‘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.
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.
‘Care in the Community’ was a flagship policy of the third Thatcher government at the end of the 1980s. It proposed the replacement of residential hospitals caring for people with mental illness and learning disabilities by small community-based facilities and homes. This was a huge change. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people would have to leave places that might have been their home for years. The wider community had concerns too, with prominent media coverage of some incidents involving discharged mental patients.
At the time, I was with East Midlands Shape, a community art organisation working with disabled people and people living in hospitals, care homes and prisons. It seemed important to do something on this policy that affected the lives of so many of the people we worked with. The result was a project called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’, in which residents of one hospital scheduled for closure could use art to reflect on their changing lives.
Over eighteen months – half at the hospital and half away from the site – writer Rosie Cullen and photographer Ross Boyd worked with members of this disintegrating community. Supporting people to write or make photographs was a painstaking, one-to-one process: gaining trust and working through people’s illness or disability, as well as the emotions raised by this enforced life change. Ross sometimes spent days with people before they decided what image they wanted to make. In all that time, fewer than a hundred photographs were finished, but each was like a diamond of compressed meaning. As time passed, people gained confidence and insight into their own creative work. More and more of them became involved, and the pile of poems, stories and memories grew steadily.
Texts and images were collected into two books, one about life in the hospital and one about life outside, and a photographic exhibition that toured the UK. That show was installed for several weeks in the lobby of the Department of Health’s London headquarters. It was a symbolic way of ensuring that the voices of the people affected by the ‘Care in the Community’ would be heard where the decisions that transformed their lives was made.
Photograph taken by a non-professional artist supported by Ross Boyd and participating in the East Midlands Shape project, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ Derby (UK) 1989-1991
Photograph made by a participant in the ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ project (1989-1991), working with Ross Boyd (East Midlands Shape)
Nearly 30 years later, the words and images of that community art project still move me. Some have an aesthetic quality equal to that achieved by professional writers and photographers. Even the least accomplished – and there aren’t many – have truth and authenticity. But the project wasn’t easy for anyone involved. There were tensions and controversies, such as the management’s objections to a patient’s account of treatment. We were told that the piece shouldn’t be published since mental illness made the person concerned an unreliable witness. But the facts were not the point: everyone has the right to tell their own story. The text stayed. Another decision still troubles me though. After much discussion, it was decided not to include some particularly disturbing images. There were good reasons for the choice, but I still don’t know if they were good enough.
Note: the photographs used to illustrate this text all come from the project, but I decided not to include any here that show people, or to name the photographers and writers: the people who made this work may feel differently about their privacy today.
Western medicine has pushed back the frontiers of disease, making death rarer, at least in the sense that it does not intrude into our lives with the brutality with which it visited the Victorians. In the 19th century death often came for the young and those in the prime of life. There can have been few families who saw all their children grow into old age. Our ancestors, who might face dying at any age, had better resources for dealing with its reality than we do, including rituals for every stage of dying, burying and grieving. Some cultures still have them. But months of formal mourning now seem excessive, even absurd, in the healthy, prosperous West, where death is not to be spoken of except hurriedly, in hushed tones. In England, it’s almost embarrassing. We’re anxious to do the right thing, not to be ‘a bother’. No wonder we coined the phrase ‘dying of embarrassment’.
Indeed, I’m faintly embarrassed to have raised the subject now. Let’s not go there.
But we must. Death is the only thing of which we can be certain, however much we proclaim ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. We might not know it, yet, but we know of it. So we keep it on the other side of the glass. Science and medicine form an impenetrable, if transparent, barrier between the living and the dying.
In the past, death announced its coming. Unless it came catastrophically in an accident or a heart attack, it allowed some measure of preparation. People died at home, in their beds. A family gathered, knowing what was happening. The living sat with the dying and tried to ease their suffering. The priest or the minister was called. Thomas Lynch, the American poet who is also an undertaker, has written movingly about the time – most of time, it must be said – when people were born and died where they lived and among those with whom they had lived. That is a rare experience nowadays. My father died at home, a small mercy in a sudden and frightening end. But almost every other lost friend has died in a clinic’s impersonal room, not because they all needed 24 hour medical care but because it’s how we manage dying now in rich societies. As Lynch says:
“We are embarrassed by [our dead] in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.” (The Undertaking)
The difference, for many, is the loss of religious faith that once gave death transcendent meaning. A death seen as passing into another life evidently has nothing in common with a death seen as the end of all life. Whatever comfort religion brings the believer is unavailable to those who outside the faith. And for them, the rituals of death developed in a context of faith can feel hollow, or worse. So they are left only with the antiseptic services – no one could describe them as rituals – of medicine and its unspoken embarrassment at failing to prolong life.
