Speaking of unspoken things

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.

In January 2010, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle was able to die surrounded by her musical family, including her son Rufus Wainwright, who spoke of the moment later:

“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.

Keeping the art in focus

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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True to the art – Cardboard Citizens

 

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Cardboard Citizens

‘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.’

Adrian Jackson

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.

Continue reading “True to the art – Cardboard Citizens”

‘A gift for fiction’

Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.

It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’

Continue reading “‘A gift for fiction’”

Participatory arts, older people and living with dementia – Guest blog

Since 2010, the Baring Foundation has focused on improving older people’s quality of life through opportunities to participate in the arts. The Foundation is small and so its work aims to influence policy and practice through projects, partnerships and publications. It has supported a very wide range of work in the past six years, which is documented on its own website and the Age of Creativity website. My own work on older artists, Winter Fires, was published by the Baring Foundation in 2012, and I subsequently joined them as a trustee, which has given me more insight into the range and quality of participatory art work being done with older people, not only in the UK, but in other European countries, the USA, Japan and elsewhere.

cARTrefu is an outstanding programme, supported by the Baring Foundation and Arts Council Wales. It is managed by Age Cymru, who also run Gawnwyn, Wales’Creative Ageing Festival, and works to make the arts a regular part of life in residential care. Launched in 2014, cARTrefu offers care homes short residencies by artists working in poetry, music, performance and visual art. Typically, the activity lasts a couple of hours each week and leads to a celebratory event in the final session. An evaluation of the first phase of work has shown very promising results, with 25% of homes commissioning the artists to continue their work after the initial residency.

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Work like this is often unknown beyond the circle of those involved. By its nature, it is sensitive, intimate. It is very far from the dramatic shows that can happen in public space or art institutions. Its values are enacted not rhetorical. The art itself may seem, at a distance, rather ordinary. But that is to mistake surface – the big, splashy, ‘professional’ – for substance. Anyone who spends a little time participating in the kind of work the cARTrefu  artists do will understand what is happening between the people involved and how profound the experiences enabled by such artistic communication can be.

That is one reason why the opportunity to come together in conferences and festivals is so important in the field of art and older people. It not only gives the people involved a chance to meet and learn from others working in the field – it also provides a vital platform to showcase the work to society more widely. Emma Robinson, Age Cymru’s  Arts and Creativity Programme Manager, and Reg Noyes, cARTrefu Programme Manager recently attended the Alzheimer Europe conference in Denmark. Emma’s account of the experience, which I reproduce below with her permission, gives a valuable glimpse into growing world of participatory arts practice. We are an ageing country in an ageing continent. How we rise to that challenge – to that opportunity – will influence the lives of us all, which is one reason to be glad for the work described below.

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10 things I learnt at the 26th Alzheimer Europe Conference: Excellence in Dementia Research and Care, 31 October – 2 November 2016, Copenhagen

Emma Robinson, Age Cymru

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Seeing Core Act perform in a care home in Helsingor, Northern Denmark, near Hamlet’s castle. Core Act, a performance duo formed by Anika Barkan and Helene Kvint, create, share and collect stories and set up a realistic living space (kitchenette, living room, table) to talk with residents in free-flowing improvisations, using the residents comments as impetus for progressing the stories narratives. The stories are recorded and Anika and Helen then work with a sound artist to prepare sound files which are then shared online with the residents and their carers and families, with a view to schools using them as an educational social history resource.

One performer in the show wore an animal mask and interacted with residents non-verbally.  Anika and Helene explained that some residents, especially those who do not communicate verbally, find the presence of the deer comforting and feel more comfortable communicating with the animal than a performer, as the expectation to speak and be bombarded with a lot of questions that they potentially would have difficulty answering, isn’t there.  The emphasis is on the gentle non–verbal communication that people could roll with, to whatever level they wanted.

