negative about one of the best weekends of my life. But I guess I’d say I’m not complaining, I’m just holding a radio station I love to a higher standard. I’ve heard the stories of Terri and Van and Holmer a thousand times and I LOVE those stories. But I don’t love those stories because of what they meant 30-40 years ago, I love them because of what they mean to me NOW. Belfast has a tradition of outsider art which SPANS the last 40 years, it didn’t stop with the gunfire. I hold onto that spirit because it makes sense of the mess we’re in NOW.
So listen, that was great, Orbital one night, Underworld the next, just a dream line up (for me anyway). But now it’s time to get back to work. Belfast is NOT a place were everyone is welcome. Belfast is NOT a place where everything is alright now. And 6Music sure as fuck aren’t going to fix that for us.
A couple of years ago I wrote this blog to try and point out why the arts should absolutely not bear it’s share of the cuts that are devastating our community. It should be noted that since this blog was written further cuts have been made, quietly friends have been losing their jobs and just this week the Mac have said they may have to close.
I think it’s important that this doesn’t become about the Mac. This is not about whether the Mac could make savings or whether the Mac should be saved. This is about the fact that we are investing in division while cutting the thing that can fix us and have been doing so for a generation…
This morning I got onto an argument on twitter with a young lady who was suggesting that in the current climate she didn’t believe in funding the arts. An 11-15% cut isn’t enough for her obviously, she wants to stop funding the arts altogether... cause y’know, the health service and that.
To be fair I kind of lost the rag a bit but it’s impossible to conduct these conversations in 140 characters and so here I am, writing another angry blog.
The tweeter in question worked in the media, hardly a surprise as they are the worst perpetrators of this arts vs health argument. And it’s a ridiculous tabloid argument that has no place in a reasoned discussion about how public money is spent and what sort of society we want to build. Having said that I do think for people who don’t follow it as closely as me it might make some basic sense. So let’s talk in facts not some fantasy game show were people are being asked to choose between a child with cancer or an banker guzzling champagne in a box at the Opera House.
Northern Ireland historically gets considerably more investment per head than any other part of the UK. Despite this our investment in the arts has consistently been at about half p/h of the rest of the UK. At pre-cut investment levels the OU is folding and others will follow because with the current level of investment we can’t sustain our flagship organisations
This funding represents 0.1% of the total block grant. A one thousandth. The proposed cuts will save a tenth of a thousandth. A ten thousandth? See the wee pie chart I did, that’s the arts. How much do you think you’re going to save cutting 10% of next to nothing?
The ten thousandth that goes to ACNI, (not even all of that gets to the sector cause it has to pay for the Arts Council too), is just less than £11m in the proposed DCAL budget. DCAL, who dishes this money out, is proposing to keep £18.5m just to run the department. So the department is costing nearly twice as much as the arts investment.
The arts sector is not a luxury item that can be cut with impunity. It is a sector, with jobs, investment, exports and economic benefit. Why is it easier to cut than tourism, agriculture, Invest NI, youth services, stadiums, urban regeneration etc etc. Do we have to engage in some sort of mass self-flagellation? Are we not allowed to have fun making the country better or is fun banned until the waiting times in the casualty in the Royal come down?
Basically what’s going to happen here in the next 10 years is a quantum shift in public spending. Our block grant is going to be hammered. Even a 100% cut in the arts would not begin to solve this problem, yes savings have to be made but the savings being made by cutting the arts paltry allocation will make tiny savings but devastate the sector for decades. We’ve underinvested in one of our best assets for years and now when we need it most we’re going to cut one of the most effective economic drivers we have.
But we also need to ask ourselves what sort of a country do we want to live in? To paraphrase Douglas Copeland are you happy to be a cheetah in a zoo? Safe, fed and watered but never really able to run like you were born to. Never able to run really fast.
Even if it wasn’t stupid, pointless and ignorant, even if it could save the NHS I still wouldn’t cut the arts, cause what the point of life without quality of life? For everyone, not just those who can afford it. As has been quoted much in recent days, what exactly are we fighting for?
We love Christmas. We love seeing old friends, eating amazing food and giving people stuff.
We also love supporting local small businesses and every year we do a Small Business Santa and point out places like Ink Monkey or Out To Lunch or all the craft fairs where you can get great presents. Problem is that this year at Seedhead we've so many great things to offer you that we don't really have room for anything else. So here goes...
We've got a new shop on our website. You can buy vouchers for The Half Bap, Midweek Magic and the Street Art Walking Tour. We've even got groovy wee custom vouchers for the tour and we're throwing in a free Seedhead sticker with every order. You can also get the Bankers Sticker Packs here.
But that's not all we've a stack of events on sale that would make really great gifts. Check it...
NEW - Belfast Gin Fest
If your present target likes gin, this is the one for you. Tickets are between £12 - £20 per session.
NEW - Stranded at the Strand
We're starting a BYO Friday night arts club at the Strand Arts Arts Centre in 2018. The first 11 shows are on sale, they're only £6 and each one of them is awesome.
NEW - Short Courses at the Faculty
Just on sale - short courses in Street Art, Magic, Care of Indoor Plants and Dark Room Techniques
If your loved ones aren't into ANY of that... I don't know.
Have an amazing Christmas everyone and spend your cash locally.
Adam & Ali
The deadline for objecting to the next phase of the Royal Exchange development is MONDAY. There's not much time.
There's a ton of info about what's wrong with the plan and how to object on the #SaveCQ page, and here's mine. (DON'T cut and paste it, it won't be listened to unless you take a bit of time to write your own)
Planning Application Ref: LA04/2017/2126/F
To Whom it may concern,
I am writing to object to the planning application above. I am a resident in Belfast and make my living in the area in question. On a personal and professional level I believe that this proposal is clearly made with no thought to the long term health of the city and it’s residents and is driven exclusively by the desire of the London based developers to extract as much money out of the city. I consider it to be the planning role of Belfast City Council’s to provide protection from such naked profiteering and ensure that developers add value to the city and service the development we need not just the development that makes the most money for the developers.
