Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society


Last year I spent some time looking at the work of Tandem, a partnership between the European Cultural Foundation and MitOst that connects cultural actors within and close to the European space. Tandem marked its fifth anniversary last autumn, and they asked me to reflect on what they’d done and what might change. The essay below is the result of that review, and it looks at how, practically and theoretically, participatory cultural action can contribute to civil society.

It was a great opportunity to meet artists and activists working in very different, often very difficult situations. At the moment, three of the programmes are active in Turkey, Ukraine and the southern mediterranean countries – all places where art, civil society and democracy are under threat. The courage and resilience of the people I talked to was impressive, but so was their sheer optimism and love of life. We may live in dark times, but there are so many people making light, including those I write about in this essay .

Download the essay

Worlds within words

Trinity Laban - 1Yesterday two short conversations reminded me of the pitfalls that make words so elusive, so fascinating and so important.

The first was a question after I spoke at the Teach Through Music conference in Deptford. I’d been asked to give a talk about the value of music that I wrote for Sage Gateshead last year. In it, I’d made a distinction between the value of participation and the value of participation in the arts. It’s an idea I first wrote about in Use or Ornament? and it simply recognises that many benefits linked to taking part in arts activities are also associated with taking part in other social activities, such as joining a cycling club or being a member of a church. (There’s a good account of that in the late Michael Argyle’s book, The Social Psychology of Leisure.) This being so, it seems vital that artists thinking about the value of their work with people give attention to the particular value of being involved in an arts activity, such as music, in order to understand and explain their practice.

For the questioner, who was a teacher, I had seemed to be making a simple distinction between participation in music as a player and listening to it. It was a good question but it sprang from a different understanding of what participation might mean. In my answer, I explained that I see listening to music and playing it only as different kinds of participation. It was only later, as I listened to two music teachers presenting their work, that I understood how the curriculum could separate performing, composing and listening/critiquing in such a way that ‘participation’ might not be seen as applying to them all.

Action Space - 1

The second conversation was with the artists Ken Turner and Amanda Ravetz, whom I met at the gallery where they have been contributing to a film by Huw Wahl about the origins of Action Space and community arts. It’s a fascinating and valuable project, which I’ll return to another time, but for now my focus is on words – in this case, the phrase ‘community art’. As we talked I saw that the three of us were using the term with quite distinct ideas of what it meant. The differences I glimpsed have given me lots to think about but in themselves they highlight how difficult it can be, even for people who have spent decades professionally engaged in a subject to share their ideas. We can be deceived into thinking we understand one another – even that we agree about things – if we interpret words as we use them not as the person who spoke them does. It’s not that one meaning is ‘correct’. It’s how easy to think they are the same.

Action Space - 2

As a writer, I’ve become used to people telling me what my words say, knowing that what I’m hearing back was not what I intended to communicate. It’s true of all the arts because the person who sees, hears, looks or otherwise experiences what an artist creates is an active participant in that process: a re-creator. This is unavoidable, and it would be pointless to complain about it. But for anyone who invests heavily in shared understandings of experience, including artists, it is essential to stay alert to these multiple interpretations.

Physicists and philosophers debate the idea that there may be not one universe but an infinite number of universes in which all that can happen does happen. Whatever the truth of that idea, a version of it seems already to exist in the alternative versions of existence that we each hold. We need words to communicate, but each one contains worlds. We may be on the same one, but see it from different sides. It’s not that human understanding is impossible, just that getting closer to it requires constant vigilance about what we mean when we speak and when we listen. If that’s not active participation, I don’t know what is.


On the futility of comparing experiences

City Arts Imagine Programme

It’s a genuine shock when the soprano hits her first note. The contrast between the purity of the sound and its location is disconcerting. To hear such a voice in the functional environment of a residential home day room rather than a concert hall seems bizarre at first. There are thirty elderly residents, perhaps half of them using wheelchairs. The young singer, accompanied on an electronic keyboard, chooses well from the classic musicals, mixing familiar and less obvious songs.

