Who is changed by participatory art?

‘I think people with learning difficulties have had quite a bad deal in life and I think this is finally turning the page, and making a big change in that, so I think it’s very important that people in these professions learn from us to know what we’re about and then they go into those professions and they have a much better working life because of it.’

Andrew McLeod, Lawnmowers Artist

The social outcomes of participatory art can be important for the people involved, but they can be just as profound for the people who experience the art they make. That is particularly true where the work happens within a context of cultural democracy, which works towards a society in which everyone can use art to communicate what matters to them.  The Lawnmowers are an independent theatre company based in Gateshead, in the north east of England. Run by and for people with learning difficulties, the company has grown since its foundation in 1986 through a series of self-devised theatre productions about things that matter to its members – everything from health care or benefits to hip hop, sex and Elvis.  They have also developed a youth theatre project, regular club nights and other activities,

I first visited the Lawnmowers in 1996, for the research that became Use or Ornament?, and this is part of what I wrote about them then:

In 1995, the Lawnmowers produced a video to fill a gap in existing sex education re- sources. The Big Sex Show is a 30 minute video which tackles relationships, feelings and safe sex in a straightforward and accessible manner. It tells the story of two learning disabled people who fall in love, and the personal and social hurdles they have to cross as a result. It includes plenty of information about sex, contraception, HIV/AIDS, but also offers insights into coping with feelings, and the expectations of others. It involved much detailed research, and close co-operation with health workers. The Lawnmowers have performed The Big Sex Show all over Britain, from Brighton to the Edinburgh Festival, and have toured in Poland. The video, accompanied by booklets aimed at non-readers, has been sold and hired to many groups of people with learning disabilities and others. The company’s new show, The Right Wrong, explores the issue of disabled people’s political rights, as one member explains: ‘This play is about asking Parliament to change things and how different people look at people with disabilities. I play the part of someone who wants to be an MP. I would in my real life like to be an MP. The shows prove to people that we can work like anyone else in the theatre.’ (Matarasso 1997: 45-46)

We’ve stayed in touch since then, and at the end of last year the Lawnmowers invited me to join them in a new project about living well as an older person with learning difficulties.

Lawnmowers - 1.jpg

On Saturday, when we gathered for our third session together, Andy, George, Nick and Andrew told me about the busy week they’d just had, teaching through forum theatre at Teeside University. On the first day, they’d worked with 78 OT and radiography undergraduates and on the second with 40 students doing a Masters Degree in social work. Lawnmowers’ Creative Health Awareness Training, which has been developed over several years in partnership with Northumbria University, introduces health and care professionals to some of the needs that people with learning difficulties may have. It’s intended to reduce the misunderstandings that can lead to poor care and more serious consequences for disabled people accessing services. The students’ response is often powerful and sometimes life-changing – one person attending this week said that the course had made her decide to change her specialism. This short film gives a sense of how the Lawnmowers use theatre to help others understand their perspective.

As the Lawnmowers told me me about their work at Teeside University, it struck me how rarely discussion of participatory art recognises its social impact on the powerful – the ‘potential oppressors’ was the forum theatre term they used. And yet, if the Lawnmowers artists have benefited through their involvement with the group (as they are the first to say), the wider impact of their art for non-disabled people has been no less important. Thousands of care professionals have experienced something of the creativity and imagination of learning-disabled artists, and their understanding of other lives has permanently changed as a result.  That is also the rationale of cultural democracy, which the Lawnmowers have made a living reality for over 30 years.

The social impact of participation in the arts (revisited)

Use or Ornament? - 1
Some of the social impact project reports and working papers from 1995-1997

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK House of Commons has just announced an inquiry into the social impact of participation in culture and sport. Its terms of reference state that ‘Participation in culture and sport has a proven link to a wide range of benefits. The Committee is expected to focus on five major themes, taking evidence on social mobility, health, crime reduction, education, community engagement and diversity. The legacy of the Olympics may also be considered as part of the inquiry.’

