In this piece, Paul talks about the role of creativity and how through writing, photography and film, people experiencing homelessness can continue to survive in an environment that has often measured them purely by their financial productivity.
Tuesday, 3rd of August 2021, I have been asked to consider why creativity is so important to those experiencing homelessness. I should begin by saying this is a universal concept, people who experience homelessness are, by their very nature, in their ability to survive, creative. You have to be, you have to figure out different ways of doing absolutely everything. How do you wash? Where do you sleep? How do you find the motivation to get up every day and not just quit? That takes mental agility, that takes an ability of problem-solving, that, in fact, is all the things that make a good creative. For me, of course, it’s way more than that.
I have been a creative since I was a child. I started making videos for friends weddings probably when I was about 17 or 18. But before that, drawing, poetry, literature, writing, all of those things were an integral parts to making up who I am as a human being. But I got involved with David Tovey through the Museum of Homelessness some years ago. And David Tovey is the classic example of somebody who’s experiencing homelessness, translates his work into art and then that art having an impact on the public. With Matt Peacock, who was doing something, as I recall, remember correctly, he has created something called Arts and Homelessness International. I’ve had the great pleasure of being in the Zoom call for that on a number of times.
And what is amazing is that the narratives that we talk about here in Britain are reflected absolutely everywhere. So the work that’s going on in Japan, in Los Angeles, in Nigeria, in Australia, the language that people are experiencing homelessness use when it comes to art is all the same. It’s expressing me as a person. It’s identifying what is wrong in the world and putting it out to the public. And it’s essential. Creativity is essential. We can, we can all live without money, we can, people who are experiencing homelessness prove that emphatically. What we can’t live with, live without rather sorry, is culture. You know, we need it to feed our souls. We need it to make us think. We need it to feel empowered to campaign with.
These things are embedded in the human psyche. You know, if you go right the way back to sort of cave paintings, it’s, you know, the earliest example we got of human life is the fact that someone painted an image on the wall of a cave or inscribed hieroglyphics on a pyramid. They are embedded in the very essence of who we are and my work, especially my campaigning work. So I’ve now been homeless since 2009 and in that time, I’ve made the feminist car commercial where we raised a million pounds and kind support to battle the misogyny against car advertising. I premiered my film Colour Blind at the Leicester Square Odeon here in central London, which became a short film able to premiere in the cinema. But again, all this was done whilst not having a home. But it meant that I could focus on something productive in my life, something important, rather than sitting there going, I’m I’m useless, I’m voiceless in a society.
You know, the animation that I did for Groundswell said just that, you know, for a while during lockdown, you know, we were incredibly viced. If you look at the creativity, if you look at the contribution across members of the homeless community, the number of people like Hannah Green who have written books. And she’s not the only one. There’s been about three or four. My friend is currently writing his. And these are stories that capture a life that is not that abnormal. You know, there is a thinking that if you lose your home, that suddenly, you know, you are no longer a contributing member of society. Well, it’s nonsense. It always has been nonsense.
You know, there are a group of people who are experiencing homelessness who do not have the opportunity of being able to do anything. They passed the point of no return in some cases where survival is the only thing they have, so that the thing that keeps them going is the one thing that keeps them alive. I’ve never fortuitously ever hit that kind of rock bottom. I’ve always been in a place where when I need something, because of my life experience, I know where to go. So I, you know, when I first became homeless years and years ago, it was kind of I knew where the local libraries were. I knew what times they opened. I knew what they wouldn’t and wouldn’t sort of facilitate for various things, whether getting quiet nap in the corner of just using the facility.
You know, all all of this takes knowledge. And I was very blessed in my upbringing that I was given lots of it. But that creativity, that that passion for museums is the reason that I stay in central London. And you’ll hear a lot about people saying, oh, we should move away from central, it’s like expensive and you’re like, it isn’t, housing is, housing is insane. But, you know, look at all our free museums. If you go anywhere else in the world, you have to pay to go to a museum. You know, go to the Rijksmuseum it’s about twenty five pound, you got in Amsterdam. If you go to MoMA in New York, it’s it’s near 30. But, you know, we have the largest collection of museums in the world and they’re all free. So you can literally spend an entire day in the British Museum sucking up different cultures, different same different types of beauty, understanding different aesthetics and that’s what keeps you alive.
So the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness have some creative bent, whether it’s drawing, whether it’s writing, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s art, whether it’s sculpture and or in my case, it’s kind of a myriad of everything. It’s photographic exhibitions, it’s playwriting, it’s film making and I think when we think about these things, when we think about that creativity, that the thing that allows people experiencing homelessness to continue to survive and in some instances thrive in an environment that measures them purely by their financial productivity.
