There’s been a lot of speculation about the current and future status of National Collective over the past week. Many have also noted the lack of direct public responses from those of us who were organisers during the campaign. Amidst all this discussion, some of it productive, some of it simply vindictive, there has been an expectation that we would, as a group, offer clarity about our status. I hope there is is still space for a personal voice in this. So here’s mine.
For some people, ‘National Collective’ has come to be seen as a powerful movement. For our organisers group behind the scenes, it has become something that we are both incredibly proud of and something of a burden.
The public’s perception of what National Collective was, and the reality of our determined efforts, are starkly different. Contrary to what some might believe, National Collective was never a huge organisation or institution with a full or even part-time staff. The truth is that we are a small group of people who have become friends, desperately trying to make things work. Between us we are passionate artists, stewards and facilitators who work with other artists to try and make the world a better place. Some of us are freelancers, some of us students, some of us teachers. Some of us are members of political parties. Many of us are not.
We were never a voice for the SNP or another branching arm of the old or new establishment. We all chose on principle to be part of National Collective explicitly because we wanted to do things differently. It was open, flexible and we all had shared values. Our big success was as a platform for a huge range of people during the referendum campaign – online, in dozens of events, in a book we published and a zine. We wanted to create spaces for alternative voices to be heard and amplified. In doing this, National Collective never spoke as one voice or promoted one ideology. Due to a high pressure campaign, we primarily became facilitators for other artists and their practice. It is not National Collective’s place to define what their ‘art’ consisted of. At no point did we ever claim to be an authority.
We were fighting a political campaign with an explicit goal. Part of this meant that National Collective deliberately projected a movement larger than life. Of course there were conflicts – between short and long term goals; between different voices with different views on how things should be done. And of course there were contradictions – the foremost of these between the need for a directed campaign and the desire to be an open artists’ collective.
The communal legacy of National Collective over the last two years is very precious to many; perhaps, in particular, the legacy of our colourful touring Yestival that captured so many imaginations in town halls and back rooms of pubs the length and breadth of the nation. What we all achieved together belongs to all of us, to a time and a place. In those spaces and in those moments, what we experienced together was real, vital and transformative.
But we lost. The campaign failed.
Just like everyone else who experienced that defeat, we were all at sea. Like a lot of groups emerging post referendum, in the ambiguity and devastation of that moment, we didn’t know what to do. Days later, yes: there was a blog posted on our website, a piece of writing that attracted both appreciation and criticism. Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, it felt needed at the time. This blog post never sought to represent everyone who was involved with National Collective during the campaign. It represented the opinions of those who wrote it, including a wider team who were still hurting. In the weeks and months that followed, we experienced a rollercoaster of emotions – grief, heartbreak, anger, frustration, denial, exhaustion. Losing was heartbreaking for all of us. We had put our whole selves into that moment.
So, what happened next?
In the weeks and months that followed the referendum, as individuals and as a group, we all had different ideas about how, if possible, to continue the legacy of National Collective. Without a common political goal, what do groups that campaigned for Yes stand for? What we should be? Where we should go? Should we even continue? No-one was out to hitch the legacy of what was achieved in that cultural moment to a party-political agenda. Neither were we trying to appropriate this legacy for ourselves.
Some of us were desperate to keep the campaign going, desperate not to let go of what had been such an energising and uplifting experience. Some of us bowed out completely. Some of us felt the need to join political parties. Some of us moved into new lines of work. Others felt that the other campaign groups of the referendum offered them structures and campaigns they wanted to continue fighting. Those of us who gave up every last minute of our time to the cause tried to take a break, to adjust, to catch up on our lives.
Apart from some tweets and an article or two, National Collective has been largely silent for months.We have been going through a long period of reflection and consultation. We needed time to work it all out, to reflect on what had just happened. We needed space, from each other, from the onslaught of mainstream media.Taking time out is important to see pathways forward. True reflection requires distance. Unlike many other groups, we felt that we needed space to shape something fresh and new outside the stresses of a campaign. Given that we are a non-party movement, we felt no need to participate in the upcoming General Election or affiliate ourselves to any one side. We wanted to do things in our own way, in our own time.
Since the new year, we have together found some energy to dig deep and begin thinking about how we might move forward. We’ve had several great conversations with great people about how we might address these issues. We’d like to thank those people.
I don’t for a second deny that, as a largely improvised campaign, we had some structural, organisational and process shortcomings. There are important issues re collective decision and vision-making. About ownership. About authorship. How do diverse artistic and creative visions co-exist within one organisation with many people involved at some level of participation?