It’s not the first time this subject has been examined, either by Parliament or by the Department for Culture. The 1999 Policy Action Team (PAT 10) report on the role of the art and sport in combatting social exclusion is now in the National Archives, which feels odd as I contributed to it. A couple of years before that, I’d led the first large research project into the issue, published in 1997 as Use or Ornament?. It proposed some ideas that have since become commonplace, and met similar opposition to that which faced community artists in the 1960s and 1970s. If you’ve never seen it, download a copy here and decide for yourself. I should re-read myself, as it’s part of the history of participatory art I’m working on: I’m curious to see what it feels like now.

But the main reason for this post is to encourage you to submit evidence to the committee if you have views about this. The value of such inquiries depends absolutely on the quality and range of evidence they receive: here’s a chance to make your voice heard. The deadline is 22 February 2018.

 

Some hard questions about participatory theatre

‘None of this is to say that a drama workshop should not be a space where people feel comfortable opening up, and talking about themselves and their experience. It’s only to say that we must be aware of the risks present in such a situation; and we must not mistake the emotional intensity that comes when people share trauma for good work.’

‘If you are middle class, you can see theatre about anything – space travel, the labour party, theoretical physics, the black power movement. But if you are homeless, all you get to see is the worst of your own experience, reflected back to you.’

These are two extracts from ‘The Trouble with Outreach‘, an exceptionally thoughtful and challenging piece by Nathan Lucky Wood, just published in Exeunt magazine. It addresses two critical questions in participatory theatre – the use of personal experience and the danger of identifying people with their situation. Anyone interested in participatory art will find reading this valuable –  just follow the link below.

D’oh!

D'oh! 2

Confirmation bias – the tendency we all have to over-estimate data that confirms our existing beliefs – is an obvious trap for researchers, so they have intellectual and professional guardrails to stop them falling too often. But artists are not so safe from confirmation bias, because self-belief is valued in Western art. There are original geniuses recognised only after years of rejection, but for every Vincent Van Gogh there are thousands whose hope of appreciation goes unfulfilled.

That idea often comes up when I’m trying to explain that the social outcomes of artistic experience cannot be guaranteed. There are several reasons why that is true, including the inescapable subjectivity of artistic reception, but the first is that no artist can be sure that their work is good. Think how many musicals close on opening night. For months, sometimes years, whole teams of gifted and experienced artists have given everything to the play believing it to be good. In a couple of hours an opening night audience can show them how mistaken they are. D’oh!

That’s how I feel today, having heard back from readers to whom I sent the draft of A Restless Art before Christmas. The first email was a bit discouraging, but I told myself that the book would be okay with some adjustments. The second, a couple of days later, was like an opening night audience: undeniable.

What is undeniable can also be liberating. It creates a new reality and challenges you to accept it. The first thing I’ve accepted was that my readers are right, and not only because I trust their judgement, though I do. It’s also because, the instant they told me, I saw – like a producer stifling nagging doubts about a production – that it isn’t working. There are conceptual and structural incoherencies in the book (among other flaws).

Confirmation bias. I’ve thought and read s much about it from a research perspective, hoping to constrain and account for my inevitable subjectivities. But I hadn’t seen that it can apply equally well to the literary side of my work. The book’s problems are not in its ideas, which I still think are strong, but in how they are organised, presented and communicated. One of my readers said, referencing Morecambe and Wise, ‘you are playing all the right notes, just not in the right order’. I’d been finding reasons to justify or ignore what I knew without knowing: that there are real flaws in this text. And the need to stifle doubts has only grown as the time I’d set aside for writing the book passed and I worried about letting down the many people who’ve given their support to the project. I’ve never liked being late.

Independent readers have long been my guardrail against confirmation bias but I’ve never come so close to falling and it’s a bit of a jolt. I’m deeply grateful to those readers (old friends and people I don’t know well at all) for having the courage to tell me what’s wrong. Thanks to them, I see it and I see a possible solution, which might involve dividing it into three separate, shorter books. I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a happy and peaceful New Year.

