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.

2 – A Fun Palace reimagined in Farnham

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Farnham is a handsome market town in Surrey, an ancient place with a castle, Roman roads and hill forts. It is 45 miles from Joan Littlewood’s East London, where she fought to build The Fun Palace, but it seems a world away. London changes continually – the Olympic Park has replaced the post-war wastelands where artists and local kids once explored other worlds – but Farnham is continuity England, evolution not revolution. It’s hard to imagine Littlewood liking it much – if she ever came here.

But appearances can be deceptive, though we forget it. After all, Farnham sided with Parliament in the Civil War, and it was the home of William Cobbett, the great radical writer and MP, who would surely have enjoyed arguing with Littlewood. It’s also a town with a long interest in arts and crafts. Farnham School of Art opened in 1866 and it continues as part of the University for the Creative Arts. And in 1961, just as Joan Littlewood was imagining her Fun Palace, Farnham opened a free museum in a fine Georgian house on West Street. With its emphasis on local history, the Museum of Farnham probably felt more palace than fun to its first visitors. Still, in common with Littlewood, the museum wanted to involve people more in culture. The question is how.

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Half a century later, these two strands of thinking about the place of art in people’s lives have come together: the Museum of Farnham is hosting a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of volunteers has been given the run of the Garden Gallery, an attractive wood and glass building that is the museum’s education space, and everyone is welcome. When I get there, at lunchtime on a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, I can already hear happy voices.

There’s so much going on that it has spilled out onto the verandas, where children are busy making hand prints on paper. Round the corner, Bridget Floyer asks visitors to add themselves to a map of local creativity, as she develops her ideas about participatory art. Inside, Farnham Art and Design Education Group are hosting a Big Draw event; elsewhere people cluster round tables to make things with clay or from melted plastic. There are lots of families, and if the parents are often helping their kids, they’re having no less fun. Generous provision of refreshments makes a hospitable atmosphere as people move from one activity to another. Farnham’s radicalism is not forgotten either. I talk with members of the local Amnesty International group and sign petitions about refugees and political prisoners in distant lands.

Meanwhile, in the main building, Wendy Richardson is talking about Joan Littlewood with  Christine Jackson, who worked with her on Bubble City in 1968 and many other projects. Richardson has just completed a film, ‘In the Company of Joan’, which would have been shown too, but there are too many people having too much noisy fun to make that possible so, recognising what’s important today, that plan has been abandoned. Still, we get more time for conversation and it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of imaginative play and the creative freedom that can be found – paradoxically –when no one is interested in you. Christine Jackson evokes a world in which people do things because they want to, not to fulfil a carefully worked out strategy or meet a funder’s targets. And if that includes setting out to build a hovercraft, well – why not, if that’s what the young people are excited to do? At worst, you’ll discover that it’s beyond your resources, but you can have a fantastic time finding that out, and you might find what it is that you can do. This is art, science, creativity. This is fun.

And this is the heart of the Fun Palace idea: the spirit of saying ‘Yes!’.

That’s not naïve or careless. But it is the opposite of trying to persuade people to be interested in your ideas, a common trap for arts policy today. It’s knowing that good work begins with our desires – something that artists usually remember where their own work is concerned. We all have to adapt our desires to reality, but that’s the essence of learning: me in the world, exercising agency and discovering its limits and consequences.

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The photos I took at Farnham are pretty dull. Photography struggles to capture a creative workshop because what matters is invisible. What matters is the experience people get when they mould a piece of clay for the first time, or discover what oil pastel does, or see plastic cord soften with heat and become capable of making an expressive line, your line, that you drew. That experience cannot be shown. Six people sitting in a room, talking about long past events, make for a dull photograph. But being there, being part of the conversation – that was a great experience.

Art is only ever a route to experience of connecting minds. The object – painting, book, recording – is easily fetishized but it only matters because it has been charged by its maker(s) with the power to communicate, move, teach… Because the object is photogenic and tangible it is easily mistaken for what is happening, for art itself.

A Fun Palace is not in children’s drawings or happy faces: it is in discovering that you too can be an artist, and that no one else can be the artist you can be. That is an empowering experience, whatever you make of it.