There has been pressure on us to become fully constituted, but we don’t yet know if this is the right thing for our group. The nature of our online campaign during the referendum meant that widely discussed decisions would have hindered the swift reaction times we required to combat arguments from our opponents and to get the most content seen before the deadline of the referendum. We are accused of not practising what we preach. But we do not and should not seek to be representative. Representation requires a mandate. We are not an institution.
Another issue linked to this is the semantics of the notion of ‘membership.’ Being a member of National Collective never entailed a membership with a right to decision-making nor any financial commitment. This was clear to the majority of individuals who were involved. With the question over the future of National Collective, we appreciate that the question of ‘membership’ begins to look very different. There is more than one model of democracy and we never adopted a one-member-one-vote model because nobody ever asked for it. Instead, we did things by consensual agreement at national level and encouraged members to participate in the same way by developing their own network of branches. This national pool of organisers was formed ad-hoc and based on peoples’ individual willingness to throw themselves into it. If people came forward with initiative and workable ideas, we encouraged them to just get on with it. This approach had mixed success, but the spirit of our campaign was appealing to many who might find large formal processes intimidating. Our associated artists have not been silent in defending us: it’s just that they are not invested in the organising of National Collective. We gave them a platform. We were delighted they took it. They owe us nothing.
We had plans to to raise such issues for debate and discussion in the coming months. Indeed, we have been working towards events and workshops that were intended to open up this conversation. These will still take place. Throughout the past week, despite a willingness to critique the functioning of National Collective, no one has directly contacted us to ask for comment. This is at the heart of our current problem; on the one hand, we’re expected to act like an institution with a mandate, while on the other, we’re dismissed as small clique with no authentic voice of our own. Most self-respecting groups would, rightly, refuse to engage on such terms.
Inevitably, once such a discussion opens up, some people are inclined to project onto the discussion and process some personal issues of their own, and some frustrations may also overflow. This is a very human response. We are all still coming to terms with what happened. It’s very easy to focus blame on the shortcomings of others, on how we wish things could have been done differently. But personal attacks are cruel, unnecessary and hurtful. We believe that the manner in which these discussions take place is every bit as important as is the issues that we have to face.
In this fraught context it is very easy to portray ‘National Collective’ as a powerful, faceless institution if you don’t engage with the individuals involved. This has been highlighted with the recent comments from Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey. He is asking for National Collective as an insituion to engage with his debate but the stark fact is that National Collective, as a small group, cannot engage with him because it does not exist beyond a few individuals. This group felt obliged to get together earlier this week to put out a short statement, but no formal group or structure exists to address Darren’s concerns.
In the past few days, I have personally reached out to Darren. Our private conversations do not echo his twitter performance. He wants us to address him in public.
Loki, I have reached out to you. You called truce and yet you carried on. You yourself admitted that you misunderstood what National Collective was. Yes, you have a lot of vital things to say about power and culture and class in this wee country and I not only acknowledge these issues but I applaud you in raising them. We all need to have these conversations. But the way you are going about this is not constructive. This is a performance, it’s your form of art. Just please don’t ever accuse me or the rest of us of not having principles.
The thing is, it is not you who I find offensive, Loki.
I’m not going to pretend I’m not angry and upset. I’m human. I’m angry at those who rushed to align themselves with you, who jumped at the opportunity to exploit you and point the finger at us. Not one of these people contacted us directly to ask us what was going on. Not one. That is both hurtful and unfair, because we thought these people were our friends. We cannot justify an unmeasurable quantity such as ‘trust,’ but there has certainly been trust broken here.
But I don’t want to take this personally. I hope we can look on this rupture as a productive opening for good things to come.
So, what next? We are currently living through a unique cultural, political and historical moment. Many of us don’t know what this moment is for or where this moment will take us.
There is, undoubtedly, an important role for artists and space for some kind of forum for discussing arts, culture and politics. For creating new work. In this still shifting landscape, we’re not quite sure what that is yet. What feels absolutely necessary is to separate the political moment from the wider cultural moment and focus on long term vision, thinking creatively about our place in this new and exciting interconnected global world in which we find ourselves.
We are reflecting on the past, discussing the present and planning the future. What are the big questions for culture and what are our ideas to address them? What are our values? What are our ways of being? How can we contribute to the artistic, social and cultural life of our communities? How do we create the spaces for artists and the artistic polity to show the world that Scotland is a post-national, global, inclusive society? How can we nurture this confidence? Working through these questions is a process and not an end in itself.
What we as a group of individuals have to offer Scottish civic life is not a brand. It is not even the creative practice of its associated artists. It is the skill and dedication of a core group of facilitators and makers who have the desire to continue to create the spaces and moments for engagement and participation to happen. To help create experiences that are real, beautiful, vital and transformative.
Supported by National Collective Organisers:
Andrew Redmond Barr