Life is for living: artistry in old age

Here is the text of my talk at Talk at Independent Creative Living Conference, Baltic, Gateshead (UK) on 28 June 2016; you can download a PDF of the talk by clicking this link; to download a copy of Winter Fires, click here.

Gwen Sewell and  Rosie Wheatland by Mik Godley, 2012
Gwen Sewell & Rosie Wheatland by Mik Godley for Winter Fires, 2012

Three Great Human Episodes

Towards the end of his own life, the critic and philosopher Edward Said became very interested in the last work of artists, for which he coined the phrase ‘Late Style’. He

saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is made by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true. [i]

A beginning, a middle and an end

There are several reasons why this idea appeals to me, including its link with Aristotle’s ideas about dramatic structure, which he described as

the representation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain amplitude– for a thing may be whole and yet lack amplitude. A whole is that thing which has a beginning, middle, and an end.[ii]

Like many truths, it seems obvious, but only because a philosopher has pointed it out. And the reason a drama must have a beginning, a middle and an end is because it is a story.

Stories, like human beings, exist in time: so they must begin, go on and stop. Like human beings. And it is our imperative need to tell stories about ourselves and each other that makes us human in the first place. We are walking stories.

A story without a happy ending

Henning Mankell, who was an atheist sometimes described as a secular Lutheran, observed in his last book that

Nowadays people in our part of the world no longer believe in God. They believe in scratch cards and other games of chance.[iii]

As a result, our story of old age is not that good. When Europeans lost faith in God and Paradise, they seem also to have lost faith in happy endings. Without a shared way of making sense of death, we struggle to bring the story to a fitting close.

For the Benedictine monk, Christopher Jamison,

A happy death as part of a life informed by contemplation and virtue describes the overall picture of our journey.[iv]

But those who do not have his faith must find another sense in the end of life – and, what concerns me more here – in the years before it, which Christian theology has seen as a time of letting go and reconciliation.

The story of losing

We may no longer find that story convincing but, it seems to me, we’ve struggled to create a good alternative.  In its absence, the idea of letting go has been replaced with one of losing.

The first episodes of the TV comedy, One Foot in the Grave, are memorable for the way that Richard Wilson plays the bewilderment of someone unexpectedly facing retirement. The loss of a job, and the social and financial status that comes with it, can be very hard to accept.

It is not surprising therefore – and greatly to the benefit of the rest of us – that half of those aged over 65 are active volunteers.[v] Getting older does not make us less inclined to give or to believe that we have something to offer, even if it is no longer in paid work.

Loss is loss

The story of loss is powerful because it is real. Old age brings a succession of losses: though their nature and how they affect are as individual as we are.

I’ve already mentioned the social structure of work, paid and voluntary, and some of us are forced to give it up long before we are ready. The people with whom we have worked for years pass out of our orbit when the professional ties that held us are undone.  At home, as age marches on, we lose friends and attend more funerals.

Our own strength and health will decline; our memory may fray. Such losses make us afraid of losing what matters most – our dignity and our capacity to decide for ourselves.

Shakespeare puts what may be the shortest, bleakest picture of old age into the mouth of the world-weary Jacques, whose seven ages of man end with:

‘…second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’[vi]

The loss of teeth suggests the loss of power – the ability to bite.

Loss of Power

And that’s the nub of it. All those losses, whenever and however we face them, represent a slow erosion of our power – not just in respect of others or the world around us, but even over our own bodies and minds.

That loss of power matters because we fought so hard for it as children. The great prize of adulthood is the freedom to make our decisions, to choose and to take the consequences. Autonomy is something most of us cherish above all else

Agency

The ability to make choices, to act on our own behalf in the world, is called agency. Our agency is constrained in many ways – by physical reality, by the agency of others and by the structures that shape the society in which we live. But we struggle for it because it brings us closer to self-actualisation. It is how we write our stories, how we become our selves.

Another way of seeing the stages of Edward Said’s ‘self-making process’ is the progress of our degree of agency in the world, an arc with a beginning, a middle and an end.

As babies, we have almost none: our power goes no further than crying and being able to inspire love. Agency increases during youth as we acquire skill, knowledge and experience. The transition to adulthood is not a process but a moment, symbolised as a door to which we gain the key. There is no comparable transition out of adulthood. though the moment of retirement is industrial society’s way of showing us the door.

