Speaking of unspoken things

Western medicine has pushed back the frontiers of disease, making death rarer, at least in the sense that it does not intrude into our lives with the brutality with which it visited the Victorians. In the 19th century death often came for the young and those in the prime of life. There can have been few families who saw all their children grow into old age. Our ancestors, who might face dying at any age, had better resources for dealing with its reality than we do, including rituals for every stage of dying, burying and grieving. Some cultures still have them. But months of formal mourning now seem excessive, even absurd, in the healthy, prosperous West, where death is not to be spoken of except hurriedly, in hushed tones. In England, it’s almost embarrassing. We’re anxious to do the right thing, not to be ‘a bother’. No wonder we coined the phrase ‘dying of embarrassment’.

Indeed, I’m faintly embarrassed to have raised the subject now. Let’s not go there.

But we must. Death is the only thing of which we can be certain, however much we proclaim The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. We might not know it, yet, but we know of it. So we keep it on the other side of the glass. Science and medicine form an impenetrable, if transparent, barrier between the living and the dying.

In the past, death announced its coming. Unless it came catastrophically in an accident or a heart attack, it allowed some measure of preparation. People died at home, in their beds. A family gathered, knowing what was happening. The living sat with the dying and tried to ease their suffering. The priest or the minister was called. Thomas Lynch, the American poet who is also an undertaker, has written movingly about the time – most of time, it must be said – when people were born and died where they lived and among those with whom they had lived. That is a rare experience nowadays. My father died at home, a small mercy in a sudden and frightening end. But almost every other lost friend  has died in a clinic’s impersonal room, not because they all needed 24 hour medical care but because it’s how we manage dying now in rich societies. As Lynch says:

“We are embarrassed by [our dead] in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.” (The Undertaking)

The difference, for many, is the loss of religious faith that once gave death transcendent meaning. A death seen as passing into another life evidently has nothing in common with a death seen as the end of all life. Whatever comfort religion brings the believer is unavailable to those who outside the faith. And for them, the rituals of death developed in a context of faith can feel hollow, or worse. So they are left only with the antiseptic services – no one could describe them as rituals – of medicine and its unspoken embarrassment at failing to prolong life.

Into this space, tentatively, delicately even, artists have begun to step. In Leiria (Portugal) is the Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos (SAMP), a music school run by and for the local community since 1873. Its present director is Paulo Lameiro, a musician and educator of exceptional imagination. Alongside the usual programme of instrumental teaching and concerts, the orchestra, choir and swing band, he has reached out to local institutions, including the prison and the hospital. Among other work, SAMP musicians have explored how to share music with babies and the very ill. Bringing music to the dying and the bereaved grew out of that experience.

When an elderly man died during a performance in a hospital common room, everyone present wanted to sustain the music and the atmosphere it had created. The clinical staff were asked to wait. There was a person to honour; a life event to respect. The music turned out to be a valued support for that reality.

Since then, SAMP musicians have been asked to play for people at the end of life, when families have gathered for the heartbreaking moment of shutting down an incubator,  and in the moments after death. The musicians have provided comfort to the dying and to the bereaved. It goes without saying that they are present at these times only at the request of the dying and the family. And just two of SAMP’s members offer this support. They have learned how to respond imaginatively to each individual, aware of that person’s relationship with music. They have learned too how to cope sensitively with the feelings in the room, not least their own.  Music, familiar and loved or newly improvised, has helped mark the moment’s unique importance and support those who are living it. Like life itself, its presence is actual and meaningful. Intangible, it touches everything.

One moment it is there, heard but unseen, and then it is gone. So light and yet so great.

In January 2010, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle was able to die surrounded by her musical family, including her son Rufus Wainwright, who spoke of the moment later:

“We sang to her as she lay there… as we were having this jamboree, her breathing became more laboured and she made a moaning noise. One of the nurses said this could go on for four days and we had already exhausted the back catalogue. Then Kate breathed a little differently, it was like she was saying, ‘Hold on, I’m going to end this show’, and she died. I was looking right into her face, her eyes were open, and my aunt Jane was holding her hand. It was an amazing experience…”

For millennia, people have thought and written about how to die. Montaigne, who lived in the 16th century and saw a lot of death, called dying ‘without doubt the most noteworthy action in a man’s life’. Today, the best on offer may be dying with discretion. But there are alternatives, as SAMP has shown. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable and profound artistic work than these performances for the dying and bereaved.

Each person, each family will have their own wishes: the SAMP approach is not for everyone. But it is a reminder of art’s place in helping us find new ways of marking the fundamental moments of life, including its end. Last week SAMP hosted a conference on art and health in the hospital of Leiria. Its title was ‘Aqui Contigo: Porque d’Arte somos’  – in English,

‘Here with you: because we are (made of) art’.

This post was written at the request of London Arts and Health Forum and published in slightly different form on their blog on 19 April 2017.

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

‘A gift for fiction’

Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.

It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’

Continue reading “‘A gift for fiction’”

Nothing but the best

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

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

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

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

Gulbenkian Orchestra - 1

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

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

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

Chapitô - 2

Against the odds: Opera in a Portuguese prison

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 1

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

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

SAMP Don Giovanni Leiria 17

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

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 4

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

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 5

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

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 7

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

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

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