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Part 3 tomorrow

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I’m very grateful to Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace for their welcome, openness and encouraging me to have fun…

Time in participatory and community art

Time is an important factor in differentiating in participatory and community art. The shorter the project, the less potential for the participants to influence its development. People may share a meal with an artist in a gallery or stand naked in the street to be photographed but their influence on the resulting work is marginal. Such works do not require participants to have or use any artistic knowledge or ability. Their experience, feelings or individuality are not required. One participant could be replaced by another and it would make no substantive difference to the art.

A project that develops over weeks, months or – as in the case of Granby 4 Streets – years has another character. Here, relations can become relationships. There is a basis for real negotiation between artist and participant. Power relations may shift as people acquire (or take) knowledge, skills, resources or consciousness. Time allows an art project to become developmental. The work is under no one’s complete control because it is impossible to know how it will evolve. It can only be the product of a genuine process of co-creation.

There are traps in durational work just as intense moments have transformative potential. It’s also true that short events can be the artistic marker of a long process of shared creation (as in the festival below). It would be simplistic to equate time and quality in a binary fashion. That said,  longer term work has always held most interest for me.

Note: The images on this page offer contrasting representations of Eastern Europe. At the top is ‘Total Chaos’ an immersive art project by artists collective Reactor which took place over four days in 2006. At the bottom the photos are from a 2003 Living Heritage project in Bulgaria developed by local people over a year that gathered hundreds of people to celebrate the ties of a community dispersed by economic and social change.

Murals, craft and community art in the 1980s

My early steps in community art

In 1982, I got a job as a community arts worker on a council estate in Newark-on-Trent. My only qualification was a year’s apprenticeship at Greenwich Mural Workshop (thank you, Gulbenkian Foundation, for that investment). At Greenwich, I’d been trained in running a community printshop and painting murals, as well as learning about community art. So, of course, I set up a community printshop and began work on some mural projects.

Screenprinting was fast and fun. With a little help, people who’d not made a picture since leaving school could produce a stack of colourful prints in a couple of sessions. But, even in the new community centre where I was based, there wasn’t the need for posters there had been in London, where they spread ideas and fashion as well as publicising  events. Most people enjoyed the experience once but didn’t want to make any more of it.

It was much harder to get people involved in the mural work. The first, in a primary school playground, was simple enough – two dragons facing off over a pile of gold. The image came from the idea that their scales could be applied by small children using sponges rather than paintbrushes. It worked all right, in the days before the SATs tests and the national curriculum, with teachers happy to send out four or five kids at a time to do some painting for an hour.

The next two murals were indoors, small and simple: I came up with a design that could be painted without much skill. A clown on the wall of a youth club was completed in a day by teenagers, a Fernand Léger-inspired work scene  was done in a training centre, but it was painting by numbers and without artistic merit.

The Appletongate Mural

The most ambitious project was begun in 1983, when I was asked for a mural on the gable wall of building on Appletongate, in the town centre. The work was far beyond my abilities as a painter, so I brought in two local artists. Nadia Nagual (who’d worked with me on the dragons) and Bill Ming. The next 18 months were a struggle to secure funds to pay them while we worked on designs and a public consultation, with the help of the local paper.

We applied to the Mural Funds administered by the Royal Academy with the confidence and naivety of youth, and a gentleman came up from London to meet us and view the site; the decision was negative. We did get some Arts Council funds but couldn’t pay for scaffolding. Then Heather, the brilliant local woman who worked with me part-time (nominally as a administrator but really as a fixer), persuaded a couple of local companies to install it for nothing. Finally the project could happen: Bill, Nadia and I spent most of that spring and summer with our faces to the wall.

And that’s what convinced me there were better ways of doing community art. In the project’s 1985 Annual Report, I wrote:

The work was a sort of hybrid between public art and community art: most of Bill and Nadia’s wages came from an ACGB Art in Public Places grant – more usually spent on shopping precincts sculpture. We did get a few of the more adventurous people climbing the scaffolding, braving both the height, and the wet, to paint; some ten children painted areas they could reach from the first stage of scaffolding.

