Washing the Dust…

The purpose of art is washing the daily dust off our souls.  Pablo Picasso



Boxing Day.

-21°C.  26th December and Christmas hasn’t even happened here yet.  The third time since setting up Seeding a Network in the ’90s I am back in Kyiv.  Over 20 years have passed between then and now:  the Orange Revolution, Maidan, the annexation of the Crimea.

My partner, Steve, and I have found ourselves propelled back to a city where three months ago we celebrated the wedding of our younger son.  Then there was sunshine, Georgian restaurants and ‘return to school’ ice-cream.  As well as the day we found ourselves among the smoke bombs and grenades of an anti-autonomy protest where three policemen where killed.

Now there is snow, Georgian restaurants and an uneasy peace.  We are in the old factory district.  In a club.  Which is also a rehearsal space. Working with a group of young theatre makers about to run a series of drama workshops with internally displaced women and children.  The workshops will take place alongside a bi-lingual (Russian and Ukrainian) production of Troilus and Cressida. Set seven years into the Trojan wars, the world of Shakespeare’s play is one worn down by the grim realities of warfare:  manipulation, deceit and corruption outweigh any sense of chivalry or patriotism.

The production is based on a performance the UK director did in Georgia; although here the Greeks will speak Russian, the Trojans Ukrainian.  But the actors are yet to be convinced of the significance of the two languages and the musical director has made it clear Georgian chants are not a Ukrainian tradition.

When the workshops begin there is already a palpable sense of tension. We, like the director, are also outsiders and not even sure of our role in the bigger picture of this Foreign Office funded project.

We spend the first day ‘getting to know each other’ through drama and theatre games – and battling to keep warm in a space that has been unheated for days.  In Kyiv the old factory spaces are slowly being reclaimed by artists and young entrepreneurs. Like the ‘pop up’ shops, cafes and galleries in the centre of town they are signs of a new energy, a passion to create, to collaborate, to work with others that runs alongside a sense of disillusionment and bewilderment post-Maidan.  Energetic activities like ‘Pass the Clap’ and ‘Yes Let’s!’ are constantly woven between working together to build a sense of trust and share something of ourselves and our stories: two true:one false, mapping our lives, trying to argue for something we totally disagree with.

By the end of the day we finally able to have a more open conversation about the work we might do together.  And touch on some of the issues surrounding the fact the workshops we are helping them to create will involve them working with people from the East of Ukraine.  The notion of the people from the East having another ‘mentality’ comes up again and again.

taras bulba cropThen, in the absence of any of us feeling totally secure with the text of Troilus and Cressida, we decide to improvise the story of Taras Bulba.  And discover on the way there might not, after all, be a ‘correct’ version – even of this most famous of tales – only the same story told from different perspectives.

Day Two builds on these ideas of story telling and points of view.  We work on the Hamlet Dumb Show then on drawing and retelling parts of our own stories: X marks the spot.  Finishing with Brecht’s Advocacy exercise, we take one of our stories and use it as the basis of a trial. taking on, in turn, the roles of the accused, counsel for the prosecution, counsel for defence, the accused’s mother as witness, eager young barristers keen to make a name for ourselves in court.  And discover how quickly we can put ourselves into the place of ‘the other’: arguing passionately for a viewpoint that is not necessarily our own.  Coming back together at the end of the day we are all in agreement: like ‘Taras Bulba’, even our own stories are only one version.

On Day Three we move into ‘Leader in Role’ or ‘Mantle of the Expert’ work. It’s an inclusive, powerful way of working and one we’ve often used explore complex issues. I’ve written about thus way of working on a number of occasions – most recently here for Scena Theatre magazine in Serbia.  Together we recreate a version of the story of the children nearly ‘stolen’ by American missionaries from Haiti after the earthquake; imagining what would have happened if they had actually reached the plane and been living in America for the past 9 years. We take on the roles of managers of the orphanages, the children deciding whether they want to go to the US, their parents discovering they are still alive, the missionaries, the children and parents later in their lives.  Constantly exploring shifting frames of reference, different points of view.

