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.

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.

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.

1984 Murals discussion - 2
My flyer for an evening discussion about the problems of painting murals

La creatividad y coraje: community art in Spain

las_muchas

ver más abajo para leer este texto en español…

A performance about bodies and long lives opened Spain’s annual conference on social inclusion and the performing arts in A Coruña’s Teatro Rosalía Castro this week. Created by Mariantònia Oliver, with older women in Mallorca, including her own mother, ‘Las Muchas’ was moving and joyful. Oliver integrated her own solo performance with video of those who’d inspired the work and performances by nine local women who made the piece for this performance. Like all good participatory art, it was a shared creation that could only exist because of what each person contributed to it. A gifted choreographer might make a work on this subject without involving non-professional dancers in their 70s and 80s – but not this one.

It was a great start to this event, which has grown from a one day conference in 2009 to three days of talks, workshops and performances involving people active in participatory and community arts from across Spain. A glimpse of this a couple of years ago, in Seville, alerted me to the artistic energy of Southern Europe. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere, artists are working with vulnerable and marginalised people: migrants, the unemployed, prisoners, people with disabilities and others. Perhaps it was chance that the first Jornada happened at the height of the financial crisis, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unemployment haunted the second evening’s performance, ‘Vida Laboral‘ (Working Life), developed by Claudia Faci with three local men who gave extraordinary performances drawing on their lived experience.

Las Jornadas - 2

If this creativity has a new energy, it also has long roots. In Barcelona, Xamfra has been making inclusive music in Raval for 15 years, while TransFORMAS has been making theatre with communities in the city for almost as long. Here in Galicia, Grupo Chevère was founded in1988 and has been evolving a practice that has moved steadily towards  ever stronger community ownership, as in their recent production, by, with and about shopkeepers. Among the newer organisations is Teatro de Consciencia, which uses theatre as a space to develop empathy and reconciliation.

There are many similar experiences, from institutions to small companies, among the 250 conference participants. I kept meeting people who were thrilled to discover that they were part of a community – even a movement. They share a passion for community art, a creativity in approaching it and a readiness to imagine afresh how it is done and why. No one should underestimate Spain’s economic crisis, nor its impact of every aspect of life here. But these artists are responding with imagination, courage and hope. In doing that, they are helping renew participatory arts practice for European societies also in need of renewal.

With great thanks to Eva Garcia and all the organizers who welcomed me with such generosity, helped open doors and interpret what I couldn’t understand.

Las Jornadas - 1

En español…

Una actuación sobre los cuerpos y las largas vidas abrió la conferencia anual de España sobre la inclusión social y las artes escénicas en el Teatro Rosalía de Castro en  A Coruña esta semana. Creado por Mariantònia Oliver, con mujeres de edad en Mallorca, incluyendo a su propia madre, ‘Las Muchas‘ se movían contentas. Oliver integra su propia actuación en solitario con vídeos que inspiraron su trabajo y actuaciones con nueve mujeres locales que hicieron la pieza para esta actuación. Como todo buen arte participativo, era una creación compartida que sólo podía existir debido a lo que cada persona contribuyó a ella. Un coreógrafo dotado podría hacer un trabajo sobre este tema sin la participación de bailarines no profesionales con 70 y 80 años – pero no lo conocemos.

Fue un gran comienzo para este evento, que ha pasado de un día de conferencias en 2009 a tres días de charlas, talleres y actuaciones que asocien a profesionales de las artes participativas y comunitarias de todo España. En un vistazo que dí hace un par de años, en Sevilla, me alertó de la energía artística del sur de Europa. En España, Portugal, Grecia y en otros lugares, los artistas están trabajando con las personas vulnerables y marginadas: los inmigrantes, los parados, los presos, las personas con discapacidad y otras personas. Tal vez fue casualidad que la primera Jornada ocurriera coincidiendo con la crisis financiera, pero no se siente como del mismo modos. El desempleo rondaba la propuesta de la segunda noche, ‘Vida Laboral‘ , desarrollado por Claudia Faci con tres hombres locales que presentaron una actuación extraordinaria basándose en su experiencia vivida.

