During the week of 11th May, we’ll be trialling an online version of our Space/Time retreat. Usually Space/Time is a residency in a rural location – previously venues include Cove Park in Argyle and Bute, The Old Brewery in Cromarty, Lyth Arts Centre near Wick, Findhorn in Moray, and the Swallow Theatre in Dumfries and Galloway. This is because being away from your regular surroundings is an important element in allowing people to focus on themselves without distraction. Clearly this is not currently possible, so - like everyone else – we’re having to work out how to do things differently.
People are often intrigued by the idea of these retreats and ask what they’re like. It’s quite hard to explain what the experience itself is like as each person’s experience is different – though participant Rob Young has done a very good job in a previous post – but I can describe what the structure is and what the ideas behind it are.
We have run 12 Space/Time retreats since the first one in October 2012. Most of these have been targeted at experienced artists (by which we mean people who’ve been working professionally for at least 10 years), but we have also run two with a more specific focus. One for Older Early-career Artists in partnership with Luminate and Cove Park and another for Teaching Artists in partnership with Scottish Drama Training Network. Since 2014, I have co-facilitated the retreats with Alice McGrath.
The starting point for the retreats was – like much of the Artist Development work we do – thinking about what artists need to keep working. As a practising artist myself, I know that there is very little for self-reflection; you may reflect on your work, but time is precious and often you feel compelled to be working – bluntly, if you’re a freelance artist in any medium, if you’re not working then you’re not earning. Once you reach a certain stage in your career – which, as noted above, we characterise as being ‘experienced’ – you are often moving from one commission or job to another, maybe working on a number simultaneously. No-one complains about this, it’s the way it works, but it makes it very hard to take time out and reflect. If you have a salaried job, you can probably take a sabbatical at some point, or maybe continuing professional development (CPD) is something your employer encourages. If you’re a freelance artist, you are your own employer and – nice though the idea might seem – given the choice of taking time out to think about where you are and where you would like to be or doing work that will earn you some money, you’re probably going to do some more work because that’s how you pay the bills.
So there are two elements to Space/Time that are essential to it – one, we give artists the opportunity to pay attention to themselves and to consider what they need to sustain themselves creatively; two, we pay them to do it. Twice a year, we take a group of artists away for 5 days to focus completely on themselves: for everyone who takes part, this is a rare luxury.
In advance, participants are asked to come up with their own questions in relation to the over-arching question of “how do you nourish your development?”. Alice and I then look at the questions and group them into themes and these form the basis for facilitated discussions over the week. Each day has a similar structure: we meet in the morning and talk until lunchtime, after lunch everyone has the afternoon to themselves to spend as they wish – working, going for a walk, resting or whatever else feels important to do. We then meet again at 6pm, when we make supper together and reflect on the day, sometimes with an informal presentation from one of the participants about an idea they’re thinking about or a project they’ve done or something that has inspired them. On some days we set a creative task, taking people for a guided walk with a specific instruction to follow, for instance. It’s a simple format, but it give people the space and time to stop, think and reflect, something that it is very hard to do usually.
On the first day, everyone gives a presentation of about half-an-hour or so on their work. Remarkably, this is an unusual thing; a common misapprehension of artists is that they’re always talking about themselves, but this is actually a very rare occurrence. The simple act of talking for half an hour about what you do and how long you’ve been doing it for creates an important sense of validation because, strangely, your work sounds much more interesting to others than it does to you. Having five people who you’ve only just met tell you how fascinating your work sounds is a very rare thing and an important start to getting a fresh perspective on the value of what you do.
I think Space/Time works because it is such a simple idea. The skill is in selecting the right group of people for each retreat – the ratio of applicants to places is usually in the region of 7 or 8 to 1 – and in creating the right atmosphere for people to feel secure and supported.