Happy New Year 2018

Lanterns on the Cabbage Field

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 2

Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė live in Kaunas (Lithuania) where they have been exploring ways of creating community art for several years. When Ed sent me some photos of their latest event I asked if I might share them on this blog, partly because they give a glimpse of what’s happening in a part of Europe that isn’t widely known in the landscape of participatory art, and partly because the images offer such a resonant feel of midwinter celebration, ancient and contemporary, elemental and human. I also sense Welfare State’s ideas and aesthetics, spreading unseen like rhizomes, relevant still because their own roots are in ancient, anarchic popular visions the need of which people are starting to feel again.

Ed and Vita have written this brief account of this evening, which is the latest in a series of – what, happenings? – they’ve helped create in their community.

 

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 1

In the centre of Šančiai is a wasteland called the ‘Cabbage Field’, the final fragment of a vast area used as a military territory from the mid-19th century until 1993. Over the last four years a group of community artists and leaders who formed the Lower Sanciai Community Association worked to reclaim this land.  In December 2017, the Association joined the Council of Europe Faro Convention Network, a solidarity platform working with local cultural heritage and making it a resource for citizens to create commons, narratives and cooperation.  This is the second year the group organized a festive community gathering called the Balsamic Poplar, which takes its name from the oldest tree.

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 3

In the process of preparing for this event, local leaders and community artists organized more than 20 open art workshops. The result of these workshops became a two-hour coproduction led by children, people with disabilities, the local circus and library as well as community members. Over 200 people came and were met by resident Field Fairies who drew people to the shadow theatre on the specially adapted ‘Dream Bus’. The shadow theatre used the local library for rehearsal involving children and parents. After the performance, creative workshops in shadow making attracted some; others preferred to watch the newly placed crib into the belly of the Balsamic poplar, while others were engaged in making and sharing waffles and doughnuts from an open fire oven. People brought in new books to donate to the library!

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 6'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 4

A band of samba drummers led the crowd on a journey around five specially constructed circular screens to watch a unique performative light animation produced produced by artists from Psilicon Theatre and the local Baltic circus.   Finally, the night ended with a fire sculpture created by a local resident of the Cabbage Field.

“The animators of the Cabbage Field have worked for a few years to mobilize community and to create this festive tale.  Many had criticized them for what they were doing in this wasteland. But in spite of it, the community kept on working and is going to make more events attended by children, neighbours and even those who never heard about the space.  People were happy and joyous and this mood was made by the magic of the faith in community and Christmas spirit.” Kauno Diena newspaper 2017-12-18

 'The Cabbage Field' (photo Regina Sabuliene)

Thanks to Ed and Vita for sharing this work, and to the photographers Darius Petrulis and Regina Sabuliene. I hope to be able to visit the project next year and learn more about their experience at first hand.

  • PS Ed Carroll has long been involved with Blue Drum, working for cultural rights in Ireland and the Legacy Papers, an project to document the origins and development of community art, including interviews with people like Mary Jane Jacob, Arlene Goldbard and many others.

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 5

 

London Community Video Archive

More insights from the past: the London Community Video Archive is a fantastic showcase of the work being made in the 1970s when video technology was just coming into reach. It includes films, documents and interviews, that I’ve only just begun to explore. The site is powerful evidence of the potential of cultural democracy and, with the passage of time, an evocative social history that opens many questions about how London and Britain has changed in the past half century. Highly recommended for anyone interested in community art.

Based at Goldsmiths University and the BFI, London Community Video Archive (LCVA) will preserve, archive and share community videos made in the 1970s/80s in London Portable video recording — now a technology routinely embodied in smartphones — became available for the very first time back in the early 1970s, making it possible for individuals and communities to make their own television. The medium was taken up by people ignored or under-represented in the mainstream media – tenants on housing estates, community action groups, women, black and minority ethnic groups, youth, gay and lesbian people, and the disabled. With an overriding commitment to social empowerment and to combating exclusion, ‘Community Video’ dealt with issues which still have a contemporary resonance — housing, play-space, discrimination, youth arts. 

 

 

 

Campaign for Cultural Democracy (1984)

One Small Candle (1986) - 1

Looking up a reference, I came across the draft charter of the Campaign for Cultural Democracy. It was written in 1984, by members of the Shelton Trust (the Association for Community Artists), but not formally adopted. It’s always struck me as one of the simplest and clearest explanations of cultural democracy:

  • Let us tell the story… We believe that people have the right to create their own culture. This means taking part in the telling of the story, not having a story told to them.
  • This story of ours… We believe that people have the right to put across their own point of view in their own particular way. This means not being told how to do this by people who don’t understand it.
  • Now listen to our story… we believe that people should have the right to reply. This means that people should have equal access to resources to give them an equal voice.

This text is taken from Sally Morgan’s piece, ‘Looking back over 25 years’, which you can find in Malcolm Dickson’s, Art with People, published in1995 by an publications. If anyone has a copy of the original text of the draft Charter that they’re willing to share, please get in touch.

Full, free and equal

Public discourse is getting darker and coarser by the day. Reading the news, I was reminded of  a speech I gave at five years ago at Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark. Five years seems a very long time in European politics today, but when I re-read what I said then it seemed to me that the case I made for cultural democracy then remains valid – and more important with each passing day.

Full, Free and Equal, Three European Myths about Diversity

Myth # 1: The tradition of European democracy

One of the comforting myths of European society is that it is founded on democracy. Everyone knows about Athens and how the Greeks invented this new form of government, replacing the kings and tyrants with a popular assembly in which one man had one vote. And that’s the first problem with the myth. Athenian democracy was limited to men, and even then only men who had not completed military training. Women, children, slaves and foreigners—the vast majority of people living in Athens in the 4th century BCE had neither a vote nor a voice. It is estimated that just 20% of the adult male population was enfranchised.  Athenian democracy is an inspiring ideal but the reality was, as so often in human affairs, rather less that the idea.

Athens, Theatre of Dionysus - 1.jpg

 

Happily, Athens had also invented the theatre, a far more public space in which the great moral and political issues of the times were enacted before thousands of spectators of all classes. And in the theatre, everyone had a voice: women, the poor, the young, the old—even slaves: all could be portrayed as actors in the drama. And the theatre—as in Aristophanes’ comedy, Frogs—could even comment on the political debates from which most people were excluded. Greek democracy may have been limited, but its art helped make up the gaps.

Europe looks back at that idealised democratic society and easily forgets that for most of its history, democracy has not even been an ideal. There have been centuries of feudalism, absolute monarchy, imperial rule and anarchy. There have been centuries of struggle towards emancipation. For most of the countries in this semi-continent, democracy has lasted a few decades, a century at most. Remember that women didn’t get the vote in Britain until 1927, in France until 1944 and in Switzerland until 1971. European democracy is, if not a myth, then a fragile, emergent ideal. But it is a brave one that must be fought for no less today than in the past. Its present enemies may be complacency and despair rather than totalitarianism but they are equally dangerous.

Myth # 2: The novelty of cultural diversity

Democracy and theatre are not the only ideas we owe the Greeks. They also gave us the word ‘barbarian’, though it was less pejorative to Athenians than it has since become. For them, a barbarian was simply someone who did not speak Greek, and who therefore ‘babbled’. Crucially, if that person learned the Greek language, and with it Greek culture and values, they could cease to be barbarian. Tzvetan Todorov, in his book La Peur des barbares, argues that the essential qualifications of civilisation were, and still are, conduct, not birth, knowledge, science, technology or culture.

I take two things from this. First, as should be obvious, there have always been different people in Europe: Greeks and barbarians, us and them, I and the other. Diversity is not new: it is the essence of European, indeed of human, experience. Secondly, this ancient experience suggests that the difference has mostly been understood as cultural, not racial. It exists in our minds, not in our bodies, though European colonialism worked hard to persuade the world otherwise. And what exists in our minds is open to change. That is the heart of Martin Luther King’s dream: that we should be judged for how we act, not how we look:

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 28 August 1963

mlk

 

Human beings do have different experiences, values, traditions, languages, expressions, memories and dreams. They have different cultures. And those cultures, those differences, can seem strange to different people. So what? If that has been a reality since the time of the ancient Greeks, maybe it is time we got over it. Maybe it’s time we simply learned how to live with human diversity.

