Edinburgh Stop Public Entertainment Licences Changes Campaign Deputation Address To City of Edinburgh Council Regulatory Committee – March 9th 2012
Good morning Councillors.
First of all, I'd like to thank the Committee, on behalf of the Edinburgh Campaign against Public Entertainment Licences changes, for allowing me to speak on their behalf today.
It's a pleasure, both for me to have the privilege to represent the group, and to see that the Regulatory committee is taking an issue which actually isn't of it's design so seriously.
Things have moved on considerably since the potential misinterpretations of the forthcoming legislation was first brought to Councillor Munn's attention by the Edinburgh campaign.
Last week I think the message from Edinburgh's creative community was really brought home at a packed public meeting at Out of the Blue, one of Edinburgh's great independent art-spaces.
This led to a very positive dialogue with Councillor Munn and a great deal of press attention, while just yesterday, there was a question raised about the new legislation at First Minister's Question Time, while the Minister for Culture was asked about it at a press conference over at The Hub.
But – today – I just want to reiterate the importance of Edinburgh's grassroots arts scene, and how it informs some of Edinburgh's bigger artistic events and institutions.
I also want to try and illustrate some of the potential – and indeed actual – absurdities of the legislation when it's left open to interpretation the way it has been in this case.
As an arts journalist by trade, one of my great joys is being able to move between events and spaces great and small.
One night I can be at the Royal Lyceum or the Traverse, the next I can be at an opening at the Embassy Gallery or one of the other independent spaces, the next I can be watching a band or a piece of live art in the same space.
Being able to flit between spaces like that I think allows me a sense of what's going on all around Edinburgh.
The larger spaces, like the Usher Hall or the Queens Hall, are really important, as are too the assorted international festivals that Edinburgh so proudly trades on, and which makes it one of the most exciting cities in the world.
But there's also a loose-knit network of events that are equally thrilling.
These are far smaller, and range from literary readings in libraries and book-shops, gigs in record shops, and DJs and bands who play at the opening nights of art-shows in ad-hoc spaces that exist around town.
These are arguably where the real exciting work is produced, in social and creative hubs where artists are still finding their voice before they go on to the next stage.
One of these artists is Craig Coulthard, who trained at Edinburgh College of Art.
Craig was one of the original collective who founded the Embassy, which is still an artist-run space that allows its artists to do things on their own terms – and indeed to find out how to do them – in a way that they couldn't in one of the larger institutions.
That's presuming the institutions are interested in new, living artists, because – although things have improved hugely over the last decade – that's not always the case.
And if the institutions aren't interested, as history has taught us time and again, you do it yourself.
That's exactly what Craig Coulthard did.
And that's exactly what a young music and arts collective called FOUND did.
FOUND performed at art openings, made crazy constructions and mixed up artforms like mad professors who've spent to long in the lab.
And yet -
As I speak, Craig Coulthard is a recipient of a major Cultural Olympiad commission for a new large-scale work.
As for FOUND, well, last year, they won a BAFTA for a science-fiction sounding project they call Cybrathon.
FOUND too have also just received a major Creative Scotland commission.
And that's how it starts.
But such success stories that have come from the grassroots are hardly a new thing.
In 1994 I was approached by a photographer called Neil Riley, with a view to setting up an exhibition of some of the young writers who were causing a bit of a commotion at the time.
I'd stumbled onto this scene in the back room of The Antiquary pub in St Stephen Street, where a host of writers were performing their work in a way that was a million miles away from the received idea of a poetry reading.
It was free admission and free to put on, which was just as well, because no-one involved with it – including myself – had any money, and certainly wouldn't have had a clue about how to fill in a form.
This scene later developed to presenting work in community centres and other places, and – through Kevin Williamson – inspired a magazine called Rebel Inc that eventually became an imprint of Canongate publishing house.
Around the same time as I was approached by Neil, I was alerted to a new gallery that had just opened on Blackfriar's Street.
That gallery was called Out of the Blue, and was the sort of shop-front artist-run gallery that is exactly the sort of space that this legislation puts under potential threat.
I approached the two women then running this new gallery, and proposed an exhibition of images of Edinburgh-based writers.
I also proposed that there be a series of events to go with this exhibition.
We got the gallery for a week, and set things in motion.
Over the course of that week – called by Neil The Apostolic Club – the gallery would be open in the daytime, while at night, there would be readings, recitals, musical performances and live art.
It was free to enter, people brought there own drinks, and stayed in the gallery till about ten o' clock, after which they'd make a pilgrimage to Black Bo's bar down the road.
The Apostolic Club was an amazing week.
The photographs had each of the writers posed in a unique way.
One was pictured up a tree; another with a box over his head, with the box featuring pasted-on images of himself; another merely leaning against the wall of the St James Centre.
The performances were equally eclectic if slightly chaotic, and by the end of the week I was both exhausted and elated.
The point of this reminiscence is two-fold.