Into this space, tentatively, delicately even, artists have begun to step. In Leiria (Portugal) is the Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos (SAMP), a music school run by and for the local community since 1873. Its present director is Paulo Lameiro, a musician and educator of exceptional imagination. Alongside the usual programme of instrumental teaching and concerts, the orchestra, choir and swing band, he has reached out to local institutions, including the prison and the hospital. Among other work, SAMP musicians have explored how to share music with babies and the very ill. Bringing music to the dying and the bereaved grew out of that experience.
When an elderly man died during a performance in a hospital common room, everyone present wanted to sustain the music and the atmosphere it had created. The clinical staff were asked to wait. There was a person to honour; a life event to respect. The music turned out to be a valued support for that reality.
Since then, SAMP musicians have been asked to play for people at the end of life, when families have gathered for the heartbreaking moment of shutting down an incubator, and in the moments after death. The musicians have provided comfort to the dying and to the bereaved. It goes without saying that they are present at these times only at the request of the dying and the family. And just two of SAMP’s members offer this support. They have learned how to respond imaginatively to each individual, aware of that person’s relationship with music. They have learned too how to cope sensitively with the feelings in the room, not least their own. Music, familiar and loved or newly improvised, has helped mark the moment’s unique importance and support those who are living it. Like life itself, its presence is actual and meaningful. Intangible, it touches everything.
One moment it is there, heard but unseen, and then it is gone. So light and yet so great.
“We sang to her as she lay there… as we were having this jamboree, her breathing became more laboured and she made a moaning noise. One of the nurses said this could go on for four days and we had already exhausted the back catalogue. Then Kate breathed a little differently, it was like she was saying, ‘Hold on, I’m going to end this show’, and she died. I was looking right into her face, her eyes were open, and my aunt Jane was holding her hand. It was an amazing experience…”
For millennia, people have thought and written about how to die. Montaigne, who lived in the 16th century and saw a lot of death, called dying ‘without doubt the most noteworthy action in a man’s life’. Today, the best on offer may be dying with discretion. But there are alternatives, as SAMP has shown. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable and profound artistic work than these performances for the dying and bereaved.
Each person, each family will have their own wishes: the SAMP approach is not for everyone. But it is a reminder of art’s place in helping us find new ways of marking the fundamental moments of life, including its end. Last week SAMP hosted a conference on art and health in the hospital of Leiria. Its title was ‘Aqui Contigo: Porque d’Arte somos’ – in English,
‘Here with you: because we are (made of) art’.
This post was written at the request of London Arts and Health Forum and published in slightly different form on their blog on 19 April 2017.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Making a pinhole camera (MEF)
Making a photograph (MEF)
Making a photograph (MEF)
Making a journal (MEF)
‘Este Espaço Que Habito ‘ Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (2016)
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.
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
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.
‘We simply want to say we’re all human beings, and we really mean it, when we think: This could be me. This isn’t somebody different from me. This could be me.’
Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding theatre company, producing and touring new plays about homelessness.
Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding social service helping hundreds of homeless people rebuild their lives.
If these statements seem contradictory, it is only because rigid thinking divides artistic and social work into opposing categories of action. Art and social policy are abstract concepts. Homelessness is very concrete. It is also very complex, in both its causes and its effects. It is untidy and doesn’t respond well to tidy thinking. Cardboard Citizens has developed an approach to homelessness that is creative, robust and light-footed. It adapts equally to constant change in policy and services and to ups and downs in vulnerable people’s lives. It crosses conventional boundaries between art and social intervention because it must: the success of this work depends on elements of both.
Almost imperceptibly participatory art is becoming an ordinary dimension of social programmes. It has happened quietly over two or three decades, and it is not a done deal yet, but it is becoming more and more common for actors outside the arts world to integrate arts activities in their work.
Take the example of South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), a social landlord with some 5,700 homes across the Sheffield City Region, let on average at 21% less than private sector rents in the area. A third of their properties also offer support of specialist care staff, while its LiveWell services help customers in different ways, from accessing mental health support to training or finding work.
