PRESENTATION – to a conference which explored socially engaged practice – called Uncommon Ground at The Lowry in Salford
I am nervous about making a contribution to a section called “where are we now” when I am still working out where I am. I don’t have an overview of the multiple models of:
- Participatory art
- Social art
- Socially engaged practice
- Community art
- Collaborative art
- Activist led art
- And so on.
It is interesting that we invent so many names for our work which emphasise the importance of process.
It’s like we are super-keen to point out just how important the process is – in case anyone is in doubt.
And frankly, we’re right to be a bit over-zealous about this.
As a whole, the wider arts sector, focuses on product.
The distribution of a thing for people to consume.
Even the fact that we sometimes call ourselves a sector, betrays an industrial mind-set.
It is striking – that for a group of people who work with human imagination and relationships – that our commissioning models, our distribution models and our funding models owe more to manufacturing than to creative process.
The very fact that when it comes to resources – our model generally favours organisations the artists – those who often lead the creative process – is another sign, that we’ve got things – the wrong way round.
We’ve got stuck in a product-based mind-set – in terms of the way we measure our work.
What is the product? How many people were involved in the creation of the product? How many people will see the product? How will we measure people’s responses to the product? How will we cost the distribution of the product? How will we digitally share the product?
I am not saying that either the product – or these questions – don’t have some value. It’s just odd that we are generally less confident about describing the potential of creative process and relationships.
Dear artist, producer or cultural organisation, thank you for applying to our innovation fund. Please could you set out the outcomes of your innovation before you have developed it? Tell us what is new about your project.
To which the only authentic answer can be – I don’t bloody know yet.
We have let product rule over process. And we are not alone.
Education, the process of learning, the process of discovery and the process of transformation, has also largely, become obsessed with results.
Simplistic debates about the measurement of knowledge are prioritised – over more complex discussions about pedagogy or process.
How many articles have you read recently about what we should be teaching children – rather than how we could be teaching children?
It’s true in our territory too – we seem hardwired to think about, write about, report about, what we do, rather than the way that we do it.
And as a result, I think we are more comfortable talking about outcomes rather than what it means to be a in a creative process.
There are lots of things about this – that are really odd – when you think about it.
Not least because on an individual level – most people in this room, most people who work across the arts, would speak – passionately – about the fact that people’s lives change – not because of something they buy or receive – but because of a process they are engaged with – because of a process in which they have agency.
Though when we talk about process – or we champion process – it often feels like swimming against a tide.
The whole ocean seems to be going in a different direction.
However, the very fact that today is happening, a day long-debate about process-based approaches and relationships.
Not bolted on to the main agenda for balance – but the agenda – suggests, just maybe, that the tide could turn.
We have been thinking about this in Battersea. After a couple of years in my role, I found the model of our producing team, which was divided in to a “theatre department” and a “participation department” – increasingly problematic:
- It augmented a deep-seated hierarchy across our organisation – people would regularly refer to the theatre programme as the “main programme”. 10 years later – I reckon this has only just stopped happening.
- Also, the model of inviting people to participate in our work felt really problematic – hey, we make theatre in a particular way, would you like to come and join in with us? The invitation was limiting in terms of the people who we were connecting with – but also limiting artistically – it was an invitation to our party on our terms with our rules.
As a consequence of this division in the producing team, it felt like we, as an organisation, were set up for people who were already interested in what we did.
So we changed our structure – to change the nature of the invitation.
We began by bringing these two teams together. So that all producers were expected to work across all of our activity – from programming festivals to working in schools to partnering with community groups.
It’s a no brainer – it’s how artists usually work.
I sometimes think organisations have only created departments and management structures to control resources – in the image of an industrial model.
It’s often not helpful to the creative process.
In Battersea I think we were structured in a way which was systematically excluding large parts of our community.
Gradually realising this has gradually led to a change in the core purpose of our organisation.
TO INVENT THE FUTURE OF THEATRE
Which if you think about, is quite proudly industrial.
Which better reflects, I think, a creative process we are interested in – which is ongoing – and without end.
Our purpose, now, is simply a reflection of our process, Scratch.
We use Scratch process to make new shows, to kick start new programmes, to change our structure, to re-imagine our building, and so on.
We don’t always use it as methodically as this diagram might suggest – it is more of a mind-set and regular kick-up the arse to make sure we’re actually listening to people – rather than making decisions ourselves.
Whilst it’s a long journey we are on, ultimately it is a simple change we are trying to achieve.
To work with more members of our community as artists, protagonists, leaders, rather than as participants to be included or worse still, rescued.
An international perspective has also informed this shift.
Especially, several trips to Brazil. We experienced the work of:
- Practitioners like Faustini in Rio – who used his creative process as an artist to support the development of other people’s ideas (Olivia from Contact will talk about The Agency in the next session)
- And Buildings like SESCs – which rather than deliver the arts to people – appear to host multiple process-based activities to bring people together – whether that is a game of drafts or football, a library to share ideas, wellbeing programmes, even a dentists or a huge public café subsidised by local businesses – the successful SESCs are cultural community centres.
These distinctively Brazilian approaches – ensure people are culture.
Rather than culture just being a product which people consume at 7:30 in the evening with a drink in hand.
As we have gradually become more confident with a process-based approach in Battersea, so we have begun to wonder what we could learn from the creative process-based approaches of other artists and organisations.
There is an amazing creative programme in this building called Young Carers.
Imagine being 16 years old and spending several hours of your day, every day, looking after a parent or sibling.
Add that to your school day and what’s left? When do you find time to be you? And all this at a moment in your life when you’re supposed to be finding out who you actually are…
Young Carers seeks to address this challenge. It is a partnership between The Lowry and Salford Young Carers Service. It’s an amazing process-based programme.
If Young Carers was a show or an exhibition, the arts sector would be falling over itself to distribute it to every theatre, arts centre or gallery in the land.
But the thing about the Young Carers programme is that it, currently, can only be experienced here, where the inspirational partnership with The Lowry exists.
The same can be said for many other great examples of exceptional creative practice around the UK which only exists in one venue, location or partnership.
Surely, if our industrial model has enabled us to share shows and exhibitions, we must be able to find a way to spread and grow fantastic creative projects?
I think we sometimes struggle to understand how we can distribute work which is so deeply rooted in communities – but this is sometimes because we make the assumption that in order to share this work, we should focus on the product.
But what if we began to focus on sharing creative methodologies? Sharing the process and how relationships are made, rather than the product.
Contact MCR and we in Battersea have been trying to do this with another co-created methodology from Brazil which I mentioned earlier, The Agency. It uses a creative process to support young people to develop and launch their own project or business.
It originated in Brazil before being adapted by us. Later this year it will be adapted by National Theatre of Wales in Cardiff and FabLab in Belfast.
I am sure there are others in this room who are doing the same with their own or other people’s creative approaches.
So I’ll finish with a quick invitation…
We are interested to work with artists and organisations around the country, and internationally, who have their own creative models that they want to tour. [Slide]
So we’re working with Gulbenkian Foundation and Arts Council England, and we hope you, on what is currently calling Co-Creating Change.
There are commissions to develop – or refine creative methodologies.
There are commissions to share and spread those methodologies.
And there are opportunities to come together to explore how we get better at this stuff.
We want to get more comfortable with talking about creative process. To have the difficult conversations not the easy ones.
If you are interested, there are more details on our website.
If you have ideas of how to shape such a network, we’d be really interested to listen. Thanks for listening to this.
22 Mar 2018