Stan's Cafe and Birmingham's ArtsFest

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In 1998 Birmingham City Council launched ArtsFest, later to be billed as ‘The Country’s Largest Free Arts Festival’. Initially the idea was that given a free sample of arts events the good people of Birmingham would be inspired to pay real money to see the full versions. Of course the event was free to the public because no one was paid to perform, but the politics of not performing seemed very bad. In September 1998 Stan’s Cafe had just had a funding application turned down, we were broke and resentful, the future was looking bleak. We put together Marginal Notes, a short programme of video and slide show pieces that ended with Craig giving a brief speech.

Marginal Notes

and furthermore, their influence is beginning to spread. Their ideas are beginning to find favour, not only in this, our city, but all over this land. Evidence of their work is growing, soon it will be everywhere we look, on everything we touch. And that is why these are crucial times, some may say, pivotal. Now we are surrounded by temptation, now they are upon us.

Have no doubt, they have come this far and they will keep on coming. They will not stop. They are voracious. They are colonising our land, they are colonising our lives, they are even colonising our minds. They are living off us, off you and me, we are feeding them and we do not know it.

They may look like us but they are not us. Beneath that superficial charm, that easy talk, that firm handshake, you will find a malignancy, a contagion,a swarming nest of questions and uncertainty. They take our form but believe me they hate us.

They are aliens, they live in your street, they may be your neighbours and you may hear them through your walls. They may look at you and smile. Do not meet their gaze – they can see right through you.

These are accepting times, where there is liberality they prosper and believe me they are prospering. They prey on the likes of you and I, good people, the open, the questioners, the seekers, some might say the gullible or even the weak of soul. They will open their arms to you and invite you in and, even if you recognise them, you may step in.

You may not believe me when I say ‘beware’, You may say ‘I know my mind’, ‘I am of sound mind’, ‘I know myself’, ‘These things are beyond me’, ‘I am not of them’ and yet, and yet we are all capable. All such thoughts are within our compass. You may say to yourself ‘I will try it, I am reasonable, they can do me no harm. It is only an hour out of my life after all’. But what an hour and what can happen in one hour.

What do you lack in your lives. Sir do you feel a lack? Madam do you feel a void in your life? Aside from material wealth, aside from faith and what,in this age, we are led to call ‘personal relationships’, aside these things Ladies and Gentlemen do we feel a lack, a gap that needs filling? I know we do not.We are complete and yet they say we should want for more, ‘and what more is that?’, I hear you ask, why only that which they can supply of course.

‘But what is it?’ I here you mutter ‘that which we should not experience’, It is mere tricks with lights and sounds and words and gestures. And how do I know? Because I have seen it. And, to my shame, I have been impressed. They play the mind game well. I, I have been brought to the edge of capitulation by these mysteries, this hocus pocus, trivial, confused, confusing, nonsense.

So how do we stop them? We absent ourselves. We starve them. We shake their faith. We avoid all social contact. We see if they can live on what they say we lack alone. And if we see them on the street we point at them and brand them, artist, actor, hypocrite, deceiver. And we are right to do so.

This may sound hard I know, but it is the only way to stop them. I know it is difficult for you, you are, after all, good compassionate people. But please, for all our sakes, do not indulge them, if you find Stan’s Cafe close it down and what ever you do, whatever the temptation, whatever your heart, or convention, or even my sly words might say, do not applaud their artifice.

Thank you.

Craig Stephens & James Yarker September 1998

The following year we made a sketch version of Good and True for ArtsFest. The terror of presenting this to an unknown audience pushed us to making it very funny and the humour remained. For the next few years we submitted videos we’d made with kids. In 2004/5/6 we were commissioned by Creative Partnerships to run a photographic self-portrait booth Take-It and this year, 2007, we did nothing at all.

It has never been proved to our satisfaction that anyone has felt boost in audience numbers due to ArtsFest. Though the atmosphere has been good quality of performances has been highly variable. It has rarely been acknowledged that artists are giving their time for free. The debate rumbles on.