Monday, April 8, 2019

Adapt the Nothing

Artist Nicola Winstanley invited me to walk with her, in Summer 2018, around Middleport. She was embarking on a research project, inviting artists, and other professionals to walk with her in a part of Stoke-on-trent which has seen significant upheaval and change over the past 20 years - as a result of various regeneration programmes.
The remit of her project was around a reflection on how places can be impacted by external factors and decision-making, and what this does to the experience of place, for people (and in my case, interested in the impact this has on flora and fauna there too.)

The resulting artist's book 'Adapt The Nothing' is a meditation on the Middleport of today, where there is a lot still to be done, but where there is so much to celebrate. Full publication here.
Here is my 6 page reflection on that walk, and the thoughts that it engendered.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Rules of Engagement: Presenting Two Sides of a Social Arts Project.

Community Maker, 2017, Stoke-on-Trent.
As an artist working for many years with people in contexts of change, I identify as part of the developing Social Art Network, co-founded by Eelyn Lee and R.M. Sanchez-Camus in 2016  as ‘a UK based community of artists committed to building agency for the field of art and social practice.’[i]
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
I was invited to lead a lab at The Social Art Summit, which took place in Sheffield, November 2018. I keenly felt the significance and urgency of a gathering of artists to discuss the issues and challenges in working in this way; particularly in the current climate of cuts to the arts, but also cuts to so many public services across the UK, all impacting on our ability to do our work, and to do it well.

In planning a lab for the Social Art Summit I saw an opportunity to create a safe space for open and honest discussion with other practitioners, to (just for a moment) centralise the position of the artist, in relation to the social contexts we are working within, and to be frank about the challenges, and sometimes personal cost that making the work requires.
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
Planning the lab came at the end of a long, and varied summer of action for The Portland Inn Project – which I work on with collaborator and fellow social artist Rebecca Davies, who, with The Newbridge Project’s Dan Russell, delivered the lab alongside me. To briefly set the context, our project is in an area of Stoke-on-Trent, originally earmarked for demolition in the Government’s collapsed Pathfinder Housing Renewal Scheme, and now known to be the area where homes were sold for a pound. As an artist, working with people, often on projects exploring regeneration and the artists role in places of change, I was fascinated by this context, and what I, and my family could bring to it. I believe that artists have an important role to play in society, and that this role is often undervalued, or at least little understood. In successfully applying to be a one pound home owner, I hoped to demonstrate through working where I live, just what role an artist might play in supporting a community to develop (one of the conditions written into the £1 home scheme contract, was that each homeowner should contribute to community life.)
'Raising The Roof' The Portland Inn Project community Co-build project, Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
The summer on Portland Street had been a mixture of highs, as we worked with the fantastic Baxendale Studio architects, to co-build a temporary community building with residents of the area, to real lows – as we navigated some extreme local problems, including the drug dealing and taking of Monkey Dust, which impacted daily, on our project delivery.

As we put together the slides for the lab, we began to discuss how, particularly with social practice, we tend to show the positive parts of the project, the things that went well, the smiling faces of participants, but rarely do we present the other side of the project; the boring bits, the awful bits where it feels like everything is collapsing, the moments of failure and the dirty bits. We discussed that in leaving out the challenges, we fail to show what really goes into making the work happen and more, we make it easy for the true value of what we do to be missed. It was for this reason then, that Rebecca and I decided to present the two sides of our project; the side we always share, which we are careful to represent thoughtfully but often positively, but also to present the second part which we usually neglect to speak about; the more challenging aspects of making the work.

We felt it important within the lab to set out why we often err towards the positive when representing the work that we do, so we set out our Reasons to be cheerful:

1. Negative stigma In the area where we are working the community has had to overcome and battle with negative press and judgement for so long; part of the work is about rewriting the story with local residents. Although we may want to discuss the problems which the area faces, we are aware that in doing so, we are at risk of adding to the negative stigma.

2. Morale For our project, and projects like ours it can feel important to keep positive, the celebratory aspects of a project are important locally for hope and to keep up morale (of residents and ourselves as practitioners).

3. Conscious of audience It is a concern that funders may see it as a risk to invest in an area with  many visible challenges (something we have heard directly from funders about the work we do). This may make them think twice about funding projects if the difficulties faced in delivering the work are openly discussed.

4. Ethics How on earth do you document, share and expose some of the really difficult challenges, for example drug use and dealing which we are navigating within our project, when doing so can be seen as insensitive or at worst, unethical?

We planned in space within the lab to say why now feels like an important moment to share the challenges.

An increasing number of artists are working in this way.

This Means it's ever more important to be truthful and clear about the two sides to the story, that we as artists have to negotiate. It feels important to make the true work more visible in order to benefit the audience and those who want to work in this way.

If we don’t show the full picture, the full impact will never be understood.

In the context of enormous cuts to the arts and public services it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure funding for art projects. In addition, the role and remit of the artist is expanding in some respects, as public sector cuts mean that organisations that would have supported the work previously are no longer equipped to do so. If we fail to demonstrate the true scope of the work that we are doing then we make it easy to undervalue what the impact is. A project's impact isn't demonstrated by how many people came, in most cases, art happening in social contexts is more nuanced and challenging than that. It is Important to be vocal about the gaps we're filling. Our job title is expanding, and the support to do the job is diminishing. 

