An unspoken contract

‘For me It’s an inquiry into an aspect of life that I don’t know about [that] I’m curious about it. I’m interested in looking at my own prejudices – that’s why it’s about yourself in a way.  But it’s also attempting to reflect and record on behalf of a culture something which is important to them and accurate for them, so that a dialogue can take place. What that  means, really, is that you have to engage with those communities or those individuals and say things about their lives which you believe to be accurate and ultimately they believe to be accurate, however difficult those statements are. At the end of the day the success or failure of a piece of work by Amber is the community you make it about looks at it and says “That’s right”.’

Murray Martin worked in NE England from 1969 until his death in 2007, making films with and about working people. A founder member of Amber Film and Photography Collective he did much to establish the group’s principles and working methods. These words – slightly edited here for ease of reading – are taken from an interview he gave in 2004, parts of which feature in The Pursuit of Happiness, a film made by Amber to celebrate Martin’s life, work and values.

The Lawnmowers

The Lawnmowers are a theatre company run by and for people with learning disabilities. Founded in 1986 by Them Wifies, they became a fully independent company in 2001. With a base in Gateshead, North East England, the company has 35 members, all training in every aspect of the company’s business, from performance to administration. I’ve followed their work for many years (they feature in Use of Ornament?) so I was delighted when they got in touch about this project. They’ve made a film about their story so far that you can watch on their YouTube Channel. We’ll talk about how to include their ideas about participatory arts in the coming months.

Contributing (or participating)

Thanks to everyone who has been in touch since the project went live. It’s been great to see the interest in the idea and people’s willingness to contribute to it. If I’ve not yet replied to you, I will very shortly. Over the coming months, I’ll suggest ways in which people can participate in the project but, for now, I see three main routes:

First, I’ll be visiting projects to talk with artists and practitioners and see what is happening at first hand. Since time, distance and funds place obvious limits on what I can do, these trips will be supplemented by Skype and phone conversations.

Secondly, I will be organising small, round-table discussions – ideally in partnership with interested organisations. They’ll focus on key issues or experiences that emerge as the work develops.

Thirdly, I’ll be inviting written contributions (nothing too demanding!) through this site in response to specific questions.

No doubt other ways of participating will emerge as things go on, and I’m always open to suggestions. At the moment, I appreciate the luxury of having time to explore and see which paths turn out to be the most interesting.

Introducing ‘A Restless Art’

What is community art and where is it going?

Whether you call it community art, participatory art or something else entirely, art work with people seems to be thriving. I’ve worked in the field for many years and I don’t remember a time when so much was happening, despite the public spending cuts. More importantly, perhaps, I see artists working in a huge range of ways and with an equally diverse range of ideas and motives. And some of the most interesting, exciting work is happening in unexpected places – Southern Europe, Brazil, Zimbabwe.

A new generation of practice seems to be emerging, partly in reaction to the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and partly just because time passes. It follows two earlier phases of participatory art work. The first, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, pioneered community arts as a radical, innovative and aesthetically adventurous practice. The second, more pragmatic, adapted those ideas and methods to form new partnerships with public bodies.

The third – well, that’s what’s so interesting. How are young artists working now? Which parts of their artistic heritage do they draw on and which do they reject? How do they see community, the state, the person? What is art for them? How do their Millennial experiences and values transform a practice for the 2020s?

ARA Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera (UK)

Thinking about practice

There is also more written about community/participatory art than there ever. Most of what’s published is about outcomes (my 1997 study of the social impact of participation in the arts. Use or Ornament?, was an early instance). The logic of that second phase imposed a need to demonstrate value to funders. At the other end of the spectrum, the contemporary art world has produced theoretical accounts of its own adventures in participation, some more accessible than others. But between theory and impact is practice – what actually happens when artists work with people.

This project will explore that gap. Its name, A Restless Art, is intended to affirm that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing participatory art. There are many, perhaps even as many as there are artists dedicated to the practice. They have different motivations and ways of working. Each has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. And it is that restlessness, troublesome as it has sometimes seemed, that gives participatory art its energy.

But it is important – whether you are involved as an artist, a manager, a funder or even a participant – to know where your work stands in relation to the rest, and why. Socrates is famous for saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. A Restless Art sets out to provide resources with which people engaged in participatory art can examine their own thinking and practice. It will do that first through this website and eventually in a book that I hope, with the authors of Engineers of the Imagination, will ‘spend at least as much time in kitchens and workshops as in studies and libraries’.

Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance
Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance

The project

Over the next year, I’m going to be visiting participatory arts projects, observing work and interviewing artists. I want to immerse myself in what is happening now and listen attentively to what artists say about their work. To do justice to this restless art, I’ll be talking to people from every generation – the pioneers who began in the 1960s and the young artists just discovering the field and their own creativity. I also want to look beyond the UK because there is great work happening in other parts of Europe, shaped by other cultures and social contexts. So projects in Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands will also be included.

This project is supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation in London and Lisbon and I’m very grateful for their confidence in it. The Foundation has been committed to community/participatory art for decades, often pioneering new developments. It currently has major programmes in the UK (Sharing the Stage) and in Portugal (PARTIS) and some of that activity will feature in this project.

There isn’t a fixed plan or timescale for A Restless Art, except that I expect to publish the book (in English and Portuguese) in Spring 2017. But that will just be another chapter in this fascinating, unending story that has captivated me since I got a job as a community arts apprentice – also funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation – 35 years ago. It will certainly open new paths for discovery of which I’m still ignorant.

PARTIS Programme (Portugal)
PARTIS Programme (Portugal)

An invitation

Five years ago, for a project called Regular Marvels, I began exploring a way of working that I described as ‘thinking in public’. It accepts the subjective, contingent nature of human experience while questioning our tendency to sacralise knowledge (and those who control it). It seemed necessary to work in this open, inclusive and tentative way when reflecting on arts practice since the nature and value of that practice is precisely its capacity to enfold the rational within a larger domain of human understanding.

A Restless Art will adopt the same approach. I’ll post case studies, reports of meetings and general reflections here as the project develops. The site will record ideas as they evolve, including dead ends and mistakes or revisions. I’ll also add resources (my own and other people’s) to make it easier to find material online.

So do check back to follow the story if you’ve an interest in participatory arts practice. And if you’d like to talk to me, or tell me about some work that might be included or simply want to share some thoughts, please get in touch.

Théâtre du Fil (France)
Théâtre du Fil (France)