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.

Traditional music, young people and community in the Scottish Highlands

feisean-1996-matarasso-3

‘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.

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).

Lampedusa Mirrors 1

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.

 

Inspiring change – the arts and older people in Ireland

Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)
Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)

Bealtaine must be one of the happiest arts festivals I know. Founded in 1995, it involves thousands of older people from all over Ireland in arts workshops, performances and events. It’s organised by Age & Opportunity, with some Arts Council funding, a network of hundreds of local groups and an incalculable amount of volunteer effort and goodwill – most activities are organised independently by people in their own communities. There’s a special focus this year on County Clare, which has an admirable record of art work with older people, but there are events from Donegal to Cork and everywhere between. Concerts, theatre performances, workshops, exhibitions, visits, readings – there really is something for everyone. In all this, professional artists have a leading role but never at the expense of other participants: the festival celebrates the creativity and imagination of every person.

Like all good artistic projects Bealtaine also thinks hard about its work. This year there was a seminar exploring creative approaches to residential care. This is not my beautiful house allowed artists, architects and campaigners to share ideas and hear about existing and planned projects. I was impressed to meet three older ladies who had come from different parts of Ireland simply because they had read about the event in the Festival brochure. Arts conferences do not always feel so open to those whose experiences they discuss.

There were several examples of new ideas in residential care. Rodd Bond talked about the Great Northern Haven in Dundalk, Rosie Lynch presented the Callan Workhouse Union project and, from NE England, Susan Jones and Esther Salamon spoke about their ideas for independent creative living. I was glad to learn about McAuley Place, in Naas, Co. Kildare, an inspiring combination of residence, arts centre, community hub and tea room, which makes a place for older people at the heart of the town and art at the heart of the project.

This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016
This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016

A development like this shows what is possible when people shape their own services, but I also wondered how such exceptional places could change the far less happy conditions of residential care as a whole. It takes such energy, cash and commitment to bring a single one of these initiatives to life – how could that be replicated for the tens of thousands of people living in ordinary old people’s homes? One of Rodd’s slides was a photo of São Paulo showing a smart housing development next to a slum: how can we avoid creating such inequalities in residential services for older people? And I was moved by Rionach Ni Neill’s account of her Irish language dance work with dementia sufferers in rural Connemara. It is frequently an uphill struggle to get the gatekeepers and managers to understand how deeply the opportunity to dance can affect someone’s quality of life – particularly when their feelings cannot be heard, but only seen in their faces or the energy of their movement.

Part of the answer is in that important (if sometimes over-used) word, ‘inspiring’.

Projects like McAuley Place and the Callan Workhouse Union show what can be done. They raise expectations and challenge us all – not just those responsible for policy and services – to think again and do better. They don’t just put an argument for the arts in making old age a time of learning, happiness and creativity – they enact it as a reality. Every town needs its McAuley Place, but each one of them should be different because it reflects the ideas and dreams of its community.

Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival
Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival

That’s the model of Bealtaine – a festival that encourages creative participation by inviting people to join in, not laying on some activities for them. Each year Bealtaine inspires new people to do for themselves what they have witnessed elsewhere. That’s how a festival has become a movement: this May some 120,000 people will participate – something like 20% of everyone over 65 years old in Ireland.* It has also inspired the creation of Luminate, Scotland’s own creative ageing festival, which marks its fifth anniversary in October.

In 2009, the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology published an evaluation of Bealtaine, which concluded that:

‘Bealtaine has had a profound and very visible impact on arts practice in Ireland at national and local level, despite having very limited resources. The festival provides opportunities for meaningful engagement in the arts among older people, both as artists and participants. […] There is compelling evidence that participation is empowering and transformative and that self-reported physical and psychological well-being is enhanced at an individual level. Bealtaine has proven itself to be a major positive force for the well- being of older people in Ireland.’

One person quoted in the report says: ‘The existence of the festival creates expectations and these expectations increase every year’. We don’t make change alone but good work inspires others to run away with the idea and make something more for themselves. We inspire change by raising expectations – our own and everyone else’s too.

PS The West Yorkshire Playhouse has just published a guide to Dementia Friendly Performances,which you can download here: another way of inspiring change.

* The 2011 census recorded 535,393 people aged over 65 living in Ireland: not all the Bealtaine participants are over 65 but it still reaches a remarkable proportion of Ireland’s older population.

