As part of my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to Jade Coles, an experienced cultural events programmer/producer working across the arts, culture and lifestyle sectors. Currently defining a programme of over 60 events per month ranging from In conversations, panel style debates, pecha kucha, workshops, live music and award ceremonies. Jade is currently a trustee at Deptford X, a committee member at Norn and advisory board member at Her Stories. In 2016, Jade was selected for the Clore Arts Foundation emerging leader course and was voted a Top 100 Events Innovator by Eventbrite.
I’ve heard a number of different responses to the term ‘cultural producer’ but fundamentally it’s a term that reacts to cultural norms and influences society, I believe. Can you talk about any particular touch points in your life that helped guide your career?
I think, first and foremost, feminism was an important touch point for me. I’ve always been a feminist but I haven’t always had the language to articulate how that came about. When I went to The BRIT School, I was suddenly exposed to a variety of different people. It was a great experience. The school allowed creative people to really explore their identity through art and performance. Identity was a big thing within The BRIT School agenda. I think that’s where I started to really think about what feminism was, and human rights in general. When I started university at the Wimbledon School of Art I was exposed further to feminists thinking, and feminist’s artists, primarily video artists. The person that ran my course, Jennet Thomas, a video maker who I would describe as a socialist-political artist, really tried to ensure that we had a much-grounded education, specifically by getting us to watch and learn about political and feminist artists. It was a really amazing education. I remember watching a particular video by the performance artist Valie Export. After a couple of minutes into the screening a couple of people in the class were like ‘whoa ok, that’s enough for me.’ It’s interesting, as for me, when looking at art that highlights and explores important socio-political topics, I think you start to consider your own personal boundaries and levels of acceptability. As a young person I always felt out of place until I met like-minded people at art school. Suddenly, you’re re-contextualising yourself. I remember, an old school friend and I, who had been my friend since I was 13 or 14 years old, went to see a Grayson Perry exhibition. Some of the work in the show contained topics relating to abortion. My friend was like; I just don’t know why they have done that. I think that’s ruined a perfectly nice painting. I always thought of her as this really contemporary person; her mom was a Buddhist and a yoga teacher.
I guess the other touchstone and major influence for me was Gaggle, a performance project that I joined when I was at university around 19 years old. Gaggle, in its very first inception, was a 22-piece all-female, riot girl choir invented by the artistic director Deborah Coughlin. It was set up primarily because there were too many boy bands. It was around 2009 or something like that, in the height of the whole Indie scene. It was all about being disruptive. We would perform what we called a backlash. For example a minor backlash would be putting makeup on our faces to try and disrupt the notion of what everyone would look like. We would go from trying to cover people’s faces in different ways, like painting them entirely blue. We would use black lipstick and then smudge it across our faces. I mean back then, it was really massive. I remember once, Deborah and I were confronted in the Southbank Centre about the way we all looked because they interpreted that as Deborah making everybody look like a group of golliwogs. They would ask me how I felt about it. It was always interesting to hear how people were interpreting what we were doing.
Deborah was approaching the project from an academic / experimental standpoint, but we were certainly not coming at it with that in mind. We were coming at it from this visceral, visual standpoint to try and disrupt what was going on around us, as well as trying to create something new. It is interesting to hear you talk about iheartwomen, and how people are already questioning what it is you’re trying to do. Sometimes I’m glad that Gaggle happened when it did, because I wonder if we would have been able to get away with the things we did.
Could you give me an example?
We once stormed a beauty counter in a large department store as a viral protest. It wasn’t too extreme, but we sang a song about consumerism. We were being commissioned by Outset and Bicester Village as part of the project we did with Fig 2 at the ICA. The idea was to go through Bicester Village, a shopping centre in Oxford. We turned up with orange dresses and our faces painted. We experimented with contouring with face paints and strange angles but unfortunately without the means or know-how to blend make up properly. We made these giant papier-mâché rocks, singing a song called A Woman and Her Rock, whilst walking through this luxury shopping centre. At the time people just went along with it. You could feel the tensions rising and lines constantly being drawn; we were trying to be boundary-less in our own feminism. It was difficult.
Does Gaggle still exist today?
Gaggle does still exist but in a different form. Gaggle’s first priority was to be a semi-successful band. We wanted to be as successful as the boys’ where/are. The impetus of being an all-female group was really fun. We signed to Transgressive Records and released an album called From The Mouth Of The Cave commissioned by the women’s library before it was shut down in East London. After this, we reworked the 1960s opera The Brilliant and The Dark – performed by 1000 women in London singing about their own history. We performed that at the ICA and made it into a record. This was a really great moment. We actually won a prize with Kerrang, we were on NME’s Top 51s to watch and we toured the UK and all the great festivals you can think of, aside from Glastonbury…it’s still a sticking point. We also travelled to Norway and parts of Europe. It was really exciting.
We did, however, realise this wasn’t a sustainable way to work as we were not making enough money. That’s when I decided to get in to cultural production. Deborah and I knew quite quickly that maybe I was more than just a performer. Actually, to be honest, I wasn’t even the best performer. I can’t sing, I can’t read music, I can’t play any instruments, and I’m a nervous live performer. It was mad that I was in Gaggle the first place.
