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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Hands across the dangerous sea

Lampedusa Mirrors 2One 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.

For now, here is a short documentary about one of last year’s Tandem Shaml projects, a collaboration between Eclosion d’artistes (Tunis) and Teatro dell’Argine (Bologna).

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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.

 

Radical Vulnerability – The Making of Art Lady

The remarkable comes in all shapes and sizes. Last week it was an inspired performance of Mozart by prison inmates. Today, it’s one artist’s work with residents of a sheltered housing scheme on the south coast of England.

Eve Turner-Lee - 4It’s not the project itself that caught my attention – similar work happens across the world – it was how the artist, Eve Turner-Lee, has recorded, thought about and shared her work. One reason for beginning ‘A Restless Art’ is my sense that practice – what artists actually do when they work with people – is not thought or talked about enough . In publishing The Making of Art Lady, a 32 page A4 comic documenting her project, Eve has produced a rich resource for students and artists who are thinking of working with people in similar contexts – and a rare portrait of her own developing practice.

Art Lady is an unusual superhero – gentle and domestic, in keeping with the challenges she confronts, and none the worse for that. But, in common with some of her comic book peers, she is assailed by self-doubt and ethical dilemmas as she learns how to be an ‘inclusive artist’. The comic, like the project it follows, were undertaken as part of Eve’s MA studies. Looking back at the experience, she told me:

‘I felt I was researching both ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ Inclusive Arts. Participatory arts practice was new to me having previously studied Fine Art and aspired to be a ‘solo visual artist’. I found working with others profoundly inspiring. It replenished my enthusiasm and faith in arts practice (both my own and more generally).’

The comic follows the course of her work with seven people as they explore art’s possibilities together. Very early, the project takes a sidestep, when one person wants to do something with a puppet she has made in a workshop with another artist. It’s not uncommon to find that one group member has different desires and the story of how those are fulfilled while also meeting everyone else’s interests is honestly told. In explaining why she chose the comic book format to reflect on the project as it evolved, Eve says that one of her discoveries was that film, which she also used to document the project, was not very approachable to the participants:

‘Many seemed to put it off with the intention of watching it with someone but never finding the right moment. On the pilot project, I had given them all booklets with images of the work we made and I found this a much more accessible and popular format for them.

A commitment to reflexive practice is not unusual (though it’s more often honoured by words than deeds). What impressed me about Eve’s approach was how she extended that commitment to the people she was working with, even to the extent of adopting an entirely new medium through which to practice art as research.

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It takes courage to speak about your feelings to those you work with. To share the work not just with your tutor and fellow students but with the world is something else. Many readers will empathise with the artist bullied by dark fears about competence that crowd into some of the frames. But the comic is also honest about how a project develops, when things don’t work or when good ideas emerge by accident rather than intention. One of the most powerful pages describes Art Lady handling a situation where one participant’s judgement undermines another member of the group.

It is one story, of one project, but it is precisely its particularity that makes it worth reading.

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For an outsider, the comic has the admirable quality of demystifying what actually happens when an artists works with people.  Good community art practice strips away the mystification that makes the artist into a magician (with all the power that brings) while preserving art’s true mystery which is, as Art Lady finds, that you can’t control it so you never know where it will take you.

Done well, as it is here, it’s a kind of radical vulnerability that creates space for the best work to happen. This is a complex issue, at the heart of how an artist establishes relationship with the people she works with. Finding ways to accept and share one’s own vulnerability – honestly – can be a path towards a more equal power distribution within the group.

‘Integrate life and work and friendship’

Integrate life and work and friendship. Don’t tie yourself to institutions. Live cheaply and you’ll remain free. And then, do whatever it is that gets you up in the morning.

Those words come from an early manifesto written by Amber Collective in 1968. Guided by those principles, Amber has gone on to produce a remarkable body of film and photography work that celebrates working people’s lives and culture. Based in North East England, the group has recorded the final years of industrial society on Tyneside and the emergence of its complex, fragmented successor. Not all their work is obviously ‘participatory’ but the group’s values and commitment, undiminished after nearly 50 years, are a beacon of socially engaged arts practice and deserve to be much better known.

You can read about them here as the first Case Study goes online, or download a PDF version by clicking on the link below:

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An unspoken contract

‘For me It’s an inquiry into an aspect of life that I don’t know about [that] I’m curious about it. I’m interested in looking at my own prejudices – that’s why it’s about yourself in a way.  But it’s also attempting to reflect and record on behalf of a culture something which is important to them and accurate for them, so that a dialogue can take place. What that  means, really, is that you have to engage with those communities or those individuals and say things about their lives which you believe to be accurate and ultimately they believe to be accurate, however difficult those statements are. At the end of the day the success or failure of a piece of work by Amber is the community you make it about looks at it and says “That’s right”.’

Murray Martin worked in NE England from 1969 until his death in 2007, making films with and about working people. A founder member of Amber Film and Photography Collective he did much to establish the group’s principles and working methods. These words – slightly edited here for ease of reading – are taken from an interview he gave in 2004, parts of which feature in The Pursuit of Happiness, a film made by Amber to celebrate Martin’s life, work and values.