The beginning and the end

This feels like an arc, rising and falling, and indeed, culture offers many symbolic and mythic representations of human life that trace that pattern. As T. S. Eliot  famously wrote:

In my beginning is my end[vii]

But in the final poem of the Four Quartets, he writes

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time[viii]

Why should we know the place for the first time? Because we bring a lifetime’s knowledge and understanding to it, because even if we are as weak and dependent as when we were children, we still have agency – creative agency.

Creative agency

Agency takes many forms. Holding office, money or property all confer agency, as do physical strength and intellectual speed. Rhetoric itself, the ability hold a listener’s attention and influence their thinking, is a source of agency.

Art, the creative act of self-expression through which we bring new images, ideas and feelings into shareable existence, is one of our most precious and universal sources of agency. Why? Because its individual power does not depend on structural forms of power. Yes, social structures like class, ethnicity and gender can amplify a person’s artistic voice, but they cannot smother it because art is always personal – one mind connecting with another.

Art allows us to glimpse what it feels like to be someone else, what the world looks like from their perspective, and how differently it might be if… we thought or felt or acted differently. But it equally allows us to tell our own stories, and say what it feels like to be us, how things look from where we stand, and how things might be if we tried another way of being.

Labour, Work and Action

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between labour, work and action as dimensions of human life. All three are necessary to an active life, but only human beings are capable of the third because it is rooted in their freedom to choose. Unlike labour and work, action does not have to follow necessity – indeed human beings often do what is not in their interest, most notably when they give their lives to save others.[ix]

Art is pure action so when labour takes an increasing amount of our day – for instance in personal care – its countering value is never greater.

Winter Fires

A few years ago, I wrote a short book called Winter Fires. It set out to show that creative agency, the ability to act as an artist, could be as important in old age as in any other time of life. It was partly inspired by a reaction to the increasingly accepted idea that participating  in art is good for elderly people because it contributed to their wellbeing. It is and it does, but that is just part of the story.

Art is not just something that the young can provide for the old. It is something that the old can provide for themselves and for everyone else, including the young. Old people are artists too – professional and amateur artists with fifty or sixty years of creative knowledge to draw on as well as young artists who have only found the time and the means for creative work in retirement. In the book, I tell the story of all these kinds of artists, with portraits made by my friend, Mik Godley.

Artists thriving in old age

There were those, like Sally Cottis, who were simply continuing a lifelong professional practice as musicians, painters or writers, relieved by a pension from the burden of having to work in teaching or in response to commissioner’s wishes.

There were artists, like Colin MacLean, for whom retirement had been the opportunity, at last, to do what they had always loved but had put aside to earn a living and provide for others.

There were artists, like Gwen Sewell and Rosie Wheatland, who had discovered theatre, dance or writing as way to talk about being old and challenge the assumptions of those who thought of old age as a problem.

Rosie Wheatland in Entelechy Arts 'Bed' - 1
Rosie Wheatland in ‘Bed’, (Entelechy Arts), Bristol June 2016

Old people are just people who are older

Old people do have problems but so does everyone else. They are not, and shouldn’t be, defined by those problems, any more than people should be defined by disability, motherhood, gender or skin colour.

To do so is to disempower people, and the biggest problem of old age is already a loss of power. Instead we could see old people as skilled, knowledgeable and experienced, as having the time and will to contribute their gifts, as being resources for themselves, each other and society as a whole.

Independent Creative Living

The vision of establishing living spaces in which people who need support can also be active and creative in everyday life seems to me deeply inspiring. Where the young are concerned, we have little difficulty in recognising the place of creativity within a package of care but why should it be so different for the old? Is it because we see potential only in the young?

We need to rewrite the story of life, no to give it an easy, upbeat Disney-fied ending, or pretend that it’s easy to live with loss, but to recognise that we don’t stop being involved in that self-making process because we have reached a certain age. We always have thing sto learn and things to share, if it is only what the view looks like from where we stand.

Some of our powers may decline with age, but our potential for creative agency need not. The Baring Foundation, which has focused on the arts in old age since 2010, recently offered a series of commissions to artists aged over 65. The work produced by Ron Haselden and Bisakha Sarker, Robert Race and Hilary Painter, among others, has been exceptional.

In Robert Race’s automaton, a merry-go-round turns with the the words ‘you don’t stop playing because you grow old: you grow old because you stop playing’. It’s all we need to know. Life is for living.

References

[i]       Matarasso, F., 2012 Winter Fires: Art and Agency in Old Age, London, p.3-4.

[ii]      Aristotle ‘On the Art of Poetry’ in  Dorsch, T.S. (trans.) 1965, Classical Literary Criticism, London, p. 41

[iii]      Mankell, H., 2016, Quicksand, London l.289

[iv]      Jamison, C. 2008, Finding Happiness, London, p. 28

[v]      Low, N. et al., 2007, Helping Out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving London: Cabinet Office, p. 19

[vi]      Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII

[vii]     Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’

[viii]     Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’

[ix]      See Arendt, H., 2007, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought,  New York, p.xiv.

A letter to my friends in the European Union (including, for now, the British)

Parliament of dreams

Referendum - 1

A letter to my friends in the European Union

(including, for now, the British)

After last Thursday’s vote, I wanted to write to friends in other European countries, to share my feelings and just to be in touch with people I care for. I soon realised that there were far too many of them and that I’d be writing emails for days. I also saw that I’d be repeating myself in expressing my dismay and asking them not to lose faith in me, in us, in Europe. So this is a personal letter, a letter of friendship and affection, posted here just as a way to reach all my friends – and, who knows, make new ones. I’d write it in more languages if I could, but I can only manage English and French (below). Thank you for reading.

Une lettre à mes amis de l’Union européenne

(y compris, pour…

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ACTA Community Theatre Festival

2016 acta Festival 5

The acta community theatre festival was held in Bristol last week, and featured performances by acta’s own Malcolm X Elders, CANCollective Encounters, Entelechy Arts, Glasgow Citizens and London Bubble, among others, with workshops and discussions. I was asked to give some concluding thoughts; here is (more or less) what I said.

Thank you all for being here and thanks to acta for asking me to do these closing remarks. This has been a lovely festival, really friendly, relaxed, fantastic food – but it’s the theatre that matters. It’s been moving, funny, interesting, uplifting, but it’s also been extremely varied. You wonder what stories of Jamaican childhood, or migration, or bringing up an autistic child can have in common. How does this make something that can be described as a practice – which was what Neil and Helen asked me to reflect on today. Is there such a thing as community theatre? Does it have unity in this diversity? And is it a movement?

The term ‘community theatre’

In yesterday’s workshop there were people who liked the term ‘community theatre’ and others who didn’t. I can understand a reluctance to be boxed in, as if there is ‘theatre’, implicitly ‘proper’ theatre, and ‘community theatre’, which is in somehow not quite up to standard. So I see why people might not want to be branded ‘community theatre’. Theatre is just theatre – a great spectrum of practice. I get that and I think it’s right. On the other hand, like ‘community art’, the term may be useful in helping the people you want to reach to understand that you have particular values and ideas. What difference might it make to local people that this is acta community theatre?

It seems to me there is a value in that. I have doubts about how the term ‘participatory art’ has crept into discourse. There are differences of ideas and values, but my point is more practical: if you search online for ‘community arts’ you get millions of hits, but ‘participatory arts’ will get thousands. I think that says something about what people understand by the term ‘community’. I don’t mean that we understand the same things by it, but at least we’ve got the possibility of a conversation together about what it is we understand. So, if only for that reason I see some value in the term community theatre. What the rest of the art world makes of it I don’t honestly mind: I’m interested in what happens here.

2016 acta Festival 7

But what might the phrase ‘community theatre’ mean to the people who make it? In the welcome pack Neil gives acta’s definition of community theatre, and I partly agree with it and partly don’t. The problem is that I’ve seen lots of work that doesn’t fit the definition but which I would certainly call community theatre. And I’ve also seen work I have questions about but which does describe itself as community theatre and maybe, in some senses, also fits that definition.

That’s all right though – I don’t think it matters if we have different understandings of what we mean by community theatre if we stay true to our practice as artists and arts workers. What do I mean by that? I think staying true to our practice as artists means being self-critical, curious, open to others, and passionate about our own beliefs at the same time. Being self-critical, questioning and curious about what other people are doing might protect us from setting up defensive fences around our work: that leads to saying ‘Okay we know how to do this and this is good – and what people do that’s different is not good’.

That was an early lesson as I was working out my own practice and thinking in community arts in the 1980s – seeing that other people often worked in very different ways to me, with different ideas and values, but still did good work that was valued by the people they worked with. Someone spoke in the workshop about seeing people involved in participatory theatre, and having lots of questions about it, including the degree of authorship they had over the theatre they were making and whether they were just enacting somebody else’s stories. But she also recognised that they had a great time and were really enthusiastic about their experience. Respecting other people’s judgments about what’s good for them is fundamental to any good community practice. I don’t want anybody else to decide what’s good for me: it follows that I can’t decide what’s good for anybody else.

