‘Have I got to go somewhere?’

EM Shape, © the photographer - 1 (1)
Photograph taken by a non-professional artist supported by Ross Boyd and participating in the East Midlands Shape project, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ Derby (UK) 1989-1991

‘Care in the Community’ was a flagship policy of the third Thatcher government at the end of the 1980s. It proposed the replacement of residential hospitals caring for people with mental illness and learning disabilities by small community-based facilities and homes. This was a huge change. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people would have to leave places that might have been their home for years. The wider community had concerns too, with prominent media coverage of some incidents involving discharged mental patients.

At the time, I was with East Midlands Shape, a community art organisation working with disabled people and people living in hospitals, care homes and prisons. It seemed important to do something on this policy that affected the lives of so many of the people we worked with. The result was a project called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’, in  which residents of one hospital scheduled for closure could use art to reflect on their changing lives.

Over eighteen months – half at the hospital and half away from the site – writer Rosie Cullen and photographer Ross Boyd worked with members of this disintegrating community. Supporting people to write or make photographs was a painstaking, one-to-one process: gaining trust and working through people’s illness or disability, as well as the emotions raised by this enforced life change. Ross sometimes spent days with people before they decided what image they wanted to make. In all that time, fewer than a hundred photographs were finished, but each was like a diamond of compressed meaning. As time passed, people gained confidence and insight into their own creative work. More and more of them became involved, and the pile of poems, stories and memories grew steadily.

Poem for a Nurse © the author

Texts and images were collected into two books, one about life in the hospital and one about life outside, and a photographic exhibition that toured the UK. That show was installed for several weeks in the lobby of the Department of Health’s London headquarters. It was a symbolic way of ensuring that the voices of the people affected by the ‘Care in the Community’ would be heard where the decisions that transformed their lives was made.

Nearly 30 years later, the words and images of that community art project still move me. Some have an aesthetic quality equal to that achieved by professional writers and photographers. Even the least accomplished – and there aren’t many – have truth and authenticity. But the project wasn’t easy for anyone involved. There were tensions and controversies, such as the management’s objections to a patient’s account of treatment. We were told that the piece shouldn’t be published since mental illness made the person concerned an unreliable witness. But the facts were not the point: everyone has the right to tell their own story. The text stayed. Another decision still troubles me though. After much discussion, it was decided not to include some particularly disturbing images. There were good reasons for the choice, but I still don’t know if they were good enough.

Note: the photographs used to illustrate this text all come from the project, but I decided not to include any here that show people, or to name the photographers and writers: the people who made this work may feel differently about their privacy today. 

Art outside the art world

Scythe - 1.jpg

In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.

In unstable times, we need a restless art.


Why describe participation as a ‘restless’ art? My original reason was simply that the practice of professional artists involving others in their work has meant such different things over the years. It has grown exponentially since the emergence of community art in the 1960s and been interpreted differently in changing times, conditions, theories and cultures. A whole world separates a contemporary artist using participation in a gallery setting and a theatre of the oppressed workshop in a prison. Yet both are also connected by their use of participation, the relationship linking a professional and a non-professional in a creative act. It is not a problem if those involved don’t agree on what they are doing or why is. On the contrary, that disagreement is the creative tension that has made participatory art arguably the most vital expression of art practice today.


As I’ve worked on the project, meeting and listening to people, watching, reading and thinking, two further dimensions of its restlessness have become clearer to me. The first touches on the source of the restlessness, which is in the artist’s desire to involve others in the creative process – people they don’t command, pay, or control, people with different education and life experience, people with other values and ideas. That desire embeds a vast instability in a creative process that is already unpredictable. It extends the boundaries of the possible far beyond the landscape usually defined by an artist or even a group of artists at work. The human ingredients, and the rules that govern their interaction, are far more volatile in participatory art – at least when the the process is honest and open. And that brings in a restlessness that is at the heart of the practice’s creative potential and its artistic originality.


And now, after yet another unforeseen yet world-changing event – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA –  the value of that creative restlessness seems more important than ever. It is not an accident that community art emerged during Western culture’s rebellion against authority in the late 1960s. Authority has remained on the back foot ever since, as democracy has spread and been redefined through the individualism of neoliberal thought and the instant communication of the digital revolution. No one knows what is happening now, though it seems we’re living through historic shifts in social, political and economic life after the neoliberal project’s disintegration in the Great Recession. What we do know is that the world is more unstable that it has been for decades. The Cold War’s threat of mutually assured destruction was terrible but it was at least understandable. Today only fools and zealots believe they understand the future. We live in dangerous times and one of the dangers is not to see it.


And art? What has art to do with that, or that to do with art?

Only this. Art remains one of our best ways of understanding ourselves and our experience, of expressing our feelings, or sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and terrors, of finding common ground and empathy, of imagining other ways of being, of making sense and finding meaning. We need all those capacities now and, partly thanks to the social and technological changes of the last half century, they are more accessible to more of us than in the past. Participatory art is one of the doors that open on those resources and if it is contested, if we don’t agree what it means or what it is for – no matter. In answering those challenges we answer other, bigger ones about the life we want to live.

