Learning the right lessons

Ten days ago, at home in France, I watched a live stream of a performance happening in Portugal. Nós. Vocês. Toda a gente. (Us. You Guys. Everyone.) was the first sight of the opera being co-created by inmates and staff at Leiria Youth Prison, with their families and the professional musicians and educators of SAMP. People had been working towards this evening for months and months, so it could not have felt more important. I knew how much the process had been constrained by the pandemic: barely a third of the planned workshops had taken place inside the prison, and even less of the community work had been possible. I knew too that, in creating a single show with performers in a Lisbon concert hall and in a prison 90 miles away, we were stretching the capabilities of our novel technology, less because of the Traction software than because of the unreliability of internet connection and bandwidth. And I knew how sanitary and security requirements had defined what could be done, how, where and by whom. 

So, if I was thrilled that a performance had been achieved 18 months into the Traction project, I had modest expectations of the piece itself. The principal thing was that it was happening at all.

The audience gathers

In the event, I found the performance beautiful and moving. It was far more than the extract of work in progress I’d been expecting: it was a piece of musical theatre, performed with conviction and authority. The distinction between professional and non-professional artists, which can be troubling in other work of comparable musical sophistication, seemed unimportant. An artistic coherence was achieved because each person performed out of the truth of their experience, in the confidence of one another’s respect. Likewise, the integration of contemporary opera and rap idioms was convincing because nothing here was done for effect: it simply reflected the imaginative and creative resources that each person had contributed to the artistic project. Of course, I missed a lot, watching from 1000 miles away and with limited knowledge of opera and Portuguese, but that’s not unusual. Art cannot depend on the audience’s knowledge to achieve its purpose of communication, even if that knowledge can enrich the experience. Art works in other ways, if it works at all, and the performance I saw remotely through my computer screen did that. It convinced me that this strange adventure of Traction is capable of something important.

But that is not how Paulo Lameiro saw it. Paulo is the gentle visionary whose leadership of SAMP over 20 years has transformed a provincial music school—the school where, as a child, he received the foundations of his own musical education—into a truly exceptional community art organisation. Over the past 40 years, I’ve been lucky to work with some extraordinary artists, people who combine creative and human gifts with huge integrity, and make work with others that fills me with admiration. Paulo Lameiro is one of them, and I trust his judgment without question. So when he told me a few days later that he wondered whether the creating the performance was a mistake, I took his concerns seriously. 

We spoke at length about the practical and artistic difficulties produced by the needs of the project’s partners. Each of them, independently, was reasonable. Artists need time to rehearse new music. Families need to make arrangements in advance in order to be present or participate. Public institutions need to protect visitors from the risk of infection during a pandemic. Prison authorities need to minimise security risks when taking inmates into the community. Public servants need to help political superiors understand the value of new initiatives. Researchers need to monitor the results of tests. Everyone needs the media coverage to be fair and positive. And so the needs pile up, often competing or even conflicting with one another, to make a performance such as this seem like an obstacle course – like running a marathon while revising for an exam and comforting a lover. Community art is rarely quite as hard as this, but it is rarely quite as ambitious as this, artistically, socially and politically. 

Paulo’s analysis is clear and wise, and I respect his disappointment at the distance between what he aspired to and what happened. It tempers but doesn’t change my belief that everyone involved in Nós. Vocês. Toda a gente achieved something remarkable and important. In some of the most difficult conditions I can imagine outside a conflict zone, they created art that brought the experience of highly marginalised people to the centre of the public stage. The effort below the water was intense but the performance stood on its own terms. 

And a few days afterwards, that was confirmed by a long letter Paulo received from one of the inmates who participated—a beautiful, thoughtful letter, in which the young man recalled his initial doubts that this experience could be worthwhile before explaining that it had been a transformative experience. He wrote about how he felt about the professional artists he’d worked with and the respect and care with which everyone had worked. It showed, once again, how different people’s experience of the same artistic work can be, and how valuable it is to listen to one another’s interpretations. 

The young performers from Leiria after the show (photo by Joaquin Damaso)

Community art is itself marginalised in an art world preoccupied by other values. For that reason, although it begins with fewer resources and advantages, it is implicitly required to achieve more than the rest of the art world. That need to justify itself on other people’s terms as well as on its own can be exhausting, like trying to walk up a down escalator. 

Recently, efforts have been made to acknowledge the reality of failure in participatory arts practice, notably through the Fail Space Project at the University of Leeds (UK). Whilst I applaud the intentions and values of this initiative, I have reservations about the language of failure itself. It seems to come from other cultures than community art – the mainstream art world that awards stars and prizes, and the public policy world that expects outcomes to be delivered and targets to be met. There are large parts of life where failure is neither a relevant nor a helpful concept. 

The value of community art, like life itself, is determined by progress in areas such as relationships, learning, communication, self-knowledge and possibility. It accepts the complexity of experience and its blurred lines, while knowing the difference between moving in a good direction and a bad one. I began working on evaluation of community art projects nearly 30 years ago, and I have always resisted the idea that the purpose of such work is to assess or, worse, to score the work. For me, evaluation has always been about enabling more honest and more insightful conversations about what has been achieved and how, so that the people concerned can consider what should be done next. In Use or Ornament? (1997), I quoted a line from Leonard Cohen that continues to define my approach to community art and to life:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

forget your perfect offering,

there is a crack, a crack in everything

that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

The performances in Lisbon on 2 and 3 June will be recreated in Leiria this week, in the youth prison this time, where Paulo would have preferred them to premiere, if the timetable had allowed it. The difficulties of the first iteration will help guide the second. Each time we do this, we learn. But there we need to be careful to learn the right lessons, not the wrong ones. Disappointment and frustration can make us focus on what didn’t work rather than what did. It’s always a mistake to believe your critics, even when you are their cheerleader. That’s why talking, listening, sharing our perspectives is so important. There is not one truth about a community art project, there are many, and they need to be tested against each other if we are to reach the kind of understanding that will allow us to build on experience. Learning the wrong lessons is easy, but never helpful. There is a crack in everything, but it’s not the crack that matters: it’s what it illuminates you need need to pay attention to.