We’d like to see the cARTrefu gang working together to create a mobile installation, like Core Acts living space, that can be left out in the care homes in between the times they are there and includes elements from all four art forms for residents and staff to enjoy.

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2

Seeing a conference about dementia attended by people with dementia – quite a rarity to see this and to see it being done as integral to the conference, not just a tokenistic ‘add on’

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Realising that cARTrefu is huge! Most of the other projects presented alongside cARTrefu displayed results from 7 care homes, 12 care homes, 20 care homes, etc. cARTrefu’s nationwide, 128 care home-reach was seriously impressive and made cARTrefu stand out as perhaps one of the largest arts and dementia projects in Europe. Wow!

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Picked up some practical tips on auditing your space to become more Dementia Friendly from Paul Hudson from Festival City Theatre Trust; when carrying out an audit of your space take the photos in black and white so you can see the contrast better, or more importantly notice the lack of contrast like on the stairs that may be more of a difficulty for someone with dementia. Also, put signage higher than you think you need it, signage in an empty foyer vs a foyer of  100s of people blocking out wall space.  Simple stuff that can easily be changed for the benefit of all, not just people with dementia.

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It’s all about perspective… Pat McGonigal from the Scottish Dementia Working Group shared his granddaughter’s thoughts of his care home; ‘My granddad must be well rich, he lives in a great big house, all his mates live with him AND he has servants!’

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Hearing more about peoples’ experiences of living with dementia. It’s not just a case of memory loss but can also be coupled with loss of emotion  and lack of emotional reaction too, in certain types of dementia – something that will be really useful to share with our cARTrefu artists as they carry out their residencies in Welsh care homes

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The art of adaption: it was inspiring listening to various speakers talk honestly about their projects, both their successes, failures and surprises. Paolo Prolo’s presentation about the sensory garden designed by Enrico Sassi in Switzerland contained a long ramp that led residents living with dementia to a circular garden they could walk around. Residents though focused their attention on the long ramp as it was their way ‘back home’ again. The emphasis of the garden was re-designed so that the ramp included a view to the bowling green outside the care home, which rekindled memories of Pétanque.

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Various presentations at the conference opened our eyes to the incredible partnerships in dementia happening all over the world, such as the Dutch police force working with regional dementia groups to promote a special water-tight box that people living with dementia keep inside their fridge and which contains information about their condition, medical history and next of kin in order to help the increasing number of people living alone with dementia from leaving home, becoming confused and going missing.

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It’s just the little things but it also helps if you know how to do them! Nienke Van Wezel from the Dutch dementia friendly movement, Samendementievriendelijk screened some wonderful animated commercials that explain how you can ‘lend a hand’ to someone living with dementia as people do want to help, but they often don’t know how. These advertisements showed examples like how to keep an eye on a neighbour, opening the door or helping someone with dementia pick an item in a supermarket.  Small steps but all helps to break the stigma of dementia and acts an easy entry point into the work of the charity.

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Tak til Baring Foundation for deres støtte og til Dr. Kat Algar på Bangor University for at gøre det hårde bit! Thanks to Google translate for this one as finally, always overwhelmed by the language skills of my mainland European colleagues, I sadly have to admit to the realisation that I am never going to master another language!

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Traditional music, young people and community in the Scottish Highlands

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‘The fèis is very important to me because I am not very musical. I don’t play any instruments or sing, so coming to the fèis makes me see how brilliant all the different musical instruments sound, and to be lucky to meet so many talented people. I love having a go on instruments such as the guitar, tin whistle, and I even have a shot at Gaelic singing.’

Next month, I’m giving a talk about creative and participatory approaches to children’s music education, for Ukelila in Belgium. Preparing for that sent me back to a study I did in 1996 of the fèisean  or Gaelic festivals that have flourished in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the last 30 years. This remarkable movement, which began with a community initiative on the Hebridean island of Barra, now counts 46 independent organisations, providing access to Gaelic music and culture to some 6,000 young people each year. It was moving to re-read some of the voices of the children I interviewed then. Some of them will now be taking their own children to the the fèis. And people wonder whether art changes the world.

Moments of Joy

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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.

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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.

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What next? It depends who’s asking

When a campaign takes off as Fun Palaces has, people start asking ‘What Next?’. It’s the wrong question – or at least, to ask it is to misunderstand what’s important about Fun Palaces and why.

Cultural policy in post-war Europe (how long will we keep calling it that?) has been divided between two big ideas: cultural democratisation and cultural democracy. Cultural democratisation got out of the blocks first and it retains the head start it established in the 1950s, partly because it holds the big assets. A product of the Welfare State it sees culture as a social good, like education, work and healthcare, which the state should help citizens to access. Public libraries had been seen like that for decades, partly because they are more obviously educational. Building new theatres, galleries and arts centre,  together with pricing, marketing and outreach policies designed to make them attractive, has been a key part of cultural democratisation. Culture is good and in a democracy, everyone should have their fair share.

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You could say that this democratisation was a victim of its own success, because it was the very children who had benefited from better education and public services after 1945 who challenged that provision as paternalistic. Artists were at the forefront of that charge, especially those who began to call themselves ‘community artists’ in the late 1960s and – like Amber – celebrate the working class culture from which they often came. They saw cultural democratisation as the elite’s way of maintaining its power by teaching others to admire its culture and the social values they represented. What we want, they said, is cultural democracy – access to the means of cultural production so that we can remake a culture in our own image.

During the past 50 years, cultural policy in Britain – and most Western European countries – has been a struggle between the advocates of democratisation and the champions of democracy. The first have institutional resources and authority on their side. The second have imagination and applied creativity…

What does this have to do with asking what next for Fun Palaces? It’s all about who’s asking the question.

Cultural democratisation, like all faiths, is rooted in the idea of self-improvement. People who are introduced to art at an early age, the idea goes, will begin a lifetime of personal development that enables them to appreciate more fully the transcendental power of great art. It is the education of a sensibility. Its great trap is the assumption that where you are, what you like or do now, is not of value in itself – it’s just another step on the long stairway to heaven.

In practical terms, that translates into ideas like engagement and audience development (how, incidentally, do you develop an audience, except in marketing terms?). It’s why funding bodies, such as the Arts Council, require that every application demonstrates a development on the last one. The idea of simply funding an artist to continue doing what they do is unthinkable, unless – perhaps like the Royal Opera House – what they do is believed to have achieved a state of perfection. In this logic, cultural participation is always and only a journey of self-improvement. That is why those who see themselves as managing it feel the need to ask of others – ‘What next?’.

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If the question arises in a context of cultural democracy – and it does constantly – it is because people are asking themselves what comes next. The table tops were still being wiped clean while social media was fizzing with Fun Palace makers sharing questions and ideas about how to do things better next time. Brockwell Lido Fun Palace asked for advice on how to help parents see that activities were for them and not only for their children, and responses soon poured in from other makers on Twitter and Facebook as people shared their own experience.

And that’s the point – everyone’s own experience was valid. Everyone’s suggestion was worth hearing. There was no answer – such questions don’t have an answer –there was discussion and reflection. That will lead to experiments, more discussion and learning. There is no single path, and perhaps no progress. There is an unending landscape of possibilities to discover and the right – and obligation – to decide which are best.

If cultural democracy has an ideal, it is not some distant heaven towards which we are guided by a priesthood, but the quality of what we are doing, sharing, living now. It is about making sense of where we are, through creative and artistic interacting with others. It’s about working out for ourselves what we think is good and why, always remembering that others think differently for equally valid reasons.

What is next for Fun Palaces? I’ve no idea. But I know that – because this movement is (mostly) an expression of cultural democracy – the thousands of people involved will work that out for themselves. And there will not be one next step: there will be at least 290.

