Georgina Barney – An Artist on Farming

Georgina Barney is captivated by farming, in theory, art and practice. Today she publishes GB Farming: An Island Journey, a book that records her time on 14 farms and her subsequent artistic investigations of the culture of farming in Britain. This text is my introduction to her work. To download extracts from the book or to find out about launch events, scroll to the bottom of this page.  Follow this link to download a PDF of this introduction

There are artists who find their language early and whose work consists of retelling the world in their own voice. It’s what makes a watercolour by Samuel Palmer or Eric Ravilious distinctive and recognisable. There are others whose discovery of the world is the means of finding an artistic language. Georgina Barney may be one of them. The difference is not in talent or sensibility but in their relationship to things, to the world around them and to themselves. Hesitation and doubt nourish the desire for truth. They make bold leaps – then stop; and question. Their course is jagged and can be hard to follow. With frequent breaks and changes of direction it can appear chaotic but is better understood as exploratory.

These artists – if they make progress at all – tend to be appreciated critically in this uncertain postmodern world, sceptical of progress and yet entranced by ideas. To other tastes their work can seem difficult. Fragmentary, searching and tentative, it’s like the field notes of a lost expedition. But if we invest some imagination and respond actively to exploration’s traces, it can be immensely rewarding.

This book works in just that way. Part journal, part essay, part sketchbook, it records one artist’s engagement with farming – the idea and the experience – over a long period of time. At its heart, is a logbook documenting a journey across Britain made by Georgina in the winter, spring and summer of 2007 and during which she lived and worked on some very different farms. But that story has been unpicked and remade several times in the intervening years, as the artist undertook a succession of projects, exhibitions, installations and reflections around an experience that, like grass in cow, has taken a lot of digesting. Sometimes in fleeing her own work she has gained distance and insight to understand it better on her return.

What emerges is not one story but several. There is a story about farming, certainly, rooted in the physical realities of production and consumption. But there are stories about politics, the environment and aesthetics too. There are human stories – of people met and of the artist’s own life, including her emergence from depression. And there is the story of the telling itself as straw is spun into gold. Each reader will follow their own thread. Every reading, re-spinning each book, is unique.

Still, all this circles around farming likes flies on ripe fruit. Perhaps the fascination remains because watching farmers at work allows her to unearth what it is, at least for her, to be an artist at work. Nothing clings like the clay on your boots.

The physicality of farming life is a constant. Muscle, milk and shit. Meat. The fragile transience of fruit and flowers. Rain, cold, sunshine. Rain. The embodied knowledge of men and animals, their actions not unthinking but unselfconscious. Stone underfoot, brambles snagging, hills: the land imposing itself on calves and thighs. The varied textures of soil and the variety of what they produce. Flat land, garden land, reclaimed land. Animal warmth and aching muscles beside the fire.  Birth, sometimes quickly followed by death; blood and placenta and piss. The hand on a cow’s flank to reassure before another to the teat. The calm of the abattoir conveyor belt; the stun; the slit.

Underlying it all, the knowledge that, whatever else we might be, we are animals who must eat to stay alive. What we eat and how we get it raises questions about economics, justice, science and morality, but eat we must. And shit too, whether on rustic planks above sawdust, chemical toilets or porcelain bowls flushed clean out of sight and mind. We too are part of a food cycle that lets nothing go to waste. Egg shells are ground up and fed back to the hens that laid them; unsold radishes rot in the furrows whence they were pulled. Pigs will eat what we will not. And when our time is over, we will go the same way: earth to earth. You know the rest.

It’s not a thought to cheer a sad heart, you would think – the shadow of death on animals sent to market on Friday morning, before a breakfast of bacon and sausage. But the demands of other beings, who must be milked at seven whatever the state of your hope or your hangover, cannot be ignored. Hay must be made while the sun shines, pregnant ewes helped now, when they are in trouble. Hail, frost and rain can make you flush or broke in days. Such realities take no account of opinions or spirits.  So the young artist finds something good in hard work, in monotony and repetition that has a purpose and is not about herself; in companionship with others, for whom this work will still have to be done tomorrow, next week and next year; in seeing her dexterity grow with her understanding; in knowing that the dairy floor is clean enough to eat off, or at least make cheese on; in callouses on her hands and the browning of her skin; in finding the courage to watch death come to an animal unaware; in getting on; and getting through.

