In April of this year, Gerri Moriarty facilitated an ArtsLab for postgraduate students from Goldsmiths, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This was organised by the Barbican as part of its Artworks: London programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (www.phf.org.uk). She writes ‘This was a fantastic opportunity to work collaboratively and intensively over a period of four days, with artists committed to working with communities, in the early stages of their careers. It was a privilege for me to learn more about the issues and questions that concerned them and the kinds of work they were hoping to undertake.
During the course of our time together, the students talked about how little time they felt they had on their MA course to develop their own practice (as opposed to considering theory or learning more about the practice of already-established artists and organisations.) And this made me reflect on the freedom I had had in the early years of my work as a community artist in North Devon, in the early Seventies.
My remit was broad and vague – to work with people living on the Frankmarsh/Gorwell estate in Barnstaple, with the arts. Nobody told me how to do it, as nobody knew, least of all me. I could try anything and I did. We built an adventure playground with parents and other local residents and ran wild outdoor drama-based activities in the summer holidays (an Ur-version of site specific and immersive practice!) An ex-member of Ballet Rambert taught dance and movement classes for adults, we ran creative writing workshops and published booklets, we had a dark-room, silk-screen printing facilities and an Albion printing press. On lovely summer evenings we thought nothing of piling the young people’s drama group into our van and driving down to the beach to play drama games. No-one asked us if we were meeting Arts Council England’s strategic goals, whether we had carried out adequate risk assessments or even very much about who was actually participating in our programmes.
I made a lot of mistakes. I remember standing in the car park of the Community Centre we had worked with residents to found, moving the bingo machine for the umpteenth time and thinking ‘ I’ll stay a bit more focussed on the art in my next job’. But the learning from all of this was rich – I remember taking the live wires from the drama group to see a performance by the mime artist, Nola Rae and watching her charm this rowdy non-theatre going section of her audience into joyful silence and I remember learning how much people’s lives could change as a result of discovering their own creative voice.
Looking back, I can see now that I was lucky to have the incredible luxury of a few years to experiment as I began my professional work. I had time to develop my confidence and experience, to takes risks and to fail, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes producing work that was just not quite good enough. I don’t want to romanticise about that period; we had very limited resources, we over-stretched ourselves constantly, our passion was sometimes out-of-kilter with our mastery of technique. But what we did have was space to learn and to explore.
The question I am left with is how easy is it, in 2014, for those engaged in community and participatory arts to take risks – risks with methodology, with form, with content, with collaborations? Are there places were this can happen and if so, how are they configured? Do you think this is an issue? Do you know of good examples of programmes or spaces that support practice development and if so, what are the key factors that help them to work well? Have you developed your own personal or organisational strategies to make room for risk? Or do you feel so constrained by having to meet multiple targets, address innumerable funding agendas and juggle projects to make ends meet that you struggle to find time for exploration? Alison and I would love to hear from you about this, so please get in touch!’