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4 – Imagination is free

‘Yes. No idea. I don’t know. Who knows? Yes.’

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.

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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.)

q_352_550pBut 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.

funpalaces_say_yes_-300x300Most 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.

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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 1968 and 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.’

Resources

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3 – Nearly building a Fun Palace in West Bromwich

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders.

There has been at least one serious attempt to give physical reality to Joan Littlewood’s vision: The Public, in Sandwell. This huge, multi-disciplinary and interactive community arts centre was imagined by Jubilee Arts, who had been working in this part of the post-industrial West Midlands since 1974. The new building was conceived as an affirmation of community art as a cultural field that deserved equal respect with any other. It was to be a cornerstone for regeneration in West Bromwich town centre and a place for local people to develop and share their creativity. Like Joan Littlewood, Jubilee set out to say that this place and these people deserve the same as anyone else: the best.

Designed by Will Alsop, The Public opened in 2008, but by then problems had already forced changes of design, vision and operation. It struggled to gain the wholehearted backing of Arts Council England, which provided only project funding after 2009. But The Public did win strong local support – in a town with no other arts facilities, the centre attracted tens of thousands to exhibitions, theatre and comedy shows, tea dances, workshops and events. In 2013 Sandwell Council withdrew its funding and closure became inevitable; but, during its last 12 months, The Public had welcomed more than 450,000 visitors.

For many people – especially those who never visited it – The Public is just a symbol of how National Lottery funding can be wasted on useless cultural projects. It’s true that many mistakes were made during the project’s conception, construction and operation. Hubris, inexperience, fear and politics all played their part and the consequences should not be minimised. Many people were hurt by the project’s ultimate failure.

Does that mean it should not have been attempted? Does it mean that the vision was unachievable? The art world, usually so quick to defend its ‘right to fail’, said little about a project it neither understood nor liked. For me, and despite the mistakes and the failures, The Public was a brave attempt to make Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s vision real by creating  a permanent Fun Palace in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. The idea of opening a first class arts space in such an area was already challenging: doing it in a way that valued all kinds of creativity was  too much. So, like Littlewood and Price before them, the Jubilee Arts team struggled to make their vision clear to the planners and funders. Graham Peet, who worked on the project from start to finish, writes on a legacy website:

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders. In the end that question stopped being asked. It had become obvious to hundreds of thousands of visitors what it was for. It was about making West Bromwich a better place to live.

The people of West Bromwich did not have the same difficulty. I visited the project several times during its troubled life and though the problems were plain enough, I thought that, with time and support, The Public could succeed. What always impressed me was seeing place full of local people discovering and enjoying art. These were very different visitors than those I might see in a conventional art gallery – local people, curious and open-minded, appreciative of what the strange pink building could offer them. They came not despite but because of the mix of art and activity that made The Public so incomprehensible to the art world. Work by Tracey Emin, Allan Ahlberg, Martin Parr, Shazia Mirza, Jeremy Deller, John Akomfrah, Jenny Eclair and countless others rubbed shoulders with that of young artists, amateur and craft groups, students and school children. And that made perfect sense to the people of West Bromwich.

‘My roots are in West Brom I just loved all of the photographs as they captured every aspect of the wonderful, warm hearted Black Country people. Thank you. I shall revisit the Public again and again’

(Comment left by a visitor to Martin Parr’s exhibition)

It didn’t quite work, yet – but it was on its way to working. Its closure was a sad moment for many people, including me. It also seemed to underline how difficult it is to do something actually different. We’re told nowadays to ‘Think outside the box’ – such a cliché – but try to think creatively, though, really leave existing assumptions, and you’ll soon find the boundaries.

Joan Littlewood would have understood The Public, I think. She would have recognised too the difficulty of getting the powerful to accept such a different idea. Was it worth the cost?

…Part 4 tomorrow

More information

  • The Public Story, a website by Graham Peet and Linda Saunders, with whose permission the second block of photographs is included.