Deborah and I started to work on things together, thinking about what the proposition of Gaggle was: what a band is and is not, what we want to achieve outside of ‘normal’ musicality. Through that we did a number of things including opening a pop-up shop in Deptford called the Gaggle Cave. It was all about celebrating female creativity and selling things by illustrators that we loved, like Rebecca Strickson. We also curated some small courses about how to be more creative, looking at women and sound in particular. We started to notice, that yes, the women are the singers and the dancers, but you rarely found a women sound technician or lighting designer. This aggressive part of the music industry is really interesting. Our aim was to involve more women, more women producers, and commissioners of the content.
The other thing we started to notice is we were being booked for things and people really didn’t know what Gaggle was. They would just look at the pictures and be like, massive group of girls in fun costumes. Yes, definitely want that. Then we’d start singing songs like, How Can I Tell If My Man’s a Liar. You would see the blood run from their faces. Gaggle was controversial, even though there was always a level of tongue-in-cheek. I remember a project we did at the ICA as part of Fig 2, called Yap Yap Yap for International Women’s Day. It was a show all about women’s voices, which took the form of a number of 2D prints of various women in Gaggle singing over time. The singers were a range of women in their 50s and 60s right down to people in their 20s. Yap Yap Yap later became a theatre show written by Deborah Coughlin and performed at Women of the World. It was homage to famous speeches in history. We looked at everything from Belle Hooks to Adele stating she was going to give her Grammy to Beyoncé. One of my proudest moments was probably working on Lysistrata at the Almeida Theatre. Lysistrata is a classic Greek play. We were trying to inspire people under the age of 30 to understand Classical Greek texts. Gaggle took that text and made it into a musical, placing four iconic representations of women trying the change the world. We actually asked Charlotte Church to star in it. We sold out for the two nights, which was like 500 people. That was really amazing. That’s when cultural production and cultural activation really made sense to me as the next step in my career.
Work then just began to take place, even if I didn’t have the right language to articulate my creativity. My skill set is not even classic event production. Actually, Deborah and I would have a lot of conversations about what it was I was doing. I kept thinking that I should learn more about a specific subject, or maybe enrol on an Events Management or Arts Administration Masters. In the end, it seemed like the work came regardless, and it still happens.
Alongside all of this, I was working at Soho House. This was another really interesting proposition because the idea of a Members Club was not really something I knew anything about. I didn’t know what a Members Club was. I thought when my friend said the words “Members Club” it was a strip club. I didn’t really understand what they were trying to make happen. That was a real eye-opening experience for me. Obviously, from doing events around London, my background in art plus my age, I was essentially the target audience. I started working there and just absolutely loved it. I got to meet loads of people that were doing interesting things, all of the things that I enjoyed about being at art school and being around emerging artists and creatives. I was able to work with them in a really tangible way. I didn’t realise at the time, but I was providing a platform for creative practitioners to operate in spaces that they otherwise couldn’t reach. As the credibility of Soho House grew over time, suddenly the credibility of having done something at Soho House grew over time as well.
Soho House, I would say, six years ago, I don’t think many people had heard of it. My parents certainly hadn’t heard of it, but now it’s ubiquitous with membership clubs, with hospitality, and with food and drink. I was lucky enough to join the company at the beginning of that larger journey. We scaled the membership up as I started to work more and more on the events side.
When I was working with the under-27 community, I was very keen to programme more events. The membership, in the main, was full of creative directors, artistic directors, people that ran agencies or their owned businesses. These are the people that can pay the younger members as they’ve got access to money, they’ve got clients, they need new things and new information, but these two groups aren’t cross-pollinating. I started to work with some of the key younger members. My first programme was all about fashion and sustainability. I decided to set up a sustainability committee, a separate committee made up of members interested in that space, whether that was sustainability of buildings or fashion or whatever. We then started producing events based on what the focus group found interesting. That was really interesting. After that, it was a bit more light touch. This role essentially positioned Soho House as an eclectic, more youthful place. It was such an interesting role for me. I was exploring these new boundary-breaking projects and people. I was collaborating with so many different types of creatives and creative people, and bringing them into the space with new ideas and new products. I worked with the people who started a coconut water brand. The food, drinks and gym side of Soho House then started to sell these new products to the members. It was the events and experiences that started a wider shift throughout the company. I see that shift is still recognisable today, which is really interesting.
After a period of time, I started to focus my attention on programming. I also really wanted to work at Shoreditch House because, at that time, it was the biggest house. It was a demographic that I really cared about. They were about to refit the whole of the fifth and sixth floor with its own mini-events space. Suddenly, there was the chance to be a bit of an artistic director of a tiny room amongst the wider space of the company. I found this a really interesting set up because it allowed for spontaneous and weird things to happen that you didn’t really expect. I could push projects a bit further and even start to generate political conversations. I started working with people at the East London Fawcett Society to program talks around their feminist campaigns. I worked with people at LIFT Festival, who talked about the concepts that drive their festivals as well as working with emerging creators and new food and drink elements and then basically tying all of that together. I did that for about two and a half years.
