Brexit & the arts

Brexit postcard submission for ME & EU by Olivia Charlesworth
© Olivia Charlesworth

We know that Brexit – hard, soft, or half-baked as it might be – will affect London’s thriving arts hub as well as the UK’s greater cultural landscape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 96% of creative industry professionals voted to “Remain” because of concerns related to funding, legislation and the freedom of movement. Then again, both inside and outside of London’s liberal bubble silver linings have also been identified, such as new opportunities for art, society, and the economy. Be that as it may, many creatives are fleeing the current political discourse (literally and figuratively) because the government has failed to look forward to what lies ahead for British artistic and cultural life. But is “No” an acceptable answer to Brexit?

Rather than retreating from Brexit, we must actively engage with it and kick-start a conversation that will leave UK-based artists, students and arts professionals feeling motivated rather than deflated. In a bid to create the transparency and enthusiasm that everyone is craving for, I asked artist Jo Pearl to help creatives fine-tune their approach to Brexit by bringing to life her passionate ideas.

You played a part in organizing the Brexit March a month ago and have strongly advocated for a People’s Vote. Like 96% of creative industry professionals, you are pro-Remain. Seeing that only 4% of creative industry professionals are in tune with how the majority of British people feel, do you think the arts sector is out of touch with the UK?
That’s a good question. I certainly think that we’re in our own bubble: Us artists get on and do our work regardless of whether the money is good or not - there's no stopping us. Brexit was a protest vote that came as a result of the government’s economic austerity package but living on a shoe-string is often our reality, hence why we might be out of sync. I think Brexit is going to have a very damaging effect on the arts. Our government doesn’t recognize the importance we bring to the economy. We just get shoved to the side, when really we deserve to be listened to as a group.

Indeed, the creative sector contributes significantly to the UK economy: It accounts for 1 in 11 jobs and has a yearly turnover of over 100 billion pounds. In light of Brexit, many creatives fear and criticize that both London and the UK are looking inwards rather than outwards to the world. But considering the huge social rift between Leavers and Remainers, do you think that looking inwards is necessarily a bad thing?
Definitely. My experience at CSM has taught me the importance of thinking beyond one's own discipline and world view. Creative things happen when there’s a mash-up, so if we start looking inwards it will only impoverish our creativity, our vision, and quite frankly our lives.

Do you think Brexit could potentially lead to a ‘brain gain’ - a means to stimulate knowledge, experimentation, and innovation within Britain’s local workforce?
I’m not convinced that there was ever a block to local people joining in on the creative expansion of Britain’s thinking.

Your grief and anger at what seems to many like the most disastrous socio-political decision in Britain’s most recent history are understandable. But Brexit still begs the question of how creatives should collectively respond. Can Brexit be understood not as a catastrophe, but as a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink every aspect of what Britain does - a springboard to action so to say?
British people are fairly eccentric and independently minded, so whatever happens, we will make the best of it. But there is also a big “dot dot dot”. Economically Brexit is bound to have negative impacts, but socially it might be a catalyst for enhancing the way we coexist. We must rethink the way capitalism and our economy are run.

Your sculpture People’s Votive reflects on the discourse and event of Brexit, foregrounding the affective dimension of the current political situation. Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind the piece and how it came about?
I’ve made a couple of pieces in response to the current political situation and People’s Votive was actually my second piece. Without having a shrill voice, I was trying to find a way to influence our "great" leaders Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, while also getting people to think about how closely the two of them are linked in the Brexit process. The piece is a Roman-inspired Janus-like head. In Roman religion, Janus is the god responsible for beginnings, transitions, and the future. I made a life-size Janus head with Theresa May wearing a slightly comic hat she might wear to Buckingham Palace on one side and on the other side Jeremy Corbyn wearing his signature communist manifesto cap. On the top of the sculpture where the two hats meet there is a hole in the shape of a ballot slot in which I inscribed "People’s Vote" next to it. People’s Votive was first exhibited at Southwark Cathedral alongside the works of my fellow comrades from the Associated Clay Workers Union (ACWU). When the exhibition ended we took our unfired works out of the cabinets to do a ritual at low tide along the Thames. We gifted the sculptures to the river as a votive offering and captured everything on film. The message behind People’s Votive is serious for me because I think Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are two sides of the same coin: Both of them are pushing us towards Brexit, but while one doesn’t believe in it, the other one isn’t fighting in our corner.

People’s Votive (2019), Jo Pearl
© Malcolm Smith

What struck me about People’s Votive is not just its inherent emotive language, but also that it seems to point towards the possibilities that emerge from crisis and despair. As an artist, what are your visions and hopes for the future?
I think that it’s our role as artists to reflect on our society and to point out what isn't going right. If everything was perfect in the world, there wouldn’t be art. It’s our job to shine a light upon difficulties and injustices. I can’t necessarily speak for other artists and dictate their political stand on Brexit, but I feel like on one level my role is to work as an activist, provoking and supporting change towards the better.

People’s Votive is now at the bottom of the Thames. Have you thought about actively engaging Brexiteers with your artworks with Brexiteers?
I haven’t thought about placing People’s Votive in that context. However, I did take a year out in my studies, working very hard to get more clay-engagement of the ground down in Cornwall, one of the top 10 most deprived areas in the European Union. Cornwall has been sidelined within the UK’s political discourse, hence why the area is mostly "pro-Leave". A little known fact: It is also the birthplace of porcelain and Wedgewood industries. When you go down there, you’ll find these extraordinary pyramids of spoil heaps thrown up by hundred years of mining – they call them the Cornish Alps. My goal was to find ways to reskill the local community in clay skills, so I tried to get a co-making land art piece of the ground. It was posing a question about the sleeping giant, what Cornwall wanted to be, and what we together could envision on a grand scale. Clay is a magnificent material, perfect for working with local communities in an engaging way. Most adults haven't played with clay since they were kids, so there is always this kind of Proustian “Oh, this is so nice”. Working with clay is a great way to slow down the conversation and to envision something in 3D. People relax when they’re asked to model something in clay in a way that I don’t think they do if you give them a paper and pencil.

It sounds like the social potential of clay is an inherent feature of most of your works. Would you describe your current artistic intentions as trying to stimulate post-Brexit action and is this what creative professionals should emphasize in the practices?
Artists have a lot of roles to play. Right now, it is important for artists to share their skills and to bring about new ways of interacting with each other. I really like the idea of shared workspaces, where councils foster open access by investing in facilities and things like a throwing wheel or a wood bench. That's the kind of vision I hope for.