Last year, Tim and I wrote an Ethical Policy for Sleepdogs*. I’ve been meaning to post it up for months, and today it feels like my non-negotiable duty to share anything that stands up for y’know, taking responsibility for how we act. Funny that when I was thinking what to call this post, it was gangster tales that came to mind: Miller’s Crossing (the best film in the world about ethics and hats) and Omar from The Wire (here’s an interesting short article about “A man’s gotta have a code.”) Maybe it’s because we’re all just gangsters out for ourselves? I guess it’s one way to explain this abysmal election result. Or maybe it’s because this cruel, venal government act like gangsters out for themselves and it’s reassuring to hope they’ll get their comeuppance.
We’ve been talking about writing an Ethical Policy for years, inspired by the brilliant Action Hero. It became more essential as we’ve been working with bigger institutions, across different industries, where arguments for art seem increasingly centred only on commercial potential or measurable instrumentalism. It’s a tool to help us make conscious decisions and stand up for what we believe in, whilst also making things and making a living in a complex world of multiple value systems.
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“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Kurt Vonnegut – God Bless You, Mr Rosewater
This is an ethical policy for, and by, Sleepdogs. We are Tanuja Amarasuriya and Timothy X Atack, and Sleepdogs is a limited company with unlimited imagination (ho ho ho). We are artists who collaborate with and work under commission to many different other artists, organisations and funders.
We’re two individuals working in the arts and we’re constantly figuring out how to do that positively. This ethical policy is the two of us being honest about how we want to act in the world. We want it to help us make decisions with integrity, in complex situations. It’s a statement of intent.
What we believe in
We’re committed to making modern stuff, without making a whole bunch of crap and filling up the world with more crap than it already contains. We hope to leave the world more interesting and accessible to everyone.
We believe in:
Being fucking modern
We think people feel better about being alive when they’re able to use their own imagination and curiosity. So we make theatre and film and music and stories and experiences that have a belief in imagination and curiosity at their very core, and aim to fire up those full-on human superpowers in other people.
By kindness we mean respecting people, people’s differences, and people’s different needs.
We live with people who have different tastes, beliefs, morals and opinions. We don’t make art to shout our own opinions at people from a moral high ground – we find that kind of art boring and insular. Instead, we believe that actively running towards difference might help us work out how to live better with each other, and shape more interesting, future-focussed and kinder societies. We accept that this can be difficult and complicated and uncomfortable.
The artist Stanley Donwood once offered Tim’s band the advice: whatever you do, just “be fucking modern”. We’ve lived by that ever since. By ‘modern’ we mean things that move something along – be it some kind of unconventional technique or unthinkable future or shared hope. It doesn’t mean everything has to be made of brushed chrome or whatnot, but we believe in art being a place where people are allowed to feel anything, and go anywhere. A sense of transformation and possibility is at the heart of why we make art.
How we work with people
Sleepdogs is a small company of two people at time of writing, and we monitor each other’s wellbeing, with frequent checking-in and checking-out. This extends to our colleagues and collaborators where appropriate, without invading anyone’s privacy (although, what’s privacy any more eh
Sleepdogs aims for a practice that listens as well as speaks. The creative desires and ambitions of our collaborators are very important to us. We don’t blunt our emotional intelligence because of commercial or practical pressures. We’re realistic about what we ask of people.
We believe in acknowledging, questioning and subverting toxic power structures because, duh, we’re artists.
Audiences and viewers and listeners and participants are also the people we work with, and we don’t take them for granted. We treat our audiences as thinking, feeling, humans rather than consumers. We operate with care and kindness, especially when dealing with emotionally traumatic or scary or unpalatable things, as stories often must.
We believe in doing the best work possible. We think in depth about artistic ambitions, the quality of the audience experience, conceptual rigour, what sort of making process we need for each project, and the invitations we make to collaborators and audiences.
– Always ask if and why we’re the right people to make a project, and whether we’re doing it for the right reasons. We do this in conversation with each other and with other people.
– Stay true to the artistic ambitions and integrity of a project. We won’t bend to funding agendas (commercial or public) that undermine the integrity of the piece.
– Think consciously about where the money is coming from and take responsibility for what that implies. Money is a tool, and if we can use it to be subversive in unexpected places, then we might give it a go.
– Be honest about our motivations and our needs as humans. That might mean taking a job because we need the money. That might mean saying no to a well-paid gig because we’re too tired or we’re not learning anything.
– Ask our colleagues and collaborators to be honest about their motivations and needs as humans (ideally without everything suddenly feeling like a cult or something), and be as flexible as we can to enable those motivations and needs. We will do our best to help, whenever colleagues and collaborators ask for help.
– Have a sense of humour about stuff, especially ourselves.
– Be generous with our knowledge, networks and creativity. We love sharing things. We’ll continue to do so at the risk of over-sharing. We believe things get better when people share stuff. We protect the integrity of our ideas but Sleepdogs is a laboratory for work that might eventually be produced outside Sleepdogs, so we agree project-by-project on how work is credited or framed.
– Pay our collaborators fairly and promptly, and credit our collaborators properly.
– Be clear with our collaborators about the ambitions, processes and expectations around a project.
– Make the most environmentally conscious choices possible when making and touring work (whether this is the £cheapest choice or not).
– Interrogate our own power and prejudices and assumptions, especially in terms of how we work and who we work with. This isn’t solely a socio-political point; we believe in social and creative diversity as healthy and human and liberating.
– Interrogate the power and prejudices and assumptions of the people and institutions we work with; and where we have power to do so, actively try to redress underrepresentation and change unthinking practice where we perceive it.
– Accept when things go wrong and learn from those experiences. We’re in the business of inventing projects and processes. If we’re doing it right, things will go wrong.
Compromise is a necessary part of living and working with other people – it is not necessarily a bad thing. This ethical policy will help us make good choices about if, how and where we compromise. We will review this policy regularly to make sure it remains truthful. It is a statement of intent.
Tanuja Amarasuriya & Tim X Atack
December 2018 (Last reviewed, August 2022)
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*We were lucky to get organisational development funding from Arts Council England to take time out do this thinking (alongside other company development stuff). The bid was called ‘Sleepdogs Sort Your Life Out’ and I was reliably informed that the title put the assessors in a positive frame for reading the application. Always good to remember ACE are people too; and honesty’s a stronger ally than jargon in a funding app.