Traditional music, young people and community in the Scottish Highlands

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

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

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…

The difference between teaching and learning: Participatory art and the skills agenda

The value of participatory art in informal education has long been recognised. People who take part in such projects can gain all sorts of technical, practical, intellectual, creative and life skills. Many organisations working in the field know that from experience and have wanted to show it convincingly to politicians and the educational profession.

For the past two years, a group of community organisations from the UK, Spain, Poland, Greece and Bulgaria have been exploring how to relate what people learn through their projects to EU Key Competencies and Employment Skills. The short video above gives a good idea of the thinking involved. The SILO Partnership’s work was supported by researchers at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital. Among its valuable results is a comprehensive toolkit that will be useful to anyone needing to demonstrate clear learning outcomes of their work.

Still, this approach has its drawbacks, not least in the time needed to record individual progress. Whilst structured assessment is important in more formal contexts, I worry that it might encourage policy-makers to underestimate the value of informal learning. So, when I was invited to give a keynote at the SILO programme’s closing conference, I spoke not only about the many skills that people gain through participatory arts practice but also about why it is different and what might be lost in making it too much like college:

Sometimes people participating in an arts project are conscious that they are learning, because an artist or a workshop leader or another participant is showing them how to do something. But mostly they are learning without thinking about it, because they are caught up in the moment, focused on the creative work and its ideas, concerned with the story they are telling or the feelings they’re exploring, or concentrating on doing something difficult because it is needed for the project.

For those reasons, participatory art is a very effective space for learning. Since there’s no programme or curriculum, people make their own course, led by their interest and enthusiasm. They learn better by following their interests, curiosity and being in charge of their journey rather than being instructed or taught. We forget most of what we’re taught. We remember what we’ve learned.

Click here for the full text of my talk at the SILO Conference in Liverpool on 24 August 2016.

With thanks to all the organisations in the SILO partnership for inviting me to speak: