Need to know – the artist’s privacy

The last post, which asked what an artist needs to know about the people they’re working with, drew lots of interesting comments and emails, including this from my friend, Bisakha Sarker:

‘As an artist I prefer not to know too many personal details. What I offer is not derived from a sense of duty to cure a condition. My aim is to bring some ‘brightness of being’ (an expression coined by Diane Amans into the lives of people I work with.I suppose that an artist’s training in duty of care will protect them in challenging circumstances I remember two situations one in high security Ashworth hospital and the other in the Psychiatric Department of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.In one instance, not knowing particular case history produced life enhancing moments of joy, dignity, and comfort. In the other, when I told the staff my idea of the theme, which had nothing apparently challenging, they told me about one individual who might find one aspect upsetting. This helped me to choose another theme and we had a fabulous time, with the particular, apparently difficult, person taking a leading role. I still do not know the actual situation or exact nature of the event related to the person. I was given only the information that was relevant to the work. I gained real insight from Atul Gwande’s lectures and publication where he explains the difference between a medically motivated approach and a way of working where idea of ‘a meaningful life’ lies at heart of its practice.’

Bisakha and I met 25 years ago when we worked together on a South Asian dance and disability project for the Arts Council’s Year of Dance in 1993. Leading a team of fine South Asian dancers and musicians, she created a programme of workshops, performances and new choreography that challenged expectations.  It remains one of my happiest professional experiences, documented in a short book we wrote together (Making Space, 1994). Bisakha is one of those exceptional artists who have shaped the landscape of participatory art in Britain since the 1970s, principally by having the courage and commitment to go first into so many new situations where art did not happen.  If dance projects in schools, hospitals and day centres doesn’t strike you as groundbreaking it is only because Bisakha and other pioneering community dancers spent decades making it normal in the face of indifference and incomprehension.

GODS (Marks of Time)
GODS at Marks of Time, 2007

For more than ten years, Bisakha has given special attention to dance and the ageing body. She is driven to explore the value of creative dance in wellbeing, health and science by an artist’s curiosity. In 2007, she organised the Marks of Time conference to present current thinking on the issue and showcase the growing number of non-professional older dance companies. Three years later, she created Memory, a multi-disciplinary arts event with academic papers, keynote dances and films on the theme of dance and dementia, in partnership with Merseyside Dance Initiative and the Foundation for Community Dance,  That work has continued, most recently in Do not yet fold your wings, her multimedia installation on the theme of mortality, in collaboration with Ansuman Biswas and Chris Davies, inspired by Dr Atul Gwande’s Reith Lectures and her reading of Rabindranath Tagore.

All this work has been done, as she explains above, not from  ‘a sense of duty to cure a condition’ but the desire to live – and share – a meaningful life.  In practice, that has meant listening to advice when it can help avoid hurt, but without specific information she can still respond to each person as the individual they are.

But here’s another side to that. What does the participant need to know about the artist? What does artist choose to share? I’ve had several conversations with Bisakha about ageing, in the context of her work and mine, and I’ve seen her feelings change over the years. The dancer’s body, after all, is the most intimate expression of her art. What she has been willing to share about her own experience of ageing, with whom and for what reasons, has changed in both a professional and a human sense. She is a little older than me, but we are both learning to acknowledge our vulnerability as we get older. She told me, in the context of my book about artists in old age:

‘I cannot hide and I don’t need to, so I’m saying, take me as who I am. I’m not pretending to be able to do what I cannot do. You accept that you cannot do it, so you find another way.’

This looks easy, but it is not. After all, the professional artist is expected to know, to be competent, to hold the work together. What does it say about them if they cannot do what they ask of others? There is a danger too that owning one’s weakness becomes a different means of manipulation. Sometimes unpacking the complexity of relationships in participatory art is like opening an unending series of Russian dolls. But you can make it overcomplicated too. The artist, like those they work with, has a right to privacy, and to choose what they will and will not share. Getting to know and trust one another in a participatory art project is part of its adventure. We’ll make mistakes, as we do in other relationships, but if we take care, they won’t do serious damage and they may help us to learn from and give to each other.

Fleeting Moments (Chaturangan)
Fleeting Moments (Chaturangan)

Need to know

Arts and Health - 2

At a conference in Sydney last week, I was able to catch up a little on current thinking in arts and health, a field I’ve been interested in since the 1980s, though from a participatory arts perspective rather than a therapeutic one. Arts and health has become much more accepted over those years, partly because of cultural changes and partly because of a growing body of evidence of the arts’ effectiveness in supporting wellbeing – most recently described in the All Party Parliamentary Group Report.

Arts programmes are now quite common in health services, especially in community settings and public health. The Australian conference included fascinating presentations about arts on prescription, projects in mental health services and addiction, music in residential care, immunisation campaigns, theatre with veterans and much more. Speakers reported findings about the positive health outcomes of work they’d undertaken or researched, and there were some inspiring case studies.

Arts and Health - 1

Listening to those presentations, I found myself reflecting on a question that has long preoccupied me: what does an artist need to know about the people they are working with? In community contexts, where anyone is welcome to join in, the answer is straightforward: nothing. In such situations, everyone – including the artist – can share what they choose about themselves. But I’ve also worked in hospitals, prisons, schools, mental health services and residential care centres, and there the rules are much more complex. To take an obvious example, a dancer ought to be aware of physical conditions that might be exacerbated through movement. But is that more than professional competence? It is not necessary to have specific knowledge of individuals to devise a dance workshop suitable for people in their sixties – although such knowledge might be valuable in some circumstances.

None of this is simple. Some conference presenters, perhaps because their perspective was medical, seemed to expect that an artist should know as much as possible about the people with whom they’re working because that would enable them to devise appropriate interventions and keep people safe. I understand the reasoning and share it to some extent – especially if the work has a therapeutic intent. Still, I have two reservations, one human and the other philosophical.

The first is simply that creative disruption can be such a valuable outcome of a good artistic intervention. People who spend a lot of time together – teachers and children, care staff and residents, prison officers and inmates – often fall into mutually reinforcing patterns of behaviour. A child who is seen as shy can start to fulfil that expectation, and in doing so reinforce the view that she is shy. When an artist meeting her for the first time asks her to take centre stage, she may happily do so because there is a new expectation that she will. Through such human experiences, and the different doors opened by artistic work, people can discover unexpected capacities in themselves. Relationships that have become rigid with familiarity are recast and people liberated from patterns that no longer serve them well. It’s not that artists have special insights, though sometimes they do. It’s simply that, knowing nothing about the people they are working with other than what they find in the moment, they bring a gift of openness to everyone in the room. They create the possibility of not being yourself (whatever you think that is) for a while or, perhaps, for good.

When I worked regularly with prisoners or people with mental health problems, I wanted to be one of the few people they met who did not know their history. If  they knew I did not know, we could both choose what to tell each other about ourselves. We were, within the limits of the situation itself, on a more or less equal footing.

And that is the other reason for my reluctance to know more about others than is absolutely necessary to act safely. It is very hard to achieve any real equality between people who have unequal knowledge of each other. When one person has been told personal, even private things about another, even with the best intentions, the relationship is changed. It is hard not to start thinking that you know what will be good for them – especially in a context determined by medical intervention. I don’t mean to rule out such therapeutic approaches: on the contrary, I’m certain that in the right circumstances they can be literally life-saving. But it is different to the rights-based approach to participatory art within which I have always tried to work. There, I need to know only what the other person wants to tell me.

Performance Ensemble
Performance Ensemble at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Learning some humility

Notes and Interview transcripts - 1
Interview transcripts and notes for ‘A Restless Art’

When I began this project, I thought it would take two years. It’s going to take at least three – and that’s just for this part. Actually, I think I’ll be working on it until I stop working at all, and then it’ll just be for others to carry on. Understanding that has been hard; coming to terms with it harder still. If it’s worth explaining why, it’s not because my struggles are specially interesting, but because of what I’ve learned about participatory art and the human dimension of writing.. I’d imagined distilling the experience of decades into a short, pithy guide to the ideas and practice of community art for the next generation. How foolish, naïve and vain that now seems.

The most important discovery is how little I really know, and how shaky is even that. Ideas I’d developed 20 or 30 years ago were tested by the radically different situations, experience and thinking of young activists in participatory art – tested and found wanting. There is far more work happening than I knew and it is more varied, complex and ambitious too. It responds to a world that is changing fast and that I, shaped by another one, often understand less well than younger people. So far from being able to draw on past knowledge, I’ve had to sit down, shut up and listen, trying to understand not only what people are doing but what it means in and why it comes from their unique context.

My thinking wasn’t useless, but it had become stiff with habit. Being asked for your opinion in conferences, training events and print can lead you to believe that your opinions must be good. You start talking more than listening, but you don’t learn much that way. No wonder I sometimes found my own ideas boring. The best part of these years – apart from meeting so many genuinely inspiring people doing participatory art in different parts of Europe – has been testing, stretching and pushing my own ideas into new, tougher, better shape. It’s not that I now think they’re right but that they are much more rigorous and coherent than they were. That makes them more useful to others, whether or not they agree with them, because they have a clarity you can engage with.

In April, I abandoned everything I’d written so far because I realised that it focused on what I already knew, when I needed to respond, through that knowledge, to what I was discovering. The decision was also personal, because the mistake had come from writing on the threshold of my sixties and the new fears that has brought.  One of the traps I fell into was the need to get everything ‘right’ – and the worst reason for that was to avoid or pre-empt possible criticism. But of course, it’s not possible to write a perfect book, one that everyone will like, and least of all in a contested field like participatory art. It’s only possible to write a book that you like, if only because its limitations are a truthful reflection of your tested experience. Twenty years ago, I was less haunted by perfection because there’d be other bites at the cherry. Today, I’ve had to learn that perfection is no more attainable because this might be my last book.

So the book has slowly, very slowly, changed from the self-satisfied thing it once was. It is an account of participatory art’s theories, history and practice, but neither a complete nor a correct one. The voice has become simpler and more direct: I say what I think, but without believing it to be the only good place to stand in this contested territory. There’s less history because, though we all need to know our roots – especially when some people say we don’t have any – nothing is duller than our parents’ old battles. And the book will have many omissions. It’s already 10,000 words longer than I intended and I have 20-25,000 still to write. I keep throwing stuff overboard as I paddle slowly towards the shore – a section on ‘community’ is teetering on the rail as I write, and yet how important is that? I feel especially bad for the projects I can’t include, but at least there’s this blog for some of that material.

There is a way to go, but the book will be ready in the first half of next year. In the meantime I sincerely thank all those I’ve involved for their generosity and patience, especially the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and everyone who’s read this far. I hope you’ll like the book when it’s done. Now, stop blogging and get back to writing…

Books about community art - 1
Some books about community art, and pictures by John Fox and Benozzo Gozzoli

Access to the means of cultural production

Music Fund - 6

Participatory art depends on many things, including some that it is easy, in more affluent parts of the world, to take for granted. Music Fund was created in 2005 by the Belgian music director, Lukas Pairon, to get neglected musical instruments to parts of the world where they would be used. Since then, the organisation has restored 2,500 instruments which have been given to 16 partner projects in countries like Mozambique, Congo, Gaza,  Mexico, Haiti and elsewhere. More importantly, perhaps, they have established permanent instrument repair workshops with trained technicians in the countries where they work. It may not be necessary to have a violin, piano or saxophone to make music, but access to those instruments – and to the artistic discipline they invite – opens very different possibilities for children with few material advantages.

The symbolic power of this work is captured in a BBC film from 2015 about the effort of local people to restore the only grand piano in Gaza, with the support of Music Fund. And if you can go to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on 28 October, you can give an unwanted instrument to someone who will get – and give – joy from learning to play it.

Music Fund - 3

 

Talking about community

Down the Line (Barrow Hill) - 2

Community is such a complicated word because it points towards a profound yet contested aspect of human experience. Most people recognise and value community in some way, and that can bring out the best in us, as seen in the humanitarian responses to natural disasters. But communities, by definition, are exclusive too. In defining itself, a group cannot avoid simultaneously defining others, non-members. And our desire to belong can be exploited, for instance by politicians and corporations: rarely have the word’s positive associations been more oddly used than in the job title ‘Community Enforcement Officer’.

The idea and practice of community has always been central in art, especially in the collective rituals of performing arts. The term ‘community arts’ did not emerge without reason, nor did the turn against it in Britain (if not necessarily elsewhere). Community remains central to much participatory art, albeit sometimes implicitly. This week, in two very different place I observed theatre’s capacity to identify a community and enable its members to talk together about key aspects of their lives – including the identification of community itself.

The first was a forum theatre performance in a district of Porto called Lordelo de Ouro. It is one of several neighbourhoods in which Hugo Cruz, Maria João Mota and their colleagues in Pele, have been working in theatre with local residents. The latest piece was performed on a basketball court between the blocks of flats on a warm September evening. It was also set within the broader frame of Mexe, a community art festival that Pele has organised for several years, so there were people not from Lordelo or even Porto there too. They were a lively crowd with all the seats taken and people standing or leaning on the rails: more watched from windows of nearby flats. The actors ranged from teenagers to pensioners and they presented a sharp, funny look at how tourists were changing life in the city, in the housing market but also in supporting a taxi driver’s livelihood. After the performance, the audience got stuck into an animated discussion with the actors, stepping up to try out how situations could be worked out differently in the classic forum theatre process. It was not about reaching conclusions or even making change, but an opportunity to hear different points of view about what kind of city – or community – people wanted.

A few days later, I was in at the restored Barrow Hill Round House to see Down the Line, a community play about the long industrial history of the Derbyshire community around Staveley. This was community theatre in the British tradition, its roots in pageant, with ensemble casting, music and spectacle. It involved six professional and many more non-professional actors, a primary school choir and a brass band. The action took place in and around the old railway turning shed, now saved by community action as a living heritage site, and featured moving locomotives, including the much-loved Flying Scotsman, brought for the occasion from its home at the National Railway Museum in York. Although its perspective was historical, the play dealt with divisive political issues, including the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, the avoidable death’s in war and mining, and the question of how a community shaped by industry can adapt to its loss. The performers sang ‘the promises they made us ring hollow and shrill’ and a powerful speech about liberty delivered from a locomotive footplate was met by spontaneous applause. There was pride not nostalgia and a confidence in how this community was continuing to renew itself today. In the gaps and intervals, I found myself talking with my neighbour about what we each value in the past, how farming is changing and Britain’s recent wars. Without sentimentality, the evening honoured a community and its unique story.

In style, content and resources, these two plays span a spectrum of community theatre practice but each saw a community come together to share – and question – what mattered to its members. The identity or stability of the community is not the point. It needed only to be enough to unite people in a shared belief that they had things in common that were worth making visible, talking about – dramatising. As a result, community itself was strengthened. Whether it is understood as being based on place, interest or identity, community can only exist in people and their actions. Theatre experiences, such as those I saw this week in Porto and Staveley, can be valuable ways both of enacting and of questioning our assumptions about identity, belonging and shared experience.

We’re making history

This post was written at the invitation of Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty, whose book, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement has just been published. It first appeared on their project website, and minor revisions have been made in this version: texts, like history, are restless.

Community arts exhibition poster (NCAF 1986)

Making history

The early years of community art in Britain are becoming history. The people involved are in their sixties or older and, although many are still engaged in arts practice, it’s natural to look back and reflect on what happened – especially if you once hoped to change the world. The testimony of that generation is being recorded in films and for websites. Attics yield old photos, posters, sketches, plans, press cuttings and reports for the archives of Jubilee Arts, See Red and others. Those projects have gone but others, including City Arts and Mid Pennine Arts, are celebrating 40 or even 50 years of work. Community art has survived better than many expected, albeit by adapting to a changing world. And now the first academic histories are appearing, including Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty’s Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (2017)

IMG_1310
Newark (1985)

For anyone who took part in these events, all this must bring a degree of nostalgia. It’s nice to be reminded of people you knew, in the time of murals, typewriters  and Letraset, tenants’ associations and community development workers. It is interesting to look back, but what’s important is the history being made of it. What story is told, by whom and from what perspective? Do I believe it? Above all, what use does it serve? On such questions, my interest is not nostalgic, even if the subject is now remote. Interpretations of the past matter because they shape how we think and act today.

Take the critical question of whether the community art movement  ‘failed’. The idea that it did seems widespread – I’ve read it twice recently – and it is often based on the arguments made by Owen Kelly in Storming the Citadels. I remember the book’s publication, in the grim year of 1984, when the Thatcher revolution had brought deindustrialisation, unemployment, civil unrest, the Falklands War and nuclear confrontation with the USSR. The progressive defences of the post-war era were being overrun by neoliberalism’s rising tide (although no one yet used that term). Kelly’s book spoke to that world and I shared its commitment to cultural democracy.