Specifically as a sole trader working in the area I am particularly concerned about the economic impact that this will have on me and other small businesses working in the area. Belfast’s retail core already has a vacancy rate of 17% - in short we don’t need more big shops. Or offices for that matter. We need housing, arts provision and retail suitable for small businesses.
But more than that it’s not just about the retail focus, it’s about the poor design aesthetic of the plan. They are cookie cutter buildings that could be anywhere. Another office/shopping centre we don’t need in the centre of the one area of the city that everyone agrees has the most unique character, (a character which allows me to make a living). The motivation for this is clear. The developer believes that this is the easiest way to make the most money in the shortest period of time. They will talk about investment and job creation but in the long term this will add nothing to our city and benefit no-one but the London based developers.
Belfast’s Cultural Framework says that ‘we will connect people to the city, it’s stories, places, arts and heritage’ and ‘place culture, arts and heritage at the heart of Belfast’s ongoing narrative’.
I believe this application needs to be seen in this context. There is no sense of place, there is merely a ‘will this do’ aesthetic. It lacks a knowledge of or sympathy for the city it wishes to inhabit. It shows no awareness of the cultural context or how this plan will impact on the ecosystem of the surrounding city. It’s too high, too close to important heritage sites and out of step with what we need.
In addition this application needs to be seen in the context of the larger plan for the area. This footprint could easily facilitate the anchor tenant that the developer believes is the key to the plan and if it’s not here then it will most likely be on the footprint of the North Street Arcade requiring the demolition internally of that important building.
Finally while there was a pre-planning consultation which I and a number of Belfast residents contributed to, this application pays no attention to ANY of the concerns raised at that stage. The process was conducted in early July, many residents I spoke to had no notification and when I did raise concerns at the event in the Mac I was told that the plan represented an economic reality - as if this rendered my concerns moot.
In short the economic interests of developers, architects, corporations and PR companies, none of whom are from Belfast, are being put ahead of the interests of the people who live here.
This can be seen in the way that they conducted the consultation, the way that they have tried to promote the development in the following months and it is writ large all across this application that bears no resemblance to the sort of development that will workfor Belfast.
Because of this and because I believe that this plan directly goes against the Belfast Agenda, the Cultural Framework, The Urban Design Framework of BMAP, The Strategic Planning Policy Statement andThe Belfast City Centre Conservation Area Guide I would urge Belfast City Council to reject this proposal in it’s current form.
It’s a slap in the face not an economic reality.
If you're wondering what we've been doing with all that spare time that we have since we quit doing Culture Night full time, next weekend (14/15 October)at Mount Stewart will in part answer your question.
This is our second year doing the Mount Stewart Conversations Festival and as always when you do something for the second time you can really get your teeth into it. As well as having a much clearer idea of how the event would work we've had longer to think about it and more time to really work up the ideas as our heads aren't fully consumed with running Culture Night.
Right away the main thing that we decided to communicate was the idea that even if you weren't interested in coming to the headline events this would still be an amazing weekend to visit. The festival will mean that there's SO much extra bang for your buck not less.
The other thing we wanted to do now that we had time was to get all the amazing artists that we work with to work up a bit more of a bespoke experience. What is a festival of ideas? Is it just lots of people who know stuff talking about things. Well yes it is that a bit, but what if a festival of ideas was a place where you didn't just get told things or even engaged in debate about things? What if it's like a Disneyland for your brain? What if it's like a carnival of thought experiments? What if the main thing that you learnt at the festival was to question everything?
And then I got obsessed with the idea of the Easter Egg hunt that they have round the lake. It's basically just some laminated clues round the lake and if you collect them all then you get some chocolate. AND THEY COME IN THEIR THOUSANDS!!! What if instead of laminated clues there were actual characters to collect? And what if those characters represented thought experiments not questions about famous rabbits? What if my kids, who get given a binary, bible centred moral compass in their school had the chance to engage in broader philosophical concepts through the medium of an animated scavenger hunt? YES!
So on the weekend of the 14th & 15th October there's a bunch of REALLY brilliant things happening in Mount Stewart that we didn't organise. Some of them are paid for and some of them are free. But there's also three strands of programming that we at Seedhead are really excited about and they're ALL FREE*.
Check out the Facebook pages for more details. Like, share and invite your friends and family to the North of Ireland's first ever Festival of Head Melting.
The Garden of Thought Experiments
The Lake Trail at MSC
The Faculty Lectures at MSC
*You need regular admission to Mount Stewart. Members are free and admission to the festival for non-members is the same as any other weekend, (except this weekend you get a ton of extra free stuff)
Something very weird is going on in Belfast. But you probably haven’t noticed. I’m not even sure how to explain it, it’s going to take a while…
Let’s look at the facts as I know them…
Two weeks ago the Cathedral Quarter was covered in stickers and a massive mural went up on North Street. They were of a Black Triangle with TBC in it. No-one knew what it was for but whatever it was they were dicks. They were trying to drive traffic to an Instagram account which in turn led to a website with a countdown to something in 50 days time. A quick bit of research led us to Stepladder Communications, a PR company based in London who do PR for property developers.
So we don’t know who it is. But we do know that they are very well financed, directing these stickers from London and concentrating on property owned by Castlebrooke. If something is opening in 50 days or so maybe it’s a new hotel? Maybe a new block of apartments? Whoever they were they clearly didn’t know about Belfast and the importance of some of the buildings that they were stickering.
See Alan’s Slugger post or my Facebook Live post for more on this.
