Enjoy the walk

Today, I realised that I’ve spent six months writing the wrong book. Or at least writing what I thought someone else might want. I’d forgotten why, several years ago, I began to look for a new language in which to talk about people’s experience of art, in the various explorations I called Regular Marvels. Instead, I’ve drifted back into the kind of academic language that’s always covering its back.

No wonder it’s been hard work – and I apologise to everyone who’s asked me how it’s going recently and got only complaints. No wonder I feel like Sisyphus pushing words uphill only to see them tumble down again. I know that books which aren’t enjoyable to write are rarely enjoyable to read, but I wasn’t listening. There’s no fool etc.…

The book’s due in three months’ time (I hate deadlines) and I’m sitting amidst hundreds of pieces that don’t add up to anything because they’re made for the wrong book. But at least I know it now. So: back out of this dead end and set off in another direction. And this time, enjoy the walk.

The book I should be writing is the book that only I can write. Time to get cracking.

I am not the milkman of human kindness

If you’re lonely, I will call –
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry

Billy Bragg, The Milkman of Human Kindness (1983)

I don’t remember when artists began to speak of ‘delivering’ projects, but it may have been around the time when delivery entered the rhetoric of politics. That was worrying in itself – after all, government only talks up its delivery when it knows people aren’t persuaded that it is actually making things better.

Be that as it may, the metaphor has always made me uncomfortable. It imagines participatory art as a package that can be handed over. The artist just needs to turn up ready and equipped to ‘deliver’ the workshop and another box can be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who is being delivered to because delivery is one-sided. Some imagined public good is handed over and signed for. Job done: the commissioner is content.

But the essence of participatory art is co-creation and that is not one-sided. Ideas and imagination, influence and power, authorship, creativity – all shift restlessly between everyone involved. What happens is unpredictable because it emerges from a shared creative process. There is no plan to be delivered, like a lesson with learning outcomes. There is, with luck and a following wind, a creative journey to be shared towards a destination that may turn out to be quite different from the one that was anticipated. All the best results of community art – growth, empowerment, change – come from being together in that journey.

I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.

Keeping the art in focus

MEF Este Espaço Que Habito

Participatory art projects can fail for the same reasons that all projects. The bigger causes – inexperience, incompetence, lack of imagination, ego – lead to smaller and more specific ones, such as poor planning, inadequate resources and personality clashes. But participatory art projects can also fail for a reason that is specific to the practice – they fail when they don’t know how much importance to place on the art.

The inner tension of participatory art – what makes it restless – is having more than one objective. Artistic creation is balanced with other goals, such as education,  wellbeing, community development, social inclusion or even peacebuilding. Each project is a unique coalition of organisational and personal interests. Everyone knows that things will happen differently than if they were working alone – it’s that difference that makes the project worthwhile. But they want to achieve their own goals, so success depends on getting the right balance between everyone’s interests. The vitality of participatory art comes from walking the tightrope between social and artistic purpose.

20150728©eeqhMEF_184

A focus only on artistic goals, at the expense of other issues, risks producing a kind of ‘painting-by-numbers’, in which the non-professionals simply fulfil the directives of professional artists. The result might be aesthetically satisfying. It might be appreciated by its audience. It might even be enjoyed and valued by the participants. But in the end it’s just another artistic product that is unlikely to change individual lives or social conditions. One sign of a failed participatory art project is the feeling that it could have been done better by the professionals working alone.

But neglecting art to focus on social objectives is equally risky, though not because art can’t be used to serve such purposes. The arguments against ‘instrumentalisation’ are mostly flawed and self-serving. But if you want to use art for a social purpose it is only logical to respect the tool itself. Unfortunately, people often agree to use a new approach and then try to apply it like the existing ones with which they are familiar. But art does not work – to take an obvious example – like education. It reaches people differently and makes fast, unexpected connections. If you force it to fit accepted norms and approaches, you undermine its effectiveness and the value of using it.

20150728©eeqhMEF_153

Art is often seen as a way to engage teenagers facing difficulties in education, work or at home and it can be a lifeline at this age. By helping young people gain new personal, social and practical skills through supportive creative  activity, art projects can permanently change lives. But those results are unlikely to appear if the art being offered is mediocre or boring and the processes are the familiar ones of school. After all, it’s because existing provision doesn’t reach them that these young people need something different, more challenging and more inspirational.

Placing a high value on the authenticity of an artistic process need not entail high costs or following the norms of the mainstream art world.  What matters is that the artists leading the project are ambitious, imaginative and serious; that they have a depth of knowledge and experience to offer; that they set high standards for the work and expect everyone to meet them, in their own way; that they believe in each participant’s unique ability and will not rest until they have helped the person to find it; that they want to make art in which everyone, including them as professional artists, can take justifiable pride.

20150907©eeqhMEF_088

The work with young offenders done by Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (MEF) has all these qualities but depends on the simplest and cheapest of resources: homemade pinhole cameras. Between 2014 and 2016 MEF worked in six young offenders’ institutions in Portugal on a project called Este Espaço Que Habito (‘This Place I Live In’). Each participant made a cardboard pinhole camera to a design by MEF, before selecting nearby places that were meaningful to them to photograph. The processed images were collected in hand-made journals in which the young people reflected on the meaning of these places in their lives. The journals were personal documents, representing a new sense of self-awareness and reflection for their maker. They were the record of a life in progress made – and to be continued by – the person living it.