It wasn’t just the scale of the mural, which took months of drawing and painting. It wasn’t even the challenge of having people working on boards fifty feet above the ground. The problem was the skill needed to paint the work. The design has been chosen from four alternatives printed in the local press, but it was our ideas. It was inevitably rather anodyne, given its position in a historic market town, though the inclusion of a non-white figure drew a certain amount of comment at the time. And when it came to the work itself, we were back to painting by numbers, asking the few people who were willing to take part to fill in flat colour. The final mural was indeed ‘much appreciated’ as I subsequently wrote in the Annual Report. It just wasn’t community art.

By then, however, my work on the estate had changed a lot. The screenprinting equipment had been mothballed and that same year we did two community plays, a Welfare State inspired fireshow, a video film with a primary school and shadow puppets with a disability group. We also published a monthly newsletter, ran a creative writing group and had Open Thursdays at the community centre for retired people – and there was more.

By working with other artists – theatre companies, photographers, puppeteers, musicians – the limits of my own skills ceased to matter and people could do whatever creative work they were interested in. Much later, I saw that I’d become a kind of creative producer. Appletongate was the last mural I worked on.

Visual art and community art

These memories – and the excavation of old photographs –  were prompted by seeing the Appletongate mural again, 30 years after it was completed. It’s partly hidden by trees now, and a big section was lost when roadworks caused the render to fall. But there is not a mark on it, and it’s not much faded, which says a lot for the acrylic paint we used.

Visual art has travelled far since 1985. New technology has enabled artists to respond to profound socio-political change with equally novel methods. The performative and interactive possibilities of visual art have become central to many artists’ practice – often with the label ‘participatory’. The theories that made printmaking and murals attractive to early community artists – including their supposed resistance to commodification – have become less relevant as the same technologies have widened access to the means of artistic production and distribution. They’ve also become less credible, at least to many artists, with the rise of the creative industries and the market culture. Nowadays, people will chip a Banksy off the wall to get it in an auction.

Some of these changes have made it easier to use visual art in participatory, if not quite community arts, practice. But the underlying challenge remains: it takes knowledge, time, skill and experience to create good visual art. Those qualities, which might be summed up as ‘craft’, may now be undervalued but that’s a mistake. They confer power, even if technology can bring visual expression closer to our reach.

One of community art’s best strategies for overcoming a weakness in craft is collective creation. A group of people can produce extraordinary work because they each bring something to the process, especially if they include some trained and experienced artists. It was perhaps always easier to do that in the performing arts, which are naturally collective encounters, and many visual artists – like John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State – gravitated in that direction.

But the visual is fundamental to human experience and communication. We need imaginative artists to reinvigorate it in community and participatory art practice, especially at a time when our eyes are saturated with the imagery produced by merely commercial interests.

This is what we look like after 30 years. To see Bill’s recent work, click here: Against The Tide.

Thank you, Kwikfit and Henderson’s scaffolders, and Dacrylate,Johnstone’s, Earnshaws and Mebon, paint-makers, wherever you are now, and ACGB for £1400.

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My flyer for an evening discussion about the problems of painting murals

Older artists working with older people

The Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has prioritised arts work with older people since 2009, supporting the a huge range of work in the UK and Northern Ireland. It has all been participatory, though that word has covered an equally broad range of practice, much of described in a rich library of free publications.

The latest project that is now coming to fruition is a series of commissions for older artists – not necessarily people with an established practice in participatory work. I’ve just seen these two contrasting films in which Ron Haselden (commissioned by Fabrica in Brighton) and Robert Race (commissioned by New Brewery Arts in Cirencester) talk about their very different work. They’re short but fascinating insights into ways of working with people – and the artworks are beautiful.

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.

And the 2015 Turner Prize goes to… community art

‘If art isn’t about people and humanity, then what is it about?’

Hazel Tilley BBC Newsnight

The annual Turner Prize, established ‘to celebrate new developments in contemporary art’, is known for controversy. The debate usually turns on the question of whether the prize winner has exhibited art, rather than the more meaningful one of how good it is. This year has been different because the question being asked is whether the prize winners are even artists. And it is mostly being asked within the art world.

Assemble is a group of young architects, designers and activists who work with people to revive the places where they live. In just four years, they have created spaces for theatre and cinema, playgrounds and workshops.  Some of their work produces objects with obvious aesthetic intent, such as decorative fittings, but mostly it’s either very practical or social, intangible and also, in its way, very practical. It is a living example that there is no need to choose between use and ornament. It is also a great example of community art.