There’s much to think on too, food for contemporary art’s critical feast. Farming economics are not straightforward. There is vast capital but it is not always productive or even accessible. Many incomes are low, and not only for the Poles picking leeks and potatoes while they save for something better at home. They cut, wash and prepare carrot sticks for office workers who can pay to eat well and easily. Children visit the city farm to learn where their food comes from, but most of us think little about the origin or moral cost of our meat and two veg.

Curious that all this movement, skittering from one farm to another, is inspired by stasis. Farming is, quite literally, rooted in place. Businesses relocate; families move house. Farms stay put, adapting to change where they must. They make the most of the land they have: lettuce from Fenland peat, lamb off Cumbria’s hard fell. There is an old lesson there for a globalising world mesmerised by further and faster movement.

Still, farms don’t escape those forces. Mechanisation has steadily plucked workers from the land. Agriculture’s version of offshoring is to bring people here to do the backbreaking work that’s left. Worcestershire strawberry beds and Lincolnshire potato fields are harvested – for now – by hands from the poor parts of Europe. Some are not beyond sending Chinese cockle-pickers illegally into Morecambe Bay: the cost is lower than the tide.

It would be sentimental to mourn the labour that once crippled agricultural lives, though scything for self-sufficiency appeals to some. But the passing of Thomas Hardy’s world is one cause of our ignorance about what sustains us. We watch Lambing Live on the BBC but think little about the chop on our plate or why the mange-touts came from Kenya. Unlike John Gray, we don’t see that ‘intensive agriculture is the extraction of food from petroleum’. Machines and fertiliser have enabled us to feed billions but without hydrocarbons – they stop.

It is oil that shifts food from pack house to distribution centre to supermarket to fridge and then, shamefully, often to landfill. More journeys criss-crossing the island, the continent, the world. Another turn of the food cycle from here and back again.

Georgina’s journey offers glimpses of all this and more. She brings an artist’s tools and training to the huge, complicated, vital world of British farming. She is curious. She wants to see, to smell, to touch. To understand how and why things are done. But she wants to experience it too. She knows that a few days packing vegetables beside those who do it to put food on their own table is, in some ways, an indulgence. She sees the hitches, both in what she observes and in what she is doing.

But the artist as witness is an honourable role. She reports not only what she sees and thinks, as a journalist would, but what she feels too. Vulnerability can be a unique resource and Georgina does not balk at putting herself into difficult situations. She ups sticks and moves on every couple of weeks. Each time, there are new people to befriend, new ways of life to learn. Temporary homes, transient shelter. Belonging and outside. Wanting to learn, she does not hide from others her ignorance, her incompetence. And she accepts the need to explain, sometimes even to justify her self-imposed mission.

Weeks pass, winter becomes spring becomes summer, and the journey maps an artist unfolding the physical, cultural and emotional realities beneath the abstract ‘farming’. She finds parallels between an artists’ life and a farmer’s. Materiality, again, is part of it – or it was until artists freed themselves from stuff with virtual means of expression. Planting seeds, gathering seaweed, trimming vines or milking a goat: like carving stone or handling a pencil, such skills unite hand and mind. Their truths are partly rational and partly felt, conscious and unconscious in the same breath. The sculptor’s embodied knowledge is counterpart to the shepherd’s. Such labour teaches respect for the otherness of things and beings which, resisting malleability, must be worked with or destroyed. And, like the weather that decides how you will use your day, it can be a path to patience and humility.

Georgina sees that few farmers or artists are in it for the money and it’s true that both jobs make more sense as vocations. They are a way of living in the world whose choice enacts beliefs about what matters. Farmers and artists earn to sustain their occupation. They pay for their choice, in time, uncertainty and loss of things others deem essential. They gain what Epicurus considered essential to a happy life: freedom from orders, being among like-minded people and having time to think. For all their doing, artists and farmers are deeply concerned with being.

Artist and farmers both have a sense of shared enterprise with others on the same road. They are members of a community of practice that stretches back beyond memory and forward in hope. Above all, they are creative – not in the sloppy, easy way the word is used today but literally, factually. They bring things into existence. Animals, stories, fruit, pictures, crops, music, vegetables, performances and so on, and so on… Their creativity is life affirming and life sustaining. Without it, everything stops.

As days become weeks and months, the seasons turn. Warmth returns to field and byre, animals are born, plants grow. Like time itself, none of this is stoppable. And slowly, one spring evening, Georgina  looks at some plastic bales of silage and she wants to draw again. The journey’s arc returns, bringing with it a changed person, someone beginning to be reconciled with a role – a vocation – and its place in the world. This is not fairy tale, though. There is no easy ending. There is no gallerist waiting to pay a premium, no hungry collectors: in fact, years will pass before the artist even knows whether she has anything to send to market. As to what it’s worth, both farmers and artists know to mistrust the auction price. There are other benchmarks of value.

The journey goes on. Like all pilgrimages, it uncovers its purpose in its progress, not in a destination that, if it could even be reached, might only disappoint. It has brought growth, though; and on that both art and life depend.

Click on these links to download extracts from the book:

There are two launch events, where you can meet the artist and buy the book and artworks,

All images on this page © Georgina Barney

Making nothing happen: art and civil society in troubled times


This is the text of a talk given on 3 September 2016 in Berlin at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Tandem Exchange programme. 

On the morning after Britain voted to leave the EU, the novelist Philip Pullman tweeted:

‘We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.’

This image seemed to catch something important about the world we’re living in. We face grave problems – everyone knows that – but we and, more importantly, our leaders, often seem confused about what those problems are. Without a clear understanding of the actual challenges that face us, we thrash about in pain and fear and choose bad solutions. To take one current example, it’s hard to see a connection between controlling how women dress and overcoming terrorist murder, yet politicians still ban the burkini because action of some kind is symbolically necessary.  In our distress and confusion, we do not respond: we react. We lash out and put a bullet in our foot.

Continue reading “Making nothing happen: art and civil society in troubled times”

Both Sides of the Coin

Both Sides of the Coin: The Distinctive Value of Art in Health Care

A text commissioned by, an Irish arts and health website developed by the Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT) and Create, the development agency for collaborative arts in social and community contexts: follow this link to read the piece in context. 

Art and science have been paired since Classical times, like two sides of a coin. Each word’s meaning has fluctuated, but both have always described ways of making sense of the world. Each is a method for creating knowledge but they are not the same: otherwise we wouldn’t need two words for them. Each works towards truth but, in taking different routes, they often arrive at a different perspective on what they find.

Science has achieved extraordinary things in the past 200 years, transforming our capabilities and our sense of ourselves. It has made us, and made us feel, extraordinarily powerful. More importantly still, in defining a method based on replicable experiment, science has established a way of making sense of reality that is widely understood and transferable. We live longer, healthier and less painful lives thanks to its contribution to medicine. It is natural that we should now look for similar evidence of benefit in other areas, such as the arts – especially if artists suggest they can contribute to people’s health.

But art’s method is not science’s. Art can be rational, certainly: you don’t write a great novel or compose a symphony without relying on reason. Art can experiment, as the constant evolution of its form and expression shows. It can even be replicable, up to a point: artists learn by imitating each other. But a work of art that merely reproduces another is pointless. In science, reproducing others’ findings is the foundation on which new knowledge is built. In art, it is merely a sign of technical facility.

Art does not confine itself to reason and experiment. It deals also in emotion and feeling, contradiction and paradox, our multiple senses and embodied knowledge. Its resources include comedy and ritual, metaphor, imagery and symbol, sound and movement, time, space and the body. Among its strengths are the capacity to communicate things we sense inarticulately, know without knowing and are afraid to say or think. It is easy with ambiguity and deniability, sentient pleasure and wonder, open questions and multiple answers. Because it offers us all this – and more – we depend on art as well as science to make sense of life.