So since then I learnt that the company who had been engaged to put up the stickers have realised the issues and told them they’re not going to work for them again. I’ve also learnt that the person responsible for the mural had to sign a confidentiality clause and can’t talk about who paid him, (but did tell me they paid him incredibly well)
So this is where we were at the start of the week.
On Monday a friend sent me this screen shot from the TBC Instagram account
This is part of a mural by JMK that we commissioned as part of Hit the North. On further inspection they had shared a series of shots from Culture Night including one of The Nomad Clan. So Stepladder from London was using shots of artists without payment or credit which given that we know they are very well financed is totally out of order as far as I’m concerned. So I told them so on the photo… and this is where it get’s interesting.
The next morning I got a message from a photographer friend of mine asking about who it was who had painted the two murals that were featured on the TBC feed. This seemed a bit too much of a coincidence no? So I responded that I'm not helping those guys. So they want to go back now and put an artist credit on it, just cause I called them out? They can kiss my ass.
So at first the photographer said there must be some mistake. That wasn't their photograph and they'd just been asked to capture the vibe of Belfast on CNB by a London based PR firm. I was sent thier photographs to demonstrate that it wasn't the one on TBC. They wouldn't have cropped it and made it B&W without asking surely... but hold on... I cropped the photo and made it B&W... yep that's the shot.
So in case you need me to spell it out, Stepladder engaged the photographer to shoot Belfast. Unbeknownst to them their photos are being cropped and altered and uploaded onto a mystery Instagram account which no-one really knows what it’s for. When the photographer challenged the client about what her photographs were being used for they got this reply…
'In reference to your other question, we are a brand agency and are currently working on a development project in the City. We want to use your photos to highlight the culture and vibrancy of Belfast as part of our material. We want to celebrate the public local art, local amenities such as coffee shops, cocktail bars and restaurants, along with the local people who make Belfast what it is'
Well that all seems nice doesn’t it, and technically there's nothing illegal going on here or anything. It's just about celebrating Belfast. But hold on. Why? I mean I’m pretty sure that Stepladder aren’t working for BCC or TNI. Who is this person that wants to ingratiate themselves to the people of Belfast and associate themselves with ‘the local people who make Belfast what it is’?
The very next day I get a call from a local performer. They’ve been approached by a London based film company, Contra. They want them to write and perform a piece for a film they’re making about Belfast. They’re working for a developer who wants to launch their thing in November but they’re being very secretive and the performer is worried that it might be something they don't want to support. They’re offering more money than they've ever been offered before to make a film celebrating the creative vibe of Belfast and the Cathedral Quarter in particular.
It’s later confirmed by the film maker that it is Castlebrooke... Is the TBC Countdown ticking down to this November launch?
So what does all this mean? Some things are certain. Some things are conjecture at this point.
Let’s start with facts.
Whether or not we can join the Castlebrooke, Stepladder, Contra, TBCBelfast dots or not one thing is clear. London based developers are engaging London based PR companies to make them look good in Belfast. WHATEVER you think about what they’re selling there is something rotten here.
Creatives are being engaged to send content to London for large sums of money when they don’t know who they’re advocating for. They are asking for content to celebrate the vibrancy and uniqueness of Belfast in order to promote developments which many feel will destroy that very uniqueness. Without wishing to state the obvious, these people don’t care about Belfast. In most cases they haven’t even BEEN to Belfast. It’s London based capitalists putting stickers on our build heritage, stealing our art for commercial gain and wrapping themselves to our uniqueness so that they can come and make money making us the same as everywhere else.
Do NOT fall for their shit. Ask what it’s for.
Just for fun now let’s make a small logical leap and theorise that the countdown on the TBC webpage is counting down to the launch event that the performer was asked to contribute to. Let’s assume that TBCBelfast is actually Castlebrooke going on the offensive, a response to the SaveCQ campaign.
IF that was the case then the stickers and the Instagram and the trying to associate yourself with street art and Estd Coffee and Culture Night. This is their secret teaser campaign. This is them trying to position themselves as all cool and arty and mysterious. This is them trying to get people to get curious about what exciting new thing is coming to Belfast. And then when they launch it, they’re celebrating Belfast with a cool film… that’s the marketing strategy.
But IF this was the case there’s a problem. And they don’t get it. And it’s the problem with the whole development. They. Don’t. Get. Belfast.
So listen, I’m fine with people from London, I’m fine with good development and I’m even fine with good PR. But this is patronising in the extreme. And MOST of all, it’s disingenuous. They don’t care about Belfast, or the arts here, or the people or even the flat whites. They care about how much return they can make on their investment. Anything else is just marketing.
The lads who want to demolish most of the Cathedral Quarter just upped their game. They had to. We made them. They’ve spent big. But have they improved the appalling plans they had? I suspect that they prefer investing in London PR companies before improving what they’re building in Belfast.
Stay frosty people. Round 2 has already begun.
There is another public consultation on the development planned for the CQ. It's been deliberately timed to coincide with the July holidays so as to get fewer people to voice their concerns after the truckload that there was the last time.
As always https://savecq.wordpress.com is the best starting point if you want to find out more. If you don't have time to write your own words before the deadline on Tuesday, there's a template response. As before I will be submitting it in it's entirety because it covers all the policies and strategies that BCC have and all the best practice that this is completely ignoring. I'm no architect and this is written by people who know stuff so it's absolutely invaluable when making the case against the plans, but as before I will be putting a bit of me at the top. And as always when it comes to consultations I'm blogging my response...
I attended the public consultation on Monday 3rd of July and raised a number of questions about the scheme with the people who were there. I found their responses lacked a basic knowledge Belfast structurally, socially and politically. I was told on a number of times when raising the issues of real concern listed below that this plan represented the ‘economic reality’. I spoke to a number of people attending the same event who were told this line repeatedly. This is smoke and mirrors.
