Coming together: midwinter thoughts about community

Eriskay Ceilidh 1996
Ceilidh in Eriskay Community Hall 1996

On 24 December 2015, the Beatles allowed their music to be streamed online for the first time. The most frequently played song since the launch is ‘Come Together’.

The European winter brings people together. Nights are long and cold and wet, even without snow. Gathering round the fire for a little cheery feasting and familiar tales to pass the time are ancient customs. Christian theology adapted to existing practices as it came North from its warmer heartland, finding common ground in an idea of community. In midwinter, when cold and hunger threaten each individually, the affirmation of community is literally vital. That might be what people mean when they evoke the spirit of Christmas.

Community is not just a powerful need: it is a complicated idea. Every group, in defining itself, excludes others. Our need for belonging can also be manipulated.  Because, as Raymond Williams observed, it ‘never seems to be used unfavourably’, the word has been exploited for power and wealth. Its use to mask ideology or self-interest has left it tarnished. And so some are now cynical not just of the word, but of the idea too. In Britain, what was once called community art is veiled with the much more ambiguous term, ’participatory’.

But this is not just a matter of words. In thinking about community, and working with groups who identify as communities – whether defined by place, experience or commitment – artists connect with key ideas about society, politics and art. Disregarding this rich territory has sometimes left participatory art seeming merely rhetorical by comparison with its older relation.

We start the new year at midwinter, looking to dawn, renewal, the chance of something better. In the deepest night, hope is humanity’s secret resource. When news bulletins speak of conflict and suffering, artists could do worse than renew their thinking about community in all its complicated senses. In the end, it is true that we are all in this together.

Chris Fremantle: ‘ The Hope of Something Different’

‘One of the most fundamental rights is to have your understanding of the world recognised and valued’.

Chris Fremantle

Participatory art is a rich and diverse practice. Much of its energy comes from the creative tensions between different theories and visions, as may be seen from some of the reaction to the Turner Prize jury’s choice. But art is not only intellectual and rational. It is felt, perceived, practiced and experienced. Some of the most creative discussions happen within projects, between artists and participants (or, as I’d prefer to say, between professional and non-professional artists). That is why I think of it as a restless art.

And so this project, in its conception and unfolding, is a space for discussion, reflection and development. Other voices are not just welcome: they are intrinsic to what it is trying to do. They are being heard in the meetings and conversations I’m having, which are gradually being documented here. But there are other ways to participate and today, I’m delighted to share the first ‘invited text’ by Chris Fremantle. Chris has been working for many years where art, people and environment meet and his piece considers the parallels between participatory art and ecoarts.

In discussions between artists whose work is focused by environment and ecology, there is a general recognition of a commonality with artists who engage in social and community practices. The work often operates in both realms, sometimes seamlessly. Both are interested in different forms of relationality, particularly in sharing and negotiating authorship with communities and creating stories that serve interests beyond their own.

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Many thanks to Chris for his rich contribution to the project.

The Veden Taika Islands (Jackie Brookner)
The Veden Taika Islands (Jackie Brookner)


And the 2015 Turner Prize goes to… community art

‘If art isn’t about people and humanity, then what is it about?’

Hazel Tilley BBC Newsnight

The annual Turner Prize, established ‘to celebrate new developments in contemporary art’, is known for controversy. The debate usually turns on the question of whether the prize winner has exhibited art, rather than the more meaningful one of how good it is. This year has been different because the question being asked is whether the prize winners are even artists. And it is mostly being asked within the art world.

Assemble is a group of young architects, designers and activists who work with people to revive the places where they live. In just four years, they have created spaces for theatre and cinema, playgrounds and workshops.  Some of their work produces objects with obvious aesthetic intent, such as decorative fittings, but mostly it’s either very practical or social, intangible and also, in its way, very practical. It is a living example that there is no need to choose between use and ornament. It is also a great example of community art.

Granby Four Streets (BBC Newsnight) - 2

Assemble was shortlisted for Granby Four Streets, a neighbourhood renewal project in Liverpool. Brought in by the Community Land Trust to work with residents who have battled for years to save their homes from neglect or demolition, the group have applied their skills to creating a sustainable vision for the area rooted in its tangible and intangible cultural heritage. So far, 10 houses have been renewed and a community workshop established in which people can make things that will contribute to the renovation of more buildings.

Granby Four Streets (BBC Newsnight) - 1

Crucially – though this isn’t mentioned in most of the current media coverage – Assemble describe themselves as ‘build[ing] on the hard work already done by local residents’. This was not some bright idea by a group of artists but creative support for what a community had already achieved. In that sense, though the form and approach belong to 2015, the work in Granby Four Streets echoes that of many community artists working in the 1970s and 1980s. The words of Joseph Halligan, one member of Assemble, could equally have been said 40 years ago:

‘I think the idea that art is something that can only be created by someone that declares themselves an artist is maybe not the best thing. I believe that anyone can create art, and art should be for everyone.’

What makes community art practice different – and important –is that you don’t need to be an artist to do it, even to initiate it: you just need to make art. That is still a surprisingly controversial idea.

This report from BBC Newsnight gives an outsider’s perspective on Assemble’s work.