We then started to look at how we could incorporate a small co-working space. That’s how we ended up with the ping pong table-space which sits in the middle of the fifth floor. That’s when I started to get really excited about members coming in, to change people’s working habits for the better. I think the reason why I’m interested in that is because I’m just not a 9 to 5 person. I was never built for it. We launched the co-working hub on the fifth floor, which was a major success. That was my last project at Soho House. I was there for a total of six and a half years.
I’m very interested in these different, informal spaces and how you go about creating an ecosystem. I enjoy a space where on one side of the floor someone is having a cocktail whilst somebody else is breaking a £4 million investment deal on the other, and they’re both harmoniously doing their thing. It’s like the space we’re sitting in now, Peckham Levels, it’s something I get really excited about.
I then started really getting involved in co-working and co-living, or anything that was around this idea of future living and working. At that time, I was just finishing my Business Masters which I did alongside being at work. It was an MBA in Creative Industries Management. I did the course at UCA for the first couple of years. My key interest areas were co-living and co-working spaces looking closely at artist studios and residences. I am generally interested in multi-use spaces. This is how I believe future spaces will be utilised. Saying all of this, I actually left my course to do something completely different and went to Bompas and Parr, which is all about the narrative of foods and drinking creativity. I managed some really interesting little-branded projects, working for brands like Hendrick’s to develop experiences and make the brands come to life. I did that for a year before I decided to become freelance.
It’s interesting when you think about culture production and where it sits within those different mechanics. It’s such an interesting word; culture production or cultural activation. I don’t actually believe we even have a language to explain how all of those things work together.
Having initially started the conversation by thinking about what ‘cultural production’ actually means and by listening to you speak, it is very much this idea of reacting to society, reacting to culture, influencing others and bringing people together. I am interested in this idea of collaboration and see it as a fundamental element of your work.
Absolutely, collaboration is really important to me. I don’t know if it’s a particular skill set, however, I do fundamentally see myself as a people person. I developed interpersonal skills quite early on, but was always like, how am I going to make a living out of interpersonal skills? It’s quite a discussion point, isn’t it? Soft skills are really important; diplomacy and emotional intelligence. Collaboration is essentially at the heart of everything I do. I think it’s at the very centre of my ideas because I’m also not necessarily the person that wants to be at the centre of an idea, I shy just short of the limelight. When it comes down to it, I’m not the front facing person. I want to create a space for those people. I see that growing in my role as a cultural producer.
Can you talk me through how you facilitate these collaborations?
I might lead on a particular topic or the overarching narrative. What I have found is, when working with creative people, you may need to consider some limitations even if they intend to break those limitations. You need to have some kind of framework. I’m really good at putting that framework together and then finding new people to collaborate with. I think my addiction to meeting new people is born out of that. After all, without black and white, there is no grey area (I love the grey area).
Collaboration is really at the heart of what I do. Sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to be interviewed by someone like you or I might be asked to join a panel, like I did this weekend. I really do see my practice as more of a curatorial practice in that respect. What I’m trying to do more and more now, as a freelancer, when I work for sites or if I work with individuals, or galleries is to have a very clear understanding of what the overarching narrative is of a project. This is the messaging and story whether it’s around diversity, creativity, authenticity, compassion or excess. Then I start to build the rest of the program from there. That’s been quite an interesting new space to work in. Collaboration is really essential. I couldn’t do it without other people, and I just love hearing what people have to say.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about the word curation and how you might curate an event or pull together a panel of speakers. It’s very much about the shared experience within a particular shared space.
Yes absolutely, it’s all about the visitor. If you’re working on a large scale, experimental production, there are lots of different touchstones for that. How can you bring that thinking into the programming you’re curating; how do you bring every element together so people understand what these underlying messages are? It’s a tough job. It’s really exciting when you can teach people about different topics so you can start to educate or create participation around particular themes that people didn’t know they were interested in. I love how you can place different elements in front of people to challenge their thinking and create a space for discussion and new connections. That’s what is interesting with cultural production. It’s a blend of many worlds, whether it’s curation, collaboration or cultural production taking place all in the same space.
As a bit of an aside, I’m reminded of a very immersive piece of theatre called The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk back in 2013.
The Drowned Man, I’ve probably referred to it so many times. It had such a powerful premise. It’s such a shame they didn’t run the programme for as long as they did in America. When you look at the popularity of something like that, it’s crazy it didn’t continue. There is a show on at the moment called Somnai by Dot London. It’s all about sleep. It’s like a mixed reality show. It’s part virtual reality, part installation. It’s nothing on the scale of The Drowned Man, but it’s unbelievably brilliant. The Drowned Man was slightly ahead of its time.
It’s actually interesting you brought that up because something I didn’t say, but I do you think is important, I don’t know where it sits in the timeline. When I was at Sixth Form I started to notice things like Shunt and that’s when they did the takeover under London Bridge. Actually, my friend, who is doing a PhD in theatre now, she worked for them. It really exposed different audiences to this different world. Actually, I think that space under London Bridge was really the first multi-layered event universe that I can think of. You would go in and there would be something weird happening over there, there’s a performance happening over there. They used the space in such a clever way, with performances and pop up bars. You could just hang out, meet new people and make new collaborations. I think that was quite influential on my career, but I absolutely love The Drowned Man. It’s was fantastic. I went three times.
