Notes for street performers: You are the guardians of public citizenship

Like Amanda Palmer says in her TEDTalk, it’s very easy to let the demons in your head get the better of you as a street performer.

The thing to remember is that people like it. They appreciate it. Spontaneous creative energy is something that most people actively seek out when enjoying public space.

By sharing your art, you are not only doing a good thing for your creativity, you are taking leadership in public space.

Public space is just that – public. By making a stand and singing your song or perfecting your craft in sight of shoppers and tourists, you send a message to them about what the space is there for.


Me, being a public nuisance

Like Banksy said about advertising vs graffiti – no corporation ever asked you if you minded having one hundred adverts in your face as you step on an escalator on the London Tube.

No one ever asked you if knocking down an eighteenth century house to put up a high rise, Chinese-funded office block, was okay with you.

No one consults us on whether a Pret and a Starbucks on every street corner is how we want to decorate our historic inner cities.

So by taking the initiative in public space, you’re not only fulfilling your right, you are doing your duty as a citizen.

In short, don’t apologise.

Yes there is always the risk of being a nuisance. But firstly, the chances of you being more of a nuisance than traffic congestion, roadworks, pickpockets, garish advertising and ugly, degrading town-planning, are very slim.

Secondly, implicit in the idea of public space is the idea that it should be negotiated and shared by the public itself, not by self-appointed busy-bodies, council wardens or idle police officers.

If we need to police the use of public space, then, say what you want, but that space is no longer public in the “village green” sense.

This is not a small point. Part of civil liberty means that people are free to negotiate their shared space on their own terms. The process is not dictated by higher authority.

This is what Blake was talking about in Jerusalem. It’s what Milton meant when he wrote the line – ‘by the known rules of ancient liberty’.

If an established authority has to decide how public space is used, then the very notion of “public” has been qualified beyond common recognition.

One when I was busking in Camden a while back ( I did it a lot until the council started getting police to drive buskers out of the area), one evening, I was approached by a shopkeeper at around 9pm.

It was a summer evening, and business was still good. The man waited for me to finish my song, approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself.

He then told me that he had children who are going to sleep soon, and would I mind if I stopped playing soon. He asked me if another half hour was okay.

I don’t think people should move to Camden for peace and quiet, but because the man was so gracious, treated me like an equal, and was willing to negoatiate a fair bargain on how we both shared public space, I agreed without question.

He saw the situation from my point of view, and I understood that his kids had to get to sleep!

This is public space. This is what being a citizen is all about.

If we have to relinquish our citizenship to higher authorities on every question of public space, then we have to ask ourselves – are our cities public anymore?

The point I am trying to make is that street performers are a necessary part of public life. If problems of shared space must be negotiated, deferring to corporate power or state intervention has vast implications for the very idea of a responsible citizen.

These are not just the rationalisations of a stubborn libertarian.

In The Politics, or perhaps The Laws, Aristotle said that a man who does right because he fears punishment rather than because he reasons it to be right, is not really a moral man at all.

Public space depends crucially on this distinction.

Don’t apologise. Don’t let yourself be made to feel like a trespasser.

By singing your song, raising your voice and taking your place in public life, you are a guardian of the very meaning of citizenship.

Be proud. You have a duty as an artist to keep doing what you are doing.


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