And perhaps we need it most when we are ill, sick, away from home, dependent on others, threatened by loss or death, in pain, in fear. We need science then, certainly. The scientific knowledge of the medical profession might cure us or at least help us make the most of the changed conditions of our remaining life. But science is not enough. We are not machines, in for repair. We are people and how we think and feel matters, in itself and because it influences how we respond to treatment.

Many doctors, scientists and health workers would agree with that, I know. But in a health service where need will always exceed resources, in a culture where the scientific model of proof is dominant, even the most favourably disposed are inclined to shake their heads with regret that space and money cannot be found for the arts.

That is irrational. Art’s value is to offer something that science cannot. To test that value using scientific systems either sets up art activities to fail, or constrains them to ways of working that prevent them from achieving the very things they produce. Art is unpredictable. An artist does not know whether what she is creating will work, in her terms or anyone else’s: she may not even know what it will be when she sets out. If art could be controlled and its results guaranteed, no great writer would produce an awful book, no pop star would release a record their fans hate. The purpose and value of artistic creativity is exploration. Wanting to know in advance what it will discover is ridiculous.

That does not mean that we should give artists working in health care settings free rein, nor that we should abandon any hope of understanding the effects of their work on health and wellbeing. It means that we should assess the right things in the right ways, and do so without undermining what is most valuable in their work. It means distinguishing between performance, effects and artistic quality.

Unlike art, the standards to which artists work in health care settings can be guaranteed, much like the standards of other professionals. It is possible to define the knowledge, competencies and personal qualities that make an artist suitable for this practice. Likewise the conditions of work – space, equipment, planning and preparation – can be straightforwardly described. Establishing professional standards for artists working in health settings would help commissioners choose the best people, support the practice of the artists involved and increase the likelihood of positive results.

So within the limits of human fallibility, performance standards can be guaranteed; results and effects, because they involve artistic creation, cannot. But after all, nor can medical interventions. Doctors know that and are used to explaining the possible outcomes and side effects of a drug or surgical procedure. To do so reliably, they use probability. A biopsy, for instance, may have an 80% probability of finding cancerous cells if they are present and a 5% probability of leading to infection. Nothing is certain, but these figures provide a basis for informed decision-making. Rather than expecting something as varied and personal as an arts experience to deliver constant, provable results, we should adopt the same model. By looking at the effects of a large number of comparable interventions – say of music activity with people living with dementia – we could say what probability there is that others would benefit from the experience.

Finally, there is the question of artistic quality, with which artists are naturally preoccupied. It is that preoccupation which makes it, I suggest, perfectly safe to trust them to struggle with it. The rest of us need only enjoy, respond to and follow them – if we wish. We are each free to decide what art is good for us and give our attention there.

So let’s stop trying to ‘prove’ the value of arts interventions in health care only according to narrow scientific assessment models. There are limits to what can be known through a randomised control trial. Let’s invest our energies instead into agreeing and meeting performance standards, monitoring the effects in straightforward, comparable ways and trusting the judgement of artists and audiences about quality. Art and science are not the same – and it’s in the differences that they have most to offer person-centred health care.

Whose line is it, anyway?

LedburyOne 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?

Continue reading…

Life Loves to Change

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:

Friendly Interest

For much of the British media, 2014 began with a panic about the opening of the UK’s borders to people from Romania and Bulgaria. It remains to be seen whether more of them will come here than the  Britons who have used  the EU’s freedom of movement rules to settle abroad. In 2005, according to the British Government, there were 13.1 million Britons living in abroad, including 677,000 resident in Spain alone.

This story of attraction and fear was put into context for me by an invitation to contribute to a seminar about international cultural exchange. It was organized by Pro Helvetia’s Warsaw office, which has played a valuable role in normalising artistic relations across the former Iron Curtain since 1990. Within days of the Berlin Wall being breached, the Swiss Federal Government voted to support the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe, and cultural investment was a part of that assistance package from the start. Much was achieved by Pro Helvetia in the following decades, often in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, but by 2013 it was felt that special initiatives were no longer needed. And so the programmes run from Sarajevo and Warsaw were brought to an end.