La creatividad y coraje: community art in Spain

las_muchas

ver más abajo para leer este texto en español…

A performance about bodies and long lives opened Spain’s annual conference on social inclusion and the performing arts in A Coruña’s Teatro Rosalía Castro this week. Created by Mariantònia Oliver, with older women in Mallorca, including her own mother, ‘Las Muchas’ was moving and joyful. Oliver integrated her own solo performance with video of those who’d inspired the work and performances by nine local women who made the piece for this performance. Like all good participatory art, it was a shared creation that could only exist because of what each person contributed to it. A gifted choreographer might make a work on this subject without involving non-professional dancers in their 70s and 80s – but not this one.

It was a great start to this event, which has grown from a one day conference in 2009 to three days of talks, workshops and performances involving people active in participatory and community arts from across Spain. A glimpse of this a couple of years ago, in Seville, alerted me to the artistic energy of Southern Europe. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere, artists are working with vulnerable and marginalised people: migrants, the unemployed, prisoners, people with disabilities and others. Perhaps it was chance that the first Jornada happened at the height of the financial crisis, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unemployment haunted the second evening’s performance, ‘Vida Laboral‘ (Working Life), developed by Claudia Faci with three local men who gave extraordinary performances drawing on their lived experience.

Las Jornadas - 2

If this creativity has a new energy, it also has long roots. In Barcelona, Xamfra has been making inclusive music in Raval for 15 years, while TransFORMAS has been making theatre with communities in the city for almost as long. Here in Galicia, Grupo Chevère was founded in1988 and has been evolving a practice that has moved steadily towards  ever stronger community ownership, as in their recent production, by, with and about shopkeepers. Among the newer organisations is Teatro de Consciencia, which uses theatre as a space to develop empathy and reconciliation.

There are many similar experiences, from institutions to small companies, among the 250 conference participants. I kept meeting people who were thrilled to discover that they were part of a community – even a movement. They share a passion for community art, a creativity in approaching it and a readiness to imagine afresh how it is done and why. No one should underestimate Spain’s economic crisis, nor its impact of every aspect of life here. But these artists are responding with imagination, courage and hope. In doing that, they are helping renew participatory arts practice for European societies also in need of renewal.

With great thanks to Eva Garcia and all the organizers who welcomed me with such generosity, helped open doors and interpret what I couldn’t understand.

Las Jornadas - 1

En español…

Una actuación sobre los cuerpos y las largas vidas abrió la conferencia anual de España sobre la inclusión social y las artes escénicas en el Teatro Rosalía de Castro en  A Coruña esta semana. Creado por Mariantònia Oliver, con mujeres de edad en Mallorca, incluyendo a su propia madre, ‘Las Muchas‘ se movían contentas. Oliver integra su propia actuación en solitario con vídeos que inspiraron su trabajo y actuaciones con nueve mujeres locales que hicieron la pieza para esta actuación. Como todo buen arte participativo, era una creación compartida que sólo podía existir debido a lo que cada persona contribuyó a ella. Un coreógrafo dotado podría hacer un trabajo sobre este tema sin la participación de bailarines no profesionales con 70 y 80 años – pero no lo conocemos.

Fue un gran comienzo para este evento, que ha pasado de un día de conferencias en 2009 a tres días de charlas, talleres y actuaciones que asocien a profesionales de las artes participativas y comunitarias de todo España. En un vistazo que dí hace un par de años, en Sevilla, me alertó de la energía artística del sur de Europa. En España, Portugal, Grecia y en otros lugares, los artistas están trabajando con las personas vulnerables y marginadas: los inmigrantes, los parados, los presos, las personas con discapacidad y otras personas. Tal vez fue casualidad que la primera Jornada ocurriera coincidiendo con la crisis financiera, pero no se siente como del mismo modos. El desempleo rondaba la propuesta de la segunda noche, ‘Vida Laboral‘ , desarrollado por Claudia Faci con tres hombres locales que presentaron una actuación extraordinaria basándose en su experiencia vivida.

