A Sky Arts series: four artists travel from Athens to Edinburgh, surviving on their art

The Art of Survival: a short introduction

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In the summer of 2010 Illuminations filmed an extraordinary road trip across Europe. The journey was for the six-part Sky Arts series The Art of Survival, which is being shown now on Sky Arts 1HD. We wrote the blog during the shoot and have published it here as the series was first broadcast.

You can find out more about the series here, as well as seeing Sky’s punchy trailer for Episode 1. If you read the blog and watch the films, we would love to know what you think — do please leave us a comment below or after any one of the other posts.


Written by John Wyver

July 15, 2011 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 36: And the winners are…

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You don’t really expect me to tell you, do you? I came up to Edinburgh yesterday for the conclusion of the series filming tonight. And rather wonderful it’s been, with two lovely simultaneous events this evening and then the announcement of which team had won. Which had pretty much everything: screams of delight, hugs, applause, more hugs, the odd tear or two, over-the-moon winners and gracious, resigned losers. As to which team took which role, well, you’ll have to wait for the final episode.

Today was dedicated to prepping the two spaces at the Roxy Art Centre. Team L had the ground-floor ‘chapel’ – spacious, neo-gothic, a monument or two on the walls and a good acoustic for the Li Lu’s solo cello and Lindsey’s unaccompanied voice. Team JJ elected to go with the basement room: grungier, funkier, more real, more them, and with the perfect walls on which to hang Johan’s portrait of Lindsey and his most recent large-scale abstract. The label next to the portrait had the hopeful price-tag of £4,000; the abstract bore a figure nearly twice as much.

Both teams had enlisted friends and family to help them get their respective spaces just as they wanted them. Team L hung photos, laid out souvenirs, fixed their map to the wall (complete with luggage labels showing where they’d been) and, later, welcomed the canapés donated by helpers. Team JJ was probably a touch more imaginative, and they scored an early coup with a very large poster just inside the main door with an arrow pointing people to their event.

When Li Lu and Lindsey saw this, they decided that they too needed a very big poster, and soon they had several — including one that they stuck up outside, displacing a number of Team JJ’s smaller posters to make room. As she was removing her opponents’ marketing, Lindsey felt confident that Team JJ would understand and be appropriately forgiving. The crew weren’t quite so sure.

Mid-afternoon we gathered the vehicles and the camera kits and the crews and the contestants to take a team photo outside. By this point it was clear that the spaces would be ready, and our four brave and brilliant contestants too — but would anyone else turn up? Johan was still doing some last-minute flyering only thirty minutes before curtain up.

Team L felt sufficiently confident to do a final busking session on the Royal Mile. But on a Saturday afternoon there was a lot of competition, and Bach’s Cello Suites stood little chance against an amp-ed electric guitar immediately across the street and a man doing tricks with a whip who gathered a large crowd just fifty metres away. Not that the excursion was wasted, however, for Lindsey managed to persuade a very nice biker and his son to give her and Li Lu (and Li Lu’s cello) a ride back to the Roxy on their very large motor bikes. This was a lot of fun for participants and all those watching. The biker then turned up with his wife in the evening and was thrilled to see the two girls perform.

In the event, and drawing in family and friends, both teams attracted decent audiences, who it has to be said seemed to have a very good time. Janie played and sang as Johan painted a new work. Janie recounted their adventures, just as, separately, Li Lu and Lindsey did upstairs, reliving some of the highs and some of the lows, and then some more of the lows. But what was really great was that all four agreed that the trip has been a wonderful experience.

The hats went round the watchers and Johan negotiated over a possible sale to representatives of a serious art collector who was interested in his portrait of Janie. Notes and coins were collected and, as the final applause died away, the totals were carefully calculated. I was charged with checking and re-checking the final sums, and there were a few minutes when only I knew the result. All I will say is that it was remarkably close. I wrote the two totals on sheets of Paperchase’s finest and stuffed them into two envelopes.

Seb made a final speech of thanks to the contestants and the crews and then handed each pair their envelope. There was a moment when each urged the others to open theirs first. One of them was torn open and the words read out: ‘Your team’s total is… Sorry! You have come second.’

As the man says, ‘Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.’

Written by John Wyver

September 4, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Day 35: tomorrow never knows

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First, an apology. The blogs are getting shorter, the details sketchier and the photos poorer. I’m sorry. But it’s not down to laziness – and neither is it a reflection of what’s happening in Edinburgh. I think it comes more from a sense of wanting to preserve what you’ll see when (if) you watch the series.

I’m also aware that in some ways with the blog, we’re making a rod for our own backs. Can the series compete with your expectations of what you’re reading? Can we condense each week of adventures and knockbacks into 57 minutes of film (and that of course is between the teams). Can we “live up to” the blog? You’ll be a better judge of this than me.

The penultimate days begins with one of the most fascinating trades of the trip.

Janie has arranged an appointment with Stringers – one of the preeminent music shops in Scotland. She desperately needs a new cello case. Will they go for the smallest of Johan’s abstracts which he painted in Corfu?

Sorry – I’m going to leave this to the film.

And then at 11am, we’ve arranged for the two teams to meet at the Roxy – the venue where they’ll all be holding their shows. This is the first time that Johan, Janie, Lindsey and Lilu have met each other – but there is some pressure to the meeting as the teams must decide between them which of the three spaces they want to perform in.

Sorry – I’m going to leave this to the film

The rest of the day is taken up with print shops, timber merchants (for framing Johan’s large abstract) and a good deal of flyering.

We say our farewells to Team JJ at about 8pm. They’re in a reflective mood.

“I don’t want this to end,” says Johan.

Tomorrow, tomorrow.

Written by John Wyver

September 4, 2010 at 7:41 am

Posted in Great Britain, Team J

Day 34: nearly there…

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So 34 days ago both teams started their journey in Athens at exactly 3pm.

Today, Johan and Janie, Lilu and Lindsey arrived at Edinburgh’s Waverly station within 30 minutes of each other. I’m sad to report that in terms of crews, Ian, Paul, Stef and myself arrived six minutes after Clare, Mungo, Matt and Manu.

Oh yes, Team JJ arrive first.

Team JJ planned to be in Edinburgh much earlier as their boat had docked at about 10am. By late morning they were at Newcastle railways station..

Except then Janie meets a café owner who offers lunch in return for a gig. How can Janie turn down a performance in England? And then Johan wonders if he has time to visit one more gallery..

Newcastle is as friendly – perhaps more so – than anywhere else we’ve visited on the journey. The sun is out and it’s all rather fantastic to be back in England. Spirits are high.

Johan phones ahead to the Opus gallery and they’re keen to see his work. Introductions made, work set out, they’re delighted to be involved. The turn-around is impossible but they’d hit the phones and put the work on their web-site. They’d see. Johan and Janie are beginning to relish the impossible.

4.40pm Team JJ catch the train to Edinburgh.

Lots of phone-calls between Clare and myself.

And then we discover that both teams have booked themselves into exactly the same hostel. More phonecalls.

I let Janie and Johan know the situation – and they’re happy to change hostels. We help them find an alternative – that seems only fair..

Then Team JJ head to their marketing meeting. Er, marketing meeting?

The rules stipulate that once the teams hit Edinburgh, they can take advantage of any help they can find – even that of family, friends, friends of friends.

Jo is a friend of a friend and works at a design agency. She’d love to help out. Plans are hatched.

We leave them to it.

The two crews are having dinner together tonight. It won’t be an early night.

Written by John Wyver

September 3, 2010 at 7:44 am

Posted in Great Britain, Team J

Day 34: one day at a time

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The girls woke up desperate to get to Edinburgh but they didn’t have enough money.  All they needed to do was make £60 and they could then be on their way. Seems simple enough, but the reality was very different.

10am: Played for an hour in the square – a few quid was made.

11am: Played outside the Cathedral. Moved on with only a handful of coins received.

12.30pm: Headed to recommended busy lunch time spot to find area not so busy.

