One lovely evening this summer, I stood waiting in the lobby of the Market Theatre in the Herefordshire town of Ledbury. The sunshine spilling through the windows was starting to get uncomfortably warm, but no one seemed to mind. The space was crowded and there was a babble of anticipation as people waited for the first public reading of Life Loves to Change, the poem written with, about and for Ledbury by Philip Wells..
This commission, like past Rural Media Company projects, involved an artist working with a community. But writing poetry tends to be a solitary activity, at least in Western culture. Except for creative writing workshops, which support individual writers, poetry has been marginal to community arts since its emergence in the 1970s. And community arts practice, in various ways, has underpinned the Rural Media Company’s work throughout its 21 year history. Film and media projects typically involve many tasks and roles that non-professionals can take on, acquiring technical and creative skills in the process, but this one needed another approach. The poem would be composed, from start to finish, by Philip Wells, but drawing on the stories, ideas, even the words of people he would meet in Ledbury.
This approach intrigued me. Since the emergence of community arts in the 1960s and 1970s, and the visual art world’s simultaneous exploration of happenings and ‘participatory’ work, various theories and practices have competed both to explain and to justify the blurring of a boundary—between professional and amateur—that modernism had gone to great lengths to establish. An artist making work is a self-explanatory activity. It can be judged, if necessary, by those who view, watch, read, listen to or otherwise engage with what the artist has made. But the work of an artist who involves other people in its creation is not self-explanatory, especially when those they involve don’t have the professional label ‘artist’ and the authority it confers.
A new set of questions presents itself. Is the artist using people as raw material, as Spencer Tunick might be said to do in the vast carpets of naked people he lays over familiar landmarks? Or is it their experiences that are being consumed, as material for an artist in search of ‘real life’? Is the process of creating the work important. More important even than the final artistic production? And beyond these questions of art philosophy, are more fundamental ones about the ethics of human relationship. Where does power lie? Who is in charge? To what have participants consented? Is the work exploitative? Does it instrumentalise people as the means to another person’s goal?
Whose Line is it Anyway? The creation of a poem for Ledbury
This is the opening of a new essay called Whose Line is it Anyway?, which reflects on changing ideas of authorship in community arts since the 1970s. It was commissioned by the Rural Media Company and published in a book about the Life Loves to Change project. To read the complete essay, please click on the links below: