English visionaries: John Fox, Sue Gill and Welfare State

Winternest

A few weeks ago, I spent a day with John Fox and Sue Gill at their home on Morecambe Bay. It was one of those lovely February days where the damp of winter seems forgotten in the bright air, not spring yet, but the promise of it. The winter sunlight changed direction as the tide went out; the bay shifted shape and colour before my eyes. On the foreshore, the traces of John and Sue’s most recent artwork, Wildernest, were returning wisely to the land from which they had come.

In 1968, John and Sue, with other friends, founded a theatre, art and performance company they called Welfare State. Over the next 40 years  it would grow organically to become one of the most influential artistic forces in community art –  and in British theatre. Many of the people who worked with Welfare State, whether for a few weeks or for years, went on to form other companies. They took with them ideas about aesthetics, politics and participation that continue to resonate and evolve.  And through a seminal history/handbook, Engineers of the Imagination, people in distant places (including me) were inspired to create things they’d never have dreamed of otherwise.

Welfare State’s final show, Longline, was in Ulverston in 2006. Scores of local people performed a carnival opera that celebrated the strange and ancient landscape of Morecambe Bay with the company’s unique blend of music, puppets, poetry and spectacle. It was a fitting closure to an adventure whose ripples still spread.

Now that the company, like the art it created, is passing into history, its unique contribution to the language of community art is becoming easier to see. Two things strike me now as being particularly valuable, though others could be mentioned.

The first was the reckless bravery, a willingness to try something just for the joy of it, to stand up and not mind falling down. As John remembers, in the early days ‘we couldn’t play our instruments. We made noises on saxophones, banged oil drums and got an audience. I think we had an urge to show off.’ Sue adds: ‘Also, once people got the curiosity about working in different media – fire over here, ice over there or some kind of installation – we shamelessly used an invitation or a gig to research, for the first time, something that we had absolutely no idea how to do.’ That freedom to experiment existed in the early days of community art because there were not yet any fixed ideas about what was correct or how things should be done. Today, such space is rare in Britain, where risk assessments have to be filed before every workshop. It does seem to exist though elsewhere in Europe, where community art is more recent and, for reasons good and bad, artists have more freedom of action.

But that creative bravery wouldn’t have gone far without an aesthetic imagination, itself rooted in strongly held values. Welfare State created a distinctive visual and theatrical language, partly shaped by its use of found, recycled and cheap materials. Its artists created a wild beauty out of necessity, reconnecting communities with ancient rituals through fire, music and imagery. Today, I’m struck by its connection with the singular English  imagination of visionaries like Blake, Palmer, Spencer, Bawden or Ravilious –  unruly, exuberant and bursting with life. It is the antithesis of the rationalist and utilitarian that often dominates English culture. Non-realist or supra-realist, it glories in excess and fizzes with outrage or righteous anger, like Dickens and Hogarth, Lawrence and the Who. It falls flat on its face and picks itself up with a savage grin, laughing at everything and itself. Perhaps because it challenges my own instinctive caution, I love that wild art and feel the need of it today more than ever.

John Fox at Bradford - 1

But my conversation with John and Sue was never nostalgic. We talked more about the work they are doing now and the role of the artist in a threatened and threatening world. Their passionate commitment to a creative life and the values that have shaped theirs was evidently undimmed.

A few weeks later, I heard John speak at a conference celebrating the work of Albert Hunt, who’d  given him his first job at Bradford School of Art. He paid tribute to another influential visionary in the early life of British community art and read from 40 year old texts by Hunt that seemed as fresh as ever. He told the story of Welfare State, which some of the students present heard for the first time, but his gaze was always forward – surely one of the most reliable tests of an artist’s worth – and he closed with a passionate manifesto for the artist’s role today as:

 ‘… facilitator and fixer, celebrant and stage manager, a visionary linking the past and the future, a poetic diviner, a shamanic lasso, a trickster mongrel, revelator of layers of perception and the holder of what used to be called spiritual energy. Equally of course this kind of artist would also acknowledge the artist in us all and offer testament to the innate creativity recurring in every generation and every community where the intuitive is given freedom to participate and collaborate. Where re-generation is of the soul and not of economics. Where a holistic way of being is given credence and where making art is a daily experience for everyone.’

What was exciting about community art in 1968 is exciting about it today. It’s simply how that humanist vision of shared creative life is explored in endlessly different ways by people passionately committed to another way of living.

The difficulty of thinking outside of the box

Spare Tyre Productions 2
Spare Tyre production, Feeble Minds, 2009 (© Patrick Baldwin)

Community and participatory art has long roots in Britain. Its practice owes much to ideas that were developed in the 1960s and to policy pressures of the 1980s and 1990s. That long evolution has many strengths – it’s a rich field involving thousands of activists that supports a complex debate about participatory art. There’s probably more research and analysis published on it here than in any other European country.

But there are drawbacks to this weighty history too. In particular, it can be hard to escape the terms of a debate that is so well established. That struck me as I read a short report on participatory art in London published a few years ago by Arts Council England. It’s a useful introduction to the issues, based on a review of 13 excellent participatory arts organisations, such as Cardboard Citizens,  Streetwise Opera and Entelechy Arts. It asks what they have in common and what difficulties they face, before suggesting some solutions.

But the report’s analysis is framed in conventional terms, including familiar distinctions between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ value of art activity, and between ‘process’ and ‘product’. It worries whether the work has ‘true artistic merit’ without asking what that phrase means. And its solutions – better evaluation, learning and advocacy – are also conventional: they have been proposed for many years in British policy discourse.

These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are specific to the culture and country in which they are being discussed. My recent conversations with artists in Greece, Serbia, Portugal or Holland have not turned on these questions because the context for their work has been so different. In other words, the way participatory art is imagined in Britain is shaped by how everything else is imagined in Britain.

We talk all the time of ‘thinking outside the box’, seeming not to notice that the phrase itself is a cliché. It is really hard to think outside the framework of beliefs and assumptions that make up our own culture and identity. Mostly we don’t feel the need to do it much, if at all. But artists, whose work aims to be creative – which means making something new – need to be better at it than most of us. And not only in their artistic practice, but in how that practice is conceived and discussed.

One way of doing that is in dialogue with artists who work in different places and other ways. It can be challenging, but also liberating, to discover that other people don’t see evaluation as a way to convince funders – or may not even see those funders as desirable partners in the first place. Thinking outside the box begins with wondering whether we’re even asking the right questions.

Adult Participatory Arts

Ancient roots of community art

La Pléchie - 1March was traditionally the month for hedge laying in the part of rural France where I have roots. The hazel hasn’t yet begun to bud nor the birds to nest. Cutting into the upright stems so that they can be pushed flat and woven together with stakes creates a stock-proof barrier that will last 20 or 30 years. Growing up on a farm, I saw the end of hedge-laying as machinery replaced human labour. Nowadays, the hedges are shaved from tractors, but the result is ugly and ineffective: it’s barbed wire that keeps the cattle in the fields.

So hedge-laying has become a conservation issue, and people organise events during March throughout this Natural Park just to keep the skills alive. Yesterday I worked with neighbours to do a stretch, just for the pleasure of it. It was a convivial morning, as people who didn’t always know one another got stuck in; and this being France, the mid-morning break for bread, ham and wine was as important as the work.

I had thought hedge laying was difficult until I was shown how it’s done. Actually, it’s quite straightforward: cut into the wood enough to bend it easily and then weave the branches together. Hazel and hawthorn are tough and forgiving, even of clumsy hands like mine: they grow back with the spring. As in any human art, there are those who become very skilled and capable of producing beautifully regular hedges from a wild tangle. Competitions abound and, across Europe, there are stylistic variations reflecting local geography and culture.

What we did yesterday wasn’t art, though it might be culture. But it has much in common with the community art projects you find in post-industrial communities searching for connections. Like a lantern parade or a community theatre production, hedge laying is open to everyone, though some do it better than others. It’s a shared enterprise, through which people benefit individually because they benefit together. It’s an expression of values: working with rather than against the natural world, and working together, creating community by enacting community. It leaves a visible trace in the world, but in doing so it produces a change in how we live that is more profound. It’s unnecessary – and that’s why it’s so important.

And then another parallel came to me today, as I read something that the American poet, Theodore Roethke, once jotted down in his notebook:

‘Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.’

Community art, in its essence, really is as old as people, as old as community.

La Pléchie - 2

Why Joan Littlewood Matters – possibly more now than ever

Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal
Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal

A guest post by Stella Duffy, theatre maker, novelist and Fun Palaces champion

Joan was a working class actor and director when most actors, and especially most directors, came from privilege. She was a woman when most directors were men. She ran a major theatre venue when most people running venues were men. She worked outside of London, especially in the North West and the North East, working with local people where they lived.

It would be great to say that all this has changed, but it hasn’t. The majority of those making theatre are still middle class. The majority of those making theatre are still men. London remains disproportionately funded in terms of arts.*

Perhaps it is because of this glacial pace of change that Joan remains a beacon to those of us for whom the arts is our passion, especially the women and the working class in theatre and the wider arts.

Decades ahead of her time, Joan created community and immersive theatre with the Theatre Union in the 1930s and Theatre Workshop from 1945. Their work was avowedly left wing, brought text, dance and music together, and experimented with film, lighting, sound and design long before sets of scaffolding and projection-as-design became the standard they are now. Even when working with little or no production budget, lighting and sound were intrinsic to her productions in a way that is now expected and at the time was considered decidedly avant-garde. Given that making sound or film a core part of a piece involved reel-to-reel tapes, traditional projection, and extremely expensive stock – from a company with always limited budgets – the daring to incorporate new methods and techniques is undeniable.

But all of this is merely what she did. What is truly thrilling about Joan and her legacy is who she was as a person – or, at least, what they say she was like as a person. ‘They’ being the people who worked with Joan. I’ve probably talked to a dozen or more of these people in the time we have been growing Fun Palaces – and every one of them speaks of a different Joan. The drinking, smoking Joan who was raucous and often furious and suffered no fools, gladly or otherwise. The Joan who was careful and kind, who could be generous and gentle in times of sincere distress. The Joan who (literally) brought kids in off the street to play and work in her theatre, quite possibly changing lives as she did so. The Joan who left brutal acting notes on dressing room doors so that all of the cast would see them, not just those to whom the notes were addressed. The Joan who swapped casts’ roles hours before curtain-up, to keep the play fresh and to stop the actors ‘being boring’ – the Joan with a horror of boring actors. The Joan who took on the work of an unknown playwright, Shelagh Delaney, and gave her career the kickstart it needed. The Joan who worked with Brendan Behan sober and not. The Joan who told bored local lads to try robbing the bar of her own theatre as a way to keep them occupied. The Joan that Murray Melvin tells us always said ‘ask the kids’ not just what they wanted to do – but how THEY would do it, empowering them to create their own engagement. The Joan who despised the National Theatre. The south Londoner who loved the East End. The Joan who brought Laban’s work to the British stage. The Joan who directed the Greeks and Shakespeare and modern unknowns. The Joan who worked with Cedric Price to design their never-built Fun Palace, who said,

‘I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people.’

I can’t speak to all the other Joans, but the one in that last quote, that’s the Joan who inspired our Fun Palaces. The 240 locally-led, community-based Fun Palaces that took place over two weekends in 2014 and 2015, run by 5262 local people and with over 90,000 people taking part. That’s the Joan we channel when people who have never before run a public event or worked in arts or sciences ask us if they can make a Fun Palace with and for their own community – our answer is always yes, and then in the same way that Joan ‘asked the kids’, we ask them (all ages) what they’d like to, and how we can help them to do what they want. Fun Palaces come from the community, from the locals, from the people – from the genius in every one.

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* Although it is clear that some of this funding – especially to major galleries and venues – is certainly not accessed by the majority of Londoners, many of whom never visit these major venues once they have left school.

Stella Duffy

Great thanks to Stella for this tribute to one of the people without whom so many good things in community arts might never have happened. If you have been similarly inspired by someone before you please share the experience in a comment below. 

It’s alright not to know

Yesterday I talked with students taking a community art module at the University of Utrecht. They were an unusually diverse group from different parts of the world and an equally wide range of disciplines. Such conversations are always rewarding because they make me unsure of what I think. A generation apart, we not only know different things, we have different assumptions about what we think we know too. An obvious example is digital technology. My early work, which shaped how I still think, was done when we had no computers. Its background was a European struggle between communism, neoliberalism and social democracy. A young person now has the world on their touchscreen and a completely different ideological landscape whose unstable and asymmetric geometry is hard even to read.

The key moment in our discussion – for me – was when someone asked how community art might respond to this world, and I realised not only that I didn’t know but that it was alright that I didn’t know. I don’t know how community artists should work now. I just know how to adapt my thinking to changing circumstances, but I recognise that it will always be analogue thinking in a digital age.

It’s alright not to know because it’s a question that people with 30 years work in front of them (not behind them) must work out for themselves. And it’s alright not to know because, as Neil Gaiman says, ‘Where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?’ It’s a restless art: working out what to do without knowing first is what keeps it alive; and honest.