Myth # 3: The unity of nation states

Why do so many Europeans have trouble accepting the reality of cultural diversity? Perhaps because of ideas they have about their history and identity: the myth of national unity. It is the idea that the nation states that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century from old principalities and failing empires were natural, homogenous and ethnically unified societies. They were nothing of the kind. In 1900, every European state, large and small, young and old, had a diverse population with people of different cultures, religions and traditions.

Take a place like Salonica, where my grandfather was born in 1891, a Jewish man in an Ottoman city, where Greeks, Turks, Jews, Vlachs, Roma, Serbs, Bulgars and many other groups lived together more or less harmoniously. Mosques, churches and synagogues filled the city; different schools taught in different languages.It took five wars, mass population exchanges, ethnic cleansing and genocide to turn the diverse city that was Salonica in 1900 into the culturally uniform Greek city called Thessaloniki in 1950. In the subsequent decades, Thessaloniki, like the rest of Europe, has gradually returned to an inevitable—not to say natural—state of human diversity.

Salonica - 1

Salonica’s experience is distinctive but not unusual. Throughout Europe, the 1950s image of cities and nations as ethnically homogenous was, insofar as it was true at all, largely the result of repression, displacement and mass murder, the destructive and pointless attempt to impose fantastical ideas of unity on populations that were inescapably diverse. What has happened in the subsequent 60 years is only a return to old realities of cultural diversity that Europeans once thought normal.

Cultural diversity and democracy

European societies have experienced much change in recent decades. They have seen the rise of consumer capitalism, the end of communism, new prosperity and inequalities, better education and health care, artistic and media innovation and now, economic crisis and austerity. The resulting political tensions seem to threaten the cherished ideal of democracy in Greece itself. A return to cultural diversity after the genocidal nationalism of the 20th century is just one part of that change, though it receives much attention and troubles many people, as was evident in the recent French Presidential elections. As prosperity and security decline, difference easily becomes a focus for anxiety.

Discussion of diversity has often focused on people from other parts of the world now coming to live and work in Europe, exactly as Europeans once went to live, to work and, let’s not forget it, to rule in other parts of the world. But the recognition of diversity has also enabled previously marginalised groups, such as women, gays, disabled people and others to claim a place in what, after all, is supposed to be a democratic society where each person has a vote and a voice.

This change has been made harder by the three ideas I have touched on. First, the idea that democracy is the normal way of organising European society, rather than something rather recent, which must be built, developed and protected and that is still far from a fulfilled ideal. Secondly, the idea that cultural diversity is new and the result of policies imposed by political elites, rather than simply the ordinary reality of human experience. And thirdly, the idea that European nation states have a natural homogenous character, rather than being, as all humanity is, a mosaic of people, cultures, identities and values. When we do not see the world as it is, we struggle to understand and make the most of our unrepeatable opportunity for life and fulfillment.

Those ideas affect cultural institutions and arts professionals as much as anyone else. Though its discourse suggests otherwise, there is no justification for seeing the arts world as wiser or ethically better than the society of which it is part. Did culture have no part in the present economic and political crisis? If the cultural sector has no responsibility for shaping the beliefs and values that influenced the conduct of people over the past thirty years, it must be as irrelevant at its harshest critics say.

The myths affect cultural policy in various ways, including the belief that cultural policy is democratic, open and generally fair, when in reality the proportion of society that has a voice in public cultural life is comparable to the fifth of adult males who took part in Greek democracy. The cultural world is also inclined to see its present composition and range of expression as being a norm, comparable to the idealised homogenous societies of the 1950s, rather than the result of history, accident and inequality.

The culture protected and promoted by public institutions is in many ways admirable. We might even agree to describe it, in Arnold’s famous phrase, as representing at least some of ‘the best that has been thought and done’. But that should not blind us to the fact that it is also the culture of a particular people, and a specific time and place, and that as such it reflects the full range of their beliefs and values, It may be the best that Europeans have thought and done, but it is not only the best. To take an obvious example, the objectification of women in Western art is, to say the least, somewhat problematic.

