We live in a world increasingly tyrannized by the screen, by our phones, by our tablets, by our televisions and our computers. We can have any experience that we want, but feel nothing. We can have as many friends as we want, but have nobody to shake hands with.
I want to take you to a different kind of world, the world of the imagination, where, using this most powerful tool that we have, we can transform both our physical surroundings, but in doing so, we can change forever how we feel and how we feel about the people that we share the planet with.
My company, Artichoke, which I cofounded in 2006, was set up to create moments. We all have moments in our lives, and when we're on our deathbeds, we're not going to remember the daily commute to work on the number 38 bus or our struggle to find a parking space every day when we go to the shop. We're going to remember those moments when our kid took their first step or when we got picked for the football team or when we fell in love. So Artichoke exists to create moving, ephemeral moments that transform the physical world using the imagination of the artist to show us what is possible. We create beauty amongst ruins. We reexamine our history. We create moments to which everyone is invited, either to witness or to take part.
It all started for me way back in the 1990s, when I was appointed as festival director in the tiny British city of Salisbury. You'll probably have heard of it. Here's the Salisbury Cathedral, and here's the nearby Stonehenge Monument, which is world-famous. Salisbury is a city that's been dominated for hundreds of years by the Church, the Conservative Party and the army. It's a place where people really love to observe the rules. So picture me on my first year in the city, cycling the wrong way down a one-way street, late. I'm always late. It's a wonder I've even turned up today.
A little old lady on the sidewalk helpfully shouted at me, "My dear, you're going the wrong way!"
Charmingly — I thought — I said, "Yeah, I know."
"I hope you die!" she screamed.
And I realized that this was a place where I was in trouble. And yet, a year later, persuasion, negotiation — everything I could deploy — saw me producing the work. Not a classical concert in a church or a poetry reading, but the work of a French street theater company who were telling the story of Faust, "Mephistomania," on stilts, complete with handheld pyrotechnics.
The day after, the same little old lady stopped me in the street and said, "Were you responsible for last night?"
I backed away.
"When I heard about it," she said, "I knew it wasn't for me. But Helen, my dear, it was."
So what had happened? Curiosity had triumphed over suspicion, and delight had banished anxiety.
So I wondered how one could transfer these ideas to a larger stage and started on a journey to do the same kind of thing to London. Imagine: it's a world city. Like all our cities, it's dedicated to toil, trade and traffic. It's a machine to get you to work on time and back, and we're all complicit in wanting the routines to be fixed and for everybody to be able to know what's going to happen next. And yet, what if this amazing city could be turned into a stage, a platform for something so unimaginable that would somehow transform people's lives? We do these things often in Britain. I'm sure you do them wherever you're from. Here's Horse Guards Parade. And here's something that we do often. It's always about winning things. It's about the marathon or winning a war or a triumphant cricket team coming home. We close the streets. Everybody claps. But for theater? Not possible.
Except a story told by a French company: a saga about a little girl and a giant elephant that came to visit for four days. And all I had to do was persuade the public authorities that shutting the city for four days was something completely normal.
No traffic, just people enjoying themselves, coming out to marvel and witness this extraordinary artistic endeavor by the French theater company Royal de Luxe.
It was a seven-year journey, with me saying to a group of men — almost always men — sitting in a room, "Eh, it's like a fairy story with a little girl and this giant elephant, and they come to town for four days and everybody gets to come and watch and play." And they would go, "Why would we do this? Is it for something? Is it celebrating a presidential visit? Is it the Entente Cordiale between France and England? Is it for charity? Are you trying to raise money?" And I'd say, "None of these things." And they'd say, "Why would we do this?"
But after four years, this magic trick, this extraordinary thing happened. I was sitting in the same meeting I'd been to for four years, saying, "Please, please, may I?" Instead of which, I didn't say, "Please." I said, "This thing that we've been talking about for such a long time, it's happening on these dates, and I really need you to help me." This magic thing happened. Everybody in the room somehow decided that somebody else had said yes.
They decided that they were not being asked to take responsibility, or maybe the bus planning manager was being asked to take responsibility for planning the bus diversions, and the council officer was being asked to close the roads, and the transport for London people were being asked to sort out the Underground. All these people were only being asked to do the thing that they could do that would help us. Nobody was being asked to take responsibility. And I, in my innocence, thought, "Well, I'll take responsibility," for what turned out to be a million people on the street.
It was our first show.
It was our first show, and it changed the nature of the appreciation of culture, not in a gallery, not in a theater, not in an opera house, but live and on the streets, transforming public space for the broadest possible audience, people who would never buy a ticket to see anything.
So there we were. We'd finished, and we've continued to produce work of this kind. As you can see, the company's work is astonishing, but what's also astonishing is the fact that permission was granted. And you don't see any security. And this was nine months after terrible terrorist bombings that had ripped London apart.
So I began to wonder whether it was possible to do this kind of stuff in even more complicated circumstances. We turned our attention to Northern Ireland, the North of Ireland, depending on your point of view. This is a map of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the island to the left. For generations, it's been a place of conflict, the largely Catholic republic in the south and the largely Protestant loyalist community — hundreds of years of conflict, British troops on the streets for over 30 years. And now, although there is a peace process, this is today in this city, called Londonderry if you're a loyalist, called Derry if you're a Catholic. But everybody calls it home. And I began to wonder whether there was a way in which the community tribalism could be addressed through art and the imagination.
This is what the communities do, every summer, each community. This is a bonfire filled with effigies and insignia from the people that they hate on the other side. This is the same from the loyalist community. And every summer, they burn them. They're right in the center of town.
So we turned to here, to the Nevada desert, to Burning Man, where people also do bonfires, but with a completely different set of values. Here you see the work of David Best and his extraordinary temples, which are built during the Burning Man event and then incinerated on the Sunday.
So we invited him and his community to come, and we recruited from both sides of the political and religious divide: young people, unemployed people, people who would never normally come across each other or speak to each other. And out of their extraordinary work rose a temple to rival the two cathedrals that exist in the town, one Catholic and one Protestant. But this was a temple to no religion, for everyone, for no community, but for everyone. And we put it in this place where everyone told me nobody would come. It was too dangerous. It sat between two communities. I just kept saying, "But it's got such a great view."
And again, that same old question: Why wouldn't we do this?
What you see in the picture is the beginning of 426 primary school children who were walked up the hill by the head teacher, who didn't want them to lose this opportunity. And just as happens in the Nevada desert, though in slightly different temperatures, the people of this community, 65,000 of them, turned out to write their grief, their pain, their hope, their hopes for the future, their love. Because in the end, this is only about love.
They live in a post-conflict society: lots of post-traumatic stress, high suicide. And yet, for this brief moment — and it would be ridiculous to assume that it was more than that — somebody like Kevin — a Catholic whose father was shot when he was nine, upstairs in bed — Kevin came to work as a volunteer. And he was the first person to embrace the elderly Protestant lady who came through the door on the day we opened the temple to the public. It rose up. It sat there for five days. And then we chose — from our little tiny band of nonsectarian builders, who had given us their lives for this period of months to make this extraordinary thing — we chose from them the people who would incinerate it.
And here you see the moment when, witnessed by 15,000 people who turned out on a dark, cold, March evening, the moment when they decided to put their enmity behind them, to inhabit this shared space, where everybody had an opportunity to say the things that had been unsayable, to say out loud, "You hurt me and my family, but I forgive you." And together, they watched as members of their community let go of this thing that was so beautiful, but was as hard to let go of as those thoughts and feelings that had gone into making it.