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Pulling out of The Great Exhibition of the North in protest at BAE ‘primary partnership’
We are Leeds-based Commoners Choir and we create and manage arts projects and events that tie together choral singing with the everyday politics of where we live. Last year we did a tour of libraries in the North of England with a show that championed literacy, print and the value of libraries. Recently we appeared on ITV’s ‘Britain’s Favourite Walks’, commemorating the 1932 Kinder Mass Trespass by walking to the Peak District summits and singing specially-written songs about the legacy of the trespassers.
We jokingly call ourselves ‘a Singing Newspaper’. A choir that reacts to what’s going on around us day-to-day. Our latest venture was to team up with two other choirs (one in Stockton, one in Manchester) and create three walking, singing trails through Newcastle city centre as part of The Great Exhibition of the North. The idea was for the choirs to sing three specially-commissioned pieces reflecting their ideas about ‘northernness’, to sing some of the incredible stories that tell of these northern cities we call home. The three choirs would meet outside The Sage in Gateshead and join together, their three choral pieces becoming one intertwining celebration of the North. This was to happen on the opening weekend of the Exhibition, on the afternoon of Saturday 23 June.
This performance, involving around 100 participants, will no longer happen. At the full programme announcement for the Exhibition on Tuesday 27 February, which highlighted some of the fantastic events and performances that would make up the summer-long Exhibition, it became clear that one of the primary partners for the Exhibition will be BAE Systems.
This left us with no alternative but to pull out. There are plenty of researched and nuanced reasons for not wanting to make work that links to BAE which we won’t go into here, but suffice to say that we felt completely unhappy being represented alongside a corporation with a track record in supplying weaponry to countries waging war on their own people and boasting appalling human rights records.
The commissioners we have been working with have been brilliant throughout, showing us enthusiasm and support, so we don’t take this decision lightly. None of us are ever ideologically ‘pure’, and this is not about making judgements on how other people work (not least the many thousands of people working at BAE). But in this case, and in a time when weapons manufacturers (or in fact, their shareholders) benefit so heavily from civil wars, nuclear weapons proliferation and personal gun-use, we felt that as artists we couldn’t justify working under the shadow of BAE’s reputation.
It is, of course, in the interests of BAE Systems to be associated with arts events that celebrate community and creativity – and the Great Exhibition of the North looks like it will be a genuinely uplifting and exciting festival of ideas. So what better way for a company that deals in weapons of death to present a facade of energy, kinship and collaboration than in having their logo across events such as these?
Commoners Choir will continue to create site-specific performances that highlight our love of, and concerns about, the world around us – but without the cynical patronage of corporations whose success seems to be measured in body-counts.