1984
Children’s photography workshop (1984)

Still, it seemed a long way from the everyday realities of life as a sole community arts worker on a Midlands council estate. In Kelly’s 1984 analysis, the radical potential of community art had been compromised by theoretical and political inconsistency, linked to the acceptance of public funds. It was a powerful argument, but I had never thought that ‘a revolutionary programme aimed at the establishment of cultural democracy’ (Kelly 1984: 137) was possible or, perhaps, consistent with its own philosophy. What political weight did a few hundred community artists truly have when the power of the trade union movement could not prevent deindustrialisation? Political and economic change since the 1980s has been historic, international and largely against the ideas of the first generation of community artists. But there was little they could do to affect it, even in 1984, when the ascendancy of neoliberalism was not yet assured.

In any case, as Owen Kelly recognised in 1984, the community art movement would not or could not unite behind a revolutionary programme because there was no common understanding of community art’s radical potential and purpose among the people involved. They had a wide range of ideas, commitments and reasons for doing what they did, and they worked with communities with equally diverse experiences and interests. In a cultural democracy worth the name, every one of these people – professional and non-professional artists – had the right to argue for and pursue their vision.

fat-cats-hot-dogs-1
Community play, Newark 1985

You get a sense of that diversity from the other key book published about community art in its early years, Su Braden’s Artists & People. Published in 1978, it is less often cited than Kelly’s, which is a pity because it is a nuanced and challenging account of community art’s first decade. Braden is critically engaged by the whole spectrum of ideas, motivations and achievements in community art. Her vision is as radical as Kelly’s – they share a disdain for cultural imperialism – but her focus was on how art, not politics, might be changing the world. Braden saw the problems raised by the emergence of the community arts movement, but she also understood the depth of the change happening to art in society that had caused its emergence. Above all, she valued the role played in that by

‘those artists and groups who have the rare talent, stamina and perception to propel themselves out of the tired, brittle, formalistic atmosphere of the art world to work in a variety of community contexts. This is where the future life of the arts will be judged.’ (Braden 1978: 181)

The French Revolution ended, for many people, with Napoleon’s seizure of power In 1799. What no one could see at the time was how its new ideas would reshape the world in far more profound ways than which system of government would briefly rule in one country.  In 1984, it looked as if any revolutionary potential the community art movement had once nurtured was vanishing. Today, as Owen Kelly reflects in his contribution  to Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art, it is clearer that

The impetus that fuelled the original community arts activists did not die, but rather lives on in a number of surprising ways. (Kelly 2017: 223)

I share that assessment, not the earlier one. The British community art movement (1968-1986) was as much a symptom as a cause of change; as such, its existence was always more important than its achievements. It was the current expression of a struggle for cultural equality (now reimagined as cultural democracy) that has been fought since the Enlightenment – and probably not even the most successful. That struggle is slowly, often painfully but, I believe, steadily being won because the social, political, economic and technological conditions favour its success. Seeing it in those terms, rather than as another romantic failure of radicalism, is empowering. It also makes clear the need to continue the struggle.

MEF Este Espaço Que Habito - 10
‘Este Espaço Que Habito ‘ Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (2016)

As I approach my sixties, I too have been thinking and writing about the history of community art, but I’ve realised that I don’t care about the past as much as I thought I did. It interests me, of course, and it’s a pleasure to read this new book. It’s a valuable gathering of voices and evidence about a field that is often misunderstood, but whose influence on cultural policy and practice has been profound. Bringing Owen Kelly’s current thinking into the discourse is just one of its many gifts, and I will continue to read and learn from it. At the same time, I feel that what I lived through is now history, like the history I inherited – Jennie Lee’s White Paper, Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace, the founding of the Worker’s Educational Association and the rest. Once I’ve organised my own thinking about it, I’m content to let it pass.

I want to learn about tomorrow’s history. It’s the people who are adapting and renewing community art for the 2020s whose work excites me. They don’t think like me. They weren’t shaped by the same events.  They don’t know (or care) about my history – and I couldn’t be happier. The work I see them doing is radical, urgent, brave, imaginative and beautiful. It’s often far better than anything I ever did. Sometimes I don’t understand or agree with their choices, but it doesn’t matter. They are doing what makes sense to them, and their right to do that is what I’ve always worked for. This is how the struggle for cultural democracy is being fought now, and it’s brilliant.

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‘You Are Here’ Restoke (2016)

They are writing history, in the best way any of us can. By making it.

It is noh mistery
Wi making history
It is noh mistery
Wi winnin’ victory

  Linton Kwesi Johnson (Johnson 2002:63)

 

References

Braden, S., 1978, Artists and People, London.

Johnson, L. K., 2002, Mi Revalueshanary Fren, New York

Kelly, O., 1984, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, London.

Kelly, O., 2017, ‘Cultural Democracy: Developing Technologies and Dividuality’, in Jeffers, A., & Moriarty, G., eds. 2017, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement, London.

Jeffers, A., & Moriarty, G., eds. 2017, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement, London

Watch your language

‘The critique of language cannot evade the fact that our words commit us and that we must be true to them. Wrongly naming a thing is to add to the misery of this world.’

Albert Camus[1]

Language is fundamental to what human beings are and do. With it we construct, share and contest different versions of reality. It is a key to holding and transferring knowledge, as I’m doing here. There are other way of doing that, of course: knowledge can be experiential, and there are languages without words, like music. Art is fundamental to human beings because it is a language system open to all our senses and therefore all available ways of making and communicating meaning.

Art has its own language, or rather languages. Visual artists share much professional and technical language, but some terms and concepts are meaningful only to sculptors, engravers or graphic designers. Participatory art also has a language that reflects its practice and preoccupations, and which is therefore constantly evolving alongside the things that it describes. It influences and is influenced by other languages it has contact with and words are carried from one sphere to another, changing their sense in new contexts. Where I began my life in community arts, people generally understood a ‘workshop’ as a building with tools where cars were repaired. Since then, the word has become familiar in other uses and most of us now interpret the word according to context. ‘Come to the workshop’ can mean several things.

Participatory artists need their own professional language (others might call it discourse or jargon) to talk about their work. It enables them to understand, interpret and share their experience in the context of the ideas that motivate them. This website is an example of that language in everyday use. It’s written principally for people who already have some familiarity with the practice, concepts and therefore language of participatory art. People involved in the same professional work need a language in which to debate ideas and experiences, so they use terms that are unfamiliar or confusing to outsiders. They make assumptions and use short cuts that can sound like code. To anyone who has to applying for funding from Arts Council England, the phrase ‘the NPO Portal opens tomorrow’ is essential, but to everyone else it sounds like science fiction. Still, every professional language has its limits. However carefully I try to write in an open, accessible way, this text will be understood differently by every reader, according to their own experience and their familiarity with the discourse of participatory art.

It becomes more difficult when people try to speak about their practice to people who may know little or nothing about it. Then the professional language that facilitates an internal discourse can become misleading or alienating. It can prevent rather than enable communication. I’m sure the problem arises in other professions, but it is especially tricky for participatory artists because they are often having simultaneous conversations with completely different groups. On the one hand, they talk with donors and policymakers about the value of their work in relation to various socio-cultural objectives. On the other, they talk to people who – almost by definition – are not familiar with the language of art and who might also be vulnerable or otherwise disempowered.

Participatory artists frequently stand between the powerful and the powerless and face both ways. It is an ambiguous, delicate position dangerously open to hypocrisy. It also confers a good deal of power because only those in the middle see the whole. The language they use to describe it is very important. It was this power, facilitated by a slippery use of language, that I had in mind when I wrote 20 years ago, about the need for clear ethical principles.

Unclear, unexpressed objectives allow a projec­t’s sponsors and managers, consciously or not, to speak of different values to different constituencies and work to unstated agendas, with the ef­fect of disempowering participants.[2]

Whose language is being used, when, where and why, are therefore fundamental issues in participatory art. I’ve discussed before how problematic the terms ‘impact’ and ‘delivery’ can be, but knowing that is not enough. As the philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote, our words commit us. Artists working with people, more than most, need to be aware of their commitments.

 

Sources

[1]      ‘La critique du langage ne peut éluder ce fait que nos paroles nous engagent et que nous devons leur être fidèles. Mal nommer un objet, c’est ajouter au malheur de ce monde.’ Albert Camus, ‘Sur une philosophie de l’expression’ Œuvres complètes, Volume 1, page 908, Paris 2006

[2]      Matarasso, F., 1997, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud, p.88

‘Have I got to go somewhere?’

EM Shape, © the photographer - 1 (1)
Photograph taken by a non-professional artist supported by Ross Boyd and participating in the East Midlands Shape project, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ Derby (UK) 1989-1991

‘Care in the Community’ was a flagship policy of the third Thatcher government at the end of the 1980s. It proposed the replacement of residential hospitals caring for people with mental illness and learning disabilities by small community-based facilities and homes. This was a huge change. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people would have to leave places that might have been their home for years. The wider community had concerns too, with prominent media coverage of some incidents involving discharged mental patients.

At the time, I was with East Midlands Shape, a community art organisation working with disabled people and people living in hospitals, care homes and prisons. It seemed important to do something on this policy that affected the lives of so many of the people we worked with. The result was a project called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’, in  which residents of one hospital scheduled for closure could use art to reflect on their changing lives.

Over eighteen months – half at the hospital and half away from the site – writer Rosie Cullen and photographer Ross Boyd worked with members of this disintegrating community. Supporting people to write or make photographs was a painstaking, one-to-one process: gaining trust and working through people’s illness or disability, as well as the emotions raised by this enforced life change. Ross sometimes spent days with people before they decided what image they wanted to make. In all that time, fewer than a hundred photographs were finished, but each was like a diamond of compressed meaning. As time passed, people gained confidence and insight into their own creative work. More and more of them became involved, and the pile of poems, stories and memories grew steadily.

Poem for a Nurse © the author

Texts and images were collected into two books, one about life in the hospital and one about life outside, and a photographic exhibition that toured the UK. That show was installed for several weeks in the lobby of the Department of Health’s London headquarters. It was a symbolic way of ensuring that the voices of the people affected by the ‘Care in the Community’ would be heard where the decisions that transformed their lives was made.

Nearly 30 years later, the words and images of that community art project still move me. Some have an aesthetic quality equal to that achieved by professional writers and photographers. Even the least accomplished – and there aren’t many – have truth and authenticity. But the project wasn’t easy for anyone involved. There were tensions and controversies, such as the management’s objections to a patient’s account of treatment. We were told that the piece shouldn’t be published since mental illness made the person concerned an unreliable witness. But the facts were not the point: everyone has the right to tell their own story. The text stayed. Another decision still troubles me though. After much discussion, it was decided not to include some particularly disturbing images. There were good reasons for the choice, but I still don’t know if they were good enough.

Note: the photographs used to illustrate this text all come from the project, but I decided not to include any here that show people, or to name the photographers and writers: the people who made this work may feel differently about their privacy today. 

Art outside the art world

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In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.

Anyone can do it

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This guest post was written by Julia Rone, a Bulgarian friend who has been researching social activism in the wake of the financial crisis. She describes how the Spanish activist group, XNET, are prosecuting fraudulent bankers and politicians in the courts and in the theatre. While the legal proceedings continue, ‘Become a Banker’, has been seen by almost 10,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, A Coruña, Girona and Tàrrega, helping ensure that the truth is understood and remembered.  (It’s also available online, in a version with English subtitles.) The story is not over, but through this citizens theatre, XNET are keeping attention on the true causes of the hardship undergone by Spanish people. 

Banking, creative activism and theatre: the Hazte Banquero story

Imagine being one of the most powerful bankers of Spain. Imagine experiencing the financial crisis, witnessing millions of people going to the streets after losing their savings, their mortgages, their future. See them shouting, marching, occupying.  And then imagine someone leaking to the public all your professional emails with details of lavish spending and misdeeds. Imagine a court trial and someone brave enough (artistically and politically) to make a data-based theatre play out of all this.