But the work was also shared with public audiences in the press and through exhibition. A selection of images from each institution was digitised for use in light boxes and presented in local galleries. Nearly 200 young people took part in the project and their response to the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. By returning to the simplest form of photography, in an age of digital plenitude, the artists helped the young people appreciate the value of slowing down, of feeling what they were experiencing and thinking about the meaning of the images they made. The materials were insignificant but the process was serious and demanding, opening the participants to a rich potential for personal change. This was possible because of the calibre of the artists involved and the importance given to art in the project.

The art was a means to social change in this project. The management of the young offenders institutions was concerned with the rehabilitation not the creativity of the people who took part. But the project’s success lay in its clear focus on making art that had integrity and spoke both to its creators and to a wider audience. With their eyes always on that prize, everyone involved was able to move confidently along the tightrope.  The artistic quality of the work was not an incidental aspect of the project’s success: it was the reason for that success.

20140707©eeqhMEF_435

Co-creation and collective action, then and now

‘Launch’ a film by Amber Collective (1974)

It is a curious thing that the first official account of community arts in Britain should have been overseen by a classicist. Professor Harold Baldry (1907-91) had been Professor of Classics at Southampton University and Chairman of Southern Arts Association before becoming a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1973. The year he joined, the Council

‘decided to set up a small working party whose task was essentially to examine the nature of community arts activities in this country and to advise the Council on what should be the extent of its own role and involvement in this development.’

Between January and June 1974, the Working Party met several times, read a variety of documents it was sent and visited community arts projects in London, Leeds, Bradford and Bracknell. It met representatives of arts associations, UNESCO, the French Embassy, the Home Office and Telford New Town Project, among others. And it produced a short, elegant report that argued for a new Community Arts Committee be established to fund the work, based on a loose definition of what community arts actually was. Continue reading “Co-creation and collective action, then and now”

Co-creation

isto-e-partis-14
‘Fragmentos’, Grupo RefugioActo (photo François Matarasso)

Changing relationships in the networked age

What is co-creation? The term has come into participatory art discourse recently, but I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation of what it describes. At face value, it seems to make sense. Participatory art is the practice of involving others in an artist’s creative process. According to Wikipedia, this allows them ‘to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work’. Fair enough: that sounds like something you might call co-creation. But what is the nature and degree of creative input people are actually being invited to contribute?

Continue reading “Co-creation”

‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown’

bed-2014-entelechy-arts-photo-roswitha-chesher

‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk.’

Gwen Sewell, Entelechy Elders Company

On a Bristol shopping street stands an outsize metal bed. On it lies an elderly woman in night clothes, propped against her pillows.

People walk by, hurrying, careless or sensing something weird: they don’t want to know. Others stop, concerned. Are you alright? Is someone looking after you? What are you doing here? The old woman responds by talking about her life. Her children who live far away in Leeds. The baby taken from her because she was unmarried. Her sorrows, her world. Memories. She asks for something tucked in the bedclothes; she talks about a photograph.

Continue reading “‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown’”

Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society

casablanca-1

Last year I spent some time looking at the work of Tandem, a partnership between the European Cultural Foundation and MitOst that connects cultural actors within and close to the European space. Tandem marked its fifth anniversary last autumn, and they asked me to reflect on what they’d done and what might change. The essay below is the result of that review, and it looks at how, practically and theoretically, participatory cultural action can contribute to civil society. Continue reading “Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society”

Community art festivals in Rotterdam and Porto

icaf

There are two important community arts festivals on the horizon, in Rotterdam and Porto. I’ve mentioned them before but it’s worth doing it again because there’s news of both:

  • ICAF in Rotterdam (29 March- 2 April 2017) has now published its programme and is open for registrations: follow this link to the download the programme book and timetable..
  • The deadline for submissions to EIRPAC, an academic conference linked with MEXE IV in Porto (Sept 2017) has just been extended to 10 March: click on this link for more information.

Opportunities like this are valuable for anyone working in the field. By its nature, participatory arts work tends to be local and timely, which makes seeing other people’s work difficult. Meeting peers working in other places and situations is invaluable. The programme for ICAF is very rich and includes work from Australia, Lithuania, Ireland, China, the USA, Russia, Peru, Pakistan, Suriname, Kenya, Britain and many other countries. Even if you can’t be there, the ICAF programme book makes fascinating reading.

mexe

‘It became necessary to learn because we made it so’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first contact with community arts, in 1981, was as a member of the public. With the fearlessness of youth, I’d produced a piece of theatre about human rights to raise funds for Amnesty International. When social media was still a matter for science fiction, we needed posters to advertise the show. Somebody told me about a community printshop near me in South London and I turned up one morning to ask if they could print my poster. That was the first time I heard the line that would define for years my idea of community arts:

No, we can’t print it for you, but we can help you do it for yourself.’

Continue reading “‘It became necessary to learn because we made it so’”