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)

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.

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.

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.

Restoke - 1
‘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)



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.



[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