So it’s okay if we don’t agree about what community theatre is, so long as we stay true to that sense of being self-questioning, curious and open minded. That’s what has kept the practice of community theatre evolving over the last 50 years in the UK. The project I’m now working on is called ‘A Restless Art‘ partly to signal that restlessness can be a good thing. Not knowing what you’re doing, provided you’re trying to do it with integrity, and as Neil said to me this morning, ‘from the heart’, is what helps work to stay alive.

2016 acta Festival 2

Is there some unity in the diversity?

Now, let me move on to the next question that Neil raised. I’ve spoken of the diversity in the shows that have been presented here: is there nonetheless some unity in the diversity? Is there some common ground that means it makes sense to bring these people together? My sense is yes, of course, because I’ve experienced a strong atmosphere of unity here, as I’ve listened to people talking and working together. So I want to suggest some aspects of that unity – some of what brings community theatre together as a practice.

The first thing is that professionals working in community theatre – those I’ve met here but also elsewhere and in other countries – seem to care most about the people they’re working with. This is a humanist art. The people come first, second and last – before theatre, before plays, before audiences. That’s why some people I’ve spoken to aren’t even sure whether the performances matter. I believe they do because it’s the nature of the activity that you’re doing. If performances don’t matter then it’s an educational or developmental activity not an artistic one. Art is a particular and important thing that only exists when the work is shared with an audience – it is completed in that sharing of a creative work.

The second area of common ground – and it comes out of that sense that the people are the foundation of everything – is that their experience is the subject matter of community theatre. That is what it’s about. That underlying purpose links all the performances I’ve seen this week. Different as they are, each one aims to empower people to make art out of their own experience and to share it on a stage, a platform, a space with others. That’s important because community theatre prioritises work with those who don’t have that opportunity.

When Neil asked us all to say why we do this work I said the simplest answer for me is that I believe everybody should have the chances I’ve had. I was fortunate in my childhood, upbringing, education and creative opportunities and I see no reason why everybody shouldn’t have similar possibilities. So the core motivation is about enabling people who are often marginalised in our public and cultural life, including theatre spaces, to be heard. Community theatre aims to bring people on to this stage and perhaps – and we’ll come back to that – onto other stages.

The human rights case for diversity

One of the things that’s really striking as I watch community theatre is that I am looking at the society that I recognise. That’s not true when I sit in a mainstream theatre. I don’t see the people I see on the streets around me there. That’s really important. The performance by the Malcolm X Elders is the third or fourth by them that I’ve seen, and in some ways it was the most impressive from the richness of the stories to the way they were told. But I also watched eight older, African-Caribbean women on stage: no framing, no justifications necessary. Just people telling their stories – I don’t see that. And I should.

2016 acta Festival 3

The Arts Council speaks of the ‘creative case for diversity’, which I understand to mean that we should value diversity because it enhances creativity and the language of the arts. That’s true because, of course, if you bring new voices on to a stage, into theatre language, you naturally enrich the stories and the ways they are told. That’s true, and it’s a good thing, but I have always been primarily concerned about the human rights case for diversity. I don’t want to include everyone, on their own terms and with their own voice, because our creative life will be enhanced, though it will. I want to do it because Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which this country like all European Union countries has signed up to – gives everyone the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. It’s that simple. It’s the right of everybody to stand where I’m standing and perform and tell their stories – that’s what community theatre is about.

Positive narratives

Because these stories come from people who may be marginalised in our society, they are often stories of hardship, suffering and sometimes great pain. There are difficult ethical dilemmas if you’re inviting people to bear witness even to bare their souls. It must be done in ways that are as safe as they can be. Though nothing is really safe in life, we can try to make things safer, we help people understand the risks involved in sharing their stories. All that has a profound effect on the theatrical language of the work we’ve seen this week. Because of its material and the risks it entails, community theatre, seems to be always in search of a positive narrative. It is in search of a story of acceptance, or overcoming, or resolution and that’s both important and understandable.