Esta creatividad no solo tiene una nueva energía, sino que también tiene raíces largas. En Barcelona, Xamfra ha estado haciendo música desde el Raval durante 15 años, mientras que TransFORMAS ha estado haciendo teatro con las comunidades en la ciudad por casi el mismo tiempo. Aquí en Galicia, Grupo Chevère fue fundada en 1988 y ha ido evolucionando de una práctica que se ha movido constantemente una identificación cada vez más fuerte con la comunidad, como en su producción reciente, por, con y sobre los comerciantes. Entre las organizaciones más nuevas está Teatro de Consciencia, que utiliza el teatro como un espacio para desarrollar la empatía y la reconciliación.

Hay muchas experiencias similares, de las instituciones a las pequeñas empresas, entre los 250 participantes de la conferencia. Seguí el cumplimiento de las personas que estaban encantados de descubrir que eran parte de una comunidad – incluso un movimiento. Comparten la pasión por el arte comunitario, la creatividad para acercarse a esta y la disposición para imaginar de nuevo cómo se hace y por qué. Nadie debe subestimar la crisis económica de España, ni su impacto en todos los aspectos de la vida. Pero estos artistas están respondiendo con imaginación, coraje y esperanza. Al hacer esto, están ayudando a renovar la práctica de artes participativas para las sociedades europeas también en necesidad de renovación.

Con un excelente agradecimiento a Eva García y todos los organizadores que me han acogido con tanta generosidad, ayudado a abrirme las puertas e interpretar lo que no podía “entender”.

 

 

‘Art in Public Space in Egypt’ by Heba El-Cheikh

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. 

To download the essay as a PDF, click on this link, or carry on reading…

 

Audiences and Art in the Public Space in Egypt: Why we do what we do

Heba el-Cheikh

 ‘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).

Photo by Mohamed Kamal, courtesy Mahatat for contemporary art
Photo by Mohamed Kamal, courtesy Mahatat for contemporary art

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?[1] 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.

Mahatat - 5
Photo by Ahmed Najib, courtesy Mahatat

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.

Mahatat - 3
Photo by Rana El-Nemr, courtesy Mahatat

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.’

Photo by Malek Eissa courtesy Mahatat
Photo by Malek Eissa, courtesy Mahatat

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.

Photo by Ahmed Najib , courtesy Mahatat
Photo by Ahmed Najib , courtesy Mahatat

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.

 

[1]      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.

The difficulty of thinking outside of the box

Spare Tyre Productions 2
Spare Tyre production, Feeble Minds, 2009 (© Patrick Baldwin)

Community and participatory art has long roots in Britain. Its practice owes much to ideas that were developed in the 1960s and to policy pressures of the 1980s and 1990s. That long evolution has many strengths – it’s a rich field involving thousands of activists that supports a complex debate about participatory art. There’s probably more research and analysis published on it here than in any other European country.

But there are drawbacks to this weighty history too. In particular, it can be hard to escape the terms of a debate that is so well established. That struck me as I read a short report on participatory art in London published a few years ago by Arts Council England. It’s a useful introduction to the issues, based on a review of 13 excellent participatory arts organisations, such as Cardboard Citizens,  Streetwise Opera and Entelechy Arts. It asks what they have in common and what difficulties they face, before suggesting some solutions.

But the report’s analysis is framed in conventional terms, including familiar distinctions between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ value of art activity, and between ‘process’ and ‘product’. It worries whether the work has ‘true artistic merit’ without asking what that phrase means. And its solutions – better evaluation, learning and advocacy – are also conventional: they have been proposed for many years in British policy discourse.

These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are specific to the culture and country in which they are being discussed. My recent conversations with artists in Greece, Serbia, Portugal or Holland have not turned on these questions because the context for their work has been so different. In other words, the way participatory art is imagined in Britain is shaped by how everything else is imagined in Britain.

We talk all the time of ‘thinking outside the box’, seeming not to notice that the phrase itself is a cliché. It is really hard to think outside the framework of beliefs and assumptions that make up our own culture and identity. Mostly we don’t feel the need to do it much, if at all. But artists, whose work aims to be creative – which means making something new – need to be better at it than most of us. And not only in their artistic practice, but in how that practice is conceived and discussed.

One way of doing that is in dialogue with artists who work in different places and other ways. It can be challenging, but also liberating, to discover that other people don’t see evaluation as a way to convince funders – or may not even see those funders as desirable partners in the first place. Thinking outside the box begins with wondering whether we’re even asking the right questions.

Adult Participatory Arts

Nothing but the best

I’ve often heard that high artistic standards are unattainable, or even unimportant in socially engaged work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two experiences during my visit to Lisbon last week reminded me why.

ChapitôChapitô - 1 is a circus theatre school established over 30 years ago by Teresa Ricou, better known as the clown, Tété. It now occupies a former prison and orphanage, close to Lisbon castle and has 120 students who complete their high school education while learning circus skills. Chapitô’s remarkable story will be a case study in due course, but for now it’s their commitment to high standards I want to highlight. Some of teenagers at the circus school have had a very difficult start in life. Chaotic family lives, drugs and crime have all taken their toll. In such circumstances, it’s natural to make allowances, to have some flexibility in how you work with people trying to overcome huge struggles.

But that’s not the same thing as lowering your artistic standards. The fact is that it’s not possible to learn aerialism or acrobatics without discipline. It is physically and intellectually demanding: carelessness might lead to injuries or worse. Clowning may not be dangerous, but it only works when it is beautifully and rigorously performed: anything less and it can be a bit embarrassing. Whatever troubles affect a young person’s life, circus training demands the highest concentration and commitment. Chapitô’s success lies in inspiring young people with a desire to learn that is strong enough to help them find – in themselves –the commitment to be the best. The discipline of circus becomes a self-discipline. The social change that has transformed the lives of so many students here is inseparable from the demands and excitements of great circus performance.

Next day, I met with members of the Gulbenkian Music Department and orchestra to talk about community engagement. Among other things, I heard about a rehearsal concert given by a string quartet in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Lisbon. It was a new departure for musicians and audience alike and there understandable nervousness. In this uncertain atmosphere, the leader instinctively felt the need to break some concert hall conventions by inviting each musicians to introduce themselves and talk about what they were offering before they began playing. This small, human, but respectful, gesture was enough to lay a foundation of trust. It opened a space for a performance of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. And far from vanishing during the hour as the musicians had feared, the audience stayed and talked enthusiastically with them afterwards.

Gulbenkian Orchestra - 1

A three year professional training for teenagers and a short performance by a string quartet might seem to have little in common. It’s true that, in approach and duration. they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of socially engaged arts. And yet they share a commitment to the highest standards of art in their very different forms. On one level, that should go without saying. After all, if you believe in the value of art, why would you offer a second or third rate version to people who have little or no access to it?

The people you’re working with may face huge everyday challenges. They may have no experience of the art that is your life’s work and expertise. It doesn’t follow that they can only cope with some watered-down version, like children learning to have wine at table. All community and participatory art depends on relationship – and a relationship that is based on inequality has no future. To decide on their behalf and without their knowledge that another person can only manage second-best is patronising. An artist who thinks like that is unconsciously raising themselves above the people they hope to involve by believing that they know best when, of course, they just know some different things. The person they are working with knows different things too. Relationship, trust, co-creation, art, change – these things happen only when there is a level space in which people can meet.

We respect each other when we offer the best we have, not some insipid version that is all we think someone can manage. But it also lies in understanding that, in offering our best, we must also be willing to receive another person’s best and that means listening – really listening – to who they are.

Chapitô - 2

Against the odds: Opera in a Portuguese prison

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 1

The old carpentry workshop looks like something from Piranesi’s Carceri, which seems appropriate since it’s in the Youth Prison of Leiria (Portugal). The cavernous hangar is littered with old timber and unused machines: austerity means that no one learns woodwork here any more.

But on this wet Saturday afternoon, the place is packed. Two or three hundred people are crammed into one end of the hall; some of them have stood for more than two hours now. Between them and an improvised stage a chamber orchestra is playing a rhythmic, repetitive melody that underpins a riveting rap by thirty of the inmates who have just sung Mozart. The music builds insistently as they hand microphones to one another and perform in Portuguese, Creole, French and a little English, moving with the beat and savouring this moment that cements their two hour performance of Don Giovanni. A couple of young men have children on their shoulders, because wives and girlfriends have been allowed to join them on stage. There is a strange joyfulness, hard won and attenuated by suffering. Right now hope is strong, for these men, their families and for societies in need of reconciliation. One man waves a flag with the word ‘Liberdade’, freedom. With the performance’s climax comes a roar of applause and everyone is on their feet. Breathtaking. Unforgettable.