Esta creatividad no solo tiene una nueva energía, sino que también tiene raíces largas. En Barcelona, Xamfra ha estado haciendo música desde el Raval durante 15 años, mientras que TransFORMAS ha estado haciendo teatro con las comunidades en la ciudad por casi el mismo tiempo. Aquí en Galicia, Grupo Chevère fue fundada en 1988 y ha ido evolucionando de una práctica que se ha movido constantemente una identificación cada vez más fuerte con la comunidad, como en su producción reciente, por, con y sobre los comerciantes. Entre las organizaciones más nuevas está Teatro de Consciencia, que utiliza el teatro como un espacio para desarrollar la empatía y la reconciliación.

Hay muchas experiencias similares, de las instituciones a las pequeñas empresas, entre los 250 participantes de la conferencia. Seguí el cumplimiento de las personas que estaban encantados de descubrir que eran parte de una comunidad – incluso un movimiento. Comparten la pasión por el arte comunitario, la creatividad para acercarse a esta y la disposición para imaginar de nuevo cómo se hace y por qué. Nadie debe subestimar la crisis económica de España, ni su impacto en todos los aspectos de la vida. Pero estos artistas están respondiendo con imaginación, coraje y esperanza. Al hacer esto, están ayudando a renovar la práctica de artes participativas para las sociedades europeas también en necesidad de renovación.

Con un excelente agradecimiento a Eva García y todos los organizadores que me han acogido con tanta generosidad, ayudado a abrirme las puertas e interpretar lo que no podía “entender”.

 

 

The difficulty of thinking outside of the box

Spare Tyre Productions 2
Spare Tyre production, Feeble Minds, 2009 (© Patrick Baldwin)

Community and participatory art has long roots in Britain. Its practice owes much to ideas that were developed in the 1960s and to policy pressures of the 1980s and 1990s. That long evolution has many strengths – it’s a rich field involving thousands of activists that supports a complex debate about participatory art. There’s probably more research and analysis published on it here than in any other European country.

But there are drawbacks to this weighty history too. In particular, it can be hard to escape the terms of a debate that is so well established. That struck me as I read a short report on participatory art in London published a few years ago by Arts Council England. It’s a useful introduction to the issues, based on a review of 13 excellent participatory arts organisations, such as Cardboard Citizens,  Streetwise Opera and Entelechy Arts. It asks what they have in common and what difficulties they face, before suggesting some solutions.

But the report’s analysis is framed in conventional terms, including familiar distinctions between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ value of art activity, and between ‘process’ and ‘product’. It worries whether the work has ‘true artistic merit’ without asking what that phrase means. And its solutions – better evaluation, learning and advocacy – are also conventional: they have been proposed for many years in British policy discourse.

These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are specific to the culture and country in which they are being discussed. My recent conversations with artists in Greece, Serbia, Portugal or Holland have not turned on these questions because the context for their work has been so different. In other words, the way participatory art is imagined in Britain is shaped by how everything else is imagined in Britain.

We talk all the time of ‘thinking outside the box’, seeming not to notice that the phrase itself is a cliché. It is really hard to think outside the framework of beliefs and assumptions that make up our own culture and identity. Mostly we don’t feel the need to do it much, if at all. But artists, whose work aims to be creative – which means making something new – need to be better at it than most of us. And not only in their artistic practice, but in how that practice is conceived and discussed.

One way of doing that is in dialogue with artists who work in different places and other ways. It can be challenging, but also liberating, to discover that other people don’t see evaluation as a way to convince funders – or may not even see those funders as desirable partners in the first place. Thinking outside the box begins with wondering whether we’re even asking the right questions.

Adult Participatory Arts