I would like to ask you about a panel discussion you recently took part in called Creativity in the Capital City, looking at what London is, what London is becoming and how people are using or setting up these co-working spaces.
London is still a bit of a bubble at the moment. I guess it’s just whether or not it reaches a tipping point. I think some co-working spaces will ultimately be more successful at doing that than others. I think what’s really exciting is where you take spaces, spaces like this, which are feel quite one-off and designed around the environment. I think that’s when you question whether you are in an alternative co-working, co-living space like Peckham Levels or like Second Home or Market Peckham where it’s specific demographics and specific communities being brought together. I do think some co-working has accidentally slipped into just building nice offices, to be honest. There is nothing individual about them. I do think there is some really great, individual and creative initiatives happening in spaces like Peckham Levels, Mini Market and Second Home. The panel that I participated in on Sunday was interesting because I was the youngest participant. There was a lot of talk of like, in the ‘70s, I lived in a squat and only needed £20 but now you need £300. It’s like, yes, I would love everything to be cheaper, of course but you have to make the most of what you have at that time. The economy in London has always thrived, literally in the most difficult and complicated points in history. When the funding is being cut, when political tension is rife, the creative economy, over and over again has come up trumps. It’s all about new ideas and new intellectual property, which then should serve the rights of the creators, not the audience or even the buyers of that creativity. People have always coped amazingly well, I feel nothing short of proud to work in the Creative Industries, in London, right now.
Creatives and community makers have always found new and interesting ways of making things happen. Do things always need to be the same? I wonder do we need another museum in the same way we need museums now. Maybe we don’t, or maybe we do, but I do believe we need museums that are about completely different curatorial approaches. There won’t be time for that to happen unless new things come about. I think it’s interesting with the property market and the increase in development across London. It’s weird because now I’ve been freelancing I’ve been talking to people who want to open these new multi-use spaces and do various different things with them. They often talk about implementing studio spaces or recording studios, or tangible, functional spaces that people can use. Maybe it’s too much of a utopian way to think, but if we can find a way that all these different spaces can co-exist in a larger building and then make it an affordable option for creatives who want to make a living doing the things they really love and scaling up their businesses in a financially tangible way, then that could be really great.
It’s a disruptive opinion because I think people romanticise the past. I think everybody loves to be like, in the ‘70s, I was in a squat, I had no money and I was cold all the time but I could DJ wherever I wanted. Quite frankly, I don’t want to live in a squat. At the time, I suppose you didn’t know any different. Not much fun. I do, however, constantly question; why should artists always have to ‘create’ under extreme conditions. The extreme condition is their mind. It’s already an extreme condition. You don’t need to then put that person in a cold, dark, horrible room for them to make a really amazing piece of art. It’s just by chance that, that has happened so far.
There are loads of interesting things that happen in studio spaces where somebody who is maybe creating a fashion label is sat next to an illustrator or a music producer. A shared, multidisciplinary practice then develops. Each person then shares their audiences and shares their larger community, who are ultimately the buyers of cultural capital.
What you’re saying is very reminiscent of a recent conversation I’ve had about our current education system, and how maybe art education should live outside the mainstream university system.
I think, if you are a teacher of creative practice, at a university, it’s a scary time as people can pretty much learn everything online. They don’t need to have a billion fancy cameras; you can film on your iPhone. You can start to do things and start to test things in a relatively cheap, DIY way. Obviously, what you need universities for is academic rigour, storytelling and being able to express your ideas. There’s been such dissatisfaction around art school education for such a long time, and now it’s expensive, it used to be free. If you’ve got a great tutor that had amazing ideas and was really inspirational for you, that’s fantastic. Sometimes you don’t have that relationship with that person. How are the tutors meant to have individual relationships when they’ve got 60 or 70 people in their class? Now it’s all about the mass, the money and the pressure. It’s very different. You’ve have to market your course, it’s got to be perceived in a certain way in order to lure people in even if it wasn’t necessarily what you’re doing to get there. I think there’s a lot of pressure around that and that’s why alternative art schools are really quite interesting, particularly Open School East. There’s a woman called Nelly Ben Hayoun, who runs the University of the Underground. It’s a destructive university model. There’s also another course called Year Here, it’s an alternative course geared entirely around social enterprise. They take people who want to tackle all of the world’s biggest issues and help make those things tangible. It’s actually born out of the people who co-created The School of Life. I think our education system is changing. I wonder also if it’s something to do with the movement between arts and culture becoming the creative industries. That’s probably also part of that wider tipping point story and the need for people to understand the profitability in creative business. I think it’s great that you can get a grant or get funding, or you can have a patron. It’s also really satisfying when you sell something. It’s just about finding the right mix.
You have decided recently to become a freelancer and go completely independent. How has this transition been for you?
It’s been really interesting. It’s still relatively new. It just got to the point where it had to happen for lots of reasons around my lifestyle. I guess it’s two-fold. My lifestyle wasn’t really working, I was feeling tired and didn’t feel like I was meeting as many people as I could, seeing enough and just doing enough of the things that make me feeling something. All of that stuff around how important collaboration is to me; I couldn’t make those things happen in the world that I was living at the time.
I didn’t want to wait to go up the classic career ladder in order to be a creative director and be able to make those decisions. I felt like it has to happen now; it needed to happen now. There was desperation there. The second half of it was that I spotted an opportunity. Lots of spaces are interested in being culturally activated in new and exciting ways. Larger institutions are now becoming interested in this way of working. I could see that not many people had the blend of experience of working for an agency, hospitality, food and drink, arts and culture, programming, and then also membership in the community, as I do. It’s quite a mix of skills including knowing how to market yourself and work with the community. I can remember the many times in my life I’ve thought of something brilliant and it’s either nearly happened or I’ve missed it or not been brave enough to make it happen. I remember, I used to work at KOKO for a club called Buttoned Down Disco.
I still get those emails.
There you go. I used to work with those guys. Rachel and I, who’s the wife of the main guy, Chris, we always had this idea that we would place a pop-up truck outside KOKO. It would be a pop-up sausage truck selling hot dogs from a vintage van. She would design the van and we would both put some money in to make it happen. This was before food trucks were popular, before Street food became a thing. Then for various reasons we didn’t do it. Literally, two years later I was like, fuck me, this would have been quite popular I reckon! Because it suddenly started happening and bloody street food became really popular. KOKO gave us the spot as well. All of these things were happening but I couldn’t capitalise on it because I didn’t have the functional capital and I didn’t really have the experience, I couldn’t quite see everything aligning.
Before becoming a freelancer I was just trying to make my life work. I suddenly got the point where I’d gained enough experience. I had to stop beating myself up. At some point, you just have to be like, what are you waiting for? I have spent a bit of time with a life coach, which was really beneficial to me in unblocking some of the decisions I couldn’t make. I’m really happy and confident in making decisions for other people or other businesses, but if I have to apply that information to myself there’s a massive wall, I just can’t do it. It’s a problem I’m still overcoming. My friend really helped me through some of the tough decisions I had to make as well. The life coach talked a lot about barriers.
I was worried about what my friends would say and whether they would think that I was good enough to go it alone or whether they’d think that it was a disastrous plan. I was worried about myself, I was worried about the fact that I have this constant need to buy things, ha, and how I was going to placate it without any money. I had all of these fears.
I did this exercise with my life coach talking about how I always had this dream. I don’t have it anymore actually, but I used to always have this dream where I was backstage at a big theatre. The audience are in the theatre and I can hear them all. I’m then placed on the centre of the stage. The curtains start to go up and I get this wave of nausea. I didn’t know what’s going to happen. The curtains are steadily rising but I always wake up before the end, I never know what’s going to happen. It’s not even about being the performer. It’s just suddenly being out there without any of the normal support systems that can help you. I was also concerned about credibility. When you work in a company, you become credible by de facto of that company. When you freelance, you don’t have that feeling of belonging to a brand, or a team or a specific group, your all things to multiple people. Your a gun for hire.
Since I did, I’ve been much happier. I feel empowered to do the things I really want to do. Early on, I started to develop my business plan. I started to think about what my proposition was in the wider market. More simultaneously, I started to bid for jobs. It’s not luck, but I think I have been careful to build a reputation. I think some of that reputation comes from the network. Also, I have a visual portfolio. Things that have been in magazines, events, I’ve been in trend reports; I’ve been press worthy. Maybe that’s what I’ve learnt from going to art school, as you have to document everything you do. I always have that content driven mindset.
I actually kicked off my freelance life with a project at the Southbank Centre. They were re-opening the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a five-hour reading of the Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which is an amazing book. We had all these different speakers, improvised musical performances, a drummer, and a singer who was also playing other instruments and DJ-ing. They were these hybrid 20 minute long soundscapes that acted as reactionary pieces to the text. That was really exciting because I’ve never done anything fully improvised like that. I took that idea of collaboration and really pushed it to the max.
More recently I’ve been doing some strategic work for a co-living space called The Collective, which is looking at how they join the dots between what their residents do and their onsite events program alongside their print and other content messaging, like their experience brand direction. That’s been really exciting. I haven’t really advertised myself as freelance yet because I don’t know how to do that. I was literally Googling, how to let people know you have become a freelancer. I haven’t really hacked it yet. At the end of the day, I’m only one person, I’m not a studio and there are only so many hours in a day. You can’t just collect jobs if you can’t actually deliver them.
Part one of 2018 was for me to become a freelancer. In the future I see that turning into a studio platform on a small level. My working title is Studio Coles. That’s where all of these interesting things can live. It’s about providing a framework and an approach to how we program different spaces which can be used as a model in alternative spaces like your home or office. It’s about understanding what the starting point is; what’s the story, what’s your mission, what’s your vision, what’s the marketability. Reinterpreting that into a number of experiences and then programming and delivering them. That’s where I’ve tried to integrate myself so far. Even just going through the discipline of writing the business plan was an incredibly helpful way to start. I really recommend to anybody to write a SWOT analysis on yourself; strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. You don’t want to completely treat yourself like a business but it’s interesting when you take some of those principles and apply them to yourself as an individual. You start to notice patterns and new things that you can do. That excites me.
