One of the reasons for starting this blog was to make our research into community arts more accessible. Academic research isn’t always the most transparent medium; sometimes the style of writing can be really obscure or just dull; sometimes too academic books are just plain expensive. So what we’re trying to do here is to reflect what we’re finding in a clear style of writing that’s (virtually) free! The project I’m discussing here will be included as a chapter in a book called Ethics and Evidence in Theatre History and Historiography and it’ll be published by Palgrave Macmillan early in 2015. I think it’ll be a really interesting and useful book but I guess it might not be the first place you’d look for ideas about the legacy of the community arts movement! So here it is in a condensed form.
It’s found its way into this book because I was researching and writing about the process of ‘social archiving’. The idea of social archiving emerged from discussions between the Mount Vernon Community Development Forum (MVCDF), a voluntary group of local people living on Mount Vernon (a predominantly loyalist Belfast housing estate), community arts workers Gerri Moriarty and Jo Egan and William Mitchell, a researcher and practitioner in restorative justice. The social archiving project was a response to the political and social possibilities opened up since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the official cessation of conflict in Northern Ireland. Mount Vernon has its share of social problems including unemployment, poverty and all the problems that beset many inner city housing developments. It is also recovering from 30 years of violent conflict, having been seen as a place where the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force was very active.
The social archiving project emerged from two arts-based community consultation projects on Mount Vernon: a participatory consultation exercise called the Big Weekend in 2006 and ‘Cinderella does Community Consultation’, a community pantomime in 2007. The first event involved creative writing and photography workshops, a tea dance, video vox pops, outdoor art installations and a sports quiz, all designed to involve local people who might not have participated in more traditional community consultation processes. The community pantomime used a performance of the well-known story to ask important questions about the future of the estate in a light-hearted and accessible way. Within theatre scholarship these activities are often associated with applied theatre but in practice would more accurately be described as community arts.
The ideas I was trying to explore with this project were about memory because this process was asking participants to remember certain times from their past, to share those memories in a public space and to create a kind of collective memory through the creation of a social archive. But while my colleagues in theatre history were talking about the kind of archives that you can walk into and lift down boxes of documents from a shelf the sort of archive that was being developed here was much less tangible; it didn’t exists as thing so much as a set of stories and ideas. This made me think of the idea of recollection, is in recalling or remembering something, and re-collection, as in gathering and reassembling depleted resources and energies, exploring the significance of memory following the violence of a protracted conflict. This made me think that the archive as a thing or a place is less important in this instance than the activity of creating it.
It also made me think about the idea of cultural memory: how might all those individual memories come together or coalesce into a group or cultural memory? How are those memories used to create and perpetuate stories that can sustain a community? What happens when some of those stories start to become unhelpful and maybe even hold people back? For community development worker Billy Hutchinson, and the team of community arts workers, the key was to help people to understand why they had behaved in the way that they did during the conflict. When we were talking about the social archiving workshops Billy told me in an interview:
“Whatever we do is about change and people need to understand that change and what it is […] for instance, the stuff that we’ve been doing with what we would call the ex-combatants is that anything they do, they must do it for a reason, and they must understand why they’re doing it. As well as understanding why they’re doing it presently, they also need to understand why they did it in the past. And we need to archive that in some way. I don’t want people taking murals down for the sake of taking them down […] the point is it needs to be interpreted […] it’s about change. And the whole point of having these discussions at public meetings was not to get people to talk about the mural but to give people the opportunity to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. And if the mural was talked about, fine.”
The mural (pictured below) that Billy was talking about sits on a hill on the edge of the estate, clearly visible from the main road below. Although not all discussions focused on the mural during the workshops its presence loomed large because it is a huge symbol of the way many people felt after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998: anxious, fearful for the future and uncertain about what it might bring. The social archiving workshops run by the community artists were a way to help the participants to come to a collective understanding of what they had been through, to discuss some of those fears and anxieties, and to work out together the best way forward. After the workshops some of the participants agreed to be interviewed on camera and these were edited to create a video called ‘Mount Vernon: more than just a mural’. This has been used to illustrate the process of social archiving and to present the voices, views and ideas of residents beyond Mount Vernon in a broader political and social dialogue.
So, apart from the involvement of Gerri Moriarty, co-author of this blog, how does this project relate to the community arts movement of the 1970s and 1980s? Well, many of the techniques developed at that time, and refined since, were used in the public workshops: techniques designed to connect the individual to the community; techniques to harness group energies and ideas; techniques to articulate ideas from the group in a creative way that can be shared beyond the moment and beyond that group of people. The urge to ‘speak truth onto power’, to create change, to use the arts to make a difference all underpin this way of working.
As an academic I’m also required to critique these ideas too but that might have to wait for another day! Please comment and give us any feedback. We value your thoughts and ideas.