The last post, which asked what an artist needs to know about the people they’re working with, drew lots of interesting comments and emails, including this from my friend, Bisakha Sarker:
‘As an artist I prefer not to know too many personal details. What I offer is not derived from a sense of duty to cure a condition. My aim is to bring some ‘brightness of being’ (an expression coined by Diane Amans into the lives of people I work with.I suppose that an artist’s training in duty of care will protect them in challenging circumstances I remember two situations one in high security Ashworth hospital and the other in the Psychiatric Department of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.In one instance, not knowing particular case history produced life enhancing moments of joy, dignity, and comfort. In the other, when I told the staff my idea of the theme, which had nothing apparently challenging, they told me about one individual who might find one aspect upsetting. This helped me to choose another theme and we had a fabulous time, with the particular, apparently difficult, person taking a leading role. I still do not know the actual situation or exact nature of the event related to the person. I was given only the information that was relevant to the work. I gained real insight from Atul Gwande’s lectures and publication where he explains the difference between a medically motivated approach and a way of working where idea of ‘a meaningful life’ lies at heart of its practice.’
Bisakha and I met 25 years ago when we worked together on a South Asian dance and disability project for the Arts Council’s Year of Dance in 1993. Leading a team of fine South Asian dancers and musicians, she created a programme of workshops, performances and new choreography that challenged expectations. It remains one of my happiest professional experiences, documented in a short book we wrote together (Making Space, 1994). Bisakha is one of those exceptional artists who have shaped the landscape of participatory art in Britain since the 1970s, principally by having the courage and commitment to go first into so many new situations where art did not happen. If dance projects in schools, hospitals and day centres doesn’t strike you as groundbreaking it is only because Bisakha and other pioneering community dancers spent decades making it normal in the face of indifference and incomprehension.
For more than ten years, Bisakha has given special attention to dance and the ageing body. She is driven to explore the value of creative dance in wellbeing, health and science by an artist’s curiosity. In 2007, she organised the Marks of Time conference to present current thinking on the issue and showcase the growing number of non-professional older dance companies. Three years later, she created Memory, a multi-disciplinary arts event with academic papers, keynote dances and films on the theme of dance and dementia, in partnership with Merseyside Dance Initiative and the Foundation for Community Dance, That work has continued, most recently in Do not yet fold your wings, her multimedia installation on the theme of mortality, in collaboration with Ansuman Biswas and Chris Davies, inspired by Dr Atul Gwande’s Reith Lectures and her reading of Rabindranath Tagore.
All this work has been done, as she explains above, not from ‘a sense of duty to cure a condition’ but the desire to live – and share – a meaningful life. In practice, that has meant listening to advice when it can help avoid hurt, but without specific information she can still respond to each person as the individual they are.
But here’s another side to that. What does the participant need to know about the artist? What does artist choose to share? I’ve had several conversations with Bisakha about ageing, in the context of her work and mine, and I’ve seen her feelings change over the years. The dancer’s body, after all, is the most intimate expression of her art. What she has been willing to share about her own experience of ageing, with whom and for what reasons, has changed in both a professional and a human sense. She is a little older than me, but we are both learning to acknowledge our vulnerability as we get older. She told me, in the context of my book about artists in old age:
‘I cannot hide and I don’t need to, so I’m saying, take me as who I am. I’m not pretending to be able to do what I cannot do. You accept that you cannot do it, so you find another way.’
This looks easy, but it is not. After all, the professional artist is expected to know, to be competent, to hold the work together. What does it say about them if they cannot do what they ask of others? There is a danger too that owning one’s weakness becomes a different means of manipulation. Sometimes unpacking the complexity of relationships in participatory art is like opening an unending series of Russian dolls. But you can make it overcomplicated too. The artist, like those they work with, has a right to privacy, and to choose what they will and will not share. Getting to know and trust one another in a participatory art project is part of its adventure. We’ll make mistakes, as we do in other relationships, but if we take care, they won’t do serious damage and they may help us to learn from and give to each other.