A strong part of my new interview series is to explore the role of the female influencer, and for iheartwomen to act as a resource of women who are role models, particular focusing on the art sector. I would like to ask you about your advisory work as a trustee of Deptford X, committee member of Norn and on the advisory board of Her Stories. How do these particular commitments compliment other areas of your work, or do this live independently? Do you feel a responsibility to support organisations in a volunteer / advisory capacity?
The mentor thing is interesting. Hold on to that. Ask me about that separately. A few years ago, I lacked an understanding of how certain spaces operated. The artistic space, for me, was a big area of interest, as well as the co-living and co-working spaces. I didn’t have the vigorous understanding of the Arts Council’s funding schemes. That was a big gap in my knowledge. Operationally and creatively, I had a good understanding of the art sector. Culturally, in terms of cultural insights, that was maybe lacking. I actually decided to go on a course called BITC, Business in the Community. Every year, they do a course for people under 30 that look for people to join arts and charity boards. I wasn’t exactly what they we’re looking for as it’s the course is set up for those in the financial sector, which completely makes sense, however, they were keen to take me forward. I did these six training sessions with people that work in some of the largest banks, which is a world that I’ve not been exposed to. That in itself was exciting. Everybody on the course had an interest in arts and cultural heritage. They helped me find a place on the Deptford X board, where I had previously volunteered, and they supported that conversation and cross-pollinated. It was very clever.
Then there is Norn. Norn is really interesting. It’s like a kind of nomadic membership wherein, members, artists and entrepreneurs who live from country to country for short periods of time. The conceptual framework around that is that you’re always meeting new people while living in these cities. That really hit my interest around how people live and work. They also have an exceptional programme of events called ‘salons’ which deep dive into life’s most important questions. Travis Hollingsworth, The company founder and Nathan, The Europe City Manager are really inspirational, unique characters. I love being around them.
Her Stories touches upon my interests in art and feminism. It’s sort of a big tick. All of these things are really complementary to my interest areas and they blend together in a really nice way. At the moment, with Her Stories, I’m practically working on doing some events in the run up to the bigger auction and dinner with spaces like The Arts Club and Sketch in Mayfair. With Deptford X the board are dealing with everything from the operational running of an arts festival to also thinking about working with the community on a very grassroots level, it’s a really active position. Deptford X is a festival for everyone. It’s always touching upon those different things, which is really nice. Selfishly working with organisations in this way, it’s really interesting for me. I’m absorbing a lot of different but interesting ideas, processes, visions and stories. The other thing that I didn’t know about being on a board, (and this isn’t really the case for Deptford X), but when I joined the course for Business in the Community, they were saying, again, one of the reasons why they ran the course; they are primarily made up of white middle-aged men. I can literally and physically disrupt all of that, as I’m not any of those things. Deptford X is actually pretty diverse. That became a bit like the way Gaggle wanted to penetrate spaces, by being an all-female choir. I’m an individual black woman whose just turned 30, and was infiltrating new spaces where I shouldn’t belong. I mean maybe that’s kind of the case with Soho House as well. There wasn’t really a place for me so I decided to create one myself.
In terms of mentoring, I mean, I would love a mentor. I’m always trying to look for the right person. I did some mentoring myself for a really great company called The Creative Mentor Network. I actually did another course there. I do love a course. It’s a big tick box for me. I did this course about mentoring and effective listening. I did that for a short while with a really great woman who was under 17 years old. She was about to do her exams. She was incredibly switched on. The stuff that she knew about trans politics, feminism, intersectionality, the urban landscape and the affordability of London, I mean, she already knew so much. This is actually the case with so many young people because they can literally tap into so many different opinions and information in a way that we couldn’t. When I was younger and social media was just starting, if I had a disruptive opinion and said it out loud, there wouldn’t really be anyone to agree with me. Now you can go on Twitter, you can be like, hey, do you ever find it weird that you’re the only black person who’s in your school? Whatever it is, you can start to generate meaningful conversations. She already kind of knew everything. I wasn’t offering her much else.
What is working well, my friend Vilma and I are mentoring and interrogating each other. It’s really interesting because she did a Business BA and then did an MA in Design. See, and I did Fine Arts and then did Business. So we’re thinking about things from the same angle, which has been really important. We’ve touched upon that idea of soft skills and we touched upon emotional intelligence but I feel like when you leave university, we spend so much time trying to acquire this personal grandeur, or an understanding of what creative proposition we have. Now that I’m freelance, that’s something that I’m finding really useful because I’m not trying to find the answers in a book. I’m just trying to work it out and navigate as I go. More so, you don’t know what opportunities are going to be thrown at you. You kind of just have to be awake to it.
Obviously, we’ve talked about the things you’ve successfully delivered but can I ask about the projects you haven’t landed? How do you motivate yourself?