Firstly, that exhibition and week of events was run on a shoe-string.
If I'm honest, it was actually run off mine and other people's dole cheques
One thing that never happened that week was that at no point did anybody come up and ask me to fill in a form to ask permission to do all this.
Nor did anyone ask me to pay a fee – not even a minimum fee of fifty pounds – to do so.
If they had, it's doubtful whether all the people in the room could have come up with such a sum.
Like me, most people were on the dole, and fifty quid was a lot of money then, just as, to some people, it's a lot of money now.
The second point of this story is what might have been missed if a fifty pound licence had prevented The Apostolic Club from happening.
Because a couple of years later, five of the writers whose photographs appeared on the walls of Out of the Blue – which itself moved onto bigger things, first with the original Bongo Club in New Street, then with the Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street – five of the writers appeared on the cover of the New Yorker magazine.
One of them – Alan Warner – is currently Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University.
Another – Irvine Welsh – had already written Trainspotting.
All of these put Edinburgh on a world literary map in a way that hadn't been done since the Enlightenment.
This wasn't because of the free events they took part in, but those events certainly helped them hone their craft.
They also set the tone for the next generation of writers.
In the Summer of 2010, I was approached by Nick Barley, the director of Edinburgh International Book Festival.
It was shortly after the sad death of a writer called Paul Reekie, who'd been one of the writers who'd appeared on the cover of the New Yorker, and Nick asked about the possibility of doing some kind of tribute event to Paul.
Nick wanted to put on a series of free events at the Book Festival, and get all the local literary scene in to perform in a cabaret style environment.
Some of us helped put on a night at the Book Festival called Love's Rebellious Joy, after a song that Paul wrote.
The night was packed out, and I suspect it's probably the only Book Festival event ever that's ended with the audience singing Hibs songs.
Nick Barley recently spoke about this night to the Guardian newspaper, using it as an example of how Edinburgh Book Festival was reaching out to people who lived in the city.
This was all true, but without the free nights at the Antiquary, without Rebel Inc and those nights at Out of the Blue, it's doubtful a night like that at the Book Festival could have happened in quite the same way.
But let's go back even further.
Let's go back to the early 1960s, when a young American G.I. was posted to Edinburgh, where he fell in love with the city so much that he decided to open a bookshop.
The bookshop he opened was roughly I think on the site of where Edinburgh University's Informatics Centre now stands, proudly heralding the future in its own exciting way.
The shop was unique because it was the first paperback bookshop in Britain, making literature more readily accessible to all.
It was also unique, because its proprietor, who by now had left the army and fallen in with a crowd of artists, writers and performers, began having readings in his shop – not just of poetry and literature, but of plays as well.
These just weren't any plays, but were the sort of experimental absurdist plays which at the time you could only see in Europe.
Those events arguably opened up Edinburgh's nascent artistic community to an entire new world that had hitherto been hidden away.
Again, no-one asked for a licence.
As for health and safety, as far as I'm aware, the only casualty came when several ladies from the Salvation Army turned up at the shop where they took several copies of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and set fire to them outside.
When Jim Haynes – who was that soldier turned book-seller – met Richard Demarco – Edinburgh's entire artistic history was turned upside down via the Traverse Theatre – which grew directly out of the Paperback Bookshop - the Demarco Gallery and the international literary conferences they organised.
The Traverse, Haynes and Demarco are all internationally renowned now – and rightly so – but here we are – a Unesco City of Literature – and after April 1st we might not even be able to have a free reading in a book shop without having to pay and plan for it months in advance.
If that had been the case in 1960, I suspect Jim Haynes would've stayed in the army and found another city to set up shop in, and who could blame him.
Walking up to the City Chambers today, my route took me up from Waverley Station – up the Scotsman Steps and up past the National Museum of Scotland.
Both of these places have undergone a transformation of late.
If I could go on a slightly wyndy route for a minute, let's look at the recently re-opened National Museum.
It's a beautiful renovation of an already beautiful space, and it's quite rightly just been announced that since it reopened its had the highest attendance figures of any similar institution outside London.
Now, that's quite a feat.
One of the main attractions of the National Museum since it reopened is Museum Late.
Museum Late, as the name hints at, is a monthly Friday night shindig, at which members of the public come into the Museum after hours.
Once in the Museum, they can enjoy looking at the exhibits accompanied by a glass of wine, a couple of bands, some DJs, and – so I'm told – the novelty of being able to touch real life lizards and other wild animals.
Yes, it's a pay-in event.
And, yes, I have no doubt that it's licenced to the hilt, but, as it's the National Museum, one presumes they can afford this.
Museum Late sounds like a wonderful event, but again, it's not a new idea.
Most weekends in Edinburgh for at least the last decade, pretty much every small-scale artist-run space in town has something similar going on, with art, music and drink making for an equally exciting social hub.
The only differences are in what are somewhat appositely named Private Views is that these are – a) free to enter, - b) don't charge for the drink, - and c) have no wild animals.
