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‘La Princesse’: Arachnid ‘Art’, Big Toys And Cultural Communities In Liverpool

December 12, 2008

La Princesse, a gigantic metal spider, came to Liverpool in early September 2008. This monster brought huge crowds to Liverpool’s city centre, as it enacted its story of ‘scientists’ and adventure.
There to attract ‘cultural tourism’ business to the city, at almost two million pounds one hopes this was a success. Whether, as claimed, it also engaged people successfully in ‘culture’ is also uncertain: at some point real cultural engagement surely also involves empowerment.

Few people will not know that Liverpool, in the early Autumn of its European Capital of Culture 2008 year, has been visited by a Big Spider.

This ‘creature’ (for some indiscernible reason named La Princesse) was constructed entirely of metal, wood and bits of hydraulic and was, it is said, fifty feet high. It paraded in the city centre over the first weekend of September 2008, ‘acting’ out a storyline involving ‘scientists’ who had to do ‘experiments’ to control the gigantic techno-insect. But the reasoning behind the Spider was no fairy tale.

A European connection
A direct descendant of the Sultan’s Elephant (which suddenly appeared in London in May 2006), another construction from the company La Machine, this creation cost even more – apparently something under £2 million. In both cases considerable sums will have gone into the coffers of the French business which built these monster artefacts…. which by their genesis at least bring a much-needed ‘European’ angle to our singularly Scouse Capital of Culture 2008 activities.

And it is worrying to learn from Artichoke, the UK company which brought the machines to Britain, that there was a serious shortfall in anticipated budget (the sum of £300k to £400K has been suggested). Indeed, a charitable appeal was put out to plug the gap.

Arts budget shortfalls and sensible audits?
What, I wonder, would happen if smaller, less publicly vaunted, arts organisations had proportionately similar shortfalls? And if they started from the premise that they could keep the arrangements to themselves, feeling no pressing need to be particularly transparent about anticipated ‘audience’ numbers, budgets, impacts or outcomes?

I ask this as a volunteer community arts promoter threatened last year with the withholding of one thousand pounds from the munificent five thousand promised (our total budget was around £18,000), simply because of a genuine mistake by a single supplier involving very considerably less than just one pound – and which it took many weeks of my (and others’) unpaid time, as well as hours of city employee activity, to resolve.

Proportionality
Which Council officials, I must enquire, have time and salaried capacity to pursue relentlessly a sum amounting to the cost of one postage stamp? (If nothing else, we can now see that corporately they really don’t understand proportionality in accounting.)

Are these the same people who seem happy to permit the continuation of their own projects when over-running by six figures (predictably, since some – how much? – of this was attributed to the fall of the pound against the Euro)? Perhaps La Princesse should be renamed La Suprise.

The rationale: cultural tourism
It might seem here as though I’ve lost the point of what La Machine’s creations are ‘for’. But I don’t think so. The Spider was and remains at its metal heart a vehicle for marketing and tourism; and perhaps also a justification for the self-laudatory outpourings by the powers-that-be which those of us who live in the city encounter on a daily basis from our local media.

But using ‘art’ promotionally is not an especially Liverpool activity. It happens everywhere, from Glasgow to Vienna to South America; just think of the previous UK European Capital of Culture, or the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Andean statue of Christ the Redeemer. Very different ‘arts’, but given in the modern world (if not in origin) the same message and intent.

Marketing becomes the meaning
What bothers me is when the one and only meaning of an art(efact) is the marketing message.
Our Austrian orchestra and South American statue began in very different ways – one started in 1842 as a celebration of the great tradition of European classical music, and the other as a celebration (in 1904) of a peace treaty between Argentina and Chile, bickering over their national boundaries.

Only subsequently have these cultural icons become brilliant marketing tools.

Different ‘rules’ for different ventures?
So here’s the rub: whilst perforce relatively junior local government officers were (a) assiduously trying to delay – we can all guess why – the payment of the final grand of the magnificent ‘funding’ allotted to my hard-working on-the-ground arts charity and (b) ignoring equally assiduously (they had to) my remonstrations that this sort of behaviour is exactly why many ‘in the community’ give up and walk away from delivering grassroots community arts and cultural activities, other more senior officers were short-cutting to hugely expensive ‘projects’ which amount to a cross between the disneyesque and hard-sell…. which they then self-declare to have been a massive success even before it’s all finished. QED.

I don’t, as it happens, mind spectacle and fun; entertainment in the right places is great. But entertainment is just not the same as real engagement.

Community engagement
Community engagement in the arts doesn’t ‘hand down’ from on high, it nurtures reaching up and out. It is both responsive and self-determining, a laborious (but never boring) process, building slowly on trust and developing each individual’s confidence and skills, both as a performer / practitioner and as an appreciative perceiver of the art/s on offer.

You have to believe in people for the longer term to be a really good community arts practitioner. You have to understand the skills which other artists – not just in your own genre, but across the whole spectrum – and partners bring to whatever you’re doing. You have to be, quietly, really good yourself at what you’re hoping to engage others in also.

Challenge and aspiration
And, even more quietly, you have to be willing to challenge the people ‘in the community’ with whom you’re working; not in a know-it-all way, but in the sense that you are privileged to have seen in the wider world how well things can be done when real effort is made, and you would like that to be reflected in how those you are collaborating with approach their chosen tasks.

No genuine artist ever thinks (s)he couldn’t do even better. ‘The best’ is at the bottom of the rainbow. All any of us can do is aspire.

The Spider’s legacy
I’m not at all sure The Spider achieved much in these lights. Its impacts will (I hope) be revealed later. But did it challenge and focus anyone? Did it leave a message for the people of Liverpool? Will it somehow still do so, if plans for its return to the city are confirmed? Only, I think, if there’s a lot more debate between then and now about how to encourage local people, in ‘the community’, to see that as yet we all have plenty of scope for delivering even better what is good about our city.

And in the meantime, small arts enterprises such as my own try to stagger on, largely sidelined and called to account in really silly ways, far more often (however much some of them might like to) than we are actively helped, supported and appreciated by the powers-that-be.

To be truthful, I suspect both that most of those in charge (not of course all – there are some very decent and reality-based people too) have no experience of struggling at the grassroots, and that people who do work on the ground are simply not a part of the high level strategic landscape.

Pre-packaged for ‘the community’
The real decision makers often talk about ‘the community’, but this in their understanding is something to be done unto, to be delivered predetermined culture in predetermined ways.

Rarely is this ‘community’ seen as hugely complex and nuanced (infinitely more nuanced than the standard ‘community’ cultural stereotypes), encompassing many possible ways of contributing to, developing and appreciating arts and culture of all sorts. But it takes time, resources, effort, belief and courage on all sides to get there.

Engaging, or just entertaining?
How much easier – as those amongst cultural managers who are genuinely community-facing will confirm – to deliver a pre-packaged monster spider, than to work patiently for days, weeks or months with the people it has been decreed ultimately will pay for it, to produce something wondrous of their own. Too many of those at ‘the top’ would, if they gave it a thought, have no idea how they could actually help here, anyway.

For me personally that doesn’t matter. I have other quite different things to think about as well, and I didn’t go into this for the bouquets. But if recent experiences were my first or only way of engaging through culture with the city in which I have lived for many years, I would be thoroughly downhearted.

Imagination and vision
‘Real’ art and culture captures the imagination and, in so doing, enables people to see things which they didn’t perceive before. Maybe La Princesse fleetingly did the first; but I haven’t seen much evidence that it does the second. And for roughly the same amount of money as the cost of the European arachnid, we could undertake programmes the same size as my own charity’s single venture in every ward of the city, ‘engaging’ hundreds of people directly and truly meaningfully on each and every occasion.

To keep this member of the local ‘community’ happy, the hard-edged longer-term marketing outcomes for Liverpool from La Machine had better be pretty spectacular.

A version of this article first appeared in a-n magazine, December 2008.

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