Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world. Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.
We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies. Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively. This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.
In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived. Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning. This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context. This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people. If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.
Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that. Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved. You become part of the group.
Different artists work in different ways of course. For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork. There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation. In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community. As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of: Who are you? Why are you here? Who is the work for? Why should I bother to get involved?
All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice. This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.
In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved. In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.
To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art”
If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network. Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.
There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.
Last night in the Great Room at the RSA, there was a wonderful magic show and it felt like the space had truly opened up, not only for flexible use but also for a different kind of interaction. I sat next to an architect for the event and we had a good conversation about how space itself shifts how we engage with each other. In the arts world, the shape of a working space is almost always in some form of circle in an environment where it is evident that you can also get up and move, and create different formations of seating arrangements. But also, there is often an attention to the space itself as one of invitation to engage without there being a set interpretation of what this might look like; in other words, flexible and inclusive – anyone can enter and participate. In this way, the arts are not only for those who know about the arts and the Great Room is not only for the great and the good.
This reminded me of the Creative Gatherings we have run in the Arts and Social Change programme in Citizen Power Peterborough which I have blogged about in the past. These gatherings are for anyone in the city who engages with the arts, whether this engagement lies in a professional or voluntary capacity and are held in a variety of settings (the idea of arts happening everywhere and belonging to everyone). So, we have held them in amongst other places, a railway museum, a community college, a pub, outside in a community allotment and this summer, as part of a walk across the city. As you will see from this last link to the Creative People’s Walk, they are about finding hidden resources in the city, creative gems that offer up a delight in being in this place. One of the guides for this walk was the Poet in Residence for the Broadway Cemetery – surely another unique aspect of Peterborough.
A key characteristic of these gatherings is that they are rooted in doing things together, a creative practice of one sort or another, and not simply a talking shop. They take as their prompt, the RSA theme of reflecting and doing, action and research, expressing something in new ways and then reflecting upon this with others. Without doubt, this has generated new networks, new friendships and new ways of thinking about the arts and the city itself. We have recently published a case study on this strand, More Purposeful Together.
But getting back to the magic show last night, it was a delight and it reminded me of our collective need to ring-fence a space for delight in our lives, not just because it is fun but because it offers a motivation to get together with others to experience a communal pleasure. An experience that militates against individualism and self-interest. Could this role of delight also contribute to Matthew Taylor’s notion of recasting individualism and paying attention to what motivates us to volunteer? Long may magic in the Great Room reign!
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.
If you have never come across Bobby Baker, I envy you. I envy you because you have ahead of you the delicious joy of discovering her work. She is one of the most widely acclaimed performance artists working today, and has a large and impressive back catalogue of work which, using the most fabulously inventive methods (plenty of cake), makes art out of the everyday.
And, there’s nothing as everyday as mental illness. In 2009, Bobby exhibited her ‘diary drawings’ at the Wellcome Collection. These pictures, drawn daily over a period of eleven years, depicted Bobby’s experiences of mental illness, in real time, as it was happening to her. Throughout this period, incidentally, Bobby continued to work prolifically, raise a family and continue to forge an impressive career.
Despite her international reputation, and long established success as an artist, Bobby herself had no idea how the drawings would be received or what the impact of going public with something so personal would be. Needless to say, they went down a storm, the Wellcome extended the length of the original exhibition, and it has since been touring, going to Portugal, Belgium and Holland.
The ways in which the exhibition and the book that came out of it have made an impact are wide reaching. The book won Mind Book of the Year in 2011. People recognised themselves and their own experiences in the images. Those with no experience of mental illness felt a glimmer of understanding as to what it might be like. Practitioners and academics in mental health took notice.
Since that exhibition, Bobby has been as busy as ever, her new piece about what it takes to cultivate mental wellness, Mad Gyms and Kitchens, receiving critical and audience approval.
So, when I put a call out to Fellows of the RSA to find out who has interest, experience or expertise relating to mental health and employment, Bobby Baker responded. As a long-time fan of her work, I was ever so slightly starstruck (and definitely not squealing with glee) to see her name in my inbox. As a keen, and in her words ‘patient’ Fellow, she’s been waiting for the right thing to get involved with, and luckily for me, the challenges I outlined sparked her interest.
Today I met with Bobby Baker to discuss her take on the issues around mental health and work. She has a unique perspective, rich with the insight and wisdom that comes from personal experience. Amongst other things, she told me about a new project she’s working on in which she’ll tell the story of the steps along her journey to get to the extraordinary position of influence and leadership she now occupies. It’s quite a story, and the unique way she has of expressing herself, whether in conversation, in her drawings, or in her performance, is bighearted and expansive. Fortunately for the RSA, she’s as generous with her time and ideas as she is in her artistic expression.
For the next 18 months Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by artist Yinka Shonibare is displayed on the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It’s worth a look because it’s such a visually striking sculpture; a souvenir ship with coloured sails that is rich with cultural potency.
In last week’s Tate talk on Debating Multiculturalism and the Arts, he explained that in the UK discussions of cultural diversity always contain references to the power relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’. With this sculpture he set out to deliberately confuse these ingrained habits by being unclear about which ‘us’ or ‘them’ he was siding with. As Yinka Shonibare MBE phrased it, “I’m interested in exploring the idea of the Trojan Horse” – a very loaded gift.
The ambiguous gift is a valuable way to describe contemporary art. There are quite a lot of unspoken assumptions about how we think about things when we are given visual art to look at, and when art is in a public place these assumptions are more apparent. Contemporary visual art sets out to prompt our curiosity for long enough to get us thinking – thinking about what we think and why we think it – with the hope that the work is implicitly challenging enough for us to generate a fresh perspective on things. The variety of reviews and interpretations of Yinka’s 4th Plinth work demonstrate the importance of the each viewer’s subjective response fairly well, with different people giving different meanings to the work.
Contemporary art thrives on being thoughtfully controversial. The 4th Plinth also raises issues of public funding of the arts and the policy strings that should/shouldn’t be attached to it. In the feisty Tate discussion the ‘us’ and ‘them’ issue also appeared through discussions of arts policy. As part of the panel discussion, Munira Mirza gave constructive insights into the negative consequences of positive discrimination in cultural policy, which drew dismayed “you can’t say that” responses from the entrenched liberal art crowd. (It’s worthwhile listening to the discussion when it goes online).
The 4th plinth itself has attracted controversy since the mid-1800s and debates continue about who should be represented on the prominent site located between Nelsons’ Column and the National Gallery. In fact, the plinth stood empty for over 100 years until Prue Leith, then Chair of the RSA, had the idea that it should put to good social use and in 1995 proposed that it be used for contemporary sculpture. The first temporary sculpture of the RSA initiated project was unveiled in 1999 and there has been a series of 4th plinth commissions, on and off, since then.