Warsaw today feels much like any other modern, prosperous European capital (it certainly had the best Christmas lights I’ve seen for years) though elsewhere in Poland the legacy of decades of totalitarianism, communism and foreign occupation are still evident. The same is true of most of Eastern Europe, where the capital cities have often outpaced their nations in Westernisation and foreign investment. But 25 years is not a long time to heal such deep and ancient scars. It doesn’t help though when, for largely discreditable reasons, the strong and comfortable pick at the scabs.

As part of the activities organised by Pro Helvetia’s fantastic Warsaw team, I was asked to reflect on the idea of cultural exchange between nations. The result was an essay that drew on the experience of their programme to think more widely about how and why such friendship can be in everyone’s interest.  The essay was published to mark the closing seminar, and it can be downloaded below.

FRIENDLY INTEREST: Reflections on Swiss cultural exchange with Poland and Central Europe, 1991-2013


Quality in community art (MCV7)

The McMaster Review

Fashions sometimes change quickly in the arts, and in arts policy too. In July 2007, the then Secretary of State for Culture, James Purnell, commissioned Sir Brian McMaster to undertake a review of ‘excellence in the arts’. The report was published in January 2008 and for a few months, the art world buzzed with the idea. I wrote something myself about it at the time for the Voluntary Arts Network.

Then Mr Purnell began his rapid exit from politics, via a stint at the Department of Work and Pensions. There was a change of government, and the buzzwords became philanthropy and digital. The DCMS pages about Sir Brian McMaster’s work now reside in  the National Archives.

Elephant Yes

A new essay on quality in community arts

But the issue of excellence remains a central preoccupation of artists, whatever the policy world does. Indeed, one of the questionable aspects of the whole exercise was the implicit assertion that people had lost sight of excellence. I’ve never met anyone working in the arts or cultural sector who was not committed to producing the best work that could be achieved. The challenge has always lain in the fact that there are many ideas of what ‘best’ or ‘excellent’ means. 

I’ve just published a new essay looking at on some of the issues in the context of community arts practice in a UNESCO e-journal on Multi-Disiplinary Research in the Arts, at the University of Melbourne. Click here to download the essay or follow this link to the University of Melbourne website to download the whole journal.


This paper takes Creative Progression, an arts programme whose aim was to support the progress of the homeless participants towards health, wellbeing and independent living, by Helix Arts (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK), as a case study through which to which to reflect on the meaning and assessment of quality in participatory arts. It considers the use of the word ‘quality’ by arts professionals, and the recent focus on ‘excellence’ in British cultural policy discourse, suggesting that the first term is often confused with ‘good’, partly because of uncertainty about concepts and partly because doing so may help to avoid potential challenges about values.

The paper then identifies five stages in a participatory arts process—conception, contracting, working, creation and completion—considering in turn some of the problems of defining or securing quality in performance, using the experience of the Creative Progression programme as a framework. It concludes by suggesting that, given the inevitably subjective nature of both arts practice and artistic experience, it is impossible to define fixed standards of quality in performance or outcome. Nor, indeed, would it be desirable to try to do so.

However, the quality of self-awareness and critical reflection exercised by artists working participatory contexts, and the extent to which that reflection is open to all participants, is central both to an ethically-defensible process and to the probability of programmes achieving their stated goals.


Download Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts, François Matarasso 2013

Late flowering

Jean (Fred's Folks)
Jean, flautist with Fred’s Folks Ceilidh Band

Art and wellbeing in old age

[This is the English text of a chapter I contributed to a book on art and ageing called Lang Leven Kunst, which was published on 18 June 2013 in Rotterdam.It’s rather long for a blog post, so to download a PDF of the whole text, please click on this link.]

Everybody knows that human beings now live much longer than they did in the past, and not only in the rich West but across the globe. We know too the reasons for this change: better health care and nutrition, less manual labour, access to education, growing prosperity and so on. We even know the economic and social challenges this ‘long tail’ presents, as humanity’s demographic profile changes. What we do not seem to know is what we should do with our lengthening lives.

Spiritually conscious cultures often associate the last years of life with making sense, reconciliation and detachment from material ties. But, despite the continuing faith of millions, European society as a whole no longer sees religion as a way of interpreting experience. That was perhaps less important when old age offered a fortunate minority just a few years’ rest after a lifetime’s hard work, but when retirement can be 30 years or more in good health, new questions naturally arise.

Having solved the puzzle of quantity (how to extend life) we are left with the problem of quality: what are these extra years for? Indeed, the challenges of quality—which range from pensions and social care to the status of old people—are the direct result of our success in increasing the quantity of old age. We cannot nor should we wish to turn back the clock: longer, healthier life is a moral good in any philosophy. So, individually and collectively, we must rise to the new challenge of making old age as good, rewarding and valued a time of life as any other.

Continue reading “Late flowering”

‘All in this together’

Floyd Road Mural, Steve Lobb and Carol Kenna, 1976
Floyd Road Mural (Charlton, London UK) by Steve Lobb and Carol Kenna, 1976

The de-politicisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011

The term ‘community art’ came into use in Britain at the beginning of the 1970s, at a time when the cultural experimentation of the 1960s was confronted both by harsh economic conditions and by more concerted resistance from a cultural establishment beginning to recognise the nature of the challenge to its authority it was facing. Community art was used to describe a complex, unstable and contested practice developed by young artists and theatre makers seeking to reinvigorate an art world they saw as bourgeois at best and repressive at worst.

The phrase ‘community art’ fell out of favour at the beginning of the 1990s, to be replaced by the seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’, though the original term is still used by some people and may even be in the process of rehabilitation. It is also used outside the UK, notably in the Netherlands and Australia, where it has acquired locally-specific meanings with diverse connection to the original theories and methods.

Does this change of terminology have any importance?

This is the opening of a long essay tracing one theoretical history of community arts in Britain from the late 1960s and today. It originated in a talk at ICAF Rotterdam in December 2011 when I was asked to reflect on the recent riots in London. I was reluctant to discuss events that took place when I wasn’t even in the country, but it did set me thinking about 1981, when I was in London, working as a community arts apprentice, and there were also riots.

As research about 2011 events began to be published, I was struck by what had changed since 1981—and what had not. The result is a personal reflection on how community arts has changed, in theory and in practice, over the 30 years in which I have been involved in the field.  It is published today in a book of essays edited by Eugene van Erven under the title Community, Art, Power.


Drawing together

JL-3-800x576A couple of years ago Deborah Aguirre Jones  began a project working with women experiencing mental health problems in Bristol, where she lives. Supported by a local organisation, Creativity Works, she invited the participants to make drawings to be given to local women artists, who would make a drawing in exchange. Over a period of weeks, a kind of visual conversation developed between women who never met face to face. It was a bit like having a pen pal, but using the intuitive and ambiguous process of visual art rather than words.

The results were published online and as a book, in which each sequence appears as a folding sheet. All the work can be seen online here: Drawing Together.

The experience was deeply valued by the women who took part and Deborah has done two further iterations of the idea, one involving many of the same participants, the other in a different city. There have been a couple of seminars as well, to reflect on the issues  raised by the work. Deborah asked me to contribute a short reflection to the book, which is reproduced below.

Drawing together

Drawing inferences

Talking to no one is strange, Talking to someone is stranger

Kevin Coyne, 1971

Humans are social beings. We need to talk to each other, to share feelings, ideas and experiences, to find common ground and build solidarity.Our mental health depends on interaction, which is why solitary confinement, except for very short periods, is widely considered a form of torture. We learn to understand ourselves, and others, by talking things through. Without language, we’re borderline human. And yet talking can be risky, even perilous.

You might be in danger, yeah, If you say too much in this world

It’s so easy to say the wrong thing, to put your foot in it, to wound someone or in turn face judgement and hurt. Even the most assured can be tongue-tied in unfamiliar situations. Some need a lifetime to find the confidence to speak; others lose it through painful experience.If we need to talk but are fearful of opening our mouths, we’re cornered.

