“The alternative consultant is in there to examine unexamined sources of value. And value not necessarily in an economic sense. There are raw materials present in organizations with a long history that are likely not seen. But there are absolutely routines that become ossified over time that also need interrupting.”

Jerrold McGrath explores how culture can play a more active role in complex systems challenges such as economic inequality, climate change, decolonization, and artificial intelligence. Following several years as a cultural consultant in the Japanese automotive industry, he served as the director of innovation at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, program director at Artscape Launchpad and continues to work with organizations and projects that span sectors and geographies.

Q: What can the creative sector learn from fungi and decomposition?
A: The systems that were ostensibly set up to support us are failing in many cases. And often they’re failing because they were built on a set of assumptions that perhaps are no longer true, or they’re misaligned with the values of the broader culture. But they still persist. So how do we go about decomposing these systems and structures and institutions so that those resources can be freed up for other uses? But of course they’re resistant to that, and I think culturally we’re resistant to the idea of death and decay. And so I think art becomes a way of sort of revealing that to people, so they can gradually process the idea that things pass—you know, both biological things but non-biological things as well. And I think the other [reason] is practical, because there’s so much precarity. The neoliberal regime has asked artists to be even more clever in terms of surfacing and uncovering opportunities to do good work and to sustain themselves. And so I think there’s also a natural innate curiosity about, “how do I find my way into this space that’s been sort of evacuated by capitalism?” And there’s a long history of that. But I think in the present day, the size and scale of the failed institutions are unprecedented, and then the challenge of actually making use of them is similarly overwhelming.
“I have my consultancy, and to be honest, I’m sick of it. I shudder every time I say the word consultant, and so the opportunity to sort of play around with that, to turn my own dying consultancy into that is really exciting to me.”
Jerrold recommends:

David Cayley & Charles Taylor The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (2005)
Q: Why do you think artists would benefit from rebranding as ‘alternative consultants?’
A: There’s a set of associations that people have with terms like that that can be co-opted. So in saying that an artist is an alternative consultant, it creates a whole different discourse than if you say we’re going to have an artist in residence, which has a very very different feel, right? And it’s not just about packaging. It’s not just about a Trojan horse. So many people want art’s stuff, and maybe it’s about time that art started borrowing other people’s stuff in order to build a more sustaining career around that. I don’t want it to be parody, but there’s something of the carnival to it. We’re going to dress up as a consultant. We’re going to dress up as a startup. And then we’re going to keep our artistic intentions at the centre of that activity. But we’ll continue to maintain the storefront or the facade that this is actually a consulting engagement. The alternative consultant is in there to examine unexamined sources of value. And value not necessarily in an economic sense. There are raw materials present in organizations with a long history that are likely not seen. But there are absolutely routines that become ossified over time that also need interrupting. So I think that there’s possibilities for both creation that reveals a flowering of below ground or below surface resources, but also a way of interrupting routines that makes seeing those resources possible.
Q: How is this approach working out for you, do you have any clients yet?
A: We have a few folks that are already interested. I have my consultancy, and to be honest, I’m sick of it. I shudder every time I say the word consultant, and so the opportunity to sort of play around with that, to turn my own dying consultancy into that is really exciting to me. And so that’s the intention, to transform my business into this project completely. And if it doesn’t end up generating the type of energy it needs to sustain itself, then that’s fine. At least it dies dramatically.