When that happens you just have to move on. Actually, I read an article recently. It was detailing how sociopath’s deal with rejection. They just don’t care. They get rejected and they just move on. If I go for an interview and I don’t get the job, I don’t think, oh my God. Why didn’t I get the job? I just say that wasn’t the right job for me. It is hard though, as I genuinely work so hard for every pitch and every job. I have been in situations where I’ve presented seven or eight creative ideas as a pitch. You just have to let it go. I’ve also been told I didn’t get the job because I was too young. They couldn’t say it in so many words but essentially they were like, we just need somebody with a few more years of experience. As Oprah Winfrey says, just concentrate on what you’re doing. She’s normally got some great advice being the richest black woman in the world.
I wanted to be a part of these platforms, as they exist to build communities. If you’re often the facilitator of a community, sometimes that means you might not have one yourself. When I was facilitating the under 27 community, I was involved in it but I wasn’t part of it. You’re slightly removed because it’s your job. When Marguerite London came about, it was a lifeline for me. It was an opportunity to exist in the middle and amongst everybody else. For once, I didn’t want to be the person in charge of that platform or trying to make that platform better. That was hard at first. That was a turning point. I think as much as it is about providing a sense of belonging one also needs to find their own sense of belonging. Especially as you get older. The people I studied with are all doing different things now. I try and make new friends with people that are maybe not interested in exactly the same things as I am. Being part of Marguerite is a really nice way of actually being around quite a specific set of women that are literally in the same place I am career wise, it’s inspirational to be around so many career minded women who work in the creative industries but are also really bloody fun. We’re all mid-levelish women. It’s the main demographic. We don’t believe or necessarily know what the next step is. It’s interesting that you can start to do that together and mobilise those new networks. That’s been really important because I just get to enjoy and be exposed to different things. You go to an event, you sit there, drink the free glass of sake and just talk to other people and not have to worry about all the other considerations of being at an event, you can just switch off a bit.
In terms of Her Stories, I’ve sat on the advisory committee for last year and this year. It’s changed quite a bit. A few different people have joined and a few people have left. What’s nice about Her Stories is being able to use creativity as a platform to help push change for charities that are not just art charities. What Her Stories does is raise money every year for different charities. They support women suffering domestic abuse or violence as well as supporting courses around immigration and refugee issues. The idea of Her Stories is that every year, we work with a charity that is at the forefront of trying to make women’s lives different in the UK or the wider world. That’s a nice way of being able to do that and still be embedded in my own personal interests and passions. Both Marguerite and Her Stories are quite different spaces. As I mentioned previously, I think finding your own network is really important. Finding a network that suits you is really important. There’s actually a really interesting new one called Creative Entrepreneurs. It was always going to be a membership platform but it started life as a website for people that are in creative industries. It’s a resource basically. They publish interesting articles. Anya Hindmarch is one of their main ambassadors. That’s another space I’m interested in joining because it connects the dots between being a businesswoman outside of the female fronted space. I also love, and cannot recommend more highly Women Who. Networks are important but ultimately I think belonging is important. I remember I went to a dinner at Zandra Rhodes’s house with Marguerite and Zandra, who was saying, you just have to find people that you like doing things with. She was like, my friend Sir Andrew Logan and I, he’s a jewellery designer, would literally just draw all day together. We don’t even talk. We might go to Spain and just sit there and draw for hours and hours on end. Her point was, she loves being with her friends but they tend to go for a drink or for dinner, which is great but you’re then not spending time on your creativity. She was saying, the less and less you do, your creativity disappears. So you’ve got to find your squad.
I quickly realised that the majority of my best friends work in completely different sectors to me, and they’re the most supportive people. But you need to have a good mix of friends you can just engage with on all sorts of levels. I get a lot of my energy from being around people, so perhaps, that’s just something that works for me. I am a fan of the personal touch in things and being loyal about the things and people you believe in.
That actually just reminded me, one of the things I want to learn, maybe not this year, is to do a coaching course. Eventually, what I’d love to do is work with people within larger corporations or directly with individuals. Then it’s like I said, if I was embedded in a professional development story, then I think I could have a lot to offer somebody. I think people are crying out for that. There’s so much pressure now, especially if you’re an artist or a woman working your way up in a company. This is the other thing, if looking at an artistic practice, there’s a lot of pressure in terms of the production of an exhibition or commission, to really understand, rigorously understand, that production side. It depends on the work that you intend to produce but sometimes it’s just not possible. You need support or someone to take the pressure off.
It’s all about helping people to have an understanding of these things. It’s fun to figure out. Some people want to do the whole thing and that’s absolutely fine but I think it’s healthy to ask for support, especially with emotional pressure. It’s about knowing your boundaries.
Boundaries are quite hard to self-implement. As a freelancer, I constantly remind myself of that.
Following on from my questions above, these platforms are actively providing a space for diversity to thrive. Do you think there has been a shift in the awareness of cultural diversity and representation of women over the last decade? And, if this is something you have thought about, is there anything else that needs, or could be done? I worry sometimes there is more talk than action.
Sometimes I’m really conscious I live in a massive bubble, a bubble that we all live in. Sometimes I feel like huge amounts of change has happened when maybe actually not very much has happened at all or only minor change has happened.
