The coronavirus as ‘clever’ because it hijacks the human body to transport itself to other bodies (Gropelli 2020). It is so cunning that it has overturned life as we know it, in all ways, and more, many times over, and for dog knows how long. Yet, pre-pandemic, it had already been blatantly clear that humanity is in crisis. Before COVID-19 brought the world to its knees and began killing the most vulnerable, we have been drowning in crises that overlap with and feed on one another: of mental ill health, climate, democracy (we elect leaders and governments unashamed about their moral bankruptcy and misogyny), human rights (the Windrush scandal, Brexit and the proud declaration by a migrant’s daughter of the end to the freedom of movement), creativity (removal of art from school curricula, continued ‘bulimic’, precarious conditions for organisations and individuals the arts). It has become clearer than ever that ‘leadership’ is in crisis. We need new leaders in thinking and action, new definitions of ‘leadership’, and new ways of leading meaningful change. If the need for ‘novel, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches’ to solve global challenges (ESPRC, 2017) had already been urgent, we now need to up our game, and, as the game shifts, and move before it, and lead it. Creativity is key, not just in the co-creation of new tactics, but because, in our technologically-mediated world, a ‘still higher premium will be placed on “human” skills such as creativity, judgment and intellectual agility (AHRC 2019). And, as evidenced by the UN callout to creatives for its campaign against the pandemic (2020), creativity and the arts are key to this mix.

But we need bolder models, beyond the lazy instrumentalisation of art for communication/’engagement’/’impact’ to sex up dry data, or co-opting of artists as short-term contractors to deepen street creds as social scientists/humanities scholars/behavioural scientists/medics. I want to propose a paradigm of ARTFUL LEADERSHIP: that is, artful, sly ways forward, led by artists, in productively antagonistic dialogues with members of other species, through high-quality artistic processes and outcomes, exploiting art’s power to provoke, confuse/amuse/bemuse. After all, artists have always been creative and artful, freely traversing across boundaries. And, from Dadaism to Situationism, performance/ live art and social practice (Lacy 1991, LADA 1999, Bishop 2006 et al), artists have also always used activated the body as media, and engaged with other bodies and bodies of knowledge to catalyse change. Art and artfulness is particularly salient now, because it is precisely when the human race is cowered, resources are scarce, minds are closed, news are faked, and people more tribal, that art can and must take the lead and insist on the initiating and developing new processes and platforms for new conversations, new insights and new questions (Tan 2019). In fact, Bob  and Roberta Smith, who has always powerfully argued for art as a ‘human right’, now boldly states that artists are ‘keyworkers. Making art is […] about organising, drawing and putting things together while thinking about the future. Paul Klee said art was the “life force”. So, make art, folks! We will get through this with art’.

The Running-Messenger (Kai Syng Tan since 2009).

ARTFUL LEADERSHIP takes on, problematises and interrogates our understanding and practice of ‘leadership’. Recalling Teh-Ching Hsieh, Sophie Calle, Joseph Beuys, Bansky and more, this references the durational performance in which the boundaries between life/art is blurred. Also drawing on the art intervention, social practice and so on, Artful Leadership is a socially-engaged creative and critical intervention for not just the arts, creative and cultural sectors, but beyond, and not just in terms of effecting change within organisations, but in culture, in thinking, in behaviour, and in society at large. It is about developing ways of making and leading change, empowering self and others, and disrupting the status quo mobilising neurodiversity (ND) and the ‘cunning’ ways of art as key. The term itself signals a spirit of playfulness recalling Duchamp/Banksy/ Cattelan/Touretteshero, as well as the need to be more cunning in our approaches. The framework itself draws on two other interdisciplinary methods: ‘ill-disciplined’ which is playful and subverts ‘illness’ (Tan and Asherson 2018) and ‘productive antagonisms’, a curatorial and pedagogical framework which is about artfully re-mixing and mis-matching disciplines and knowledges (Latham and Tan 2016). This inquiry and its method are timely and urgent. What ARTFUL LEADERSHIP explores and how ARTFUL LEADERSHIP is curated and enacted will interrogate the rhetoric by World Economic Forum, Nesta, Arts Council England et al around the importance of ‘diversity’, ‘creativity’ and a neurodiverse workforce and their socio economic values particularly in the face of the Fourth industrial revolution, and given the ACE’s £7.1m investment in leadership. ND is a particularly acute and invisible issue-  and resource – within the arts, with as high as 30% of people in arts in design who are ND, and with growing research on how ND relates to creativity. There is tremendous potential to plant the seeds for impacts, not just for the collaborators I will work with, but potentially for the sector, city-region and beyond, as I now live in a city in which the mayor has declared in his 2019-2022 manifesto to make Greater Manchester ‘the most autism-friendly city-region in the UK’ (Burnham). By including BAME participants and extending the conversations of ND beyond autism (which hitherto dominates discourses, policy, support and perception around ND), ARTFUL LEADERSHIP will also interrogate norms and hierarchies within disability arts and expose some of the complexities, contestation and intersectionalities around ‘neurodiversity’.

As to the question, what could this new, artful leader look like? I have at least 2 responses: It could look like the busy running-messenger (above), artfully trespassing disciplinary/geopolitical/cultural boundaries. This was a conception that I developed since 2009, through my PhD thesis run at the Slade and my artistic and curatorial work around running as a creative discourse, and inspired by the historical/mythical running messenger and the Latin and Chinese Daoist etymologies of ‘discourse’, and my intervention at a conference at Documenta 2012 amongst others. The ‘running messenger’ draws on the historical foot messenger, as outlined in Gotaas 2009. Before the advent of the Royal Mail, FEDEX or Twitter, there were ‘messengers constantly on the move’, covering 200 miles in 24 hours’. Known as ‘chasquis’ in South America, which refers to ‘exchange’ and to ‘give and take’, these runners transported and transferred everything and anything, from official government matters to local gossip and food. So important was their job that ‘to hinder or injure messengers was forbidden’. These messengers had ‘diplomatic immunity even in wartime, when they traversed battlefields carrying information about negotiations’. They were esteemed not just for their physical and mental stamina, but how they were ‘well-travelled and knowledgeable’. They ‘crossed boundaries and had a great deal of contact with people of a higher social class’. Most would have come from a humble background, and running was their ‘springboard to increased social status’ (Gotaas 2009, p.14).

A more recent version is the ill-disciplined, monstrous/grotesque/mind-wandering/shape-shifting chimera of the octopus+pussy = Octopussy, of course. Pussycats (social-distancing, immortal etc) and octopuses are keyworkers. Cats hijack soul-destroying conference calls, while octopus are die-hard. Around for 296 million years, with 3 hearts and half a billion neurons or ‘excitable cells’ each, they are ‘curious, embracing novelty, protean in behaviour as well as in body’ (Godfrey-Smith2017). Each limb is its own mind, problem-solver and sensor. Octopuses are also of course a mysterious, powerful recurrent muse in art from science fiction to tentacle sex in ukiyoe and manga to Paul Klee alike.  

The June 2020 version of this Octopussy is here.

Caption: Detail of Octopussy from I Run & Run, Let Out An Earth-Shattering Roar, and Turn Into A Giant Octopussy (Kai Syng Tan 2017-2019)