The Portland Inn Project, final day of the 'Raising the Roof' Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
We then shared the two sides of our project, the successful parts which are making a difference to the community and location we are working within, the brilliant opportunity to bring architects to our area, and really expand the horizons of our project, and the people we are working with. Then we talked through the parts which are really hard to deal with; the moments of risk and failure and the sometimes personally troubling aspects of working in a precarious context. We talked about this summer, and being threatened by drug dealers, having to call the police on a daily basis, due to anti-social and illegal activity in the space we were working on. We talked about the parts of our role which are generally invisible, and genuinely surprising (even to ourselves) as being part of the remit of the arts project – campaigning with our community all summer to have the shit in the phonebox cleaned up, and going to endless meetings, some of which feel like ground hog day. We did our best in the time provided to lay bare everything that had taken place on Portland Street this summer. This opened up space for group discussion, and time to reflect on what Social Artists are juggling, navigating and at times quietly shouldering. From some of the artists and practitioners in the room it felt like a sigh of relief was let out, finally a space to talk about the crap. For others in the room, this felt like a step too far – and even in this space with other social artists, questions were raised about whether it is ever ok to share the shit in the phonebox, or if some kind of unwritten code is being broken if you do. 

Finally, the group (consisting of artists, curators, educators and representatives from community projects from across the UK) worked together to form some guiding principles for ourselves and others for the coming years. After the Summit, the longlist of points were put into a survey, to enable a wider group of artists to contribute to the final resource. This has now been published by a-n, as a downloadable poster and also as a written respurce (including some of the context provided by artists on what the points raised were referencing. This is included within the a-n Research paper published to document the Social Art Summit.  
The Rules of Engagement: Guiding Principles for Artists working in Social Contexts.

Rules of Engagement, resource illustrated by Rebecca Davies.
Expanding on the resource.
The Social Art Summit Lab included space for discussion around the work that socially engaged artists do, including going over where we access support, issues of representation and the strategies we employ in order to continue to make the work. This led to the putting together of a set of guidelines within the session, which each group talked through. The final 10 for the resource are expanded upon below, to reveal some of the thinking that initiated them, but there were some very good ideas that didn’t make the final 10, when the suggestions were voted on in a survey.

The full 20 are below, (the final 10 and then the ones that didn’t make it). Within the online survey was also a space to add any additional guidelines that artists felt were missing, I have included a few of those below too.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Recognise that people are experts in the places they live and work: This point has come up again and again in gatherings of artists working with people. It is often discussed that it may not always be the artists role to create the culture or to act as some kind of expert, but in fact to almost at times be an anthropologist or investigator. Facilitating the people of the place to uncover and reveal their own stories, is more rewarding for participants and usually has more impact long term.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Work collaboratively: we are capable of more when we work together, but in addition, being vocal about the role each person has taken and the input given to a project is important in truly successful collaborations. Everyone’s contribution is valued.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be clear that Social Change is the aim, Art is the tool: Art is a useful tool to mobilise and create space for discussion, but art is not the end in itself: what we are really aiming for is social change.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Build in space for the voice of the community: As visual artists we often have a sense of how something should look, feel, sound and be experienced, and this is something which we are skilled at, however, if the voice of the community is left out of the work, then the work is purely self-serving of the artist. Rebecca Davies and I came up against this early in our project, when a community member wanted to bring a 5 foot Minion into the public area of our project, for the children. We were horrified, as it did not fit the aesthetic we were working hard to create. It was an important moment, realising that if there is no space for the community to bring in what they want, at some point, we may find the community are no longer standing with us. 
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Know that having enough time is critical: Longer durational projects work, but if a project is short term, hard work needs to be done to ensure it is embedded and meaningful to its location.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be honest; know your intentions and share them: It is so important for building trust within the work we are doing with other humans. In order to ensure we are not exploiting others, or allowing others to be exploited, practice openness and honesty about what the aims and objectives are within the project, and if these change – communicate that too.

Don’t make assumptions: Never assume anything. Check and crosscheck, and check again.

Practice self-care; know when to stop: It is important for artists to be clear about how much time they can give to a project, and do their best to stick to it. At times, we can be our own worst enemies, if we fail to value our own time as a resource within the project, we cannot be so surprised when that same resource is undervalued by others.

Value the artist's role in this context (we bring something different): The value and impact of the work that artists do can at times feel misunderstood, or not fully realised.  It is important that we understand and articulate what we bring to working in social contexts.

Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be a supporter and champion for other artists working in these contexts: It can be lonely, and difficult work at times, and so being a champion for others is important, and having someone to turn to when you need it is equally important. 

And the ten guidelines which did not make the top ten (but still worth sharing here):

Build RESPECT into the project

Set clear boundaries

Do your homework

Practice active listening

Be a reflective practitioner

Recognise if you are the right person for the job: know your place

Be flexible

Lose the ego

If nobody wants it, don't do it

Take responsibility

Selected points that people felt were not yet included were:

Be aware of how funding influences decisions, broker those power dynamics fairly

Be aware of the existing culture

The artist should be working on the assumption that if a project is a success, they might not be needed in future

As far as possible, have fun

Don’t make promises you can’t keep 

Rebecca Davies have continued to discuss the issues raised within the lab, and in particular, have become interested in why it is that sharing the challenges is something that we rarely do, as social art practitioners. This feels like an important area to explore further, and something we want to spend more time on. The Social Art Assembly, taking place at Tate Modern, as part of tate Exchange on Thursday 25th April, 2019 is a perfect space to expand on this particular area. We are going to test the notion of  'The Shit Exchange' creating space for social artists to share the shit bits of projects, but importantly to uncover what the barriers have been for artists in sharing them. We feel this is going to reveal a lot about the role and impact of artists in social contexts, and make more visible some of the diffcult contexts which artists can find themselves in. It will, we hope. also show what additional support may be needed for artists working in these contexts, which should be useful for all commissioners, and projects or organisations working with artists in social settings.

[i] Social Art Summit. (2018). Social Art Network — Social Art Summit. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].