There have been some really great initiatives and pioneering projects that have put women at the centre. Obviously this year is the anniversary of women getting to vote. It’s been a really important year. Feminism has been on trend for a really long time. It’s the fourth wave of feminism now. All of these different things need a lot of advertising agencies, utilising feminism and human rights messaging to sell products on a very simplified level, trying to reach that emotion that makes us all feel human. I think it’s what happens past the tipping point, how do we continue that conversation. It’s great that we appointed the first female art director to the Tate and Gaylene Gould who is the first black female director at the BFI, but how do we make sure it’s not a one off? How we continue to change that story? The more and more I read, it seems like it’s happening from the bottom up in smaller organisation. However, the women are not the CEOs or in directorial positions, or sitting on boards. There are still major barriers to enter those positions; it’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a ceiling with the majority being men wearing black leather shoes. I think it’s about constantly trying to push into that. Constantly trying to break into those spaces. The only unfortunate thing is, by trying to break into those spaces there’s a lot of emotional and physical effort. It’s really hard and you have to play the long game. It means everybody has to play the long game in order to see these changes happen. It’s the same with the gender pay gap survey, were we really surprised. Women aren’t being paid as much as men, we know that to be true and women of colour generally find it even harder. In fact no one in the theatre and arts sectors are being paid well at all.
I do think there has been some change. I do think the story about feminism and the female focus story has been pushed to the front of media especially the trans story, in a way that I’ve never seen in my lifetime. But there’s still a lot of that miseducation and misunderstanding. One of the things that I’m a part of is a thing called Disappearing Hospitality. It’s a Facebook group where basically restaurants or bars can post if they desperately need someone to work for you. The other day this woman posted picture of herself on the page, saying something along the lines of, I’ve just moved to London. I’m looking for a job as a host or a receptionist. Within minutes the comments from men on the group were tearing her to shreds. One comment stated: Do you think I should give you a job because of your face? What are you even wearing? They just attacked her and actually the whole conversation had to be shut down by the administrator of the group who was a woman. A woman started that group in the first place. When she stopped it and wrote an explanation reminding people this is not acceptable, she was then harassed herself. By another group of men, who were sticking up for the men that had originally said the things about this woman. It’s like a bunch of men that don’t even know each other sticking up for another bunch of men that don’t even know each other shouting at a woman they have never met and probably will never meet. It’s crazy. That’s when I’m like, okay, what’s really going on outside or non-traditional creative spaces.
When you take yourself out of this ‘bubble’, you realise there are a lot of people that are not being educated in specific areas of diversity and equality.
Exactly, there needs to be more schemes and more initiatives, especially around diversity. I think people need to see themselves. I didn’t believe it at first when people were like, if you don’t see yourself in job or if you can’t literally visualise yourself in that job because you have no role model, you will never be able to do it. It’s completely true. There are so many barriers. I believe employees need to be the ones to say it, because I think another big problem is subconscious hires. People do hire what they see. If I enter a building, even as a freelancer, I’m looking around and can see it’s a 90% male office, I know I probably won’t come back and work there again. Either I probably won’t want to work there or they probably won’t have me back anyway because I’m not anything like them. Diversity only happens in small pockets, but it has to happen from the top down or it just doesn’t work.
I would also like to ask you about this idea of networking, and specifically thinking about online platforms, something I know you are a big advocate of. How do you navigate this area of your work? Do you believe that the Internet, online literary and criticism has helped to bring people together and embrace topics, such as intersectionality?
I’m very interested in online platforms as a way to find and meet other people. I find particular Facebook groups really useful. I’m on one that’s literally called Creative Networking. I’m on another called Future Girl Corp, which was started by Sharma D Reeves and Amy Thompson. They ran a period positive campaign called Moody plus a number of courses for women that wanted to start their own businesses. The group developed as a way for people to showcase the things that they are working on and, most importantly, build a creative network. What’s interesting about that way of working is that you then start to meet people outside of your immediate network. Other Box is also another group that I use and they’ve just been mentioned on a Forbes 100 one to watch list which is amazing. It’s specifically for diverse groups of people within the creative industries. I find this group really useful because, for example, I can work with a new photographer instead of just going to my normal contacts. I’m extending my network and hopefully finding a new and exciting talent that might either be black, Asian or from another minority group. That’s something that I try to do a lot within my line of work. If I’m trying to put together a panel, for example, I make a conscious decision to make sure not everyone is white. I make use of these platforms to find different and interesting people. Sometimes it’s good to affiliate yourself with these other larger groups who might be able to bring new people into your network. I think these groups break that safe bubble we all place ourselves in. These groups are making it a little bit bigger every time you utilise it. That, I think, is really useful.
I’m in another group called Nowie, which is very much geared towards event producers, however they’re in Manchester. I love Manchester and I think it’s a really great area. It’s great to be a part of conversations happening in Manchester without travelling every weekend. If you want to collaborate on a creative project with someone and live in Carlyle, thank God for the Internet because you can actually start to make things happen. I think that’s where those networks are important.
– Laura Hensser, 2018