When demagogues peddle the illusions of certainty, we need the antidote of liveable ambiguity. In unstable times, we need a restless art.


Thanks to Teatre Tarantanta for photos from ‘Li diuen mar’ in this post © 2016 Anna Fàbrega: read more about the project here.

Men & Girls Dance – Successful risk-taking in participatory art

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

‘That’s a bad idea.’ It was months ago and I don’t remember now who told me about a proposed dance project involving men and girls, but I do remember my reaction: it just seemed like a really bad idea. On Saturday, I got the last ticket for the matinée of Men & Girls Dance at Dance 4 and was blown away by one of the most beautiful, moving, funny and joyous hours I’ve spent in a theatre. A bad idea? More fool me.

Apparently, Fevered Sleep’s co-artistic directors, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were surprised by the resistance they met when they began research. Their initial impulse had been aesthetic – exploring how bodies of tall, trained adults might move with those of small children. People’s reactions to the idea of men dancing with girls quickly changed that. At a time of intense and well-founded questions about how some adults abuse their power over children, this really was a dangerous proposal.

But to courageous artists like Fevered Sleep, those anxieties – and their ambiguous reverberation in the media – were a reason to persevere, not to back away. The project, in development now for over three years, gained a clearly political strapline:

A new dance piece celebrating the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together and to dance together

It’s always good to see a rights-based approach to participatory art. And this work had to be participatory, since its very conception unites children and adults, those who dance for pleasure and those who do it as a profession, the untutored and the highly trained. So it has developed as a series of residencies: Folkestone, Huddersfield, Salford and now Nottingham. (The piece goes on to Brighton in October and London in April 2017.) Each town brings a new partnership. In Nottingham, it was the ever-inventive Dance 4, finally installed in premises with their own beautiful studios.

From an open call for participants, nine girls are chosen to work with the five male dancers. The choreography leaves space for improvisation and the piece developed by each new company during a two-week rehearsal period is always different. These children truly are co-creators.  Their ideas, movement and presence remakes the hour-long performance. The result, at least to judge from what I saw, is extraordinary. The presence of two groups is inescapable and not avoided: the men’s maleness is plain in their luxuriant beards. But they are not in charge. One of the piece’s successes is how control of what is happening, or might happen next, seems to dance continually from one group to the other, or from one person to another. Who leads and who follows shifts as in true relationship. Authority here is not only physical.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

It begins in doubt as the groups look at each other across a space in which there is only a carpet of newspaper. Hands extend invitations. Posture and movement is slowly imitated. Tentative connections are made. In this playground the men remember their own childhoods while the children play at being adults in professional roles. Somewhere in the middle, as their paths cross, they meet and begin to play.

For set, design and costume, there’s only newspaper. It’s an inspired choice. These people are in a space literally defined by the media. In the next hour, they take control of it. What begins as a blindfold or a minotaur’s head is tamed and eventually mocked. They strip newsprint off a man encased in its pages, lift it high as a magic carpet, roll about in its folds and finally have a snowball fight with it until it’s just waste paper. The laughter, innocence and joyful movement have chased other stories from the room.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

At the heart of the piece is our natural fascination with other people. It reclaims the wonder of watching, as girls and men describe what they see in a partner’s body and its movements: ‘He’s on his left tip-toe.’ ‘He’s leaning back and looking at the sky’. ‘I can see she’s holding her ankle in her left hand’. When, at the end, the performers line up one by one in front of the audience to look at us, as we have looked at them, we are made aware of our watching and yet made comfortable in seeing that this is what people do. We do find one another endlessly watchable, endlessly fascinating.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

Still, despite the smiles and laughter, we live in the world we live in and there’s plenty here to make you think. Waiting to go in, one man surrounded by families and couples, I felt uncomfortable, wondering if others would be looking at me. It’s an experience that David Harradine evokes in the newspaper that is another element of the project:

‘There was me, this solitary man, alone at the village bonfire, watching someone else’s children playing. A self-censorship: not letting myself watch for fear of being watched.’

The Men & Girls Dance newspaper is a rich artwork that brings together images from performance and rehearsal, critical reflection, personal memories, official documents, audience reactions and more. It acknowledges, in a lasting but approachable form, the project’s tensions and difficulties. But it also affirms the belief of those involved that the evil done by some must not be allowed to spread everywhere and poison the vital relationships of adults and children. Being aware is not the same as being wary.

The third element of this important project is the talking space, which is how I got drawn into it in the first place. Walking through the old Sneinton Market I passed a shop with its doors open and a neon sign: ‘come in we’re open’. So I did, and found myself talking with Luke Pell, whose task is to encourage conversations about men and girls dancing. Among blackboards, photographs and plates of posh biscuits, people can talk about their feelings, ideas and memories of their own childhoods. Some write in scrapbooks or – habit of the social media world – comment on what others have written. After each visit, Luke continues the discussion on the Men & Girls Dance blog.

No answers are sought or given: there’s just the aim of encouraging reflection. I specially liked the straightforward language used. Unlike so many works aspiring to be participatory, there was little sense of artworld language and preoccupations.

Why did I like this project so much? Partly, it’s true, because the show was delightful, thought contemporary dance isn’t always the most accessible form. It reminded me of when my own children were small and the joys of that closeness. It passes and is replaced with other kinds of closeness, but each stage of parenthood is unique and special. I never looked into my daughter’s eyes with the same intensity after she learned to talk: until then, all I had to understand what she wanted was the expression on her face. So yes, there is a personal dimension – but what is art good for if it doesn’t touch us personally?

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

But that feeling would not go far in this complex and risky project. There are so many traps  here that could have curdled my enthusiasm. Glibness, exploitation, grandstanding, incompetence: I’ve seen them all in participatory projects. Here, I saw care, method, bravery, openness and a consistent consciousness of the risks involved – especially for those outside the company. The decisive element was sensing that these artists were genuinely more interested in those they were working with than in their own ideas. That was evident in each dancer’s performance and in the project’s conception and execution. The different elements make a whole with beauty, political resonance and human integrity. That’s a rare trick to pull off.

Men & Girls Dance is a fine demonstration that participatory art can be as challenging as any other practice and that it can offer experiences that are second to none.

All performance photos by Benedict Johnson. Thanks to Fevered Sleep and Dance 4 for help with this case study.

What is the point?

Community artists are often accused of instrumentalising art. We can be said to instrumentalise something when we use it to achieve a different goal than that for which it is designed. In the arts, the argument goes like this. Art is intended to create aesthetic experiences, therefore to use it for another purpose, such as social change, is a distortion of its essential character. This is a version of the art for art’s sake argument. Unfortunately, it is full of holes.

First, it depends on a shared idea of what art is and what constitutes an aesthetic experience. It doesn’t take much knowledge of art history to see that there is not now, and has never been, such a consensus. People have always made art, but they have made it for different purposes at different times and in different cultures.

Secondly, art has always been instrumentalised, for instance as a way of expressing belief. Greek drama was part of a religious festival. The masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting were mostly created to serve the Roman Catholic church. J. S. Bach worked as church musician and his principal work consists of more than 200 sacred cantatas he composed for services.

Thirdly, it requires a very simplistic view of human affairs to believe that anything people do has only a single purpose and effect. Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel can offer people aesthetic experiences whilst also affirming a theology, demonstrating the power and authority of the Vatican and being a major aspect of the Italian tourism industry. Arguably, it is the tensions between these meanings that make them so interesting.

Art does not exist without people. It was invented to do what they needed, to empower them, to serve their purposes. So what we should ask is not whether art has been instrumentalised but how, for what purpose and in whose interest. A discourse about the ‘intrinsic value’ of art serves only to mask those questions and protect power. Art has no independent life. But people do.

We made slavery illegal because we recognised that one human being must not be made to serve the purposes of another. This is the instrumentalisation that matters. People are their own ends: they must not be subjugated to other purposes. However bad things are, there is never a justification for making people the means to achieve other goals. Theology, political ideology, art – whatever faith we may place in these abstractions, we must never place them before real, living individual human beings. We are the point, never the means.

The restless purposes of community art

‘In the Netherlands, community art is predominantly result-oriented, whereas, until recently, in English-speaking countries the focus was on participation and the process.’

These words come from a book produced in preparation for Leeuwarden’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018. The Dutch city’s programme aims ‘to strengthen community feeling through cultural participation’, and much thought has been given to how and why this happens. The Search Compass is described as a ‘methodology for cultural intervention’ and it gives a good overview of current thinking about community art in the Netherlands.

'Maxima Komt!,' Community Play (Stut Theatre)
‘Maxima Komt!,’ Community Play (Stut Theatre)

Holland been an important centre of practice for at least 15 years, with some great work being done with its changing communities. Rotterdam has an International Community Arts Festival and CAL-XL in Utrecht is a centre for documentation and reflection on community arts. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been the Netherlands and yet, reading The Search Compass, I see some of what I’ve missed or misunderstood. Because my own approach has been rights-based, I may have underestimated the social purpose of some Dutch projects and how that shaped what was happening. For instance, the book suggests that community art projects:

‘have in common that they imply the participation of a specific target group in a cultural event, that it concerns a creative process under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals and that they seek to achieve a social goal.’

This vision of community art as an agent of social change under the control of professionals makes me uncomfortable, though I know it’s how many people see it. Achieving social change has always been one of the objectives of community art – but only one. Moreover, such change can occur in other ways than ‘under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals’.

Part of what makes this practice vital is the tension between this objective and others rooted either in democratization of art or cultural rights. The different emphases placed on these three goals, by different people in different places at different times, make it ‘a restless art’, as people try to balance competing but not necessarily conflicting purposes. There isn’t a ‘right’ purpose to community arts: there are many depending on people and situation. But each raises ethical, political and artistic dilemmas that need to be considered – and discussing them openly is one way of doing the work well.

This week, I’ll have a chance to talk about these questions with people involved in community arts in the Netherlands: it will be a rewarding few days.

An unspoken contract

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

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