SAMP Don Giovanni Leiria 17

Artists often speak of the risks in their work and it’s true that creativity can be exposing. But if vulnerability may be more public for artists who read other people’s opinions of their work in the papers, it is familiar to every human being. One of the things that makes participatory art especially risky is that artists are asking others, including people who may live in situations of great vulnerability, to share in that process of exposure. These risks are taken on by people who may not know, at the outset, quite what they might be doing, how it might change them or what it might eventually cost.

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 4

The idea of putting on a Mozart opera with untrained singers in a prison is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The technical demands of the music are huge; the participants have no experience of staging musical theatre, or the language of opera; the facilities are negligible, the security issues immense and the politics fraught. The list of what could go wrong is very long and the risks taken by those inmates who take part largely incalculable. It is a tribute to the courage, imagination and professional abilities of SAMP and project director Paulo Lameiro that all those traps have been avoided on the path to this performance. (The openness of the Prison Service and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to the proposal should also be recognised.)

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 5

Months of workshops and rehearsals have enabled the participants to build the vocal skills to sing together the role of Leporello, the amoral Don’s servant. Some men even take on solos within the choral group. The staging, in modern dress, has been brilliantly imagined to make the site’s limitations part of the experience. The audience enters through a redundant ceramics workshop whose darkness is exploited to evoke the hell to which Don Giovanni is destined. Dissonant wails of brass, and writhing figures create an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of the best of Punchdrunk’s work. For the opera itself, the principal singers and orchestral musicians are professionals, but the Commendatore, assassinated in the first scene and returning to haunt Don Giovanni, is played by the prison’s director. Prison officers take minor roles or perform with the orchestra. This story of crime and retribution is played out by people who know its realities at first hand and from both sides.

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 7

In most participatory arts projects, the performance would be the culmination of the project. Not here, not today. Lameiro’s vision is not simply to put on an opera in a prison but to open new creative paths for all those involved. The workshops will resume after this performance, giving participants the chance to build on the experience. And dialogue is beginning with arts and cultural organisations in each person’s home town so that, as a man approaches his release date, there is a chance to continue working outside. What form those opportunities may take is still unknown: it may not be in opera or even classical music. But there will be support, interest and a possibility of inclusion.

So this project is only half way through and I shall follow its development in the months to come. My glimpse of the work and brief conversations with some of those involved have convinced me that –against the odds – something extraordinary has been happening here. There is a fuller account to be given, and much more to understand about how the work is being done, and that will follow in time. For now, I’m just grateful to have had a chance to experience the performance and meet some of those involved. Against the odds, they succeed triumphantly and I am full of admiration.

There’s a short introductory video to the project here (it has English subtitles and the images in the post are from the film):

 

 

Participatory art in Portugal

Two or three years ago, I began to hear about some of the participatory arts projects happening in Portugal and Spain. These are not countries I know well, though I was aware of the upheaval they have experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and the troubles of the Eurozone. What limited government funds there had been for this work seemed to be drying up and yet I was hearing about exciting, ambitious projects like Migranland, a production co-created by 14 migrants and the theatre director Àlex Rigola. At a conference in Seville, I met less celebrated artists who were doing equally imaginative work in often difficult conditions.

Two things seemed specially interesting in this work. First, its relationship with government was independent, even sometimes challenging. Secondly, its roots and ideas were not those I was familiar with from a British context, where decades of participatory art practice shapes so many assumptions. So, in planning ‘A Restless Art’ I was determined to involve artists working in other European cultures. With limited resources, I settled on the contrasting experiences of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal as the main focus, though I will look further afield. My limited knowledge of languages, other cultures and their histories makes this risky and exciting – but that’s not a bad test of whether something is worth doing.

On Thursday, thanks to the Gulbenkian Foundation, I’ll be in Lisbon to meet some of the artists who have been funded through their PARTIS programme, which aims to support social inclusion through the arts. Interestingly, it an initiative of the Human Development rather than the Arts programme, and so is a direct response to some of the social pressures faced by Portuguese people today. You can get a glimpse of some of these projects online in a series of short videos (with English subtitles for those, like me, with insufficient Portuguese). At the weekend, I’ll be seeing a Mozart opera performed by by young offenders of a prison as part of this programme: more later. In the meantime, here’s a short video about a photography project with young people in an education centre.