And this blog post gives a glimpse of the same experience from the other side. I tip my hat to Assemble and to the residents and campaigners of Granby Four Streets: prize winners all.

The place of storytelling in participatory art

Is participatory art essentially about artists creating work from the raw material of other people’s life experience? That seems to be the view of some artists I’ve met recently. Their projects begin by identifying a neighbourhood or community seen to be in some kid of difficulty. A process of ‘research’ leads to collecting the stories, memories or experiences of the people who participate, to be retold in theatre, installation, or some other form to those who shared it, or to a wider audience.

Telling unheard stories is not a new practice. It was often the essence of community plays, a form once more popular than it is now. It has been at the centre of much community arts work, such as Amber Collective’s, and my own work: 25 years ago, I worked on a project that enabled people with mental health problems to create work about their lives, when a change in policy saw the hospital in which they were living close.* A belief in helping marginalised people use art for self-representation was at the heart of the community art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fireplace (Sydney Bowler)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Today, artists seem much readier to tell people’s stories on their behalf. I have seen some extraordinary work result from this, but I also wonder whether the gain in artistic virtuosity may be at the expense of other kinds of quality.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. They are both private and public, and it matters what we share, with whom, how and why. Our stories are never objective, even if we believe them absolutely. They shape our relationships and behaviour. Sometimes, they are keys that unlock rights or access services. Stories are central to art and art is central to how we create our stories.

No wonder artists invite people to share their stories in a participatory art project. No wonder too that doing so raises complex ethical, artistic and philosophical questions. What consent is sought and given? What promises are made or implied?  Do both sides have a common understanding of what they are doing? If it is in the nature of art to produce unanticipated results, what guarantees can an artist give about how a person’s story might be used or received? Similar ethical dilemmas arise in other fields, such as documentary filmmaking or academic research, but I wonder if participatory arts has yet developed a comparable reflection on them.

Refreshment Room (Aiden Hammer)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Then there is the question of how a story becomes art. Is it simply in the act of public presentation? Hardly, or the life stories continually retailed in the media would be art. Is it in the use of artistic techniques to retell it? Perhaps it is in being retold by an artist? But then who is an artist? Many community artists base their work in the idea that anyone can be an artist – which raises further questions, for another day – so how does a story change if it is told by a hired interpreter rather than the person whose experience it retells?

Is telling a story enough? Some artists take the view that it is, that the artwork is sufficient in itself and that their task is to reflect their lives to those who participated. Others argue that mirroring past or present realities should be a step towards debate about what might change. This is not just about politics or theory. It is also about art and whether what is created in a participatory process is rich and profound enough to stand without the context that produced it.

And finally, are stories essential to participatory art? Personally, I don’t think so. Art does not have to be narrative. Nor does it have to be rooted in lived experience. Participatory and community art has a far wider range of resources and languages to draw on than life stories, valuable as they are . Rituals, metaphors and symbols; inarticulate feelings, fears and dreams; private imaginations and public images; shared creation, shared memory – the possibilities are almost endless. I have many uncertainties about how and why artists use other people’s stories to make art but I’ve no doubt that it should only ever be one of the ways in which participatory art is created.

Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
  •  The photographs illustrating this post were made by participants in that project, working with the late Ross Boyd, a fine photographer and teacher . They were published in 1990 and 1991 in two books and toured the UK in an exhibition called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’.

The restless purposes of community art

‘In the Netherlands, community art is predominantly result-oriented, whereas, until recently, in English-speaking countries the focus was on participation and the process.’

These words come from a book produced in preparation for Leeuwarden’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018. The Dutch city’s programme aims ‘to strengthen community feeling through cultural participation’, and much thought has been given to how and why this happens. The Search Compass is described as a ‘methodology for cultural intervention’ and it gives a good overview of current thinking about community art in the Netherlands.

'Maxima Komt!,' Community Play (Stut Theatre)
‘Maxima Komt!,’ Community Play (Stut Theatre)

Holland been an important centre of practice for at least 15 years, with some great work being done with its changing communities. Rotterdam has an International Community Arts Festival and CAL-XL in Utrecht is a centre for documentation and reflection on community arts. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been the Netherlands and yet, reading The Search Compass, I see some of what I’ve missed or misunderstood. Because my own approach has been rights-based, I may have underestimated the social purpose of some Dutch projects and how that shaped what was happening. For instance, the book suggests that community art projects:

‘have in common that they imply the participation of a specific target group in a cultural event, that it concerns a creative process under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals and that they seek to achieve a social goal.’

This vision of community art as an agent of social change under the control of professionals makes me uncomfortable, though I know it’s how many people see it. Achieving social change has always been one of the objectives of community art – but only one. Moreover, such change can occur in other ways than ‘under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals’.

Part of what makes this practice vital is the tension between this objective and others rooted either in democratization of art or cultural rights. The different emphases placed on these three goals, by different people in different places at different times, make it ‘a restless art’, as people try to balance competing but not necessarily conflicting purposes. There isn’t a ‘right’ purpose to community arts: there are many depending on people and situation. But each raises ethical, political and artistic dilemmas that need to be considered – and discussing them openly is one way of doing the work well.

This week, I’ll have a chance to talk about these questions with people involved in community arts in the Netherlands: it will be a rewarding few days.