My name is Sandra Hall and I am Co-Director of Friction Arts with Lee Griffiths. We co-author our work and make extraordinary art happen in awkward spaces. It's been great to be invited to write an article on diversity and community for Turning Point.
Community has come to mean many things throughout society, from poor people to powerful. For this article I am going to focus on ‘participatory arts’ and the complexities of community arts as a contemporary arts practice, as this is my experience.
The West Midlands has long been highly regarded for a range of participatory work – from high profile interactive gaming, social media developments, arts practices with real social benefit; the region is rich in on and offline practices. Opera to ground breaking prison work, urban music festivals, the first community arts centre in Britain, exemplary TIE practices; the region houses a huge range of extraordinary artists and arts organisations.
I was working late one Sunday in my studio, Digbeth, Birmingham when I heard fireworks. I went to the roof of our building which offers a great view stretching across the city. There were small bursts of joy happening all over the sky and city. It’s February...why the fireworks? It’s not Diwali or November 5th; so why? So, intrigued, I had to go and find out. As I started to walk into the city there were Birmingham City blues fans everywhere – they had won against Arsenal at Wembley and the celebrations were spreading across the city. I went into pubs, talked and celebrated with people, asked questions, spent time absorbing and listening.
For me this is key to good socially engaged practice – intrigue, research, exploring, connecting with people, asking why. A great moment of collective joy in a city connects you with a greater understanding of the psyche of a place, its people, its’ concerns.
Historically, participatory arts have operated in a parallel universe to the traditional arts world practices and economic models. In the 70’s and 80’s there was an increase of the use of arts for social change, connecting communities and more recently initiatives such as ‘Creative Partnerships’ in schools promoted the local and national government agenda for cohesion and diversity.
A language developed for community arts, particularly T.I.E. (Theatre In Education) which sought to articulate, measure impact and translate value in order for the sector to secure its reputation and increase its economic scope. One of the key shifts of community work in the 90’s was away from community groups being actively involved in every aspect of production. This increased the identity of the artist in the authoring of the work, improved quality of production, which is very much where Friction’s work sits. We work with communities and people to create safe places of conversation that translate into contemporary, often ephemeral art works. This in itself is not unusual. Contemporary artists have often connected with communities in order to explore a new territory that can influence their work. Too often, there is a different type of intrigue about ‘community’, which recently is coda for ‘poor people’.
The worst of this practice is what we call ‘drive by art’. This is where an artist, with a set of assumptions and agendas will ‘drive through’ a trauma, find the evidence to support their focus, create a work for a gallery audience, use and leave the community behind. The better work, of which there is also plenty, engages and makes work with people not at them, to them, or using them – rather with them. Both parties embark on a mutually respectful, often challenging journey that can result in a satisfying outcome for all involved. This requires a great deal of integrity, detail, stakeholder management, shape-shifting, languages and passion.
Britain’s development of different models of community arts, its layered approach, increasing use of new technologies with community, has contributed to a vibrant international respect for the depth and scope of this type of work. The West Midlands has, with its patchwork of rural and post-industrial landscape diversity, also been recognised for a wealth of good practice. In 2009, a visit by EU cultural ministers from The Hague cited Birmingham as the city that continually came up in conversation in the corridors of power, regarding meaningful community engagement, with high impact outcomes that didn’t sacrifice high production values or outcomes.
The understanding of the impact, the development of the practice, has led to an increase of partnerships with public sector such as Primary Care Trusts, where the arts is often central to key initiatives such as art on prescription. Regeneration and public art have increased use of the arts to broker relationships with disenfranchised communities and create a sense of place whilst still providing a platform for highly contemporary work with a wide range of outcomes and successes.
The aesthetic distinctions, attitudes to working with community vs. ‘real art’ debate continue to rumble on, though the current climate is creating a shift and a new zeitgeist is emerging.
The challenges in a world of economic down turn are great. There is recognition that participatory arts is a sector that can weather the financial storm and funding increasingly demands participation. Artists are seeking this arena for both economic and new creative approaches; galleries, residencies are increasing their commitment to participation, though there are a range of agendas at work here and the reasons ‘why’ should be interrogated throughout the commissioning and production phases. We have experienced at first hand a high profile artist working with a producer, using a notional partnership with Friction to provide ‘community work’ and funding for their solo project. Most unpleasant!
As more traditional artists, galleries and curators work with participation, a greater understanding that this is an area of expertise rather than a poor cousin of the fine art world will need to be articulated, understood, shared, resourced and disseminated. Over the last year more fine artists, arts/cultural organisations, researchers, festivals and curators have approached Friction both locally and nationally, than in the previous 10 years, seeking unpaid support for their need to connect with community. This has led to great misunderstandings about our practice and (mis)perceived role as community brokers; with people wanting direct answers or problem solving for often ethical agendas that we can’t provide, as the trajectory is misaligned. We connect long term, creating reciprocal relationships with people and groups predicated on this being a key part of our practice, rather than a project or issue focussed relationship.
Because the sector has grown organically, lacked an infra-structure there is also a pendulum of practice – from very first base to extraordinarily complex, high profile. For authentic quality work to continue to develop we will continue to need different approaches; applied arts to pure arts and all variants in between – all being valued.
So how are we going to consolidate which bespoke approach is needed to work in partnership and for our creative needs as artists? Is there a synergy or just a practical need to make a living? How can we move beyond either or?
Because this is where I believe the good practice lies, the space in between. Where the seam between working with the community and making a highly contemporary work can blur and blend and isn’t separated by aesthetic, cultural and class divisions, shifting art values and blind ambition.
The language for participatory work is still in its infancy in comparison to the language that has existed and continues to develop for Visual arts. Community Arts, participatory arts, socially engaged practice is amongst some of the terms used and each one brings its own caveat, imagery and applied use. Language, infrastructure, diversity; these challenges are very real and, I think, exciting. How do we communicate better, engage in the politics necessary, have business savvy and yet not corporatize? How does good practice get recognised as highly contemporary, not just well meaning and worthy work? How do we undertake cohesive critical analysis of participatory work, challenge bad practice and create meaningful dialogue with peers in different spheres?
In conversation recently with Mark Webster, (director of Staffordshire University’s Community Arts course), he pointed out that there hasn’t been a publication on community arts in nearly 8 years. We assessed this could be because the practice is often ephemeral, moves fast on the ground and is rarely captured, or academically interrogated, in time for it to provide a truly contemporary picture.
Given that the city of Birmingham will be the first white minority city and youngest city in Europe 2012, the cultural aesthetic will change as the city changes; the challenge will be how to reflect this. To represent diversity, culture, in our range of cultural arenas is also in its infancy. Below is a quote from Ian Sergeant about some of the issues facing artists in the region:
As a Decibel Diversity officer for ACEWM from 2006-08 I too have had a role in delivering on the priority of cultural diversity and the development of new audiences. It was through the research conducted for The Elephant in the Room that made me aware of the continued frustration of black and Asian artists in the West Midlands, who felt that they and their work were being marginalised by mainstream museums and galleries, only to be called upon to satisfy an organisations response to cultural diversity themes. Many of the practicing artists I engaged during the research and through my own encounters in meetings suggested that artists felt insulted that they were still being treated as a homogenous group of black and Asian artists and initiatives such as Decibel compounded the issue, by offering a separate or plural programme. Decibel came under fire from the right wing press, white artists who too felt marginalised and organisations like the BNP who challenged the legitimacy of its awards schemes.
Decibel was created to provide support and conditions needed to survive and at the same time contributed to an increased feeling of marginalisation. As budgets dwindle diversity initiatives do too. We need to move in the direction when diversity is less conscious, neo-liberalist and more integrated into the organic approach reflecting the changes in society, consequent art worlds– easier said than done.
Austerity breeds creativity, though often at a cost. With a track record of inventive socially engaged practice, a uniquely diverse region, we have a great opportunity to connect and raise the profile of the region’s work ethically and positively creating conditions for different types of contemporary arts to thrive, be visible and drive social change. We can connect and disagree; we can all be passionate about our own work and support peers.
Turning Point, WMPAF (West Midlands Participatory Arts Forum) can provide spaces for people to learn about each other, network, and lobby. For a range of commissioners to understand, engage and resource different arts practices. We can collectively create visibility, debate and focus so that the arts world(s) with all its facets can be regarded as a tangible, relevant necessity in today’s society.
© Sandra Hall/Friction Arts, The Edge, 79-81 Cheapside, Digbeth, Birmingham B12 0QH.