If these small-scale spaces are forced to apply and pay for licences, without the resources which the National Museum of Scotland has, the energy and the will might not be there anymore to put on these small-scale events.
Now – moving up the road from the National Museum of Scotland – the steps officially called the Scotsman Steps have recently been transformed into something else again.
As I'm sure this committee is already aware, when Turner Prize winning artist Martin Creed was commissioned to effectively rebuild these steps with a hundred and four different types of marble, eyebrows were raised.
The end result, however – which may well be known forever after as Martin Creed's Steps – is a staggering example of how art and the environment can co-exist.
Here, after all, is a public thoroughfare that is used every day by the citizens of Edinburgh, but which is also a work of art in what is effectively a permanent exhibition, and which – to some – might also be quite entertaining.
You can go up, you can go down, you can go back up again, all the while taking in the different types of marble on show.
But how – under the new legislation – would we define Martin Creed's Steps?
It's a public thoroughfare, but it's also an artspace showing work for free in exactly the same way as a cafe or one of the small artspaces might show work – albeit in a temporary fashion – and which are branded by this legislation as places of public entertainment.
So what do we do?
Do we get the people who commissioned Martin Creed's Steps to pay a licence?
Given that this would mean asking the Fruitmarket Gallery, Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government and City of Edinburgh Council itself to pay a licence fee – how would that work?
Or do we just ask the citizens of Edinburgh who walk up and down Martin Creed's Steps whether they think they're walking through – a) - a public thoroughfare, - b) - a work of art in an exhibition, - or – c) – a place of public entertainment - and then charge them a fee depending on whether they answer A, B, or C ?
As absurd and ridiculous as this sounds – as absurd, perhaps, as one of the plays that were read in Jim Haynes' Paperback Bookshop – if you take this legislation on public entertainment licences to its logical limit, that's where it ends.
Just the other day in the Highlands, a community group was informed by Highlands and Islands Council that they would be charged a three-figure sum for an Easter egg hunt and bonnet-making competition...
Now, Highlands and Islands have since realised the error of their ways, with one councillor – perhaps with egg on his face - declaring that – and I quote – 'We are not going to be charging 435 pounds for a bouncy castle.'
But – it happened, and – unless the changes to the legislation are acted on – could easily happen again.
I was hoping today that one of the people sitting in the public gallery would be an artist called Jenny Soep.
Unfortunately Jenny can't be here today due to other commitments, but if she had, I was hoping she was going to draw the proceedings of this meeting.
Jenny Soep's main body of work comes via an initiative she calls Drawing The Experience.
For Drawing The Experience, Jenny sits discreetly at a gig or a performance or an event of description, and does exactly that.
She draws what's going on, as it happens.
The results of Jenny Soep's work have been exhibited in shops, cafes, public libraries and art spaces all over the world – sometimes in the very space she drew them.
Now, if Jenny had been here this morning, drawing the experience of this meeting, that would effectively be turning this meeting of City of Edinburgh Council's Regulatory Committee both into a piece of performance it arguably is anyway – and into a living artwork and piece of entertainment.
If Jenny Soep had been here, would this Committee have then had to apply for a public entertainment licence six months ago from today?
I'm sure you take my point.
Back in the 1980s, I used to sit on a body called Edinburgh District Arts Council.
That was a body run by what I think was then Edinburgh District Council.
The function of Edinburgh District Arts Council – or EDAC as it became known – was to provide small grants to small-scale and community-based arts group.
At that time, that sector – if we wish to define it thus – was thriving.
The annual Spring Fling arts festival – designed to showcase work across all the arts by Edinburgh-based talent - took place at the Assembly Rooms and community venues and spaces across the city.
Throughout 1986, the Commonwealth Arts Festival – run alongside the Commonwealth Games, hosted in Edinburgh that year – produced a plethora of free events, from concerts in Princes Street Gardens most weekends, to cabaret nights in the Assembly Rooms to readings in libraries to exhibitions.
They were exciting times, and – personally speaking – provided me with much of my early artistic education.
Spring Fling and EDAC are long gone now.
As is usually the case, the money ran out, and here we are.
But that lack of money doesn't stop people having ideas.
If anything, it makes them have more.
Because - when people haven't got any money, the only thing they can do is make their own entertainment.
Again, this isn't a new idea.
That's how every culture began, from cave drawings onwards.
And that's exactly what the artists behind this campaign against the public entertainment licence changes are doing.
For once – you might say – artists aren't asking for any money here, because they know there isn't any.
They're asking that their work is allowed to exist without having to fork out money they haven't got.
With that in mind I trust the Committee will ensure that common sense prevails, and that, in this Year of Creative Scotland, in this Unesco City of Literature, art of all kinds and at every level is allowed to flourish.
Given on March 9th 2012 as part of what at time of writing remains an ongoing campaign to stop proposed changes to Public Entertainment Licences as part of Scottish Government Legislation