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The crazy bus at Bonkerfest

‘I never called myself a leader’

Creative Routes (CR) was started through complete ignorance and stupidity... (SarahGem Tonin)

For this week's case study, Theresa Kiyota Rahman de Swiet has chosen to focus on someone who has inspired her own journey. Over to Theresa:

SarahGem Tonin is the utterly charming and charismatic creative thinker who founded Creative Routes, an arts collective in south London, and artistically directed Bonkersfest, a multi-disciplinary arts festival. I asked her to talk about how the organisation came into being, and to describe images of her journey with it.

a photo of a band playing at Bonkersfest with Creative Routes written on a banner beneath them

Creative Routes

Creative Routes (CR) was started through complete ignorance and stupidity, and it was started by mistake, because I had co-founded Southwark Mind's Arts Collective with Tony Palfrey and was looking for funding. There was £2,000 going from the Kings Fund. I was successful but they said it goes to you, not to the arts collective, you have to think of something to do with the money. I I thought of drumming - mad drummers, mad band and drama with the Young Vic Theatre.

So I went to the Rhythm Sticks Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, found some really good drummers who got me drumming in ten minutes, thought 'you’re brilliant', and hired them to run Brazilian drumming workshops. I made sure people who came felt special and spoilt with food, I always made sure that where we drummed was a really lovely place.

Beautiful the Gabs from the Young Vic Theatre ran drama workshops. 6 months later we put on a performance at the Young Vic, and we got a huge audience, everybody loved it. Meanwhile I was attending 3 sessions with a leadership trainer where we learnt about different sorts of leaders. I still didn’t see myself as a leader, I just sat there through it because you needed to do it to get the funding. Everyone really loved CR, we jelled, we encouraged, we supported, we were family. Without exception, everyone involved wanted it to continue, so I held an AGM and we became a company limited by guarantee and then a charity. I think this was Jan 2004.

I was like a dog running after a ball, I only saw the ball... I didn’t understand what Articles were for the company limited by guarantee. I just thought let people own this thing and let people make of it what we make of it, there was no solid vision at all, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

three bottles of sparkling water

Pure Bottled Sparkling Bonkersness

A bottle with little bubbles jumping up and down and I’m calling it Pure Bottled Sparkling Bonkersness. There’s a Normality lid on the bottle; men, women, children and embryos all leaping up and down with excitement saying: ‘Let us out! Freedom! Freedom!’ There’s a mad genie in the bottle trying to get out, and I’ve written ‘You are all of you myself.’

In my head at that point there is: what do we want to do? That mad people will demonstrate to society how society can change itself. Everybody was loving each other and everybody was excited. We’d all been labelled, but behind those definitions we knew what are own truths were. Labels and catagories are constructions that can be useful, but they aren't truth. We had to show who we really were and to show others who they are or let them find out by themselves who they are, through example.

A peeled peanut in a stack of shelled nuts

The naked nut

A bowl of honey roasted nuts. All the nuts have shells on except one naked nut. Underneath the bowl it says ‘Nuts Matter’ but the little naked nut is saying – ‘So Do I!’

A Big mouth, representing the Arts, is eating the nuts because it's food for the emotional innards. Everybody involved with CR knew that.

But the reason why I’ve got a naked nut is because I was so stupid and so ignorant, because I trusted everyone. I hadn’t had much experience of people or art for that matter. So I had no armour around me. I was just me, there just nestling, loving the other honey-roasted nuts but I was very naked because of that and easily hurt.

a snake in the grass

Tug of war

You’ve got to believe emotionally not just intellectually about something because otherwise it’s actually meaningless and you’re not going to change anything.

When I say me, Gem is always there [Gem is Sarah’s lovely aid dog], I am standing in grass and being used as a tug of war. One side is hope and the other side is fear but they are twin forces so I’m going nowhere.

My head and Gem’s head is saying ‘I don’t understand’ but my heart is saying ‘but I understand it here’ - because even if you have an intellectual belief, without passion you're not going to change anything.My neck is sticking out – all the more vulnerable for someone taking a swipe. My vision was that we were a mad fellows creative network with overwhelming potential, but there were snakes in the grass.... I suppose there always will be.

Like a power station there was a constant hum of ideas generation. So we did amazing things and you could see the people that had been there at the beginning, how they changed, people who you knew needed urgent self-esteem augmentation and support and assistance so they could realise their amazing potentials... some of them are now doing just that. I mean we were selling ourselves as being amazing – you’re mad, you’re amazing, mad miracle - because even though one of the seven deadly sins is pride, surely another deadly sin is feeling yuck about yourself?

Important to the CR majority was not to create art just for itself. We wanted to affect emotions and prejudices, we needed and worked hard for our audiences. To attract them we had to be of a high standard and by utilising our mad creativity, events, ideas, performances, productions were imaginative with unusual perspectives, and the audiences were told, by the way, we were an arts group run by the mad for the mad. If you want to patronise something the inmates at Battersea Dogs' Home need you. Creative Routes will always revere the Young Vic Theatre's involvement and the many projects we ran in partnership, because, apart from everything else, they lent us great theatrical standards cred. Operating outside of society's radar people won't understand what you are doing and are very unlikely to engage with you.

musical notes and a rainbow on a black background

Conducting a symphony

The next image is kind of connected with my head and heart image, because music is something that is incredibly powerful. It bypasses your brain, it goes in through your ears and hits you really emotionally straight away. You don’t have to translate it, it’s just there in your head.

