Talking with Northern Heartlands

In February, I spent a couple of days in County Durham, meeting artists and local people involved in the Northern Heartlands Great Places Scheme. They’d asked me to speak at an event marking the completion of three years’ work and the project’s transition into a new form. I went to learn about what people have been doing, so that my talk might connect with their realities. It was an unforgettable visit, and I was impressed by the commitment of Jill Cole, Graham Young, Ewan Allison and the whole Northern Heartlands team, as well as the generous spirit of those they introduced me to. Some of what I saw will stay with me for a long time, and I was excited about going back to Barnard Castle for the symposium over three days in early April. Then the pandemic hit: you know the rest. 

Unable to hold the ambitious event they’d planned, Jill and her colleagues have cone the next best thing, and moved online. The embodied, playful and social nature the original symposium aspired to has been lost, but at least the recorded conversations can be shared much more widely. Tomorrow night, they’re screening one that I took part in with Stephen Pritchard, who’s been working in the former mining communities of the Dene Valley. We recorded it a few weeks ago, but Jill, Stephen and I will be online tomorrow to answer questions and talk about community art, participation and such things. Do join us, if you can, from 7pm.

In the meantime, here are a few extracts from what I said (minus the hesitations and repetitions you’ll get if you watch it tomorrow). 

“One of the things I learned when I was quite young is that it’s impossible to say almost anything about art without being able to contradict what you’ve just said, with a good example that everyone would agree was a really good example of art – and I don’t mind that. I live with that capaciousness, that sense of possibility and openness of things happening. “

“I like Stephen’s notion of art being part of everyday life. At the same time, I think there is a value in it being special. We all need moments of specialness – in cultural or anthropological terms, we create rituals about things. My work often happens simply by the fact that I’m there and asking a question. It creates a space for people to do something, to respond differently. And sometimes it’s important that things are not ordinary and are surprising and beautiful and transporting.”

“I did a project about the place of the church in village communities about six or seven years ago in the Lincolnshire fens. And  it arose from the fact that in most of the villages the church is now the only genuine community space left,  because there’s no schools, no pub, no shop, no garage – even the farms don’t have hardly any people working on them, and the people who do work on them often don’t live in the village. And so [the project was] simply talking to people about their church and what it meant to them and exploring that. It was a very simple thing, but it just drew attention to something in a different way and created sometimes very moving stories and recollections and things people wanted to talk about. So that’s what an artist can do, just by being there and opening up new perspectives, new conversations.”

“Everything we do has a purpose. I’ve never thought that ‘art for art’s sake’ was credible. Human beings only do things that serve their purposes. Otherwise we’d just go and sit in a deck chair – and that would serve our purpose of enjoying sitting in a deck chair. I have never done work that that set out to prove anything [but] the work is intrinsically political. It is intrinsically challenging because, if you’re working with people who, who are largely silent and marginalised in public life and public space, then simply working with them so that they are able to express themselves changes the democratic discourse. I mean, for me, the basis of the work has always been rights-based. It’s article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that gives us all the right to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts, […] And that isn’t anything like true, it hasn’t been true all my life, that people everyone has access to that right. And one of the fundamental – one of the reasons that our political system sustains the levels of inequality and inequity that it does – is because lots of people don’t have a voice in it.  I’m not for a moment suggesting or pretending that art is the way to transform everything, but it is part of the way that change comes. It’s part of the way that people can represent themselves. and express what is meaningful to them.”

“There’s a fundamental difference between teaching and learning. Participatory art does have that logic of trying to give something, trying to instruct, trying to educate. Community art is about giving people the space, the resources, the ideas, the opportunities, with which they can learn. Whether they learn or not is up to them. What they learn is up to them. […] I’ve never wanted to be a teacher. Yes, those things happen, but they happen because people choose to make them happen. And usually, they do happen – they happen because you’re creating opportunities  for people to do things that  are for them the right thing that they’re looking for, which is why they come to be involved in your project. They’re not the right thing for the people who don’t come to be involved in the project because they’re looking for something else.”

“One of the differences between community development and community art – and I think this is something that isn’t sufficiently appreciated or understood even by some people who work in the field – is that art can change your life in half an hour. Very few things will do that. Art can change your life by making you see yourself, or something else, completely differently. That’s what one of the capacities art has, and that makes it different to anything else. So you can have an artistic experience and […] have your mind changed about things in ways that are unforgettable. Community development work is slow and painstaking and cumulative; it builds capacity, it builds strength and resilience and solidarity, at its best. When you combine that with that extraordinary range of potentials that come with ritual and beauty and changing perceptions of how things have been, then you can have some something that is really very powerful.”