In fact the process of making theatre – of articulating and giving form to your story – can itself be part of that process of overcoming, resolution, reconciliation, acceptance. Form, content and process, if not exactly the same, are intertwined in community theatre. That’s what I heard yesterday when one performer spoke so movingly about her experiences in the Falklands War and the courage she has taken from her work with Collective Encounters. That’s what John from the Citizens has spoken about this morning and through last night’s performance; many others have said as much in different ways during the festival.

Imaginative engagement

During the morning after discussion, someone asked ‘Why use theatre to tell these stories?’. A member of CAN in Manchester offered a profound answer when she said ‘it’s because on the stage we’re inviting the audience to make the imaginative connection with what we do; we might sketch a doorway but you have to imagine it’s a doorway to an office, or a prison cell, or whatever else it is’.  Theatre – and all art – is so important because as a creator, as an artist, as a performer I can only play my part. I can offer something, but it stays incomplete, unfulfilled until somebody else responds to it. That’s true of my words now. I’m trying to communicate something but each of you will take something different from what I’m saying because you’re filtering it through your own experience, imagination, understanding. That’s far more true of art and theatre. So part of what I feel when I sit in the audience and watch community theatre is a sense of affirmation from the audience to the performers. I feel that the audience is willing to reach forward to the performers, to make that connection, to be that imaginative other half.

2016 acta Festival 4

Affirmation

In the back of my mind over these days at the festival has been an echo of film I’ve seen of black churches in the South of the United States – the call and response of choir, preacher, and congregation. It is a very conscious, active exchange – and it’s unlike quite a lot of theatre, where the audience is sitting back to be entertained, or being told something and quietly taking it in. But in the shows we’ve seen this week I’m touched by the laughter, the engagement, the affirmation, the applause during a performance like there was at the end of the salsa in the show last night. That is a real closing of a circle that is full of energy and affirmation.

Thinking about those churches and their importance in the Civil Rights Movement I see the solidarity they built among people who were disenfranchised, marginalised. If you’re going to take on a Civil Rights struggle, as black people did in the Southern states in the 1950s and the 1960s, you need to do it from some sense of strength, because it takes great courage. I think that part of what you see in those films is a community reminding itself of its values, of its importance to itself of the truth and validity of its experience and reaffirming its courage. And that is one of the important things community theatre can do.

2016 acta Festival 8

Reaching out

There is a risk that the circle becomes closed and the self-affirmation doesn’t then go out and take that courage and strength into other places, and other communities that are harder, less responsive, but are precisely the ones with which it’s really important to build bridges. As we’ve been here, I’ve also been aware of the unprecedentedly hostile political debate that is happening about what our country is and what direction it should take. And what I fear, among other things about the future, is that it is increasing divisions that have been carelessly stoked up for many years.

2016 acta Festival 6

If community theatre is going to live up to its values and its rhetoric, its hopes and its ideals it must be part of a movement that reaches out to people and builds bridges, just as putting a bed on a High Street enables an unexpected meeting between people. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Use the strength that you get from the self-affirmation, from the sense of being a group with shared values and beliefs to say, ‘Right, now we need to bring these stories onto a wider platform; we need to be heard by other people, by people who may not be keen to hear the story of refugees, or the story of a Somali woman trying to bring up an autistic child, or the story of what it’s like to be lonely and old, or the story of what it’s like to have lived for 50 years in a different world to the one that you grew up…’.

All of those stories and many, many others… It seem now more urgent than ever to bring those stories out to the wider community, to the people who know nothing of them, about you about others. And to say here is my story, what is yours? On in the words of Aneurin Bevan, ‘This is my truth, now tell me yours’. That’s a vital mission for community theatre today and you have the stories and abilities and resources to do that – and I wish you every strength in taking that forward.

2016 acta Festival 1

Artistic quality and participatory performing arts

Sharing the Stage - 1Yesterday I facilitated a learning event at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London as part of its Sharing the Stage initiative. The theme of the session was quality, and about 50 people from some of the UK’s leading performing arts companies came to share their experience of participatory work. There were inspiring and thoughtful presentations from Inclusive Creativity, a music group based in Northern Ireland, Geese Theatre, who work in the criminal justice system, and Sage Gateshead, whose work in West Newcastle is challenging them to rethink their very relationship with the community. Through these, we were able to open questions about what quality might mean to the artists and participants, to commissioners from outside the arts and to the arts organisations themselves.

