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Review: #LIFTChange With the lights out it’s less dangerous. Reviewed by Ben Walters


It was a beautiful evening on Thursday. The light streamed into St Giles-in-the-Field church and an organist noodled away unconventionally as the audience arrived for the fourth event in LIFT’s Change for a Tenner! season, which is dedicated to exploring ideas around social and political change. With the lights out it’s less dangerous took on the subject of whether art has to involve risk to the artist if it’s to be worthwhile – an idea that actually felt quite fitting in a Christian church, with matrydom and paradise in the air.

I found the last entry in the season, Children of the Revolution, often interesting but bitty and undynamic as an event. This had a tighter yet fuller feel – fewer contributors, each with something compelling to say and more cohesively in thematic conversation with one another. In some ways, our culture is relatively kind to artists: freedom of expression is supposedly enshrined in law and it’s rare that violence is visited on those who make art. But it is still often considered a luxury or soft option and those who decide to pursue it as a career will likely rule themselves out of access to certain material privileges. “One thing you are risking as a poet is your financial independence,” noted performance poet Sam Berkson, who chaired the first half; Michelle Madsen, his fellow poet and colleague in performance-poetry collective Hammer and Tongue, hosted the second.

In each half, three contributors spoke for five or ten minutes before answering a couple of questions. (A seventh speaker, Vladimir Umanets, who was sentenced to two years in prison for writing on a Rothko at Tate Modern, was a no-show.) Middle Eastern politics loomed large. Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina performed an excerpt from his show This Is Not a Subject for Comedy, about visiting the West Bank and being forced to reconsider the special status of Israel he had internalised during his childhood. Though he reported being near Israeli tanks and gunfire, he made no claims of heroic risktaking in that department; rather, the risk he described was to do with how his work has seen parts of his own British Jewish community ostracise him. “It’s designed to isolate you, marginalise you, intimidate you and provoke you,” he said of the protests and smears he has faced; and while others have it worse, it’s still “a real pain in the arse”.

Performance poet Hala Ali also discussed biting the hand that feeds. Having mounted the church’s pulpit in the name of the Prophet “because I can”, she recalled a Saudi upbringing in which “we had way too much money”, a pampered lifetstyle in which self-censorship means “your work is no longer yours… You never criticise the benevolent king” for fear that “you could be imprisoned or, worse, they could tell your mother”. Having come to the UK to study, she performs here but doesn’t use her last name and her parents have never seen her in action. She delivered a barnstorming piece that originated, she said, as a list of things about herself but was transformed by the substitution of “my vagina” for any first person pronouns. So “my vagina was written about twice in the New York Times before it was 25”; “my vagina will vote UKIP to get a passport”; “my vajajay will not free Ai Weiwei” etc. It was shrewd, funny stuff, a crescendo of genital indignation at once narcissistic and self-critical.

Maya Zbib co-founded Beirut’s Zoukak Theatre Company in 2006. She braves the censorship system there: texts must be officially approved, with the most contentious subjects being religion, politics and sex – the only things Zoukak is interested in. The company often works in rural areas where audiences might be experiencing theatre for the first time. Responses can be surprising. In one village, Zbib’s performance included her going back and forth on a swing with her legs apart, recounting her mother’s admonition against such behaviour when she was a child. Local women feared an outraged response from the village religious leader, who did indeed avert his eyes from that part of the performance. But overall he approved. “You didn’t listen to your mother,” he told Zbib afterwards, “but your poetry is good.”

Anila Ladwa is a producer with Artraker, an annual award for artists working in conflict situations. She spoke about an intervention by Kurdish Iraqi Rozhgar Mustafa in 2011 in the city of Sulaymaniyah. At the time, there were sustained protests by Kurds seeking greater freedom and improvements in civil society; women were effectively prohibited from protesting but Mustafa recruited some men to parade five plastic female mannequins through the crowd, an intervention that carried considerable risk of reprisal to all concerned.

Closer to home but still with an eye on religious strictures, Paula McFetridge’s Kabosh theatre company creates site-specific works in Northern Ireland, in prisons, courthouses, synagogues, taxis and elsewhere, mostly to do with the emotional, political and practical fall-out from the Troubles. She spoke of feeling fear during certain shows. “The work is a catalyst” for the acknowledgement and exploration of negative feelings that are supposed to have been put to bed now that there is ‘peace’ in the province (“we’re a success story,” she said sardonically). Deliberately bringing those feelings to the surface is a calculated risk that can result in threats and even fights breaking out but, McFetridge believes, such actions ultimately “make the space safer” for exploring contentious issues otherwise left festering.

Another performance poet, Adam Kammerling, brought it back to economics. If you want to be an artist full-time, you’ll likely struggle to be comfortable and perhaps, as he has, literally struggle to put food on the table. So, Kammerling recalls as part of his performance, “with the night as my dark protector, I spring into the dumpsters of Marks and Spencer”. His rap-inflected piece about living off bin food was vibrant, light, detailed and unselfpitying; it also evolved into a wry takedown of the outrageous waste built into supermarket consumption chains.

Interesting points did come up in the little interviews and panel Q&A but the most memorable and striking parts of the evening were in the main meat of it – the performances and contextual facts about the participants’ work. A couple of days on, I’m not sure I see any particularly compelling throughline, unifying factor or call to action in the evening as a whole but I don’t think that matters. It shed light on a range of provocative and sometimes inspirational creative responses to situations of jeopardy, which can only be a worthwhile result.

Read our interview with co-curator Charlie Tims here. Find out more about Change for a Tenner! here. Follow the hashtags for updates - and make yourself heard #LIFTChange #LIFT2014

Some details on the final events:
Some People Think I’m Bonkers, But I Just Think I’m Free (Weds, June 18, at The Yard Theatre), compered by comedian Ivor Dembina, celebrates eccentricity in the company of campaigners - from naturism to the restoration of British Rail.
This State of Independence Shall Be (Weds, June 25, at Wilton’s Music Hall) investigates “the art of declaring independence…featuring micronations, communes and subterranean living”, hosted by Hammer and Tongue’s Michelle Madsen and Sam Berkson, and including Lise Autogena, resident of Denmark’s experimental community Cristiania.
The Change For a Tenner! Finale (Thurs, June 26, at Shoreditch Town Hall) takes the form of a “revolutionary gameshow” in which the audience decide the rules and allocate the box office takings to a cause (or anti-cause) of their choice.

Change for a Tenner! is curated by Charlie Tims, Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson. Producing Assistant Alicia Graf. Commissioned by LIFT and supported by Festivals in Transition - Global City Local, Imagine 2020, and House on Fire networks, with support of the Culture Programme of the European Union.

LIFT have commissioned Run-Riot to report on the Change for a Tenner! series.

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