Stella Duffy: “People have very different conversations when they’re putting up a trestle table together.”

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Originally written for Exeunt

Mary Halton interviewed Stella Duffy in 2014, just before the first weekend of Fun Palaces brought free, community organised arts and science events to locations across the UK. Two years on, she’s caught up with Stella Duffy again, to talk about the project has evolved into something huge, surprising and truly national. 

Mary Halton: When we spoke about Fun Palaces in 2014, you said that brand new things would come out of it – things that you hadn’t even guessed at. What have those been?

Stella Duffy: This year, about 40% of Fun Palaces are happening in libraries. And we totally didn’t guess at that. I mean I think they’re ideal places because, [with] most libraries, the public already has a bit of a sense of ownership. Also because they’ve really suffered, with the local government authority cuts and the spending review last year. I think [they] have understood brilliantly that this is a way for them to open their doors a bit more, to build on what they already have, and in some ways to really push themselves.

We always thought it wasn’t just about arts and science. We knew that. That arts and science are the catalyst for what we really care about, which is community building. But I didn’t realise how many other people would get that. And play with it. And extend it. And make it much bigger than we could ever have imagined.

One of the other lovely things that happened… instead of people going “You don’t know what you’re doing” (we don’t! And that’s fine!) people are saying, “Oh I see, you’re ok with not knowing what you’re doing. You appear to be getting some value out of it. Can you come and talk to us about how you go about doing something without a formal framework, or without a formal evaluation… can you tell us how it is to do something when you don’t know what it is?”

M: In embracing uncertainty and a process and a product, if you will, that’s not quantifiable have you found that the arts and science communities are more or less willing to engage with this on either side, or has it been roughly even across the board?

S: It’s been roughly the same, but both sides have told me that the other one’s better at it. Which is hilarious to me.

So as an arts maker I’ve so often said to scientists, ‘Oh, you guys are so much more practised at failing, and you’re able to go backwards and work out what went wrong and build on that.’

And they’re like “Oh, but you lot, you’re so much better at being open to ideas in the first place.”

Which means of course that when they come together they truly do amazing things. There’s a blog by Lizzie Glennon on the maker section of our website. She’s an Alzheimer’s researcher at King’s College and she said that Fun Palaces has changed how she works. It’s changed how she does her science. Which is just incredible.

M: The last time we spoke I remember you were very anxious for Fun Palaces not to be commandeered by David Cameron’s idea of Big Society. Obviously since then we’ve had a general election and a referendum. How do you think Fun Palaces is placed within current British society?

S: Certainly the post-Brexit thing really interests me, given how many workshops we’ve now done around the country. We know there’s a metropolitan bubble, and I know that I live and work within a liberal, well-meaning blah blah group of people, 99.9% of whom voted to remain. But around the country we’ve met amazing people who may well have thought they were doing the right thing, and may well have done, for all I know, the right thing for their area by voting to leave.

The people who run Farnham Fun Palace, both of whom are not British nationals, have actually written brilliantly on their Fun Palaces page about what it felt like post-Brexit, and for them one of the reasons to make a Fun Palace is to integrate more. And Carine, who is one of the two people running that Fun Palace said that it has helped her to integrate more, but it has also helped her to see where she wasn’t making an effort.

And that’s just incredible, her honesty and generosity there. Not everyone is going to be that honest and that open, but I think that what we have to offer is a space for people to work together wherever they’re coming from, because they’re working to create something in their community.

And quite often I think people have very different conversations when they’re putting up a trestle table together, or planning a science experiment together and they stop for a cup of tea – some difficult conversations can be had more easily.

The goal is to create a thing that we do together. It’s process over product. I genuinely don’t care whether people tell me they had 2,000 people or 200 people or no people at their Fun Palace. It’s genuinely not about that. It’s about people creating something for, by and with themselves.

M: You’ve been recognised with an OBE, which is wonderful, and you have had this support and partnerships – has this, I guess what would be perceived as legitimisation of Fun Palaces changed the process, or who is approaching you?

S: Yes it’s made a difference, in that I’ve been able to have a conversation with a bunch of lords and baronesses I would never have had access to. And I’ve certainly been asked to make a lot more speeches and write a lot more articles.

I’ve always believed in the brilliance in everybody – Joan Littlewood’s phrase “the genius in every person” – until Fun Palaces. It was just that I didn’t have much data. And now I’ve got a fuck of a lot of proof of the genius in everyone. And now I do!

So I don’t think an OBE has made a massive difference to who wants to make a Fun Palace. I don’t think most of them know. In fact many Fun Palaces people don’t know much about us as a central office at all, and they’re doing it because they’ve heard about it or they’ve seen another one, and they think it’s a good idea. And that’s perfect. In the long run, it should be run not just regionally but locally.

We’re still a really small team – it’s just 4 of us 2 days a week. I don’t want to make a massive organisation. I don’t want us to need a building that before we do anything costs half a million a year. Because our funding goes directly to the work that we do. In fact the Arts Council has talked about more NPOs doing what the Albany are doing [with us] and hosting a smaller organisation. So much of the money that goes out from budgets that are around arts and culture goes on buildings.

M: You were this angry about buildings the last time we spoke.

S: *laughs* I’m always angry about buildings. And I get that people need places to do stuff, I totally get that. Of course we do. That’s one of the prime directives for human beings; we need shelter. But we could share our shelter better. And I think that what we have with the Albany is a fantastic model. I don’t know that there are that many equally brave NPOs. We had no promises to give Gavin Barlow at the Albany. We couldn’t promise him a thing! And it’s been mutually beneficial.

M: Amazing.

S: It is amazing! Sometimes I want to cry! When I saw at the weekend that we had 200 Fun Palaces [note: that’s now 283!] from something that was only invented at D&D in 2013! You know. It’s really, really new still.

We made a thing out of nothing. The 90,000 people who came to Fun Palaces in the last 2 years and probably 150,000 by the time two weekends are gone. Everyone. We made a thing out of nothing, with fuck all money. But we did it in a time when we were being told that there wasn’t money for culture, and that there didn’t need to be money because the people wouldn’t support it.

And that’s what this government has been allowed to get away with. Because it’s said oh look it’s not supported, so we don’t need to pay it. And what we’re doing is we’re proving that there’s a need, there’s a desire, and there’s a tonne of support.

What we’re doing is saying look how hungry communities are for community engagement, and for community-led engagement. Let’s support that. Let’s put our money into that. Again, let’s not build another shiny building, but put the money into the people who are already there already doing amazing stuff.

M: In terms of the future…. aside from global domination?

S: Aside from global domination… and aside from nothing less than the complete democratisation of culture and cultural access. Aside from those, to me the exciting thing is the people who are coming through. Who are telling us what Fun Palaces are. Teaching us what’s good for them.

Last week I ran two Fun Palaces workshops [in Taunton], for Southwest Libraries, and now some of them have decided with two weeks notice that they’re going to make a Fun Palace. And I think… make a small, scrappy one! Make a Fun Palace that’s a bit shit! That’s ok! People get a bit scared of having to be brilliant. It’s always ok to have things go wrong. If we don’t risk, then we’ll never learn anything, and we’ll never do anything new.

It’s literally just encouraging people to step up, and then getting out of their fucking way because they’re going to do it way better without anyone else telling them how to do it. So that’s probably the future of Fun Palaces – setting it all going and getting out of the fucking way! *laughs*

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