I am basking in the glow - not just of my summer holiday (which was fantastic and made a long-held dream come true - more of which later), but of spending three days being inspired by some of the most beautiful examples of imagination that I've experienced in a while.
I've been at Tate Modern in London for their Worlds Together conference, in partnership with the RSC. Faced with a backlog emails, our national consultation to evaluate and an International UnConference to organise on return from the Alps, I hadn't truly welcomed the concept of taking three days away from work to listen, debate, contribute, meet colleagues and eat great food. However, I had completely forgotten just how beautiful and powerful the Tate is, both in its environment and in its content.
Witnessing up close and personal what great quality, experiential and, in many ways, participatory art looks and feels like for a sustained period, I even became a little jealous of those who actually work here on a daily basis. Why? My life and work is deeply immersed in the arts and I have the fortunate opportunity to experience many exhibitions, festivals, theatre, dance and music pieces of the highest quality. But in the Tate, for the first time, I became so utterly immersed in a world of imagination well beyond my own, ideas and realities about what could be possible, and a community who were also sharing a similar experience, that it helped to crystallise for me what I feel we have lost sight of recently.
That is, the power of the art form, the creative environment or the cultural experience, to take us beyond our normal spheres of reference, beyond the 'nice feeling' and, like the sober driver at a party, to give us a position of sharp clarity on why we are doing what we are doing. For me this happened this week at the Tate. It gave all who attended a chance to look at our own lives though fresh eyes, to renew our faith in what we believe to be true, to appreciate the beauty that does exist in our lives, our communities and our surroundings, to strengthen our resolve to carry out our responsibilities with fervour and passion, and to have the patience to listen and find understanding in the more complex grey areas of our work.
What exactly did this for me at Worlds Together? I'm going to reveal this in my next blog - tune in next week for chapter two! In the mean time, I will say that the choreographed piece by Tino Sehgal (the Tate's first live commission) had me excited, mesmerised, addicted and dying to join in. For me, this piece transformed the huge, vacuous and potentially alienating Turbine Gallery, into one of the most personal, engaging and energised spaces I have experienced in an art gallery - especially of the Tate's size.
What seemed like an Olympic-sized crowd of normal 'people-like-us' became distinct as they moved as one body, playing child-like games with the space, walking slowly at first (often backwards), then speeding up through the day, cheekily occupying and then trying to avoid being caught in each others' space. Every now and then, they would freeze and sing a hauntingly beautiful chant, sometimes with several harmonies, as the lights blacked out and we were compelled to stand still, feel the goose bumps on our arms and the vibrations resonating deep in our bellies. Who would have thought that Tate would have had such incredible acoustics?
The generic anonymity of the Tate's transient, multi-cultural audience suddenly took on a multitude of familiar identities as Sehgal's cast connected us together through the languages of the body and voice. I even recognised two old colleagues in the cast. As a member of this transient audience, someone also 'just visiting', I was just as compelled to stop, sit down, and enjoy being part of this beautiful performance.
With a desert-like thirst, I drank in this shared experience that connected all these strangers together, almost as old friends. With cast members rotating on four-hour shifts, I loved the continuity of the piece, knowing it would be there to re-experience at the end of each seminar. On one evening, I stayed till 9.30pm, completely energised by the speed of the end piece.
My only regret? That there were no children within the cast. They would have loved the play, the game and the space in so many ways. They would have understood the rules of the game far better, even if they hadn't stuck to them! If you get a chance, go and immerse yourself in the space at the Tate and have as much fun with Sehgal's performance piece as I did.
Finally - a personal addendum: I was struck by the upbeat atmosphere in London this week, much more so than during any of my previous visits. The positivity and vision that has been inspired by so many ordinary people in the Olympics and Paralympics, replacing many of the desolate dramas normally portrayed by the media, has not disappeared, and it's great to experience the widespread authenticity of this feeling.
It really does feel like everyone has been given license to dream, to imagine, and to make their dreams come true. As a society who tend to want to know if they have permission to do things first, this is a truly great freedom. We can make the rules up now, take our own risks and enjoy the unknown territories and achievements this brings.
I was hugely inspired by four of my friends who, along with 50 other paraglider pilots, landed on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, on 19th August. This has only happened three times before in history in 2003, 2009 and 2011 - it was an incredible achievement. The sheer height of the summit at 4800m (15,782ft) means that it resides in the upper stratosphere with strong winds, thin oxygen levels, freezing temperatures and challenging meterological conditions, meaning it is very rare to be able to fly up there, although not so unusual for highly skilled and acclimatised climbers to do the distance.
The conditions at this high altitude stayed good for two days after this wonderful feat, and both my husband and I managed to fly up and around the Mont Blanc massif. It was scary, challenging, full of unknowns and took a bit of digging down deep to muster the courage, but it was the chance of a lifetime. We didn't get to land on top due to the low cloud base but we flew deeper and higher into the most stunningly beautiful terrain of rocks and ice that we would never otherwise have had the chance to see and experience.
I will never forget that day - as I landed safely back on the valley floor three hours later, my children greeted me with big smiles and hugs of celebration. As outdoor enthusiasts themselves, they understood the challenge involved and what a special flight this had been. I am so grateful for the privilege and freedom to be able to fly, and I hope this summer that many, many more people are inspired to have the courage and take the risks that make their own dreams come true.
Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts