Art that transforms cities into playgrounds of the imagination | Helen Marriage

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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) “Yes.” “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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) (Applause) 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. (Applause) 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.” (Laughter) 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. (Music) Thank you. (Applause)

About the author


  1. OMG This is really inspiring…I really hope I can do that in my country, where civil war destroys my people sad Yemen ..

  2. "For no community, but for everyone … In the end it is only about love … 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."

    Burn down your nations, burn down your culture, burn down your ethnicity. Those are all evil things of the past. "From my cold, dead hands!"

  3. How unfortunate that so long ago, one very selfish person, King Henry VIII, began this division. He ordered the execution of his own best friend and countless thousands of men, women and children to be hanged for the crime of practicing their faith. Approximately 200 years later, in France, a group of people who had no belief in God would over throw a King and then repeat this crime of punishing and killing men, women and children for walking to church in the morning (see The War of Vendee'). Again in Russia 1918, again in Mexico 1920's. It is important to note that it was not the religion that caused the hate and division. Their religion mandates that they forgive everyone who has hurt them (see the "Our Father"), mandates that they not only love God and neighbor, but especially love their enemies and do good to them (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27). One could say that your art gave them a vehicle that brought them out of their tribalism and back to their individual senses of loving and forgiving their neighbor.

  4. French Theatre Company = Communists. Aim: to keep the plebs amused and diverted so they don't notice what's going on in their countries with the Globalist plan.

    It's always about "love".

  5. Alternate title: how to art wash a city so that it can be gentrified to destroy the communities that live there

  6. Helen thank you your healing is needed…I felt a since of freedom, hope and relief watching this just as it's meant too.

  7. Very heart touching words used by the lady. Only a person from conflicted zones can understand them better.
    But this ritual of burning these art pieces seems wrong to me.
    Or may be i failed to understand the motive behind it.

  8. I love the TED videos. Thank you so much for posting them and for free. Education should be free for all and easy to reach and absorb, just like your videos and content. Thank you so much to TED and all the speakers and everybody that it takes to make the talks happen! It's much appreciated

  9. Art has the amazing power of bringing people together and relieve them of their daily struggle for a while. In today''s polarized climate, we need more events like these to remind us that we are all fellow human beings with the same basic needs underneath all these layers of culture, experience and opinion. 🙂

  10. Art is contextual, and the symbolism is wrong in this context. It's culturally tone-deaf. In New Age religion, burning something turns it into an aethereal form. It is a way of putting a magic spell out into the universe in the hopes that the universe will manifest it as a reality, or transform negativity into positivity. It works for Burning Man. But here, she is putting it into a Christian context with the cathedral shape and by referring to Loyalists and Republicans interchangeably as Protestants and Catholics. In Christian symbolism, burning is punishment and destruction. The art reads as destroying the spirit of peace and cooperation, and punishing the participants.

  11. Personally, I have grown a degree of eye fatigue looking at "art" on city streets that looks like a junkyard was having a scrap metal sale.

    I'd enjoy this in my town.

  12. Your story is so amazing. I really like the idea and the way you make it comes true. I hope that one day I can be an artist and make my place more beautiful like you did.

  13. Art, before I turned into 22 yo, was a tool to get a financial support. However the art told me that doesn't go really well with me. I met kinda much pain in my life and the art told me that they are there for a reason. So I stopped doing art for a while, thinking what should I do with my pain. The betrayal, the lies, the remorse, and so forth. I took all the pain without hatred, I chat with them "How can I help you so you can help me too?". From that moment, my pain is my art. I choose to let them be beautiful in their own way and it gives me pleasure. I found my self through art and this video really makes me want to find many things in me. The ordinary things that perhaps I can share with people and make them happier. ❤ Thank you, TED!

  14. Creating moments .. this is so wonderful .. it's not just about imagination or art . It's about people, love and relationships .This holds emotion.

  15. The violence between countries and religions are always fruitless and damaging to everyone in the end. People need to realize that conflict is fine, disagreement is fine, diversity of ideas and thoughts is good. Violence is wrong and harmful to everyone in the end. Non-violence and tolerance is the way forward.

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