Failure is always an option

Although I’ve given the long answer to the question ‘how did you end up making music for a living’ in a previous blog, when asked at by someone I’ve not met before how I ended up doing this work, the short answer I often give is because I’m a failed modelmaker. I’ve kind of made a living by doing more than one thing at once, and then somehhow smashing those things together to build a third, unexpected combination, like some kind of occupational alchemy. I like the definition of ‘career’ that describes something barely under control.

I’ve done my fair share of academic education, in part because I am lucky enough to find it relatively easy. Having said that, I’ve never been fond of taking the easy route, preferring instead to follow what was interesting; at school, my grades in English were much higher than those in Art, but I have always preferred making something new to analysing something old, so I took the path of most resistance and went to art college rather than university. In no small part this was also due to the company I kept – I found artists to be much more fun to be around than those studying the classics.

Plan-Do-Review_0I’m a big advocate of action research and action learning, and believe these approaches offer a good structure for running dynamic music sessions and workshops, but there’s a key element that’s important in that cycle of planning, doing, and reviewing – and that is to do with being allowed to fail. I should add that I don’t regularly run sessions that I consider a failure, although to be honest, the reason I’m writing on this subject is because I did recently have a session that went so far off-piste I began to question my life choices. After the dust had settled, I reviewed the process – when I was in a band, we used to refer to the analysis of bad gigs as the post-mortem – and tried to work out where the session had started to go off the rails. After a lot of soul-searching and a few targeted emails to find out more about the young people I was working with, I made some tweaks to the session content, the room it was in and the equipment I was using, and all those involved responded much more positively.

Numerous studies show that we learn much more from failing than succeeding  and that’s certainly been the case in my life. I deliberately take on over-ambitious projects that I know have a chance of failing, because it’s only when my creativity and ingenuity are stretched that I feel like I’m doing work that is exciting and innovative. Experimentation is often fostered in the arts, and some organisations – like the inspirational and ground-breaking Tempting Failure  – actively encourage those they work with to go way beyond their comfort zone. They have helped many artists, including myself, to come up with extremely challenging and ambitious work.

Given this almost universal understanding, it can be incredibly difficult to get the young people I work with to experiment in the music workshops I run. Many are scared of failing, being told that what they are doing is wrong, or being embarrassed in front of their peers. The older the people I work with, the more reluctant they are to participate in anything that might not be a guaranteed success. I suspect (without wishing to get embroiled in politics) that a lot of this has to do with recent changes in education, and the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer to every question – not because it makes education more robust, but because it makes it simpler to assess. For some subjects like maths that may be appropriate (up to a point) but in the Arts, most progress is made by people intentionally breaking rules, making mistakes, doing things wrong and failing to conform.

burningmanI think as practitioners of the Arts, it’s extremely important to cultivate safe spaces that give the freedom to experiment, and allow participants to fail without the repercussions of criticism. When I was running Wasp Factory Recordings, we used to refer to these as “temporary autonomous zones” – little pockets of time and space where the usual rules are suspended briefly and people are free to act outside of their normal behaviour. A perfect example of this is Burning Man Festival, the once a year festival that builds a city in the desert and then vanishes again. I’ve never been but it’s definitely on my bucket-list. For a very long time, photography was banned at Burning Man, and before the internet, it had almost mythical status, tales of enormous sculptures, performances and rituals, being passed around like modern folk tales.

We are living at a very peculiar point in history where we have embraced digital culture without really considering how it is changing the way we interact with each other. As ‘selfie culture’ has shown, it is often more important to be seen to be having fun than to actually enjoy yourself, and young people live in fear of doing something daft, only to have it go viral and be made a global laughing stock. Sorry folks, but if you laughed at ‘Star Wars Kid’ and others, you’re part of the problem here. The permanent is often so much less important than those times when you are truly lost in something. I’m researching about ‘flow state’ at the moment, and considering how damaging it is to have mobile devices breaking people’s concentration endlessly, or worse still, ridiculing these fantastic times when we are lost in the wild abandon of creativity, not worried about failing or succeeding, but just being in the moment.

I remember being told a story, I think during my teacher training, that has stayed with me as an example of why we need to be careful of valuing just the end results of a process. A child spends all day playing in the sand pit, building an ellaborate system of roads, waterways, dams, bridges and tunnels. Their carer comes to pick them up, and as they leave, they put their hand in a paint-pot and slap it on a piece of paper. When their carer asks what they did all day, the child hands them the piece of paper, and it gets proudly displayed on the fridge. The city made of sand can be too easily forgotten.

As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details