She moves gently through the audience, singing directly to each person, touching hands, making eye contact. Old fingers dance to accompany the melodies. Lips move softly. As each song ends, the applause is generous. When she begins to clap, I see that someone I’d thought was asleep had simply closed her eyes to enjoy the music. When the singer announces that her last song will be by Gracie Fields, there’s a good-humoured groan and ‘Oh dear’. But they enjoy it all the same and join in with the chorus. Someone remembers the old joke turning If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake to …I’d have locked the door.

It’s the second part of this afternoon’s concert. Children from the local primary school have shared their first steps in choral singing and later there will be a chance to hear and play a set of pentatonic chimes. The event is organised by City Arts as part of a three year programme to bring the arts closer to the estimated 400,000 elderly people who live in residential care. Funded jointly by Arts Council England and the Baring Foundation (on whose behalf I’m here as a trustee) this concert is all but invisible in the arts world. Next to the work seen in theatres, concert halls and galleries across the country, it could seem very slight, insignificant even. Some might think that it is (just) the ‘for everyone’ part of Arts Council England’s mission, not ‘great art and culture’.

But since none of us can know what other people experience, we have no basis on which to judge its value. There is simply no evidence on which we can assign a higher merit to what one person may feel listening to Verdi at Covent Garden as compared to what another may feel hearing Harold Arlen sung at a residential home in Nottingham. Transcendence, if that’s what we imagine this is about, does not discriminate. Actually, the comparison is meaningless although, with limited funds available for the arts, choices have to be made and we want them made on the basis of explainable, defensible reasons.

The best reason I see today is the pleasure this music has brought to lives that are often difficult and limited. The happiness in the room is almost tangible, as people of dramatically different ages interact and move one another. Its value is simply that of living in a society where people matter, from the beginning to the end of their lives.

Mike White

The most potent contribution that this new field of arts practice can make is the revelation of just how creative community health can be.

Arts Development on Community Health, A Social Tonic, Mike White 2009

Mike White, who died at home yesterday after a long illness, was a pioneer in community-based arts and health. His ideas will continue to influence the field for many years. He was working an as arts officer for Gateshead Council when I met him. His imaginative, creative projects recognised the real difference that participation in the arts could make to people’s lives. Sometimes that was very concrete, as in the campaigns against heart disease, but more typically it was a subtle understanding of how wellbeing affects the experience of life and therefore its outcomes.Later he went on to work at Durham University, where he was central to the establishment of the Centre for Medical Humanities and where I was sometimes able to participate in the meetings of friends and collaborators he organised.

Critical Mass Participants at Durham 2011 - 1

Mike’s vision was not therapeutic. It was rooted in a passion for social justice and a belief that everyone deserves the best that life can give. It was rooted too in his character and his spirit. He was a deeply kind and generous person who always had time to share with others. He was unassuming and resolutely unpretentious, always more interested in other people and the outcomes of the work than in recognition of his own contribution.

Today, his many friends in the UK, Australia and elsewhere will be deeply saddened by his passing. I salute a friend and fellow spirit with a heavy heart. But there is some comfort in knowing what he contributed and knowing too that the people who share his ideas and values will continue to work for healthier, creative communities in which more people can flourish and make the most of life.

A social tonicIf you want to know more about Mike, there are a couple of previous posts about his work on the Regular Marvels site: Angels and Chalkie’s Demon Diary. The second piece is about the all-too brief blog in which he wrote about his illness with characteristic elegance and humility. There’s an interview he gave online, and some of his papers here; other resources to be found with a search engine.

But the best understanding of Mike’s work can be found in his book, Arts Development on Community Health, A Social Tonic. It’s a good investment for anyone interested in community arts.



Optimism is a valuable resource


Jubilee Archive Exhibition - 1

Jubilee Arts was a pioneering community arts project founded in 1974, in West Bromwich, an industrial town west of Birmingham. It thrived for more than 20 years, making imaginative and serious art with local communities. Then, during the ‘aspirational’ New Labour years, Jubilee Arts was crushed by the effort to establish a permanent place for its values in the town’s urban landscape. The arts centre that embodied that vision, The Public, was never a simple idea, and all sorts of mistakes were made during its long gestation. It opened in 2008 and was becoming a valued part of West Bromwich’s cultural life when public spending cuts ended its story in 2013. The adventure’s financial and human cost was high, not least in the end of Jubilee Arts. More happily, many of the people who were part of Jubilee’s story have since gone on to create wonderful community arts work in other places and ways.