1.30pm: Returned to main square to catch afternoon shoppers. Shopping is what the locals were doing and not paying attention to the visiting musicians.

2.30pm: Performed on a pedestrianized street but only a handful of people noticed the girls.

3.30pm: Girls began to tear their hair out wondering if they would be able to get to Edinburgh.

4pm: Back to main square to make up the much needed final amount. Still no luck.

5pm: Only £3 to go and the girls were finally confident they would get to Edinburgh.

5.15pm: Board the train. Final destination Edinburgh

Written by John Wyver

September 2, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Posted in Great Britain, Team L

Day 33: flea circus

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Forgive me, but I’m going to promote my own sufferings ahead of team JJ’s travails – if only to prepare my wife…

I have fleas. Er, thanks dodgy hotel in Amsterdam.

It’s not all bad however. This is just the morale boost that Team JJ need for the final kick for home. And surely this is pay-back for all my nasty questions to Janie and Johan over the last five weeks. If only the crew would stop sniggering..

No new bites last night — which is a shame because I was sharing a cabin with Ian and Paul and was hoping to train some of the little critters to jump bunks.

Anyway. Back to Team JJ.

The day begins with a goodbye to Cora and then Team JJ head towards their hotel to collect the rest of their things before heading to the ferry port — except as they’re passing a hairdresser, Johan has an idea.

Can he trade a haircut for a portrait? He’s been plaguing Janie for a haircut over the last month but sensibly she’s been telling him that they just don’t have the funds..

Ernesto, a dapper Panamanian keeps his calm when surprised by the six of us and is up for the trade – if only to get rid of us before his next client arrives.

Compliments and trades exchanged, Team JJ need to get a move on if they’re going to make the ferry – but Janie receives a call from Rob, the Gallery owner who they’d met the previous day. Rob has a collector in his gallery. He’s been looking at Johan’s portrait of Janie. And he likes it. Team JJ rush to Rob’s gallery to meet the collector.

There’s a pre-sale buzz and Johan quickly stretches the portrait. Could we be on for one last big sale?

The negotiations begin.

The collector only has a few minutes but he does indeed like the work. He knows the situation that Johan is looking for a quick sale. Would he be up for 1000 Euros?

Johan is a little put out. He wants 4000 Euros but comes down to 3200. It’s just not a sufficient reduction for the collector. He thanks Johan and heads for the door. No sale.

It’s a fascinating exchange. I ask Johan whether he’ll still believe that he’s made the right decision if Team JJ end up losing to Team L by a 1000 Euros. “That’s a difficult question” he replies.

Finally there’s a scramble for the ferry terminal. We’re on our way to Newcastle.

Thoughts are turning to Edinburgh.

Except I’m more interested in scratching my bites.

Written by John Wyver

September 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

Posted in Netherlands, Team J

Day 33: ‘ain’t nothing but tired’

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The initial decision of the day was that they were going to reunite after last night’s argument. Neither teammate wanted to arrive in Edinburgh not speaking to each other. They wanted to win as a team and not as two individuals, so they put their differences to one side and started the slog of making some cash.

Their aim for the day was to make £250 and they didn’t want to leave York until this mission was completed. They needed this money to fund their trip up north, pay for their accommodation and give them some extra cash to help them pay for arranging the final concert in Edinburgh. This focus helped the girls re-unite and they bonded once again.

They performed outside the Minster, in the Abbey grounds, in parks, in shopping squares and around cafes but the problem was — so did every other musician in York. They had tough competition and the money wasn’t coming their way. As the girls realised their aim of £250 was looking optimistic, their energy levels dropped. They admitted the enthusiasm to perform constantly was depleting. All they wanted to do was get to Edinburgh and win this competition.

Not having enough money to take them all the way to Edinburgh, they decided to have one more stop before Scotland. They could afford to travel to Durham so the plan was to get a later train. Before heading further north, they wanted to make some more cash in York, in one final bid to complete their morning’s mission. Neither girl wanted to be defeated and were keen to leave this city having achieved what they set out to do.

Written by John Wyver

September 1, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Great Britain, Team L