William Morris, birds of prey and David Bowie – Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (and making some of our own in 2015)

80's classic Voodoo Ray re-imagined by Melodian Steel Orchestra

80’s classic Voodoo Ray re-imagined by Melodian Steel Orchestra

One idea to kick-start the new year is to collect up any remaining negative energy or narratives that might be hanging around from 2014, put them in a bag you normally take to work and get on a train to Margate.

When you get there, walk directly to the sea front and throw the bag with all your might into the waves. Then spend an hour or so being dazzled, tricked and inspired by an exhibition called English Magic at the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. I guarantee you’ll feel fantastic.

Jeremy Deller* is a conceptual artist and a magician. His show uses popular culture, music, film and an unexpected cast of people and events to weave a spell that makes us see ourselves and society in different ways.

William Morris throws Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the sea; young David Bowie fans create an alternative reality to the industrial conflict and IRA bombs of the 70s; prisoners and ex-servicemen, many who served in Iraq, display hidden portrait skills. The Melodians, a steel pan orchestra from South London, create a toe-tapping soundtrack re-interpreting an 80s classic (‘Voodoo Ray’) and a hen harrier hawk changes the ending to a story where Prince Harry escapes justice.

The exhibition gave me a creative boost because it’s the kind of art that engages my brain through different senses and emotions. We are invited to bring our own perspective, make connections and seek meaning – to be creative ourselves.

It might seem a bit of leap from contemporary art to local government and public services, but for me what lies beneath English Magic are important questions about society – the tussle between public resources and private gain, the forces of social reform and how we might call up the past to prepare us for a different future.

There are also new endings on offer. I’m always arguing that the public sector is not all doom and gloom, and we can choose and influence the way the story goes. Imagine in 2017 people care so much about paying tax that there’s a popular revolt against those that choose to avoid it. (Anyone who’s seen or read anything about last year’s Shared Press project Change the Ending last year will recognise this.)

And there’s also something special about Jeremy’s creative process that I hope leaders in the public sector can benefit from, as I have. His approach is widely collaborative and accessible in a way that people in bureaucracies often don’t think is possible, let alone productive. He chooses to illustrate difficult issues in ways that make you pause and give you space to think again.

This year I’ll be focussing on bringing more creativity and new stories to local government and public services. I’m really looking forward to working with Birmingham City Council on a beautiful book that collects stories written by council employees – stories that illustrate what it means to be a public servant.

We’ll be supporting staff and managers who have worked for the authority for a long time, and others in groups representing the diversity of the workforce, to tell tales of the city and why they care. There will be creativity workshops and story-telling techniques that can also be used for problem-solving and managing change. The idea is that these stories will be handed on to new recruits, who will be able to carry with them the organisational memory, share the ethos and the artefacts, and hopefully encouraged to write the next chapter. Together we’ll create some magic.

*Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize in 2004, and is probably best known for his 2001 work Battle of Orgreave, a video re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, which took place during the 1984 miners’ strike, or the inflatable Stonehenge that was part of an Olympic Tour in 2012. He’s currently reading Change the Ending!

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