The play Hazte Banquero (Become a Banker)is ‘a true story and, as such, it is dramatic but, most of all, it is absurd and atrociously comical’, as the producers from X-net describe it. XNET is an activist collective that deals with topics such as free culture, technopolitics, network democracy, and citizen journalism. They have been very active ever since the Indignados protests in Spain, and this is how I got to know their work. But when I entered Teatre El Musical in Valencia to watch their play I had my doubts about what I was going to see. Would it be one of the many naive and moralistic tales of bankers that flooded Hollywood screens after the crisis? Would I have to like it just because I agree with the political message? As a social movements researcher, I’m used to exploring citizen action on the streets and on squares, on mail lists and Facebook pages – but theatre and social movements? The combination made me uncomfortable.

 

And yet, from the very first moment, the play engaged me, dispersed my doubts and filled the empty space with data. Director Simona Levi and the XNET team read thousands of leaked emails to choose the most striking ones and set them as drama. With the help of a big screen, interactive graphics, and several great actors representing the key figures in Caja Madrid  – all male, of course – XNET guided us through a complex scheme of corruption, self-enrichment, and revolving doors between politics and finance.

In Greek tragedy, the characters suffer irrational divine curses and cannot escape their fate. In contrast, Hazte Banquero tells the story of a modern, man-made crisis that could have been avoided – had the protagonists shown any moral constraints. The plot is so gripping because all the events described really took place, although, the more details emerge, the more unbelievable it all seems. Yes, bank supervisors and top employees of Caja Madrid did have ‘black’ credit cards for unlimited spending. Yes, the bank did transfer money to ‘charitable’ foundations of all political parties in Spain, including the far left. Yes, Caja Madrid did sell floating rate stocks to thousands of inexperienced customers, making them believe they were fixed-rate. All this really happened. All theatre audiences have to suspend disbelief, to accept the ‘reality’ of the play. Watching Hazte Banquero, you had to suspend disbelief to accept reality itself as real.

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In fact, unlike most foreigners, the general public in Spain is familiar with many of the facts around Caja Madrid and its successor Bankia, presided by Rodrigo Rato. But one of truth’s weaknesses is that it’s easily forgotten, set aside while we deal with more urgent everyday duties. Hazte Banquero reveals the truth in the data  – and it helps prevent it from being forgotten. The play reenacts truth in front of us, makes us laugh, feel shocked and outraged, and this emotional connection is what guarantees that truth will not be forgotten any more.

Hazte Banquero has a double goal. First, it shows what happened, so that it will not happen again. This is the awareness-raising task. Secondly, it seeks justice and exposes people who should assume responsibility for their actions. The members of the audience change from being passive witnesses of their personal crises to being active participants in a quest for justice. The play functions as a record and a warning sign, a forensic analysis and a protest march.

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Leaking data is a risky political act. Performing that data, turning numbers and words into feelings, is politically and artistically dangerous. Hazte Banquero manages to be a powerful, entertaining play with an serious message. It succeeds both in its artistic and political goals. But ultimately, the XNET artists do not distinguish between the two. As citizens we need to act in order to prevent corruption and irresponsibility. This is why XNET organized a crowd-funding campaign to finance  their continuing prosecution of bank executives. As citizens, we too must act, in the sense of perform, and reach out to others and make our causes known. Theatre becomes a form of political action, a way to bring together people and inspire them to act on their destiny.

By seeing the bankers as protagonists on stage, citizens understand better the real-life bankers who, in a famous ad campaign, encouraged them to “become bankers” – and then defrauded them. Stripped of their illusions and armed with information, citizens can identify with the bankers on stage. Stripped of their impunity, once-untouchable bankers identify with ordinary citizens in real life. They are put to trial and they face the consequences of their actions. This change of roles is not welcome to anyone involved. But it is necessary.

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The trial and the play are two faces of one process of citizen engagement initiated by XNET. On the 23rd February 2017, Miguel Blesa was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Rodrigo Rato to four and a half, on charges related to the black credit cards scandal. They both appealed to the Supreme Court and are currently not in jail thanks to their ‘exemplary’ conduct during the trial. We still don’t know whether self-organized citizens will manage to change the end of this play of privilege and impunity we all know too well. But whatever happens, the premise of the play has changed. From secondary characters in our society, citizens have become protagonists and taken centre stage. Who could imagine this?

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Julia Rone is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, Florence. Her research explores social mobilizations against free trade agreements, with a focus on framing and diffusion of ideas. In addition, she studies hacktivism, digital disobedience, and struggles in defense of Internet Freedom.

With thanks to Simona Levi and XNET for permission to include photographs from the production. 

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