The building is now a sixth form college, with a small part retained as a gallery. By a sad irony, it is currently showing a temporary exhibition from the Jubilee Arts Archive, a project created by Brendan Jackson and other Jubilee stalwarts. The photographs depict a vanished world of council estates and youth work, pickets, protests and poverty. Some of the art is also of its time—murals, play projects and carnivals, made with recycled materials and little money. But other aspects of the work seem very contemporary. Jubilee’s documentary photography put established ideas into new hands, creating an important body of work that can now been seen online. Its digital work in the early 1990s—like Sex Get Serious (1993)—took the original pioneering spirit into the emerging world of computers.

It would be easy to feel nostalgic about this work, especially, if like me, you lived through those years and were involved in similar projects. Memory can be kind—and deceptive. But the activities documented in the Jubilee Arts Archive are inseparable from their time. They emerged from and reflect the last days of collectivist Britain, swept away in the neoliberal hegemony we now inhabit. As I walked round the exhibition, I could see the new designer stores and coffee shops that now surround the erstwhile Public. I was also conscious of the busy street market and discount stores on the other side of the building.

The Jubilee Arts Archive is a wonderful portrait of a first generation community arts organisation. It might be the most comprehensive resource of its kind yet produced. But if the ideas about cultural democracy that it helped define remain valid, as I believe they do, they need new forms of expression and new approaches to practice that belong to the world as it is now. The past can be an inspiration: but the present is where we can act. In the exhibition hangs a banner that says:

Work as if you live in the early days of a better society.

I came away feeling that optimism too is a valuable resource.


Serious stories

‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime.’

Paul Tuge where he hid after shooting a policeman in 2001 - David Goldblatt, 18 February 2010
Paul Tuge where he hid after shooting a policeman in 2001 – David Goldblatt, 18 February 2010

The auditorium is dark and quiet. David Goldblatt seems very small against the huge black and white photograph projected behind him. It shows two women in front of a house in Soweto where they were subjected to an attack that resulted in one of them being sent to prison. We’ve seen 15 or 20 such portraits of people at similar crime scenes in the last hour, some made in South Africa, where David Goldblatt was born in 1930, and some in Britain, made as part of a Multistory commission. The images are extraordinary, but so are the photographer’s stories about the people he has met and photographed. He speaks quietly and carefully, re-telling what each ex-offender has told him, avoiding judgements either of truthfulness or morality. It has been one of the most extraordinary hours I have ever spent in a cinema.

David Goldblatt’s talk at Plymouth University was part of day-long presentation of recent work by Multistory, a small community arts organisation I’ve worked with in different ways since 2009. Six artists spoke about their work. As well as David, there were presentations by Martin Parr, Margaret Drabble, Hans Eijkelboom, Mark Power and Susie Parr. All had been commissioned by Multistory to come to the Black Country and create work with local people about their lives. The resulting work, which is continuing and already includes more than a dozen other artists, is building into an artistic and social documentary project of national importance. It is also rethinking the practice of community arts in the 21st century. And so, naturally, it is as full of questions, ambiguities and uncertainties as it is of outstanding art. The need to step back, reflect and take stock of what has been done is growing and we’ve begun discussing how to do that: the invitation from Plymouth University was one step in that process.

Paradoxically, it is those very uncertainties that make me so sure that this work matters. At the end of his talk, David was asked about his reasons for doing his work. His reply was deeply serious, honest and challenging. Like his work, it deserves to be reflected on not only by those of us who work in community art, or even by artists, but by everyone, united as we are in our common responsibility for the world.

‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime. But again I come back to the original impulse. I had a friend, Barney Simon, who became a famous theatre director in South Africa, who would say ‘The things that we’ve got to tackle are the things that we fear most’.

And, yeah, I am frankly shit scared of these criminals, many of them. We live in a house now with an electrified fence, electric gates, we’ve got an electrified alarm. We live in a society that is in prison. We’re in prison. And when I go into an area now where I feel that I’m going to be at risk, I hire a bodyguard, sometimes a man with a gun. I used to work on the assumption that if I showed people that I trust them, they will trust me. I can no longer do that, in all honesty, and I think that’s very sad.’