The economic reality is that the developers believe this plan represents the easiest way to make the most money. This plan represents the simplest way to extract as much value out of Belfast as they can. This is not building a Belfast that the citizens want, that the civic leaders want or that visitors want, it’s building a Belfast that will benefit absentee shareholders to the detriment of our city.
This is what ‘economic reality’ means, it is the new version of ‘it’s God’s will’. The little people can’t argue with it because it’s all part of a bigger plan that you don’t understand. This was overwhelmingly the attitude of the representatives that I and others met at the consultation. If a hard question was asked, and there were many, the ‘economic reality’ card was played.
The reality is that this scheme is conceived to serve a few investors and their economic interests. It is out of proportion with the listed properties it surrounds and proposes to build offices and shops that we don’t need. It is an unimaginative scheme that will further reduce our cities uniqueness. At a time when Belfast is beginning to punch above it’s weight in the tourism market this scheme will reduce a large section of our most vibrant and unique areas to a functional, boring space that will be devoid of buzz and deserted at night and the weekend.
Speaking as someone who makes their living in the tourism and entertainment industry the ‘economic reality’ for Belfast is that we cannot let the economic interests of the a few overseas investors trump the longterm economic benefits of the residents of Belfast. This is about the livelihoods of thousands and the quality of life of hundreds of thousands but this does not seem to figure in the economic reality which we keep being told about.
Read the rest of the Save CQ submission that you can cut and paste into your submission here
This should be the starting point for how we move forward - what we have that is unique. We’re a messed up, edgy, complex and exciting city, if you knock off all the rough edges to attract foreign investment then we’re just like everyone else. Great cities aren’t just like everyone else.
You probably have heard about the #SaveCQ campaign and the push to submit objections to the developers by Monday 3rd April. As per my habit these days, when I submit to a public consultation I will also blog it… you know so someone will actually read it.
As the pre-planning consultation for the demolition of the Cathedral Quarter draws to a close, hundreds of people have already submitted their objections, many of them using the amazing template drawn up by #SaveCQ. I'm going to use this as a template but I will also add the following...
Dear Castlebook Investments,
In addition to the 10 points that have been compiled by #SaveCQ, which are all relevant and in particular outline the way in which this development falls outside the bounds of policy and the law, I would like to add another objection which is difficult to tie into legislation but that I feel is just as important when we consider how this area can be best developed.
Seventeen years ago I was working on the Shankill Road and a flyer appeared in my office for something called the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. It was the first time I had heard the name ‘Cathedral Quarter’ but over the next three years I became aware of a part of the city where key figures in the arts were driving regeneration. Three years later I was on the board of the festival attending meetings in the North Street Arcade and involved with the ‘Let’s Get it Right’ campaign relating to the proposed Royal Exchange project.
In the subsequent fourteen years a succession of developers have made profits from speculating on this site while arsonists, vandals and weak legislators have done their best to begin the demolition before planning is in place. Throughout this time, despite these problems the arts community has continued to invest their time and passion into the area. I have continued to work with CQAF, I have run Culture Night in the area, showed hundreds of adoring visitors round it’s streets but most of all I have become part of a community.
The Cathedral Quarter is not just buildings, it’s a place defined by the people who use it. This is my community and one of the places I belong. Over the last 15 years countless people have strived to build this community, this sense of place. It is written on the walls and steeped in the bricks. This wholesale demolition of 12 acres of the Cathedral Quarter will rip that community apart and the years of work by hundreds of people will be lost.
That’s not to say that we can’t rebuild. A sympathetic development would have arts provision in it. It would have units suitable for small traders and craft producers not big brands. It would have residential units at it’s heart, units not just for students but for families and retired people. A good development would look to build on the amazing energy that pumps through the streets, a celebration of what Belfast does well - it would look to facilitate the community that already calls the Cathedral Quarter home.
This proposal has no consideration for the ecology of the city, the balance and the rhythms of the Cathedral Quarter. It is a plan that is rooted only in greed and maximising profits. Ironically it is doomed to failure in even this regard. The roots of these plans are over a decade old. The world has moved on and Belfast has moved on too. Creative and culturally led regeneration has worked all over the world while these sorts of developments are being sited as outdated, pointless and most of all bad business.
I would therefore like to register my objection in the strongest possible terms to the core ideology at the heart of this plan. This is not a plan that will help Belfast. As a businessman this is not a plan that will help me. This is a plan that will end the community that I and hundreds of others have helped to build and a community that is working despite the failures of investors.
To be blunt I don’t believe you know our city and I don’t believe that you care about our city. I will appeal to you as businessmen then to consider that the people who do care and do know the city might have some idea about how a successful and profitable development might work.
In just under a week our new event COMM/ON will take place in the Black Box. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for years and it has evolved and changed quite a bit even since we announced the date back in October, but the central idea is the same - freelancing is different, brilliantly different.
In 2015 I’d been thinking about the idea for a while and run it past loads of freelancers in the run up to CNB15. The night after while drinking with a fellow freelancer at the Hit the North closing party I explained it like this - ‘If I’m a big business all I care about is money, by law I must prioritise the financial interests of my shareholders. If I’m a small business or sole trader I want to make money sure, I want to put food on my children’s table BUT I also want to contribute to building a better community for my children to grow up in…. God that’s good actually, that’s exactly what its about. I bet I forget about this in the morning’
By some miracle I didn’t forget and this central idea that freelancers ADD value to society while big business EXTRACT value is what has driven COMM/ON and the need to make it happen.
At this point I also have to give a bit shout to Phil Harrison who has been our partner in this event for the last year or so and who came up with the name and the logo, (and who sadly can’t make this event now cause he’s at something called South Bye?). Perhaps most importantly though, again more pub conversations here, Phil really pushed me to think of this event as much more than a networking event but as something political.
The system is set up to define everything as either profit making or charitable, there is no space in the middle, it’s black and white. For my particular circumstances, working in the arts is problematic because of this binary approach. For example, I cannot begin to tell you how many times people think that Seedhead Arts is a charity simply because we have the word Arts in our name. It’s as if it could not possibly be a business because it doesn’t fit that traditional mould, because arts can’t be a business right? You either have to be all about the bottom line and nothing else or the system has no box to put you in.
In short the system is rigged against us. And yet we love it right? Being you’re own boss. Starting work when you like. Not having to ask the boss if you want to try something completely new. And my favourite, working with the people you WANT to.
So COMM/ON will be a celebration of the outsider, the freedom of being a freelancer. It will be the start of a conversation about how the very act of just being freelance is political. It will ask how collectively we can have more impact and it will be an opportunity to meet other freelancers who are looking for people to collaborate with.
Sound good? Cool, see you on Wednesday 22nd March at the Black Box from 2-5 and the full line up is now on the event page… and please plan to hang back after for a drink.
A wee while ago I was talking to a journalist about identity.
‘So if you don’t feel British and you don’t feel Irish what do you feel? Are you one of those people who would identify as primarily Northern Irish’
It was something that had been rattling around in my brain for a while but it hadn’t been formulated into sentences, so my answer was peppered with ‘Erm’s and ‘God I don’t know maybe…’s, but it went something like this.
Actually I kind of hate that ‘Northern Irish’ identity stuff. It’s as if someone took Rory McIllroy, James Nesbitt, Cafe Vaudeville, Ulster Tatler and Snow Patrol and decided that it should form a new identity. Most of the time it feels to me as if it’s trying to disassociate itself from the grittier, edgier, angrier part of our psyche that is so central to everything I connect with. Most of all it feels painfully middle class.
I’ll get back to this. As most of you will know that I recently joined the Green Party and have been knocking on doors in my constituency in East Belfast and I’ve been asked why people should vote for the Greens and not the Alliance. Bearing in mind that I’ve posted two blogs about STV and how it works without explicitly nailing my colours to the mast, as a party member I kinda felt I should do that before we go to the polls.
So with a kind nod to all the great people that I know working in other parties here’s my take on why you vote the Green Party number 1 tomorrow, (and in particular in East Belfast).
(I’m going to assume that you want to move beyond Orange and Green. I’m assuming that you care more about the NHS and your kids schools, equality, the arts and real life more than a flag. If not this blog is not for you.)
The main reason I joined the Green Party is because I believe they are the ONLY party that has represented my views as a atheist. They’re not an atheist party and there are tons of members who are religious but they leave their religion at the door and understand that church and state should be separate. When I elect someone I expect them to represent me first and not defer their mandate to their personal beliefs. I feel in particular the Alliance has failed to deal with this and this is the main differential for me between the parties. While Long has tried to lead on some of these issues, many of their MLAs are still fervently opposed to changes in reproductive health legislation in particular.
I guess to me APNI are a coalition of people who know what they don’t want. They know that they want to move forward in some abstract way, away from the past and division. This is great and they’re doing great work I will transfer to them as a result but I want to vote for something a bit more radical than that, I think Northern Ireland needs something a bit more radical than that.
So while I have nothing against Rory McIllroy and I think Snow Patrol are lovely lads with some great tunes that’s not where I find my energy. That’s not where I want to draw the lines of my identity. I consider myself a citizen of planet earth and a proud angry Belfastian and I see those values most represented in the Green Party. We’re a product of a world wide movement not a Northern Irish sub-culture and BY GOD I want more than anything to hitch my wagon to an ideology that looks beyond these islands.
In East Belfast we were very close to getting a Green MLA last time and our vote share has surged since then as people begin to realise that voting Green can lead to MLAs but your whole vote transfers if it doesn’t. Add to this the fact that the APNI aren’t running a third candidate this time and there’s a chance, it might be slim, but we NEED your first preferences. Pretty much everyone accepts that the DUP and APNI are going to get 2 seats each and there’s a chance we can get the fifth with enough first preferences.
The Greens were ahead of the curve on equal marriage, woman’s rights, RHI, children’s welfare etc etc. I’m happy to reward a party who have been catching up on these things with a transfer but I’m going to campaign and vote for a party that is leading not catching up.
In conclusion, to return to identity, I’m sort of British, I’m sort of Irish, I’m (if you really must) sort of Northern Irish, but more than that I’m a product of the people I connect with and love. I’m a citizen of the world, I’m a dreamer, I’m anti-capitalist and I believe in people from all backgrounds.
So because of this, because of who I am, I chose new kind of politics.
Tomorrow I choose Green Party Number One.
…after that I will #VoteTillYouBoke
You may have seen I recently reblogged a post from a few years ago about the Single Transferrable Vote and how it works. There's been a lot of debate about one particular element of STV on my timeline of late, so much so that I felt it needed another blog.
In particular there has been lots of discussion about the idea that you should vote 'ALL THE WAY DOWN' the ballot. This is so important. For example In East Belfast last time round the final DUP candidate got elected without reaching the quota. This means that there were people's votes wasted. People who stopped transferring down the list, who could have kept that last seat going to the DUP. These people voted as if they felt that the Green Party and the DUP were equally bad and I'm dubious that if you were to push there's many people who actually believe that.
So the thing is GO ALL THE WAY DOWN. Keep going till it hurts. Till you can't, just can't give them a transfer. Till you hate the ones left EXACTLY the same amount, (and if you have 4 or 5 parties in that bracket, try harder).
Now some people have been saying that you should definitely go right to the bottom. This it seems to me is based on the version of STV that runs in some places in the South and is referenced in this article. In this version you HAVE to get the quota to get elected. In this case voting to the bottom does make some theoretical sense but in the NI version you can leave off the last party and it won't make a difference (I'm happy to be corrected on this but I've yet to be convinced by any argument to the contrary).
Much of the online chat has been about this. I think it's confusing. You definitely should push yourself, and in an election that should be about the performance of the DUP in particular I'm going to hold my nose and transfer to TUV, UKIP and even the Torries but the idea that you should put a number in EVERY box isn't right. As an electorate though we need to go further because we're wasting our votes.
A final word I think has to go to Mike Nesbitt for making the electorate think a little harder about their transfers. Aside from the fact that this is not a border poll, no one is going to interpret a 2nd 3rd or 4th preference vote as a vote for a United Ireland. Out politics HAS to become more complicated than Green and Orange or we'll be stuck in this cycle forever. The idea that a unionist leader may want to work for mutual benefit with the SDLP isn't so mad is it? Especially when those throwing stones are only too glad to invite SF into their glass house to form a government. But the point is this, you won't agree with everything your first preference stands for so you should be able to give your 3rd, 4th etc to people who you agree with less. This is not a binary process with 'Red Lines' as Nolan likes to talk about, this is a complex series of 'who has made me less sick/angry?' questions.
So on 2nd March go down. Hold your nose and go right down. Go down till you can taste the bile at the back of your throat. Because remember they may all be detestable, but some of them are way more detestable than others
Three years ago I wrote this blog in the lead up to some Council elections. It got lost in the great Seedhead Arts website meltdown of 2015 so I'm reposting it here in the lead up to the Assembly elections on March 2nd. I'm going to edit it for relevance but by in large it will remain the same.
It was when they were counting the votes two council elections ago. It was a slow Friday afternoon in my office in the Waterfront which I shared with Simon Magill, we got to talking about how the votes worked. I was about 35, (let’s say he’s one or two years older), so we’d been voting for nearly 20 years and yet we had no idea how this ‘Single Transferable Vote’ stuff worked. So together we started to Google it and figure out how it works.
I remember the afternoon really vividly, although I have no recollection of the results, because as I slowly worked it out and learnt that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that uses the system to elect its councils, I became completely enthused with what a brilliant system it was.
In recent days, in the run up to the elections I have, as usual, been thinking about all the people who aren’t going to vote and with some notable exceptions I suspect that most of them don’t get how this system works. What's the point in wasting my vote? It won't make any difference.
I’ve yet to see a really good video explanation of how it works but this Star Wars one comes close and it’s nice and short
I think the bit that people find easy to understand is that the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and the second choice votes come into play. They harder bit is when candidates get more than their quota. Let’s say my first choice vote gets double the votes needed to reach the quota, so the candidate only needs half a vote from each of the people who voted for him. Every person who voted for this winner passes the other half of their vote onto their second choice. Sometimes the way this is explained talks about ‘surplus votes’ which made me think for years that if your vote was counted after the person reached quota you’re whole vote was transferred to the second choice but it’s much cleverer than that – it’s proportional, like a little bit of everyone’s vote goes to their next candidate.
Basically what this means is that your vote, all of your vote, works. If your first preference doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting elected, then you should still put them number one because you’re vote will a) be counted as a first preference for something you really care about and b)still be counted for your second/third choice. And if your first preference is a runaway leader you should still vote them number one for more or less the same reasons.
In reality for me (except in Westminster elections) this means I can do a Top 10, like a Top of the Pops for politicians.
‘So pop pickers climbing a couple of places to number 3 is Long for being pretty good on RHI and leading the party to a better stance on Equal Marriage. Her running mate however slides further down the chart because of his hard line position on reproductive health. The UUP candidate climbs several places because of his voting record on EM and their party's ability to damage the DUP. But holding fast at number 1 is the Green Party, for being consistently in line with my thinking on nearly everything.’
Something like that anyway, make your own decisions. You can’t expect any politician to mirror your opinions, (especially here) but you can create a more individual impact by your preferences, which will be noticed and analysed by political nerds.
I think there's a couple of additional points of note since I first wrote this on the importance of transfers.
1. Turnout is super important. The extremists will ALWAYS vote. Abstaining is a vote for the extremists .
2. The DUP dominate the assembly with, what is it 29% of the vote (15% of those eligible to vote) by managing their transfers amazingly. I would suggest that if (like me) you are against the DUP more than you are for any other party you need to be just as clever. You need to transfer the whole way. Everyone but them. If you think the parties are all as bad as each other you're not paying attention. (Clue the DUP are by a distance the worst)
3. Easties. This is important. If you're interested in seeing a Green representative in Stormont for East, it's not completely mental. Last time Ross was 300 votes short, he just didn't pick up enough transfers and the APNI ran three candidates (mental btw) which split the final seat vote. I know there's only five seats, it's a stretch but the GPNI is growing all the time. It's only a matter of time imo.
In conclusion I get it. I get why you wouldn’t want to vote. I get that you don’t want to support the system... in the Westminster elections. It only takes a straight majority of morons to ruin it for everyone. The first past the post system is a bollox but we have STV and it should protect us from tyranny of the majority (never mind a tyranny of the minority), unless the majority don’t realise how the system works and don’t bother their arse to vote.
‘And I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more,
I’m pleading with my loved ones to wake up and love more’
We need you.
We know they’ve made it hard. We know they’ve tried to undermine you. We know sometimes you don’t say what you really think in case it affects your funding. We know that you are phenomenally talented and should be better rewarded. We know you’re tired and feeling unloved. But we need you. We really need you.
