Keeping the art in focus

MEF Este Espaço Que Habito

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

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

20150728©eeqhMEF_184

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

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

20150728©eeqhMEF_153

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

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

20150907©eeqhMEF_088

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

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

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

20140707©eeqhMEF_435

Sharing control in participatory art

we-are-here-blackpool-1

Participatory art is normally spoken about in terms of how people are changed by being involved. There are problems (at least for me) with some of the assumptions behind that, but I’ll come back to them another time. Just now, I’m wondering why we don’t talk more about how the artists and organisations who want to do participatory work might change.

It’s a simple test. Does a theatre company or visual arts organisation developing a participatory project expect to be changed by doing it? Will the work itself be different – unpredictable even – because it has emerged from a participatory project? The answer varies, of course. Sometimes yes; sometimes no. Both can be good artistically and ethically – provided the terms of participation are clear and honest. But at the heart of the distinction is where control lies: is it held exclusively by the artist or can it be shared?

sea-of-hull

Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull project seems to be a project that might change the people who take part but not the professionals who create it. Like all his work, it involves asking people to be photographed naked in a city’s public spaces. In the latest version, the people were painted different shades of greenish blue – hence ‘Sea of Hull’. The resulting photographs are odd and rather beautiful, if somewhat repetitive. Being naked among strangers gave participants different feelings and thoughts: it could be challenging, liberating, simple or even understood politically. What seems clear though is that their contribution was limited to being there and doing what they were told. It would have made no substantive difference to the art if 3,000 other people had turned up for the photographs.

The same might be said of Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris’ commemoration of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, ‘we’re here because we’re here’. Again, thousands of volunteers stood silently in public places, in the uniform of British soldiers, waiting. This time the photographers were passers-by who shared their impressions on social media. The results are impressive and moving: the experience will surely stay with both participants and spectators for years. But again, the participants’ contribution was essentially their presence.

we-are-here-blackpool-2

The work of National Theatre Wales is very different. From its very creation in 2009 the organisation was shaped around the ideal of reaching everyone, everywhere in Wales – at least in principle. So, like the National Theatre of Scotland before it, NTW chose not to base itself in a theatre building. Its offices are in a shopping arcade in the centre of Cardiff. As a result, its productions have to be made in partnership, if only because a site is needed for them to happen in.

Some are professional shows. Some involve both professional and non-professional performers. Some are wholly created with and by communities. In the case of the last two – from huge productions like The Passion to The People’s Platform Merthyr – the work comes into being through the active creative input of participants. Each production is what it is only because of who is there.

In developing an approach rooted in co-creation, NTW has become a different kind of theatre company – but arguably one  better able to respond to the complex interests, identities and desires of contemporary communities. It might sell tickets, but it is not selling a pre-packaged product. Because its theatre is made with and often by its audiences, and in many different ways, its evolving story is one of shared exploration. NTW’s distinctive value lies in the work’s essential unpredictability. What will happen in the next year, in the next production, in the next performative moment is uncertain because the company is willing to share control.

ntw-merthyr

Participatory work can happen without sharing control and, as Sea of Hull and we’re here because we’re here’ show, it can be beautiful, moving and affect those who take part and who see it. It can be equally successful when artists commit to co-creation, shared authorship and listening to unheard voices. But it’s important not to underestimate what is different in these approaches and the different meanings and results they produce.

For me the most interesting and transformative work happens when artists share their authority – for the artists as much as anyone else. After all, if you’re always in control, the best you can hope for is to achieve what you’ve planned.

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.

The place of storytelling in participatory art

Is participatory art essentially about artists creating work from the raw material of other people’s life experience? That seems to be the view of some artists I’ve met recently. Their projects begin by identifying a neighbourhood or community seen to be in some kid of difficulty. A process of ‘research’ leads to collecting the stories, memories or experiences of the people who participate, to be retold in theatre, installation, or some other form to those who shared it, or to a wider audience.

Telling unheard stories is not a new practice. It was often the essence of community plays, a form once more popular than it is now. It has been at the centre of much community arts work, such as Amber Collective’s, and my own work: 25 years ago, I worked on a project that enabled people with mental health problems to create work about their lives, when a change in policy saw the hospital in which they were living close.* A belief in helping marginalised people use art for self-representation was at the heart of the community art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fireplace (Sydney Bowler)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Today, artists seem much readier to tell people’s stories on their behalf. I have seen some extraordinary work result from this, but I also wonder whether the gain in artistic virtuosity may be at the expense of other kinds of quality.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. They are both private and public, and it matters what we share, with whom, how and why. Our stories are never objective, even if we believe them absolutely. They shape our relationships and behaviour. Sometimes, they are keys that unlock rights or access services. Stories are central to art and art is central to how we create our stories.

No wonder artists invite people to share their stories in a participatory art project. No wonder too that doing so raises complex ethical, artistic and philosophical questions. What consent is sought and given? What promises are made or implied?  Do both sides have a common understanding of what they are doing? If it is in the nature of art to produce unanticipated results, what guarantees can an artist give about how a person’s story might be used or received? Similar ethical dilemmas arise in other fields, such as documentary filmmaking or academic research, but I wonder if participatory arts has yet developed a comparable reflection on them.

Refreshment Room (Aiden Hammer)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Then there is the question of how a story becomes art. Is it simply in the act of public presentation? Hardly, or the life stories continually retailed in the media would be art. Is it in the use of artistic techniques to retell it? Perhaps it is in being retold by an artist? But then who is an artist? Many community artists base their work in the idea that anyone can be an artist – which raises further questions, for another day – so how does a story change if it is told by a hired interpreter rather than the person whose experience it retells?

Is telling a story enough? Some artists take the view that it is, that the artwork is sufficient in itself and that their task is to reflect their lives to those who participated. Others argue that mirroring past or present realities should be a step towards debate about what might change. This is not just about politics or theory. It is also about art and whether what is created in a participatory process is rich and profound enough to stand without the context that produced it.

And finally, are stories essential to participatory art? Personally, I don’t think so. Art does not have to be narrative. Nor does it have to be rooted in lived experience. Participatory and community art has a far wider range of resources and languages to draw on than life stories, valuable as they are . Rituals, metaphors and symbols; inarticulate feelings, fears and dreams; private imaginations and public images; shared creation, shared memory – the possibilities are almost endless. I have many uncertainties about how and why artists use other people’s stories to make art but I’ve no doubt that it should only ever be one of the ways in which participatory art is created.

Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
  •  The photographs illustrating this post were made by participants in that project, working with the late Ross Boyd, a fine photographer and teacher . They were published in 1990 and 1991 in two books and toured the UK in an exhibition called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’.

‘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:

Launch, Amber, 1974

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.