Conference Report: Magic Fields of Vision 30/5/15

By Jonathan Long

Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure (Leeds Beckett University)

The latest in the Fields of Vision series of events took place at St James’ Park, Newcastle, as part of rugby league’s Magic Weekend when all the Super League fixtures are played in the same stadium over the course of the same weekend (unfortunately I missed the rodeo rugby ball). The symposium was run to explore further the relationship between sport and the arts and brought together a mixture of academics, sport and arts professionals and practitioners. Our discussions were surrounded by the sculptures of Mandy Long (no relation) that so successfully evoke the nature of sport, in this case rugby league.

Proceedings were opened by Doug Sandle (originator of the Fields of Vision initiative) and Chris Rostron of Rugby League Cares, the charitable arm of the Rugby Football League (RFL) that is currently building a partnership with Prostate Cancer UK.

Clare Morrow (Welcome to Yorkshire and a Director of the RFL) spoke of the pressure of having an impressive opening for the Rugby League World Cup as the first major event in the country after the extravaganza of the Olympics. Not only did local communities feel that arts and culture helped to raise the profile of their areas, but rugby had provided the associated dance production with new subject matter and opportunities for participants to perform in front of huge audiences. Clare incorporated into her presentation two short videos about the Yorkshire stages of the Tour de France 2014 and the accompanying 100 day Yorkshire Festival in her presentation. Not surprisingly Welcome to Yorkshire are interested in the numbers attending (816k) and the economic impact (£10m), but research had demonstrated some of the qualitative benefits derived from the Festival. I was intrigued by one of the responses that the festival had seen ‘the whole of Yorkshire together doing something useful’. It is not often that the arts are thought of as being ‘useful’. The arts had brought a new fan base, new ways of looking at sport and even new participants; and sport had diversified the audience for art, new inspiration and performing spaces.

Alison Clark (Arts Council England) picked up those themes and started from what she saw as the 2012 legacy of broadened horizons and mass participation in the context of an expectation that there will be something cultural around major events involving public participation with excellent artists. Part of her argument is that the association with sport has allowed more people entry to the arts. At the outdoor events in particular audiences tend to reflect the demographic of the area, quite unlike ‘normal’ arts audiences. Outdoor arts/sport events emphasise the social, bringing family and friends together. Now being based in the same building as Sport England ought to make it easier to share good practice, like their ‘This Girl Can’ campaign.

Sally Lockey (Great North Run Culture) introduced the Moving Image Commission associated with GNR Culture’s Million programme, which celebrates reaching the millionth finisher and which also includes an educational programme. These have served to increase regional pride, as has the Great North Greats initiative which celebrates ordinary people with extraordinary achievements. In one initiative a script about the Great North Run was divided in 7 and sent to 7 primary schools where pupils were taught the basics of philosophical enquiry and encouraged to examine, question and learn through research. They then extended the script for a theatre company to perform. The key themes that the children identified in relation to GNR were community, friendship and teamwork.

The format then changed as Jonathan Long chaired a panel comprising: Franco Bianchini (Leeds Beckett University); Sarah Elston (Rugby League Cares Dance Project); Martin Green (Hull: UK City of Culture 2017); and Mandy Long (sculptor). They dealt with questions about the implications for artists of the transgressive nature of rugby, the consequences of a further five years of austerity (and issues of funding generally), art as welfare rather than a service, the opportunities and problems in reaching wider audiences and the kind of cities (?) we want. In addressing these they were helped out by other delegates to the symposium offering the benefit of their experience.

We then had a break to watch a dance performance on the pitch by what looked like hundreds of youngster from across the north of England who came together with professional dancers as part of the Rugby League’s Join the Momentum, a contemporary dance project that is supported by the Arts Council – a great occasion for them.

The final speaker was Tony Collins (De Montfort University), who examined representations of rugby (and in passing, football) in art, celebrating what Thomas Keneally called ‘the grand opera of the proletariat’. He suggested that when art has engaged with sport it has had a much wider impact than was realised at the start. However, there are relatively few representations of rugby and perhaps surprisingly most of those are of rugby league rather than union, with paintings, writing, plays and especially the film of ‘This Sporting Life’ (which did rugby league few favours). He used two paintings hung at headquarters (of the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham) to demonstrate how art can be used to legitimate power. In one the legend is that a player has been painted out (predating Stalin’s doctoring of photographs) because he transferred to rugby league. Apparently there is no evidence that anyone has been painted out and indeed, had the players been removed on that basis barely anyone would have been left. The other painting is presented as a match between Wasps and Cambridge University, but is in fact of York v Halifax in a Yorkshire Cup Final. However, both turned to rugby league, so ‘history’ had to be changed. These ‘legends’ are used to suggest that the legitimacy of the continuation of rugby rests with rugby union.

Proceedings were then closed by Doug Sandle with invitations to contribute to the Fields of Vision web site and to join the JISC-mail list for the group.

A varied and successful event, but then we heard that the Highways Agency had closed the A1 and, worse still, Leeds lost to Wigan.

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