‘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.’

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In unstable times, we need a restless art.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Hands across the dangerous sea

Lampedusa Mirrors 2One of the best things about a restless art has been seeing just how much great community art is happening across and beyond Europe. I’d no idea of the quality and variety of work in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Egypt and it’s not hard to see a link between this energy and the multiple challenges people now face there. That sense of discovery was reaffirmed by conversations I had last week with cultural activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Serbia and elsewhere. They were meeting in Casablanca for a cultural collaboration programme called Tandem Shaml, sharing ideas among themselves and with local artists. Among other projects, I learned about:

  • ADAM – an alternative media project for young people in rural Tunisia, now working with Bokra Sawa in Marseille, orange farmers and academics to explore the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region;
  • Agora – an Egyptian organisation set up in the early days of the 2011 revolution that organises community festivals and women’s micro-enterprises in jewellery-making; its project with Tillt in Sweden  is using social media to highlight the sexual harassment of women.
  • L’Boulevard – a Moroccan music organisation that has created studios and concert spaces on an industrial site and promotes the country’s leading rock and alternative festival, giving a platform to thousands of young musicians from the region.
  • El Madina – an Alexandria-based community theatre and training organisation involved in street carnival, festivals and development projects, currently working with people in the Karmouz district of the city.

It’s hard to give much sense of this work in a few lines, particularly since the projects are still under way. You can talk about the risks involved, the artists’ imagination or the commitment of people whose principal resource is their time, but those are just part of what’s involved and it’s all rather abstract. Some of this work will appear as case studies here or in the project book next year.

For now, here is a short documentary about one of last year’s Tandem Shaml projects, a collaboration between Eclosion d’artistes (Tunis) and Teatro dell’Argine (Bologna).

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Involving people who have experienced migration across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa Mirrors is community theatre at its most serious and moving. The problems of migration are complex and difficult. But art of this quality cuts through rhetoric, self-interest and deceit to affirm the common humanity that requires us to solve them. The film takes 25 minutes to watch, but anyone with an interest in community art or the realities of migration will find their time amply rewarded.

 

La creatividad y coraje: community art in Spain

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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.

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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.

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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”.