As we look back on the last year and try to make sense of everything, we're becoming more and more convinced of one thing. If we are to be saved, individuals, and in particular creative individuals are going to save us.
Political parties aren’t going to save us. Corporations aren’t going to save us. The media certainly isn’t going to save us. Flags, badges, marches, speeches and blogs AREN’T going to save us.
People hear what they want to hear. They apply their lens to the dialogue and make it mean whatever they need it to. They will perform spectacular mental gymnastics to ensure that they’re world view is in place. This is why Trump can openly contradict himself, because the people who wan’t to make America great again will filter out the stuff they don’t like to justify the stuff that they do. It’s why religions talk about faith and NI politicians talk about green and orange so much. If the arguments fall short, faith will get you over the line.
Then there is art. Art is a feeling not an argument. Songs make you cry and you’ve no idea why. Comedy makes you laugh at yourself and question things. Fiction allows us to take ideas and tease them out to a theoretical conclusion. Artist can say things no-one else can, because it’s art.
Right now we need that. We need provocation, we need artists to talk about the stuff that no-one else will talk about and most of all we need inspired. We need hope.
So we're asking you artists, we're asking you to take risks. We're asking you to poke and prod at the things that are so wrong with where we are and where we’re heading. We can’t fix this without you. We don’t need artists for tourism, or for economic development, or health, or community relations, (although you’re good for that), we need artists to save us.
It’s not going to be easy. Political forces, corporations and the establishment in general want art to get people to tap their feet, and laugh and cry at meaningless trinkets. They want you to be neutral. They want you to be nice.
Fuck nice. Let’s challenge everything.
As always at Seedhead we will continue to work hard to find platforms (and paid work) for you. That’s our plan for 2017 - find ways to showcase art that will challenge and transform.
So what have you got?
Now that we’ve got our breath back after Hit the North and Culture Night and Mount Stewart Conversations, and all the assorted madness that was September, it’s time to properly embrace the new season, and the new ideas that come with it.
We are especially delighted that one new idea we’ve been working on for a while is beginning to take shape. We have long been believers in the power of creativity to transport and transform individuals, elevating days and freeing minds, and we firmly believe that yarn-based crafting is a brilliant way for people to experience all of these benefits.
Catch Ali in a quiet moment and she will merrily entertain you with facts relating to the value of tactile materials, counting, repetition, pattern-following, crossing the midline, cognitive skills, muscle memory and productivity. Benefits like these are useful and healthy for all of us, but can be especially helpful in certain situations - when we are feeling stressed or anxious, when we are a bit overwhelmed by life, or perhaps suffering from ill physical or mental health.
Through our new project, Yarn Forward, we are looking forward to encouraging both novice crafters and experienced ones to get out those needles and hooks and get making, and experience the benefits of working with yarn for themselves. And we are particularly thrilled that our first chance to do so is in partnership with The Community Arts Partnership and Belfast City Council, as part of Positive Ageing Month. Crafters of every age are invited to our Knit Night - from single figures to triple digits, and the event will be both family and dementia-friendly. And the event is open to all - from complete beginners right through to experienced hands who will hopefully teach us a thing or two…
Our first Yarn Forward event is on 11th October at 7.30pm. Full details here...
I’m going to blog this response for two reasons, firstly and most importantly I have absolutely no faith in the process of ‘consultation’. It is almost without exception a box ticking exercise, so when you do what you were always going to do you can say that you had a consultation. This is what they say about the Waterfront extension, painting over the Teenage Dreams mural, the handing over of our built heritage to property developers. At least some of us have heard of this one.
The second reason for blogging is that I’m going to say what I really think here and not temper it for some civil servant who will doubtless see me as some extremist nut case. I think given that I don’t expect to be listened to anyway, I might as well just have at it…
But firstly a little context. This is a ten year plan, produced by a minister at the end of her 6 year term, who will be the last ever Arts Minister, (as it gets absorbed into the Dept of Communities) and who during her term has seen investment in the arts fall by 30% to what is now the lowest percentage of capita funding of the arts in the whole EU. What we need at this time is an ambitious rebuilding programme, targets to increase investment and most importantly a clear ideological manifesto outlining the importance of the arts. What we’ve got is a mess.
It’s a succession of vagaries and platitudes with everything is through the lens of ‘community’. Now as a lifelong advocate of community arts you’d think I’d be cock-a-hoop with this but I’m also a full time worker in the sector I can see that the document is a political side-swipe, a last and potentially devastating broadside to a sector from a minister who has failed at almost every turn to contribute to the advancement of my sector.
So here’s my response…
I am writing to respond, in an informal but impassioned way, to the ‘Strategy for Culture and Arts 2016 – 2026’. I am an arts professional of 20 years, freelance for the last five, and have been actively involved in a large number of key arts organisations throughout that entire time.
Firstly let’s take this diagram. This is the extent of the documents ambition for the arts.
Is this your experience of the arts? Or more tellingly does this represent the totality of how you think the arts should be developed?
Poverty, inequality, social exclusion – BOOO! All these things are bad.
Yes let’s use the arts to address these issues.
But is that your experience of the arts? I mean the totality of your experience of the arts?
Remember that time when you heard a poem, or heard a song, or saw a painting that made you cry? Or that time when you were dancing, laughing or gasping in awe in a room full of people and you looked in the eyes the strangers around you and you realised that we’re all part of one big mad crazy joyous universe? Or that time when you were just going about your grey boring daily grind and a splash of colour or a distant melody or a piece of amazing architecture pulled you out of the moment and made you think about how great it is to be alive? There’s none of that in this document.
Secondly there is no substantive mention of excellence in this strategy and no mention of exporting our culture overseas. Imagine if this lens was applied to sport. Imagine a sports development strategy that had no mention of international competition but was only concerned with bringing people together and health and well-being. Sport does these things obviously (although a single national stadium might have done it better) but it’s not just about that and neither is the arts.
This insular approach is also mirrored in what seems to be a lack of awareness of our relationship with the UK and Ireland both of whom have recently produced Cultural strategies that make this document feel like it’s written in crayon, (or maybe that’s the font – sorry I HAD to mention the font). Add to this that there’s not a single mention of how our artistic output represents Northern Ireland internationally, no sense of how organisations like Outburst or The BEAT Carnival are leaders in their field internationally. I mean of course they promote community cohesion, but that’s like saying parks are good for growing grass, let’s write a ten year strategy for the parks and tell them they need to grow grass. It’s. Not. That. Simple.
I make my living in the arts. I and my colleagues are part of the economy. I make work for other people. I drive business to the hospitality sector. I am a massively cost effective way to increase quality of life and build shared space for us all to live. AND I do the things in the strategy. I do them already. What I want to know is how the Dept of Communities is going to support me in doing these things they want me to do that I’m already doing.
Finally there are two of fundamental issues which are threatening to utterly destroy the arts sector in NI which have no mention at. The first is funding, which I’ve mentioned before and is very well articulated by the CAP response to the document which you can read here, (it’s excellent if you have the time). But the second, and one which I’ve been banging on about for years now, is the administrative burden being placed on organisations in receipt of funding. This is the other prong in the pincer movement that is driving arts professionals out of the sector or out of the country. It’s bad enough that budgets are being cut year after year but the level of bureaucracy being imposed on the sector is creating an additional unseen cut to services. Arts professionals spend so much time these days filling in forms and accounting for every single penny of expenditure, chasing three quotes for things when there’s only one supplier etc. This is a massive waste of resources and the irony is it only seems to apply to smaller organisations for whom this causes the most disruption. I expect, actually no I demand, more accountability for organisations receiving millions after millions of pounds in funding but a lighter touch for those organisations clearly delivering a massive impact for relatively small sums of money. It’s a basic case of risk management – the bigger the investment the more you should have to justify yourself. It’s not a one size fits all situation. And on a basic level the pendulum has swung way too far in favour of the bean counters, some common sense is needed.
In conclusion I, like most people I know who work in the sector, from all backgrounds and ideologies, believe that this is a massive missed opportunity. We should expect leadership and ambition from a ten year strategy and my professional opinion this is not only devoid of either it demonstrates a total lack of soul. It feels like the person who wrote this doesn’t get out much, hasn’t read much poetry, or even danced round the kitchen. There are plenty of us willing to give our time to help form a strategy and many did, but our voice is not in this document.
Frankly you need to rip it up and start again.
Two and a half years ago, as part of our #CNB365 campaign I wrote a blog about something that I felt was fundamental to the success of Culture Night, something that was very often lacking in the way people programme events in Belfast – being family friendly. That doesn’t mean ‘having something for the kids’, by family friendly I mean something that adults and children, families, can all enjoy together.
I’ve been thinking about this blog again recently because we’ve just completed a really lovely experiment with The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in their Out to Lunch programme which looked at these issues. All Ages Out to Lunch took three of our events which normally take place in an over 18 bar environment, Midweek Magic, Real Sketchy and Faculty Film Club, and on consecutive Saturday afternoons adapted them for an ‘All Ages’ setting in the Black Box Green Room. We didn’t change much, just gave some thought to how we populated the programme. The formats remained essentially the same we just tinkered with the content. All three events were hugely popular and ultimately successful, and the thing we were most pleased with was the variety of the people attending. We had families, but also young people without adults and adults without children – the content stood up as something that adults and under 18s both enjoyed in their own right. That is how you should judge a family friendly event and we’d love to do more but provision (and to be frank, a basic understanding of the issues) is still lacking at almost every level.
The blog I’ve reposted here is essentially about my (continuing) disappointment at how we treat our children. In city planning, in citizenship, in service provision (both public and private) that we treat children as something to be managed, to be contained not people in their own right…
As a father of three kids (11, 9 & 5) (edit: +2 now) it’s always been important to me that Culture Night is ‘Family Friendly’. This had certainly been the case before I came on board and it was one of the things that most attracted me to the gig. But Family Friendly is a term which is bandied about with gay abandon all the time now, but what exactly does it mean?
What really gets on my nerves as a parent is the sort of thing that is lazily labelled as Family Friendly these days. It is not a bouncy castle and some face painters. It’s not something for the teenagers that the parents won’t like. It’s not inherently alcohol free. It’s Family Friendly, the whole family – something that I can enjoy with my children. As a programmer I appreciate that this is a challenge, it’s not easy
One of the things that people say about CNB is that it makes Belfast feels like a proper city, a continental city. One of them places that you go on holiday, y’know like with all them continentals swanning about being cool – except with Belfast people.
Why is that? Well I have a theory. It’s because the families are out. It’s because there is a mix of people out enjoying the city, not just people getting wasted. We do this thing in Belfast where we section off the drinkers, stick them in the ‘drinkie’ part of town and let them have at it. It’s no place for families and certainly no place for children, there’s drink there after all.
Now to be absolutely clear I’m not advocating for children to be allowed in to pubs after 8, or suggesting that children should be exposed to excess drunkenness, or that parents should act irresponsibly when caring for children. But I do think that one of the reasons why Culture Night feels different is because there is a mixing of families and drinkers. It completely changes how the area feels and I believe reduces anti-social behaviour. Alcohol is a part of life, we need to teach our children about it and not just hide them away from it.
In general terms though, as a city, Belfast isn’t child friendly and its certainly not family friendly and no amount of lamppost dressing will change that. We need areas, activities and events that the family can enjoy together something that I believe Culture Night is a perfect example of.
Two and a half years later and very little has changed.