Recognition of cultural diversity is a challenge to some of the values, beliefs and meanings of dominant cultures. That challenge may be justified or not: there are always debates to be had about cultural values. But whatever the character of the challenge, it can lead to anxiety and even promote hostility. And we Europeans, with our terrible twentieth century, have no excuse for not understanding the potential consequences of interethnic hostility. How can we void repeating the confrontations of the past? If we accept the reality of cultural diversity, and with it the existence of different, perhaps incompatible, beliefs and values, how can we avoid losing our way in a miasma of cultural relativism? How can we defend our own cultural values while respecting competing visions and narratives?

The Greeks gave us the answer, 2,500 years ago. Democracy is the only legitimate way to secure the right of each person, each autonomous and responsible individual, to their own culture, identity and history. But, as in Greece, that democracy must exist not only in parliaments, but in theatres too.

Full, free and equal

If our democracy is to fulfill its promise, it must guarantee each person full, free and equal participation, in the phrase suggested by the philosopher, Joel Anderson (Platform for Intercultural Europe, Discussion Paper). And that full, free and equal participation is not limited to the civil and legal rights usually associated with citizenship. It must include the same rights of cultural participation as those enjoyed by other citizens. It is in the constant interplay of ideas and meanings, dreams and nightmares, feeling and reason enabled by culture that people can fulfil their own potential within a society.

Few people in the cultural sector would disagree with that ideal of participation, at least openly or even consciously. And they might say, with some justification, that the museums, galleries, libraries and theatres are open to everyone. The problem is that, if the values, beliefs and meanings offered by the museums, galleries, libraries and theatres are only those of a dominant group—that part of society that sees its values as being universal, normative and beyond legitimate question—they might as well be closed. Few people are interested in a book in which they find no reference to their own experience or beliefs or, worse, in which their experience and beliefs appear in distorted form.

In the 1950s the democratisation of culture was held simply to be a matter of ensuring better access to the higher summits of European art for the population. Increasing the number of concert halls, theatres and museums, and reducing the cost of attending, was the principal policy objective. In the 1970s and 1980s, when those taking up the new offer, in numbers and in social background, remained unrepresentative, education, outreach and marketing initiatives were put in place to attract new audiences. More recently still, special programmes have been developed to bring in so-called culturally diverse communities.

Worthy as these successive initiatives have been, they have reached the limit of their potential. It is time for a new approach to cultural policy and new sources of thinking and action that accept diversity as the norm, rather than a single culture, however admirable, and sees cultural democracy as the means through which people can flourish in it. This new approach to cultural policy would prioritise freedom of creative expression, working to ensure that all citizens had full, free and equal opportunities to create as well as to experience the creations of others. It would  see the creative act as a form of public utterance comparable to other forms of social speech in a democratic society: parliament and theatre as equally important social and public spaces.

A novel, a slam, a dance, a film or an image, a rap, a TV show, a performance, a blog—all forms of cultural expression enable people to explore, express, test and share their values, especially those that cannot be articulated through the formal and intellectual speech that is often seen to constitute democratic discourse. And crucially, that creative expression must not be prejudged because to do so is to essentialise its creator, to suggest that, because a person can be described as gay, Indian, female or any other simplifying category, their creativity, their values and their speech can be known and qualified in advance.

There is no justification for saying that a poem is intrinsically better than a rap: all that matters is what the poem and the rap bring into existence, their intrinsic quality and the response they can draw from readers or listeners. And yet, cultural policy is still largely constructed on the idea that certain forms, as practiced by certain social groups, are necessarily more valuable than others .If democracy means anything in this diverse world, it means that such prejudgements should not be built into policy.  Some art is great. Some art is awful. Some art expresses all that is best about human beings. Some art is oppressive, threatening and anti-democratic.

The debates about which is which, the relative worth of different creations and which art works we want to encourage, are of the greatest importance to democracy. They must not be prejudged by cultural policies that determine for us what we should see, enjoy, admire or think. As Todorov  argues:

‘We cannot advance on the path of civilisation without having first recognised the plurality of cultures. A refusal to take account of other visions of the world than our own cuts us off from human universality and keeps us closer to the pole of barbarism.’

Tzvetan Todorov, La Peur des barbares (Paris 2008)

Need to know – the artist’s privacy

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.

GODS (Marks of Time)
GODS at Marks of Time, 2007

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.

Fleeting Moments (Chaturangan)
Fleeting Moments (Chaturangan)

Need to know

Arts and Health - 2

At a conference in Sydney last week, I was able to catch up a little on current thinking in arts and health, a field I’ve been interested in since the 1980s, though from a participatory arts perspective rather than a therapeutic one. Arts and health has become much more accepted over those years, partly because of cultural changes and partly because of a growing body of evidence of the arts’ effectiveness in supporting wellbeing – most recently described in the All Party Parliamentary Group Report.

Arts programmes are now quite common in health services, especially in community settings and public health. The Australian conference included fascinating presentations about arts on prescription, projects in mental health services and addiction, music in residential care, immunisation campaigns, theatre with veterans and much more. Speakers reported findings about the positive health outcomes of work they’d undertaken or researched, and there were some inspiring case studies.

Arts and Health - 1

Listening to those presentations, I found myself reflecting on a question that has long preoccupied me: what does an artist need to know about the people they are working with? In community contexts, where anyone is welcome to join in, the answer is straightforward: nothing. In such situations, everyone – including the artist – can share what they choose about themselves. But I’ve also worked in hospitals, prisons, schools, mental health services and residential care centres, and there the rules are much more complex. To take an obvious example, a dancer ought to be aware of physical conditions that might be exacerbated through movement. But is that more than professional competence? It is not necessary to have specific knowledge of individuals to devise a dance workshop suitable for people in their sixties – although such knowledge might be valuable in some circumstances.

None of this is simple. Some conference presenters, perhaps because their perspective was medical, seemed to expect that an artist should know as much as possible about the people with whom they’re working because that would enable them to devise appropriate interventions and keep people safe. I understand the reasoning and share it to some extent – especially if the work has a therapeutic intent. Still, I have two reservations, one human and the other philosophical.

The first is simply that creative disruption can be such a valuable outcome of a good artistic intervention. People who spend a lot of time together – teachers and children, care staff and residents, prison officers and inmates – often fall into mutually reinforcing patterns of behaviour. A child who is seen as shy can start to fulfil that expectation, and in doing so reinforce the view that she is shy. When an artist meeting her for the first time asks her to take centre stage, she may happily do so because there is a new expectation that she will. Through such human experiences, and the different doors opened by artistic work, people can discover unexpected capacities in themselves. Relationships that have become rigid with familiarity are recast and people liberated from patterns that no longer serve them well. It’s not that artists have special insights, though sometimes they do. It’s simply that, knowing nothing about the people they are working with other than what they find in the moment, they bring a gift of openness to everyone in the room. They create the possibility of not being yourself (whatever you think that is) for a while or, perhaps, for good.

When I worked regularly with prisoners or people with mental health problems, I wanted to be one of the few people they met who did not know their history. If  they knew I did not know, we could both choose what to tell each other about ourselves. We were, within the limits of the situation itself, on a more or less equal footing.

And that is the other reason for my reluctance to know more about others than is absolutely necessary to act safely. It is very hard to achieve any real equality between people who have unequal knowledge of each other. When one person has been told personal, even private things about another, even with the best intentions, the relationship is changed. It is hard not to start thinking that you know what will be good for them – especially in a context determined by medical intervention. I don’t mean to rule out such therapeutic approaches: on the contrary, I’m certain that in the right circumstances they can be literally life-saving. But it is different to the rights-based approach to participatory art within which I have always tried to work. There, I need to know only what the other person wants to tell me.

Performance Ensemble
Performance Ensemble at West Yorkshire Playhouse