The piece of music that I daren't go and hear is Beethoven’s 9th because I get really caught up in the final movement, based on Schiller’s Brotherhood of Man. It erupts majestically, all the voices together. I shiver as I think about it, and I have this image of mad people singing powerfully, and then more and more powerfully, together.

The picture is of Gem and I conducting the choral movement, we are a choir giving a passion punch. I think the Kings Fund called this ‘inspirational leadership’. But I never ever proclaimed myself as the leader of CR, it was just kind of something that was there. I never said it and no one else said it either. I didn’t ever acknowledge that I was the leader of this group because I didn’t really want to because I wanted it to be everyone together. It was people outside who made me realise I was and it was people outside too that made me realise that I had a gift.

three huge escalators rising up in front

The escalator

I’ve got a picture of me running up an escalator that’s heading downwards. This is really me with the group. To the outside world, CR was going from strength to strength.

I’ve got a picture of my internals, butterflies that metamorph into geese bumping into my skin. I’m in the middle of a road, on a traffic island, life passing me by on either side.. Because it felt that even though I wasn’t invisible, my needs felt invisible, my head rattling with loose connections and confusions.

When I was outside of the group the vision of CR had the clarity of a 1000 watt lightbulb, but within the group I was very confused by the people dynamics. There were jealousies, and I wasn’t being related to as a fellow nut. They treated me differently, I suppose that’s part of being a leader, you’re judged harshly. criticised and my many failures at efficiency, bureaucratics and many other things really angered some - which is strange because CR was doing brilliantly at that point. I think people were jealous of the ideas I was having, most people didn’t come up with the ideas or if they did they were too hard to action.

an empty blue bottle by a patterned lace curtain

Flat bottle

This is towards the end of my involvement with CR, the genie’s gone out of the bottle and we can’t get the genie back in. Where have all the bubbles gone? Flat bonkersness.

This is the same bottle we started with. The Normality lid is off because we have definitely broken through, and defined what it is we’re actually fighting against. It took a while to get here. We also tried to create products that could "turn you into a nut." Who in their right mind would choose to be normal?

Because Normality, that weird concept, is the enemy of everybody, Psychiatry puts nutters under a harsh magnifying glass, pathologises us, medicates, condemns our personalities to something on the borders. Rather than that, why don’t they define what Normality is?

Because Normality can’t be defined. People are scared not to be it. Maybe it's okay being slightly on the border of it, but not too far off because that’s mad. So we were fighting against Normality and against Normals, as we called them.

Incredible things were happening, the Media were very interested in what CR were doing and they loved the eccentricity, things like the Morris dancers and cream teas with mad hats on.

Bonkersfest celebrates madness partly by belittling normality. It's also an arts festival. The audience engage and become part of the festival because the whole thing is a huge artistic installation. What an extraordinarily creative anti-discrimination weapon.

But at the same time within the group it was becoming more and more difficult. SO the Normality lid is off, the genie has been let loose but let loose too far and we’re trying to get it back in the bottle, it’s got out of control.

We belittled Normals so much that people were affronted if you called them a Normal. When we did festivals or performed at other events, audience members were curious who we were, wanting to join..."but you must have mental health issues"... many admitted later that they wanted to be part of CR and had said they were mad although untrue. Success!!!! Normals wanting to be nutters.

The genie represents creative ideas, the vision was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, there was more to do, more spotlight on CR and the people in CR and inevitably I suppose real bad jealousies and power struggles.

Like a two headed monster; the vision a beautiful creative energy fuelling hope.The other, a Medusa that could turn you to stone and break you into bits. CR became fear because there was no way to keep up with that vision, it was too huge.

a rough sea

Sea of charity

I’ve got a picture of me and Gem we’re yelling ‘Help!’ There is a big ship sailing by, HMS Indifferent. There’s also a plug that has been pulled and the water is draining out.

I felt that CR was drowning. We were a little charity and I felt it was quite important that the bigger more successful charities, maybe not just those connected with mental health could maybe mentor us.

I called out to Mind, MH Foundation, but just never got any reply. I had this idea about sabbatical trustees because I realised at some point that the edifice is collapsing. The skeleton is not strong enough. We needed skilled and creative visionary trustees. This was a slow dawning of realisation because basically we were all learning on the job. None of us had done any of this before, a lot of people were there nearly from the start so we were kind of learning together.

The skeleton could no longer support the body. If I hadn’t got ill, I reckon it would have started to sort itself out but we looked to the inside too late.

I think CR did so well because it wasn't efficient and bureaucratic. It believed in dreams, ideas and imagination. Although most of the ideas were mine, it was a collective vision. Without that you can have all the efficiency and bureaucracy in the world but you aren't going to make any impact. CR excited people through its individual vision and perspective which was communicated through focused marketing.

TS Elliot said about Coleridge: sometimes to be a ruined man, is itself a vocation.

People started competing to be the maddest in the group, which led to a focus on what people couldn't do as opposed to our very considerable special strengths. Maybe this was because we promoted this very "them and us" philosophy, the mad and the normals.

Too many ideas can be harmful, but I might change my mind on that next week.

I discovered so much about myself, and I acknowledge proudly that I am a leader.


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Mickey Fellowes

Fantastic and very profound article. It is not just creative routes who suffer the snakes in the grass and the two headed medusa of vision and turn-you-to-stone. The whole world seems to be like that.

Don't worry about the snakes and the turn-you-to-stone types. what is important is the vision and all the fantastic things creative routes was doing for mad people and normals. Cheers SarahGem and Theresa for this article.

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