Bye Bye Britain

by Jess Smee

Above (Issue I/2019)

The clock ticks, talks grind to a halt and the political wrangling continues. Welcome to pre-Brexit Britain. As phrases like "take back control" and "the people have spoken" swirl, there is talk of the national health service stockpiling ambulances and Ireland fears for its highly sensitive border. More than two years after the make-or-break referendum, uncertainty clouds the scheduled goodbye date of March 29, 2019.

Matthew Herbert, a British electronic musician, is one of the few with a clear plan for that day. He will mark the date by releasing a record by his Brexit Big Band, a pan-European outfit which tours across the bloc. Herbert has spoken of his dim view of Britain's vote to leave the EU: "It’s embarrassing, disheartening and utterly devoid of a positive vision for the kind of place we might want Britain to be…This is where the Brexit Big Band comes in."

His band is an assertive retort to the inward-gaze of Brexit. Given his long history of touring in Europe and elsewhere, Herbert said he was saddened to hear the vote outcome - which surprised many Brits and even the pollsters. He stresses he accepts the result, but rather than feeling alienated or angry, he launched his big band project, which he sees as cheering diversity.

But Brexit has polarised the nation, something Herbert has felt first-hand. First a string of angry headlines suggested that his brexit big band was funded by the British music industry in a bid to tilt public opinion against leaving the bloc. Then Herbert was a target for Brexiteer social-media rants. He kept his head in his music, using the experience to inspire his track: "s**t storm.”

And Herbert is just one of many creatives whose work reflects the pending E.U. exit. Grayson Perry - a contemporary artist, known for his ceramics and tapestries as well as his cross-dressing public persona, put the nation on the couch in a project to create a pair of outsized Brexit vases. He linked up with people from the leave and remain camps, who provided images for the twin pots for the “nation’s mantelpiece”. His research took him to places like Boston Lincolnshire in north England, where 75 percent of people voted to split from the EU, as well as to the night clubs and yoga studios of the remain-stronghold, the London-borough of Hackney. Speaking about his conversations, Perry said he noticed “abstraction and fuzziness of the motivations” on both sides of the spectrum.

His vases attracted the crowds when they were shown in London’s Serpentine gallery last summer. Viewed from afar, the pots’ political inclinations were fairly impossible to read. Only up close was it clear that the Leave pot was populated by the likes of Winston Churchill and Nigel Farage, while Remain featured kissing couples and art museums. Interestingly, both leavers and remainers' opted for similar motifs, chosing David Bowie and marmite among their symbols, and both selecting the colour blue. Perry, speaking on a television documentary about the project, bemoaned the noise and emotion of the debate which had erected a “wall in people’s heads”.
But while he took pains to be even-handed about the politics of the big vote, many British artists have positioned themselves firmly against the outcome. St Pancras station, which thousands pass through en route to Paris from central London, is currently bathed in pink light. Artist Tracey Emin has created a 20-metre brightly lit sentence reading I Want to Spend My Time With You. What looks like a love letter is actually a response to Brexit. Speaking after it was switched on Emin said : “I am deeply, deeply concerned about Europe, and that in a year’s time we’re going to be a tiny little island just floating around in the North Sea. It’s madness.”

And even in the run-up to the vote, artists sketched and painted their outrage. A series of 14 remain posters featured work by top artists, including a chalk scribbled blackboard by the Berlin-based Tacita Dean etched with: ”Vote for a future not a past. Vote to stay in Europe". Michael Tierney, meanwhile, one of the Saatchi Gallery’s top emerging artists also contributed a poster featuring protesters' placards like "some of my best friends are European" and "I am Not an island". In an interview he voiced his utter incomprehension at the idea of leaving the European Union, typical of many of the creatives who have reveled in working and studying in the bloc: "One of the biggest and best changes since my childhood has been the ease with which you can now travel between here and countries on the continent. Why on earth would you vote to go backwards?"

And the brexit battlelines are clearly visible in all aspects of cultural life. For example, the Last Night of the Proms, that enthusiastically British institution, famed for bringing classical music to Londoners at affordable prices. Since the vote, a growing sea of European flags has been brought into the Royal Albert Hall to wave alongside the Union Jacks. Interestingly, the only living composer featured in last summer's Last Night of the Proms was Roxanna Panufnik, who was born in Britain to a Polish-immigrant father - and who applied for Polish citizenship after the vote.

Meanwhile, many people working in the arts are left with practical headaches. Uncertainty reigns about what will happen next. Will creatives need working visas? What will be the cost of transporting instruments and artworks? Among those sounding warnings is the Creative Industries Federation. Earlier this year it argued that failure to reach an agreement guaranteeing ease of movement between Britain and the EU, would be “catastrophic” for Britain's status in the international cultural scene.

At the same time, Britain may lose access to E.U. funding in arts and culture, which amounts to some £40 million a year in England, according to the Arts Council England. EU cultural funding has been guaranteed for UK-based organisations until 2020 but beyond this date the outlook is unclear. And ironically, the pinch of lost funding would be most felt in England's pro-Brexit regions. Research from the creative industry information service ArtsProfessional showed that between 2007 and 2016, EU culture spend per person was more than twice as high in the half of England’s regions with the largest leave vote.

In October, a letter organised by Bob Geldof and signed by musicians like Damon Albarn and Rita Ora, sounded a stark warning about a “botched Brexit,” which was set to “impact every aspect of the music industry. From touring to sales, to copyright legislation to royalty collation”. At this rate, the letter warned, Britain would end up as “a self-built cultural jail”.

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