Monday, 20 September 2010

A Manifesto for Culture? Guest post by Dora Petherbridge

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010, image by Dora Petherbridge

Dora works for two large cultural insitutions. She has a particular interest in theatre and after attending the Manifesto for Culture event at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival I asked her to write something for the blog. In her spare time Dora likes collecting postcards and she's also been know to make a rather good carrot cake. Some of her women of note include Virgina Woolf and Judi Dench.

Here is her response to the event:

Ruth and I went to see the promisingly titled ‘Manifesto of Culture’ event at the Book Festival. After kindly asking me to write something about the event for this blog Ruth reminded me of a French mime artist I reviewed at the Fringe, Julien Cottereau. She did so as I was getting tangled in the problematic issues raised by the talk. As I concerned myself with the government’s role in the sector and all those buzz words – engage, educate, include, inspire, collaborate – that appear in the strategic aims of cultural institutions I was doing exactly what I had been so frustrated by in the speakers. I was spending all my time recognising faults and exercising grievances to no end.

The Manifesto event needed an artist in residence, someone to take us back to the germination of creative work and to lift us above the managerial, institutional and corporate. Someone to propose a daring vision, to imagine how things could be. I don’t think the audience would have minded if the vision was unrealistic or foolishly utopian, but would have appreciated an enlivening departure from the knotty problems of finance and marketing. None of the speakers, not Fiona Hyslop Minister for Culture, Vicky Featherstone Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, or Penelope Curtis Director of Tate Britian, gave one example of an artwork, artist or group of artists they took to be important today or demonstrative of the qualities of culture.

At least we could have thought of the hundreds of street performers in Edinburgh just minutes from the Book Festival tent, beacons in the resource cutting climate reminding us that art happens on the shortest of shoestrings. These performers without venues, box-offices, producers or press attention attract intimately watchful spectators and large, appreciative crowds.

Julien Cottereau, who was also performing only a stones’ throw from where we sat would have been my choice for artist in residence. Cottereau needs nothing but his body to create numerous realities. In his hands unsuspecting audience members taken on stage are transformed into masters of comic timing. They become dashing premiere football players, glamorous models, fairy-tale ogres, and expert marksmen. Cottereau’s clowning seemed to say much about culture’s survival instinct. Clowning? Mime? Irrelevant and passé surely! Well, yes, sometimes. But when it’s really, seriously good the ‘limits’ of the genre disappear. And this artist gave everything to his performance; his simple desire to please the audience was full of heart and courage. For me Cottereau made manifest the transformative properties of art, he is a living manifesto for culture.

Seeing, reading or listening to something good does something to the mind I’m sure – bolsters it, leaves it feeling a little reckless perhaps, but stronger.

At the end of his show Cottereau interrupted the rapturous applause we were giving him, signalled for us to stop and demonstrated that he wanted us to tap the palm of one hand with the finger of our other – as we did the sound of raindrops filled the air. This simple motion done collectively invoked a summer downpour on the suddenly realised canvas above our heads.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Peter Brook, The Empty Space, 1968.


  1. A most eloquent and inspiring piece. Thank you Dora! I love your vivid description of Cottereau’s simple but potent alchemy – the perfect antidote to the managerial buzzwords.

    And thank you Ruth – it’s a pleasure to visit your blog each week where culture is very much alive and so sensitively written about.

    Kathleen xx

  2. Hello Kathleen!
    Thank you so much for your lovely comment! Managerial jargon is all about at work at the moment, Cottereau and indeed the creatively chaotic Fringe were a great antidote. Cottereau's was the kind of performance you wish everyone you knew was at too - I think you would have liked it, the articulacy of movements.
    Also, hello Ruth, thank you for letting me be on your excellent blog! D xx

  3. Dear Kathleen,

    Lovely to hear from you! Thank you for your kind words- I agree with you about Dora's description of Cottereau- very vivid. xx