Two years ago, SYHA began to explore how the arts might add value to what they offer their customers. They also wanted to see if it would build relationships between staff, volunteers and customers and with the arts and cultural sector locally. Finally, they hoped that it would enhance their operating model. SYHA were prepared to invest their own resources into the work and they began talking with their customers and local arts organisations about what they might do.
The result was a pilot programme called Moments of Joy, which has just been completed and evaluated. It involved several projects in different parts of the region. Two were environmental art projects in which residents and staff worked with artists to create landscape markers. An Open Cinema project offered 30 events in two seasons in Sheffield. A theatre project with Cardboard Citizens and other partners, which involved about 70 customers and staff and culminated in three performances. A community journalists project to train volunteers to document the programme.
In themselves, these projects may not seem very ambitious or important. Some also worked better than others. But that is to miss the point. What is important is the commitment from a social housing provider to support the wellbeing of its customers and staff by investing its resources in arts activity. The individual projects will change individual lives – the evaluation has already shown that starting to happen. But it is the programme that has the capacity to change approaches to housing and social care. Already, this first experience has convinced SYHA to continue the approach. A new phase is now offering visual art, dance and music sessions, Yorkshire Artspace and darts (Doncaster Community Arts) with funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation supporting 50 of the Association’s most vulnerable customers to take part. In Doncaster, SYHA is integrating the work is with its Social Prescribing service.
There are some who do not like the idea that art should be part of a social programme like this. They fear the instrumentalisation of art, although it is hard to see a time or a culture when art has not been used by a king or a pope or a banker to advance their interests. Personally, I’ve always thought art was stronger than that and what worries me is the instrumentalisation of people. What impresses me about the SYHA experience is that it is another step towards art being part of everyday life, bringing its creativity, its fun and its questions to places and situations which need them. I love that the housing association decided to call this programme ‘Moments of Joy’. It speaks of a clear-sighted confidence in what difference they are trying to make in people’s lives.
Since I heard about Fun Palaces a few months ago, I’ve been intrigued by how this idea has grown so far, so fast. What started four years ago as an open question at a conference has snowballed into something like a social movement. In the first year (2014) about 3,000 people were involved in making 138 Fun Palaces. There were a few more (142) in 2015 but this October there were 290! How does that happen? When I asked Stella Duffy, who struck the first spark at the conference, her reply was intriguing.
The people who made the Fun Palaces in Whitstable and in Farnham – who were following me for my books – both said to me on Twitter “Can anyone do this?” We’re just going, “Yes. No idea. I don’t know. Who knows? Yes.” Then it became a thing…
Sandwiched between permissive affirmations, she was open about not knowing – indeed, about not feeling responsible for knowing. That culture of shared ownership, backed up with light and consistent support developed by Fun Palaces HQ, has empowered thousands of people to have fun with Joan Littlewood’s belief that art and science is open to all.
It’s too soon to have details of what happened in 2016, but the Fun Palaces team (4 people, all part time) did produce a report on what happened in 2015. Three things particularly struck me in that:
First, half the Fun Palaces were made by community groups or individuals; less than a third were produced by arts organisations;
Secondly, just 30% of the Fun Palaces took place in London (which still gets two thirds of the Arts Council’s funds);
Finally, the people involved belong to all social groups and backgrounds: makers and participants reflect the nation in terms of ethnicity, and 54% of them were in the more deprived half of the country.
If cultural policy and spending achieved anything close to such an equitable reach many things might be different in Britain today.
Trapped by thousand tiny ropes
It’s not from want of trying, of course. Arts and cultural institutions have been producing plans to increase ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ for – literally – decades, with not much to show for it. Arts Council England is now investing £37 million in Creative People and Places to get ‘more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live’. The initiative supports 21 partnerships of cultural and other organisations and is undoubtedly creating many fine new projects and activities. (I’ve even made one of those projects myself, in the Lincolnshire Fens.)
But it’s really hard to spend £37 million.You need plans and controls, relationship managers and auditors, advisors and committees and evaluators. You need expertise, knowledge and contacts. You need resources even to manage the resources. You have to take people with you. You have to justify your decisions. Select committees and tabloid papers will tell you (in their ignorance) where you’ve gone wrong. Before you’ve made the first grant still less put on an event, you’re bound with a thousand threads, like Gulliver on the beach of Lilliput. It’s nobody’s intention: it’s just what happens when you’re responsible for millions of other people’s money.