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Assemble was shortlisted for Granby Four Streets, a neighbourhood renewal project in Liverpool. Brought in by the Community Land Trust to work with residents who have battled for years to save their homes from neglect or demolition, the group have applied their skills to creating a sustainable vision for the area rooted in its tangible and intangible cultural heritage. So far, 10 houses have been renewed and a community workshop established in which people can make things that will contribute to the renovation of more buildings.

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Crucially – though this isn’t mentioned in most of the current media coverage – Assemble describe themselves as ‘build[ing] on the hard work already done by local residents’. This was not some bright idea by a group of artists but creative support for what a community had already achieved. In that sense, though the form and approach belong to 2015, the work in Granby Four Streets echoes that of many community artists working in the 1970s and 1980s. The words of Joseph Halligan, one member of Assemble, could equally have been said 40 years ago:

‘I think the idea that art is something that can only be created by someone that declares themselves an artist is maybe not the best thing. I believe that anyone can create art, and art should be for everyone.’

What makes community art practice different – and important –is that you don’t need to be an artist to do it, even to initiate it: you just need to make art. That is still a surprisingly controversial idea.

This report from BBC Newsnight gives an outsider’s perspective on Assemble’s work.

And this blog post gives a glimpse of the same experience from the other side. I tip my hat to Assemble and to the residents and campaigners of Granby Four Streets: prize winners all.

Hope in dark days: participatory art in Greece

The crisis in Greece has slipped from the front pages as others, even more urgent, force themselves on Europe’s consciousness. The desperate seek refuge here from war, often dying in their flight; their enemies follow with everyone in their sights. But while we struggle with these new realities, the old ones remain. The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis continue years after the event, and nowhere is this clearer, and harsher, than in Greece.

Kathéreptis Athens - 1Last Friday, under the auspices of Culture Action Europe, Agenda 21 for Culture and the British Council, a number or Greek artists and cultural actors met in Athens. They came to talk about mutuality, civil society and what place art and culture might have in the life of the city. That it took months of discussion to get this far is one sign of how much damage has been done over the past seven years.

When there is no money for pensions, what will be left for culture?

The artists I met in Greece work for nothing, subsidising their creative activity with other jobs: one spoke of getting €235 for six weeks of rehearsal and performance. People share their parents’ pensions and work seven days a week without knowing if they can meet their bills each month. Artists, Greek friends, taxi drivers – everyone I spoke to faced the same problems and had been doing so for years. The consequence is a palpable sense of exhaustion, fear and mistrust. Athens, I was told, is emptying as those who can leave in hope of finding something better elsewhere.

Kathéreptis Athens - 3

Despite this grim context, the meeting, to which I’d been invited to offer an external reflection, was one of the most constructive and enjoyable I’ve taken part in. Called Kathréptis (‘mirror’ in Greek) it asked if culture could play a role in helping civil society respond to the difficulties it was going through. The debate avoided the easy ground of culture’s value or the need to engage people; nor did I hear anyone talking up their own projects. Instead people grappled with how to build trust and find new approaches to the deep and complex problems everyone knew. The atmosphere was intense and thoughtful, but also cautiously positive.

In individual conversations, I began to learn about some of the rich work being done with communities, despite lack of funds or institutional support. The next day I visited Urban Dig, in their temporary home at the old Bageion Hotel for the Athens Biennale.

Urban Dig Athens

This group of artists, architects, engineers and activists has changed its work profoundly as a consequence of the crisis, energised by new ways of working with community groups. Elsewhere in the building, people were discussing alternative economies, urbanism, art and politics between the exhibits and installations. Later, I came across a project that is challenging negative images of Greece and mapping grassroots activism in the country, including  health, human rights and education groups: among them are 76 arts and culture projects.

This glimpse of art and community activism in a society under pressure was humbling. If it gave me a lot to think about, it also showed me, once again, how valuable  participatory/community art can be, even in – especially in – difficult situations. Below is a short video trailer for Urban Dig’s Dourgouti Island Hotel Project that offers another glimpse of that.