We also watched an extract from Streetwise Opera’s recent production, The Passion, to explore whether – and if so why – as audience members we respond differently to professional and non-professional performers. The discussion that followed was illuminating, as people talked about the complexity of their feelings. One person spoke of how she relaxed and expected to be entertained by the professionals but found herself leaning forwards when the non-professionals sang, with a very different quality of engagement. Another found himself wondering about the quality of the process through which the production had been created. There was debate about the risks and value of taking on such technically demanding, score-based work.

The purpose of the afternoon was not to reach conclusions. There can be no final assessment of the quality of artistic work since that work can only be experienced individually and subjectively. There is no external authority. If Shakespeare is revered the world over as a great dramatist it is because his texts continue to provide theatre makers with the richest materials, not because his status has been fixed. In the absence of definitive judgements about artistic quality, what matters is the quality of our reflection and debate about it. Artworks are not static. They live (like Shakespeare’s words) in us and it is the process of responding to them that gives them life.

One of the ideas I shared with people yesterday was a framework for talking about artistic quality I first developed for the Arts Council in Ireland about 15 years ago. Its starting point was the same: without an objective measure, what matters is how we can understand our own and one another’s views of quality. I suggested five things that contribute to the quality of an artistic production:

  1. Technique – is something well made in its own terms?
  2. Originality – has it been done before, by others?
  3. Ambition – how far does it reach, and why?
  4. Resonance – does it connect with and speak to an audience?
  5. Magic – does it move or unsettle us, linger in the mind, make us feel differently?

There are some things to bear in mind about this structure for thinking about artistic quality. The first is that each person’s response is valid in its own terms. I might go to a concert with a musician friend and express wonder afterwards at the technical accomplishment of the musicians. If my friend points out to me the false notes and shaky timing, it doesn’t invalidate my sense of wonder. It just adds a layer of understanding – and my musician friend might benefit from being reminded that even a ragged performance can still be a moving achievement.

Secondly, it is possible to have an extraordinary artistic experience if only one of these is exceptional. The Sex Pistols probably wouldn’t rank high on the first three, but the resonance of their music for millions of young people in the late 1970s had a global cultural influence.

There are several paradoxes about participatory and community art. One of them is that artists have to believe in their own vision and values to create art. If they don’t believe in something, what are they inviting others to participate in? But unless they also believe in the validity of other people’s visions and values and that those might, even theoretically, be better than their own, they are trapped in some kind of missionary enterprise. And we know where that leads.

What matters about artistic quality is not being right. It’s how exploring it can help us understand ourselves and others better.

You can read more about quality in participatory art by downloading this short paper:

Hands across the dangerous sea

Lampedusa Mirrors 2One of the best things about a restless art has been seeing just how much great community art is happening across and beyond Europe. I’d no idea of the quality and variety of work in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Egypt and it’s not hard to see a link between this energy and the multiple challenges people now face there. That sense of discovery was reaffirmed by conversations I had last week with cultural activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Serbia and elsewhere. They were meeting in Casablanca for a cultural collaboration programme called Tandem Shaml, sharing ideas among themselves and with local artists. Among other projects, I learned about:

  • ADAM – an alternative media project for young people in rural Tunisia, now working with Bokra Sawa in Marseille, orange farmers and academics to explore the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region;
  • Agora – an Egyptian organisation set up in the early days of the 2011 revolution that organises community festivals and women’s micro-enterprises in jewellery-making; its project with Tillt in Sweden  is using social media to highlight the sexual harassment of women.
  • L’Boulevard – a Moroccan music organisation that has created studios and concert spaces on an industrial site and promotes the country’s leading rock and alternative festival, giving a platform to thousands of young musicians from the region.
  • El Madina – an Alexandria-based community theatre and training organisation involved in street carnival, festivals and development projects, currently working with people in the Karmouz district of the city.

It’s hard to give much sense of this work in a few lines, particularly since the projects are still under way. You can talk about the risks involved, the artists’ imagination or the commitment of people whose principal resource is their time, but those are just part of what’s involved and it’s all rather abstract. Some of this work will appear as case studies here or in the project book next year.

For now, here is a short documentary about one of last year’s Tandem Shaml projects, a collaboration between Eclosion d’artistes (Tunis) and Teatro dell’Argine (Bologna).

Lampedusa Mirrors 1

Involving people who have experienced migration across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa Mirrors is community theatre at its most serious and moving. The problems of migration are complex and difficult. But art of this quality cuts through rhetoric, self-interest and deceit to affirm the common humanity that requires us to solve them. The film takes 25 minutes to watch, but anyone with an interest in community art or the realities of migration will find their time amply rewarded.