And I always use this comparison, the film The Matrix with Wachowski sisters, as they are now, they they saw human beings as a battery to plug in and suck out the energy off for the betterment of, in that case, the robots that were controlling the world. In our case, it just seems that if you’re not working in Tesco’s, making some multi-billion CEO or owner more money, then you’re not considered productive in society. That’s a nonsense. You know, that would be like saying to Caravaggio, hey, you shouldn’t have painted you should have stacked shelves. You know, or to any filmmaker, author or cartoonist or anything with a bent of creativity, they shouldn’t have done that, they should have just gone off and earned money somewhere, so we should all become bankers or landlords and what a miserable, horrible place that would be.
I’m going to leave you with a story about somebody who I know is homeless, but they don’t know I know he’s homeless and they’re a welcome sight on at any event, and they always look beautifully attired. But there was a book about them and it was about the street art galleries and this person, like a group of people here in central London, used to frequent art gallery openings to get free food and free booze. It became a thing and the galleries went, ‘aha, we shall catch these blaggers and we shall stop them’. And they did. And their photographs were put on the doors of all these galleries in dover street and told never to be darken these doors again. You are not welcome here.
As soon as they got rid of these people, they realised all they had left was a bunch of people with money, who are the dullest people on earth. And when they realised it was just them in the room, those people started to stop coming because they didn’t want to speak to other people who were just as dull as them. That creativity, that frisson of danger, that joy that my friend and his colleagues brought to that event was actually worth the free wine and free food because they in turn brought in the money.
So the next time you think a person experiencing homelessness contributes nothing to society. Think about the stories, the pictures, the cartoons, the films that all of us produced and made. And at some point you have probably either heard about or enjoyed in person. We are not, not contributing to society. We do. We just don’t make money for someone else to get rich.
David Tovey – https://davidtoveyart.co.uk/about
Museum of Homelessness – https://museumofhomelessness.org/
Anthony Luvera (not mentioned by name – but another collaborator in the same vein) – http://www.luvera.com/
Matt Peacock (CEO Streetwise Opera) – https://civicroleartsinquiry.gulbenkian.org.uk/resources/streetwise-operawith-one-voice
Forgot to mention Choir With No Name who I sang with during Proms at the Albert Hall – https://mobile.twitter.com/LondonersLondon/status/1009002117716172800
Arts & Homelessness International – http://www.with-one-voice.com/get-touch
Arts & Homelessness – Talking about this very subject of import of creativity – https://twitter.com/LondonersLondon/status/1319212457517264896?s=20
The importance of creativity to life – http://chutisabowman.com/blog/why-is-creativity-important-in-everyday-life
Feminist Car Commercial – https://ideasfilm.org/2013/08/20/how-to-shoot-a-one-million-worth-car-commercial-on-a-zero-budget/
Colour Blind (2009) – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1475134/
Cartoon Groundswell – https://microsites.onourradar.org/covid19/?p=1493
Hannah Green homeless book – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57317329-my-journey-home
Bullring Bash (friend who is writing a book) – https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/legacy-cardboard-city-bullring-britain-grim-renaissance-homeless-encampments-tent-cities
The importance of Libraries to those Experiencing Homelessness – https://microsites.onourradar.org/covid19/?p=2384
RijksMuseum – Entrance cost – https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/visit/practical-info/opening-hours-and-prices
Moma – New York – Entrance Cost – https://www.moma.org/visit/
Largest collection of free museums in the world – https://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/sightseeing/london-attraction/museum/free-museums-in-london
My Photo Exhibition – https://coinstreet.org/whats-on/paul-athertons-greatest-londoners
My writing – https://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/ewp-cohort-21
Matrix – Batteries – https://youtu.be/IojqOMWTgv8
Tesco – stacking shelves – https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/295096/Jobless-graduate-sues-Government-for-being-forced-to-stack-shelves
Carvaggio (Artist) – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio
Kubrick (Film maker) – https://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/13-stanley-kubrick-exhibition-private-tour
Dickens (Author) – https://dickensmuseum.com/
Mike Stokoe (Cartoonist) Cartoon Museum – https://thecartoonmuseum.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/best-of-times-worst-of-times-an-interview-with-paul-atherton/
Liggers & Dreamers (my friend in Dover Art Galleries) – https://josiedemuth.com/liggers-and-dreamers/