At the end of the day we talk again about our experiences of the ‘same’ story.  One of the young actors tells us it had been hard for him.  Not because he didn’t relish this way of working but because it had made him think about his own parents.  He tells us he has been estranged since he took part in Maidan (they are from Kharkiv), because they have a very different version of ‘his story’ and recent events in the Ukraine:  both of them feeling the other has been taken in by ‘propaganda’ of the ‘other side’.  But now recognising that their point of view is no less legitimate than his own.

We go off for our New Year break sensing we now have a way of working our team feel will help them create the safe space they want to make for their participants while dealing with topics they feel are important.  We also promise we will all ‘know’ Troilus and Cressida by the time we return.

After New Year

After a New Year spent in beautiful countryside near Litvinovka, half way between Kiev and Chernobyl, we come back together to make the workshop.  A ‘Leader in Role’ piece based on Troilus and Cressida that will take place in the Greek camp:  the Greeks in the production being the Russian speakers.  We decide it will begin with the participants in role as Greek citizens being asked to advise Agamemnon whether he should to go to war or not over Helen, then move to the young soldiers saying farewell to their families, making a boat, writing a farewell letter, going on the journey to Troy.  It will end with Cressida, a Trojan in the Greek camp, as she is at the end of the play, appealing to the old men, women and children to join her in finding a way to finish this pointless and seemingly endless war.

We try it out and decide, with some refinements, we all like it: especially the possibility to move between points of view, capture different stories, touch on war and its effects on everyone.  The group decide, if anyone asks them if this is a workshop about Russia and the Ukraine they will say,  ‘No.  It’s about Greece and Troy.’  The discussion that follows about what language they will run the workshop in – some of them have Russian as their first language, others Ukrainian – bringing us quickly back to the complexity of even the most (seemingly) simple of decisions.

At one point in the day, because the theatre company are finding it hard to get the monologues – especially from the East – they have decided they want to run alongside the performance, the young actor whose parents come from Kharkiv offers to be ‘in role’ as someone from Donetsk or East Ukraine.  At the coffee break that follows his ‘hot seating’ it seems everyone wants to share their own stories.  A grandfather who has chosen to stay in Crimea despite his family having moved to Kyiv.  A father who no longer feels able to visit his parents.  The tensions involved in being a Russian speaker in a Ukrainian speaking school.

Later I ask myself if it is inhabiting the minds of Shakespeare’s Greeks, the shared storytelling, or the trust exercises and games we played together that have created a space for all of us to take part in a different kind of conversation?   I don’t know.

original (2sPTrPtHR5axltNo1Q6vwg)

What I do know is, having worked earlier in the year with young visual artists who are part of the Ukrainian Centre for Contemporary Arts’s programme, there is a need in the current climate to create this space.  A need for artists/theatre makers to be with their neighbours, to make art with them, collaborate with them, share skills and ways of working.  Even to just to play together: create the ‘non-protest’ protest, the philosophical football match.  Most of all, to listen to and share stories.

I often sense we get tied up with definitions and ways to measure the ‘value’ and ‘impact’ of this kind of work because we have that luxury. In Kyiv it’s happening because it’s happening.  Artists want to make work that engages with the reality of their own lives and their neighbours.  To make sense of it. To give voice to its complexities.  Sometimes the role of the ‘outsider’ is just to be there with them.

Across the Black Sea: Sinop in Turkey

black sea

13th January. Turkey is not the Ukraine.  Yet facing each other across the Black Sea, (Sinop is closer to Yalta – which is currently no longer part of Ukraine – than Istanbul), at odds with Russia and anticipating (with a certain amount of cynicism) a time when they will ‘join the EU’ there are inevitable comparisons.

The day before I arrive in Turkey someone has placed a bomb in the Blue Mosque.  Over one thousand intellectuals have signed a petition demanding the government lift the curfews on the Kurdish cities.  Fourteen have been immediately placed in custody – for disseminating ‘terrorist propaganda’.

In Istanbul we are talking about participation:  or, more correctly, ‘Culture and Creativity as Catalysers for Local Development.’ Coming a day late to the conversation I am relishing the local Sinop community’s dismissal of the (Viennese) architect’s proposals for the historical shipyard and prison. And their refusal to accept that being sent a copy of the plans asking for comments was ever a genuine invitation to participate.  Their engagement with Sinopale and the European Cultural Association, has accustomed them to a different kind of participation.

Arriving in Sinop itself it is easy to see why artists and culture operators have been attracted to working there.  Situated at the end of a peninsula at the northernmost tip of Turkey it is surrounded almost completely by the Black Sea: connected but set apart from the rest of the country.  It has a long and rich history, having been a trading port, shipbuilding and fortress since 8BC and a NATO base during the Cold War – and a highly contentious future, destined as it is to be the site of a, Japanese designed, $16 billion nuclear plant.  It has housed a prison where Turkish intellectuals and political prisoners were interned alongside local criminals: a prison that introduced carpet weaving, woodworking and jewellery making as well as theatre and cinema as part of its rehabilitation programme.

glassblowingThe on-going dialogue between civic society and arts and culture created by the Biennale has been a constant for 10 years.  But it is a conversation situated within a local sensibility to craft and design allied with a tendency to challenge the status quo that started with Diogenes.

The 2105 Breath of Sinop project captures both:  the glass-making skills of the former furnace workers providing a creative platform for the views of the people of Sinop on ecology, sustainability and local development.

It is the seeming absence of this sense of collectivity and collaboration in the approach of the external architects that sets down a marker.  In Collecting the Future , the 2011 Sinopale project, the complex and intricate relationship between the local community and its prison is at the centre of the art making.  The designs for the new cultural centre and museum that will replace it, however, seemed destined merely to ‘clean back’ the site to its Roman remains.  As if, only in removing all traces of everything that has occurred between the present and ‘Ancient History’ are we able to reach a space of consensus.  A space where nothing is contested, nothing is difficult to speak about, nothing marks one place from another.

It prompts me to think about the way participatory practice is so often understood – especially in terms of ‘place-making’ and regeneration. About the seeming need for our practice to create cohesion, iron out conflicts and tensions, contain dissent within the aesthetics of our art form.  Rather than creating a space for the agonistic and the disruptive, participatory arts can so often be used as a tool to bring about consent and acceptance.   In this context, the cultural interventions made by the Bienniale feel important as a window onto the potential of participatory arts practice.  The model of exploring current issues within the framework of ‘artistic production based on sharing’ and ‘the collective historical memory’ leaves space for paradox and contradiction.

IMG_9550There are clearly places in Sinop that are not easy to deal with in terms of collective memory. The prison, where executions took place right up to the ’70s, still evokes complex responses. The NATO base provides different but similar challenges. Yet both once provided incomes and occupations for the local community as well as an insight into lives lived differently – from the families who stayed at the hostel next to the prison (the journey by road from Istanbul is 16 hours) to the self-contained US city on the hill. Previous Biennales have focused on these spaces. One wonders if the Ministry of Culture’s plans to museum-ise them will finally iron out this complex history and its ‘kinks’?

In her book ‘Artificial Hells’ Claire Bishop suggests participatory arts practice emerges ‘most visibly at certain historical moments…(its) participants reimagined…from a crowd (1910s), to the masses (1920s), to the people (late 1960s/1970s), to the excluded (1980s), to community (1990s), to today’s volunteers whose participation is continuous with a culture of reality television and social networking.’  I agree there are moments in history when groups of artists have felt the need to engage more directly with their communities: mostly at times of political or social upheaval.  I also agree the recent complicity of neoliberalism can increasingly muddy the waters: collapsing what Bishop identifies as the tension between ‘artistic and social critiques.’

But, maybe because I come from a theatre background, I also find the dense body of ‘artistic’ and ‘social’ critique that surrounds the separation of the ‘gallery’ artist and the ‘community’ artist increasingly daunting.   Moving from the Ukraine, working with young artists who want to try to find ways to use their art to engage with their neighbours or people who find their lives turned upside down by recent events, to a small town in Turkey where artists are working together with local people to envision ‘a better social living space’ everything seems more simple – and complicated.

The first Sinopale (2006), for example, gave itself the title Local Plant Global Cemetery.  Local activists were already organising themselves against the projected nuclear plant.  The Biennale brought together graphic artists from Iran, Germany and Istanbul to work alongside them to respond to what was beginning to feel like a ‘fait accompli’: imposed on the future map of this isolated peninsula in the same way the fortress and the prison had been imposed on its past.  Working collaboratively artists and the local community have worked together to create a space to explore not only the implications of the past but the ‘threats’ of the future.