Art can help us out of that dead end, which is one reason for its existence. It lets us say things we can’t – or won’t – put into words precisely because they aren’t said; they’re suggested, implied, inferred and open to interpretation.Art is a safe place to share thoughts and feelings because everything is deniable. ‘You see it like that? Well, how interesting, but it’s not what I had in mind…’ We can hide behind the idea that the work speaks for itself, which it does, of course; but what is it saying?

Whatever art is saying nowadays, it often seems to say it very loudly. It’s true that artists invented rhetoric, and having the confidence to broadcast oneself can be seen as part of the job: hectoring the world with a bullhorn.But there are other, more intimate ways of making art, and they are sometimes more profound. They don’t shout or draw attention to themselves. They take time, but they repay it with unfolding layers of meaning.

All art is a dialogue between the creator – the person who makes it – and the recreator, the person who sees, reads, hears, feels, thinks and imagines it.What we call art – a picture, story or song – is just a link connecting two minds. That connection is usually limited because the recreator cannot return anything to the creator. It is, after all, one of art’s capacities to enable communication across space and time between people who don’t or can’t know one another.

This project is different. It makes the partners in artistic dialogue equal because each is both creator and recreator, a drawer and an interpreter of drawing. And it is the untrained, nonprofessional artist who starts, who creates a space for sense and who sets its tone. The invitation made to a professional artist, to respond to something made by another, is already a subversion of the normal relationship between artist and public.

But then the artist’s response requires its own answer, like a letter from a friend.  It’s not an email or text that appears – ping! – and gets an instant message back. This drawing is on paper and like a letter it must be physically carried from one hand to another.That takes time and it gives time – time to reflect, to wonder, to imagine. Time to get to know one’s correspondent through the images they offer. Time to think through what to share and how to share it.

But first you must decide what’s being said and, since this is a drawing not a letter, that’s open to question. Curiously, though, the ambiguity is not threatening: it’s liberating. No honest, open response to a drawing is ‘wrong’: there can be no misunderstanding. So what goes back, after careful study of each image, is a truthful reply. And that in turn invites a reply…

The exchange of drawings, like all gifts, creates obligations. You must give something in return, not just a picture but, in it, something of yourself. You must give a little trust, a little truth. And so the threads of relationship are plaited and strengthened until, like climbers, we’re ready to trust our weight to them.

There are always people on the margins of society. The strong take their places in the sun, uncaring or unconscious of where falls their shade. Those who can speak, and are listened to, easily take that gift for granted. They may believe that others, if they’re noticed at all, are silent from weakness or choice. Things are not so simple. And even if they were, everyone is still entitled to take part in the endless human conversation: listening in is not enough. It’s a bit like solitary confinement, with the sounds of everyday life drifting through the bars.

Art can be exclusive too; it’s not immune from the forces that shape the rest of human experience. But it doesn’t have to be. Artists have ways of opening up to the margins, of creating a dialogue with people on life’s riverbank. In fact, being naturally curious and working in that safe space in which people do say all the things they can’t say, they may be especially adept at making those bridges.

Talking to someone may be strange indeed, but it’s life, and life is strange.

Culture and the crisis

It’s nearly five years since bank defaults burst the neoliberal economic bubble and the world – or at least the West – is still far from having found a durable response. There isn’t even much agreement on what happened, still less about what it means.

But the cultural sector does seem to agree on one thing, at least: it had nothing to do with us. Like others experiencing grant cuts, falling spending power and job losses, the cultural profession feels like a bystander in this crisis, a victim, even, of the greed of others.

There’s an inconsistency here. Either culture generally (and the arts specifically) are important or they’re not. They can’t only be responsible for the good things. I’ve always held that they are of fundamental, if complex and uncontrollable, importance to human societies, because they express what people believe (including what they aren’t aware they believe). That idea lies behind the title of this site; here’s a conference paper about that importance. Continue reading “Culture and the crisis”