Then it became a thing
But it is also the antithesis of Fun Palaces, which are fuelled by enthusiasm, gifts and volunteering. The campaign itself has received about £100,000 a year since 2014 – perhaps 1% of the Creative People and Places fund. The funding brings some obligations, but the Fun Palaces team manage those without passing the burden on to the makers. It has also received a lot of help, including from the Albany in Deptford, which has provided a base and much free support. That has helped it stay small, informal and fleet of foot, placing the attention and control where it belongs – with the communities who make Fun Palaces.
Most of them happen without funding, though they get heaps of help from local people and groups. They are discovering how empowering it is – to others – when you ask for help. Not knowing, not being the person who has the solution, not having the resources: such weaknesses become strengths when they open doors, build partnership, create friendships. If ‘Yes!’ is the spirit of Fun Palaces, so is asking for help, sharing, improvising, problem solving…
And this is where Fun Palaces are most creative. Of course, activities on the day can be creative, but it is making the event itself from clothes pegs, old newspapers and neglected space that is the really creative act. Where arts organisations spend months preparing a banquet before opening the doors and persuading people it’s what they want, Fun Palaces announce the date and place of a picnic and ask everyone to bring what they can. That’s why each one is different. If you know what’s going happen, it’s not a Fun Palace.
A Fun Palace is not a fucking fete. People sometimes want it to be a fete. It’s not a fete. If it’s a fete it’s not a Fun Palace. It’s not about coming along and having a lovely time. It’s not audience development. It’s like when I was 15, and met someone from my working class background, my town, who was an actor, who told me I could do that too. It’s saying to everybody, “You can do this. You are allowed to make arts and make sciences.”
Freedom to make your own sense
Fun Palaces have become a movement so quickly because the people behind it have not tried to control it. They have only said what the idea is and given some principles to guide people who want to make a Fun Palace. They should be:
Free – Local – Innovative – Transformative – Engaging
That’s enough to be getting on with, though the information provided to potential makers gives a few more helpful words:
Fun Palaces are also LIMITLESS. They are INSPIRING. They are about TAKING PART. And, ideally, they are EASY. We want you to ENJOY making your Fun Palace. And they are also, as far as possible, SUSTAINABLE
(And notice how clear that is: everything I’ve read on the Fun Palaces website, including the admirably readable evaluation report, speaks of a wish to communicate and to show that people who work in the arts (or sciences) are no different from anyone else.)
Crucially, every maker or group is encouraged to interpret those ideas as they wish. Everyone is invited and everyone is interested in what others has to share. The result might not look impressive from a distance but talk to someone who is involved – or take part yourself – and you see that its value is in doing and being, not watching or listening. It is a first step towards rethinking art, science and creativity, what those things might be and how you relate to them. If you never do anything else again, it will be a pity, but never mind: you won’t think about art and science quite the same way either.
The difficult freedom of neglect
In 1962 Joan Littlewood tried to explain the Fun Palace idea to ‘the absurd Arts Council‘ who replied that she would not get support because ‘they were interested in something which did not interest Miss Littlewood – Art.’ The Theatre Workshop Archive records that she replied ‘They are quite right!‘. But she might also have gone on to say that ‘Miss Littlewood is interested in something that does not interest the Arts Council – People.’
I’m not surprised that Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price couldn’t make The Fun Palace in 1961. I’m saddened that The Public got so close, only to fall at the end; but not surprised. It’s what happens when you depend on other people’s money. They want to say how it will be spent and – because they have the money – they always think they know what you should do with it. If Littlewood had built a Fun Palace, she’d have lost control of it in days. She would have refused to do as she was told and stormed off. The building would have become just one more arts centre trying to meet its funders’ expectations. Luckily, it never happened so she made temporary Fun Palaces instead – Bubble City in 1968and Stratford Fair in 1975. In the difficult freedom of neglect she tried things whose influence continues decades after most well-funded theatre productions have been forgotten.
One way of thinking about Joan Littlewood’s story – and it’s only one: hers was a complex story – is to be glad that the Arts Council didn’t get her. Difficult as her artistic journey was, it’s hard to believe it would have been improved by their support. The truth is that we are most free when power is not interested in us. Perhaps community art has flourished – and it really has, despite its difficulties – in the past 50 years because it has never been smothered by the institutional embrace of the art world. Instead, it has won the support and affection of people, by working with them, involving them and empowering them.
It’s hard to work without resources and without the respect of people you think of as peers. But it’s harder still to have your creativity directed, your choices limited and your work colonised. Art is too precious to be kept from people – and what they make of it when they have the chance is more precious than power understands.
‘I do think that art has to reach others. What I hope for is that they are encouraged to create through art rather than to go “I could never achieve that, so I won’t try,” which I think is really painful and really damaging. If everyone was trying, we would have fixed the world by now. If we were educating everybody, we would have cures for all of our diseases.’
All quotes are taken from an interview with Stella Duffy conducted earlier this year.
One of the best things about a restless art has been seeing just how much great community art is happening across and beyond Europe. I’d no idea of the quality and variety of work in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Egypt and it’s not hard to see a link between this energy and the multiple challenges people now face there. That sense of discovery was reaffirmed by conversations I had last week with cultural activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Serbia and elsewhere. They were meeting in Casablanca for a cultural collaboration programme called Tandem Shaml, sharing ideas among themselves and with local artists. Among other projects, I learned about:
ADAM – an alternative media project for young people in rural Tunisia, now working with Bokra Sawa in Marseille, orange farmers and academics to explore the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region;
Agora – an Egyptian organisation set up in the early days of the 2011 revolution that organises community festivals and women’s micro-enterprises in jewellery-making; its project with Tillt in Sweden is using social media to highlight the sexual harassment of women.
L’Boulevard – a Moroccan music organisation that has created studios and concert spaces on an industrial site and promotes the country’s leading rock and alternative festival, giving a platform to thousands of young musicians from the region.
El Madina– an Alexandria-based community theatre and training organisation involved in street carnival, festivals and development projects, currently working with people in the Karmouz district of the city.
It’s hard to give much sense of this work in a few lines, particularly since the projects are still under way. You can talk about the risks involved, the artists’ imagination or the commitment of people whose principal resource is their time, but those are just part of what’s involved and it’s all rather abstract. Some of this work will appear as case studies here or in the project book next year.
Involving people who have experienced migration across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa Mirrors is community theatre at its most serious and moving. The problems of migration are complex and difficult. But art of this quality cuts through rhetoric, self-interest and deceit to affirm the common humanity that requires us to solve them. The film takes 25 minutes to watch, but anyone with an interest in community art or the realities of migration will find their time amply rewarded.
In 1982, I got a job as a community arts worker on a council estate in Newark-on-Trent. My only qualification was a year’s apprenticeship at Greenwich Mural Workshop (thank you, Gulbenkian Foundation, for that investment). At Greenwich, I’d been trained in running a community printshop and painting murals, as well as learning about community art. So, of course, I set up a community printshop and began work on some mural projects.
Screenprinting was fast and fun. With a little help, people who’d not made a picture since leaving school could produce a stack of colourful prints in a couple of sessions. But, even in the new community centre where I was based, there wasn’t the need for posters there had been in London, where they spread ideas and fashion as well as publicising events. Most people enjoyed the experience once but didn’t want to make any more of it.
Hawtonville Art Project Dragon Mural, 1983 (detail) Nadia Nagual, Richard Perry and François Matarasso
Hawtonville Art Project Dragon Mural, 1983 (detail) Nadia Nagual, Richard Perry and François Matarasso
It was much harder to get people involved in the mural work. The first, in a primary school playground, was simple enough – two dragons facing off over a pile of gold. The image came from the idea that their scales could be applied by small children using sponges rather than paintbrushes. It worked all right, in the days before the SATs tests and the national curriculum, with teachers happy to send out four or five kids at a time to do some painting for an hour.
The next two murals were indoors, small and simple: I came up with a design that could be painted without much skill. A clown on the wall of a youth club was completed in a day by teenagers, a Fernand Léger-inspired work scene was done in a training centre, but it was painting by numbers and without artistic merit.
The Appletongate Mural
The most ambitious project was begun in 1983, when I was asked for a mural on the gable wall of building on Appletongate, in the town centre. The work was far beyond my abilities as a painter, so I brought in two local artists. Nadia Nagual (who’d worked with me on the dragons) and Bill Ming. The next 18 months were a struggle to secure funds to pay them while we worked on designs and a public consultation, with the help of the local paper.
We applied to the Mural Funds administered by the Royal Academy with the confidence and naivety of youth, and a gentleman came up from London to meet us and view the site; the decision was negative. We did get some Arts Council funds but couldn’t pay for scaffolding. Then Heather, the brilliant local woman who worked with me part-time (nominally as a administrator but really as a fixer), persuaded a couple of local companies to install it for nothing. Finally the project could happen: Bill, Nadia and I spent most of that spring and summer with our faces to the wall.
The building before work
Appletongate Mural Final Design
Sketch of design in situ
Squared up for drawing on the wall
Nadia Nagual’s sketches for mice
Nadia at work
Nadia and Ramon
Working on the Mural Summer 1985
Working on the Mural Summer 1985
And that’s what convinced me there were better ways of doing community art. In the project’s 1985 Annual Report, I wrote:
The work was a sort of hybrid between public art and community art: most of Bill and Nadia’s wages came from an ACGB Art in Public Places grant – more usually spent on shopping precincts sculpture. We did get a few of the more adventurous people climbing the scaffolding, braving both the height, and the wet, to paint; some ten children painted areas they could reach from the first stage of scaffolding.
It wasn’t just the scale of the mural, which took months of drawing and painting. It wasn’t even the challenge of having people working on boards fifty feet above the ground. The problem was the skill needed to paint the work. The design has been chosen from four alternatives printed in the local press, but it was our ideas. It was inevitably rather anodyne, given its position in a historic market town, though the inclusion of a non-white figure drew a certain amount of comment at the time. And when it came to the work itself, we were back to painting by numbers, asking the few people who were willing to take part to fill in flat colour. The final mural was indeed ‘much appreciated’ as I subsequently wrote in the Annual Report. It just wasn’t community art.
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
1985 Appletongate Mural
1985 Appletongate Mural
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
1985 Appletongate Mural (detail)
October 1985 – Opening with Anthony Everitt, Deputy Secretary General of ACGB
By then, however, my work on the estate had changed a lot. The screenprinting equipment had been mothballed and that same year we did two community plays, a Welfare State inspired fireshow, a video film with a primary school and shadow puppets with a disability group. We also published a monthly newsletter, ran a creative writing group and had Open Thursdays at the community centre for retired people – and there was more.
By working with other artists – theatre companies, photographers, puppeteers, musicians – the limits of my own skills ceased to matter and people could do whatever creative work they were interested in. Much later, I saw that I’d become a kind of creative producer. Appletongate was the last mural I worked on.
Visual art and community art
These memories – and the excavation of old photographs – were prompted by seeing the Appletongate mural again, 30 years after it was completed. It’s partly hidden by trees now, and a big section was lost when roadworks caused the render to fall. But there is not a mark on it, and it’s not much faded, which says a lot for the acrylic paint we used.
Visual art has travelled far since 1985. New technology has enabled artists to respond to profound socio-political change with equally novel methods. The performative and interactive possibilities of visual art have become central to many artists’ practice – often with the label ‘participatory’. The theories that made printmaking and murals attractive to early community artists – including their supposed resistance to commodification – have become less relevant as the same technologies have widened access to the means of artistic production and distribution. They’ve also become less credible, at least to many artists, with the rise of the creative industries and the market culture. Nowadays, people will chip a Banksy off the wall to get it in an auction.
Some of these changes have made it easier to use visual art in participatory, if not quite community arts, practice. But the underlying challenge remains: it takes knowledge, time, skill and experience to create good visual art. Those qualities, which might be summed up as ‘craft’, may now be undervalued but that’s a mistake. They confer power, even if technology can bring visual expression closer to our reach.
One of community art’s best strategies for overcoming a weakness in craft is collective creation. A group of people can produce extraordinary work because they each bring something to the process, especially if they include some trained and experienced artists. It was perhaps always easier to do that in the performing arts, which are naturally collective encounters, and many visual artists – like John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State – gravitated in that direction.
But the visual is fundamental to human experience and communication. We need imaginative artists to reinvigorate it in community and participatory art practice, especially at a time when our eyes are saturated with the imagery produced by merely commercial interests.
2016 Bill Ming and Nadia Nagual
2016 François Matarasso and Bill Ming
This is what we look like after 30 years. To see Bill’s recent work, click here: Against The Tide.
Thank you, Kwikfit and Henderson’s scaffolders, and Dacrylate,Johnstone’s, Earnshaws and Mebon, paint-makers, wherever you are now, and ACGB for £1400.
Heba El-Cheikh is a creative producer and arts manager based in Cairo who has been working with young people and communities since 2009, initially with The Journey and now with Mahatat for Contemporary Art. We met a few years ago and I’m glad to call her a friend. We’ve talked about the challenges of doing community-oriented arts work in her country, but I’ve not yet had a chance to see the work myself. This piece, written to accompany an exhibition of art aftert the ‘Arab Spring’ that has just opened in Vienna, gives a glimpse of how young artists are reimagining community art in a changing world.
Audiences and Art in the Public Space in Egypt: Why we do what we do
‘What do you mean by “show”?’
The question hung in the air, with a mix of confused and aggressive facial expressions and a clueless, empty gaze that I received from the young officer on this warm winter afternoon in Port Said (a city situated along the Suez Canal in Egypt).
It all started when we decided to expand our activities, thanks to a generous grant that we received from Drosos to support our program ‘Access to Art’ and its three projects: ‘Art of Transit’, ‘Mosaic’, and ‘Face to Face’. During the ‘Art of Transit’ project we began to organize a quarterly artistic and performative tour of the cities in which we operate: Greater Cairo, and three large cities in the Delta Region, namely Port Said, Damietta, and Mansoura.
Our first tour, in October 2014, was intended to be as visible as possible, no longer a low profile presence in the streets (as was our previous strategy). We brought together the Oscarisma marching band with the giant puppets of Al Kousha for the puppets to make a ‘spectacular’ entry into the streets of the city, bringing joy, happiness and entertainment to passers-by.
Our first march in Port Said was quite successful. The mayor of the neighbourhood was positively surprised by the ‘quality’ of the show – so much so that he recommended we slightly shift the location of the second march, which was intended to be performed at Souk Ali, a local market on the outskirts of the city. The new location was a few blocks away from the market, in a square. Just our bad luck this was in front of a police station – a location, among other sensitive buildings such as hospitals and mosques, we would usually avoid while performing.
They didn’t have to move from their place: all big security trucks, vehicles, jeeps, a dozen special forces in their black outfits and masks, officers, and soldiers of lower ranks were there surrounding us, looking at us with astonishment. Our bouncers and security men with big muscles, and our volunteers on the ground, stepped away, leaving me to deal with the security. I found myself, in my pretty blue dress, with a big smile, delicate voice, and the polite tone of a well-behaved lady, trying to explain to the young officer what we were doing. I had to repeat ‘It’s a show, a performance, you know, puppets, music … you know, old street art? Aragoz? Storytellers?’ over and over in an effort to make them understand what we were doing. I even started to point at the musicians and performers wearing their instruments and puppets in order to explain what our ‘show’ was about.
Finally, I showed him, confidently and firmly, the permit that we received from the neighbourhood authorities. Luckily this was the only authority who consented to hand us a written permit. It is worth mentioning that previous to this tour, organized in October 2014, we had never opted to secure any permits to perform in the streets of Cairo, or Damietta. We were aware from the start that the ‘permission’ and ‘consent’ of our audience and the community living in the space/neighbourhood, (such as coffee shop owners, workers, and vendors), was more important than a permit from the authorities. With the new geographical expansion of our tours, we started to secure permits, as they are important in our times, (especially considering the escalation of events after June 30th 2014), to provide a safe environment for performers, crew, and audiences.
Nervously, the young officer walked away, talked to his chief officer on a walkie-talkie, and then gave me the phone to talk to the chief. I repeated the whole story, again with no success: the chief also did not understand what I was talking about. Five minutes later he came down himself, read the paper carefully, and finally agreed that we could perform, (but not on the market street because ‘it’s a dangerous place full of drug dealers’). Instead, we were allowed to perform on the city’s main street, escorted by a few dozen officers and special forces.
Amused, I followed the march and surprisingly overheard the same young officer talking to his wife on the phone, proudly telling her that he was now providing security for some artists playing in the street. At that moment, I realized this officer might never have attended a live show in his whole thirty years of life – no theatre, no music concerts, nothing! Rien! Nada! This officer is like any other Egyptian citizen who has little-to-no access to art because of centralization, and/or social and geographic exclusion.
The cultural scene in Egypt is mainly divided between two kinds of organizations: state institutions affiliated with the cultural ministry, such as the opera house in Cairo and the national theatres, and the culture palaces and clubs. With the nationalist politics of Nasser in the 1960s and the 1970s, art and culture became more and more centralized, only diffused and produced in the governorates by the Ministry of Culture and its institutions. These state-sponsored institutions dominate the culture scene in the governorates outside Cairo and Alexandria.
Back in early 2000, independent organizations such as TownHouse Gallery, CIC (Contemporary Image Collective), and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource) appeared on the scene and, with older commercial galleries such as Mashrabia and Karim Francis Galleries, pleaded for quality in art and independence from the corrupt state system. Most of these organizations, galleries, workshop spaces, and exhibitions venues are located in Downtown Cairo. Both state-sponsored spaces and the independent art scene remain inaccessible to the majority of the Egyptian population as they are either geographically, or socially exclusive.
However, there are still a few established organizations located in Cairo that have a community outreach approach, such as Artellewa, Alwan wa Awtar, and El Takeiba art spaces.
In late 2011, my partners and I founded Mahatat for contemporary art, as we aimed at making art visible in the daily life of Egyptian citizens and more accessible and decentralized from the capital by organizing art in the public space and community engaged art projects. Now we realize that by organizing artistic interventions in public spaces, not only do we offer an entertaining, fun, and reflective experience to the audience, but we also create a reference, a new collective image and memory about certain art forms that existed in the public sphere that we are restoring from neglect and dust.
Although the accessibility of art was always, and since the very beginning, Mahatat’s main objective and goal, this reality struck me strongly and deeply.
Six months later! ‘They make us feel like human beings.’
In March 2015, six months later, we organized a new tour in different locations in the four cities. This time we performed classical music and songs. The programme was a mix of famous opera songs and Arabic oldies, recognized and loved by the whole Egyptian audience. All this was performed on balconies in the respective cities and in a historical ruined palace in Mansoura city. We were there to witness the pure amazement of the audience, watching and listening to the prima donna come out onto the balcony and sing her soprano melodies, accompanied by a violinist and percussionist, all wearing pyjamas and robes. I was enchanted to see the little kids dancing, amazed watching this handsome singer in his tuxedo coming out of the balcony of the ruined Red Palace (al ahmar) in Mansoura, transformed by light and music into a magical fairy palace.
We would have been very content with just the sparkles in the eyes and the enchantment of the audience, but we were also much rewarded! With the constant presence of security escorting our performances with their cars and sirens (to protect us), we were surprised as the rigid faces of the state’s security officers (amn markzy) grew softer and tenderer, song after song. They had also joined the lines of our audience. And this was a new victory for us.
An old man stopped by and asked about the performance, who had organized it, and what these people were doing. While walking around and mingling anonymously with the audience, as well as the rest of Mahatat’s crew, Omar El Motaz Bellah, the director of the Teatro independent theatre group, replied, ‘You know haj (old man), they are offering opera and oldies songs to the people.’ The old man nodded, looked down, and then said ‘God bless them! They make us feel like human beings.’
In the idealism and simplicity of this statement, the old man summarized the essence of why we are doing this. He might have answered all the questions, the insecurities and uncertainties we had struggled with throughout our four years of working in the streets – the questions we have been trying to find answers to. His statement has simplified all the justifications we had repeated in front of our families, friends, donors, audiences, and even politicians.
We believe that art does not need to have a certain message, it is not about educating people nor cultivating them, but it is all about providing moments of pure joy, and reflection. Art restores life and is rooted in the core essence of human rights and dignity.
Heba El-Cheikh is a cultural manager and freelance writer living and working in Egypt. After studies in French, translation and journalism, she gained a Masters in Arts Management at Utrecht University, with a thesis on Community Arts Evaluation Practices in Egypt (2015). In 2009, she co-founded The Journey Cultural Group in Alexandria, working with young people on creativity and critical thinking, and in 2011, Mahatat For Contemporary Art in Cairo.
 The ‘Aragoz’ is a traditional hand-made wooden puppet that used to wander public spaces, usually during traditional festivals, ‘Mouled’, and weddings. Aragoz stories usually criticize one or more aspects of Egyptian life and culture, represented by their reckless and satirical character.