IMG_9650.jpg10 years later, despite still being in its ‘feasibility’ stage, the plan for the nuclear station continues to cast its shadow.  And as the sun sets behind the hill it is difficult to resists thoughts of Fukushima, Three Mile Island or even Chernobyl.  At the same time the conversation has palpably shifted: there is a powerful sense of an ongoing dialogue between the people of Sinop and the Biennale about a space that now seems to belong to all of them.

Having been initiated by Sinop born artist and academic Melih Görgün, the sustainability of the project is increasingly guaranteed by the local young people who have grown up as part of it and now work as its curators, managers and emerging artists.  As well as the input of people like the woman running the ‘tea room’, who tells us she now holds an arts and traditional crafts afternoon alongside the reading group they set up last winter. Sinopale describes itself as a ‘work in progress’, a space to ‘discover what is right next to us’.  It is a space where the progress, like the exchange between its artists and the locals, feels mutual.

January 24th: Bilbao

IMG_9710Back to London for 2 days.  Enough time to be at the Launch of the Cultural Education Challenge at Oval House and be blown away by the work of their young spoken word artists: political, passionate and connected.

My third destination, home to the ‘Bilbao Effect’, cultural intervention as the answer to urban regeneration, has its own recent history of political and social tensions. The Guggenheim, as I hoped, is stunning. As are the Richard Serras in its main gallery. But despite its clear economic success,  this still feels like a top-down, architect-led model.  In terms of examining the role the arts might play in creating community as well as economic wealth it’s interesting to note, on the day I arrive, that the whole city is making its way not to its museum but the Athletic Bilbao football ground. A more powerful symbol of Basque identity?

Yet in many ways the city does feel like a fitting end to these three weeks of thinking about arts and participation.  Working with colleagues from across Europe, including Turkey, to capture the ‘competences’ needed by an artist working with collaborative or participatory practice creates a new kind of distance.   We are thinking specifically about the ‘competences’ to be included in a module in Participatory Practice that would not be already covered by those expected of anyone studying Arts at MA level.  This module will form the basis for something we are currently calling the European Academy of Participation.

Like almost everyone engaged with or writing about this field of work, we are struggling to create a definition that covers the diversity of the practice:  without producing a critical history that moves from the Agon of Ancient Greece through Fluxus and Pop Art to Rancière, Bourdieu, Kester and Bishop. Today, like Henry Reed in his post-war poem, we are undertaking the ‘naming of parts’: struggling to differentiate between knowledge, skills and attitudes.  I am wondering if an attitude is something that can be taught – or measured?  But also thinking as we add empathy, self reflection and openness to our list these are definitely things I would want artists working with others to be able to draw on.

20151030_205258Bilbao itself is an interesting backdrop to our thinking.  There is a clear tension between living in a city with a gallery that contains, and is surrounded by, the work of ‘great international artists’ and the realities of life for many people in Spain.   The younger artists I meet want to engage with their city and this context on a very different level to the ‘cultural education’ classes offered by the Guggenheim.  For them ‘art is a weapon of citizenship’:  and they are determined to work within the paradoxes this juxtaposition offers.

Thinking back to Kyiv and Sinop I am trying to decide what knowledge, skills and attitudes would be needed by artists wanting to work in either of these contexts.  A desire, even passion, to understand the context would probably be number one: along with the capacity to be curious, ask questions and want to listen to the answers.  Then understanding the potential for art/the arts to be a catalyst, a provocation, a celebration, a language, a metaphor – or become little more than a tool for bringing about the prevailing neo-liberal agenda.  I would want them to understand the political, social, cultural hegemonies they find themselves working in:  to know what’s gone before but not to be afraid of cutting their own path.  I would want them to be interested in mutual exchange but not be afraid to challenge or accept dissent.  Most of all I think I would want them to be authentic.   In their art and in their relationships with the communities/groups of people they are making it with.

12 years ago I initiated and then ran the MA in Participatory and Community Arts at Goldsmiths.  I think we managed to create a space where artists could develop the skills to reflect on their practice:  finding a good balance between rigour of thinking and doing the work.  As I look forward to setting up the Northern Faculty of Social Practice and deciding the content for the Academy of Participation I am excited to both take that learning forward and discover new things.