In late July 2021 I joined the WWDN project with The Stove Network, Dumfries, as an artist working with the community of Dunlop Road in Lochside, NW Dumfries. This is the first blog documenting my work and impressions from the early establishing weeks/months. There will be more as the project develops…
The project is part of an overall response by the Scottish Government to the ravages of Covid 19 on the economy and society of Scotland with the positive aim of building back better on a spectrum from grassroots cultures/identities to bigger business and professional systems. This seems to be a unque and more enlightened approach than seen in other countries in the UK and builds on a tradition of respect for the arts as a driver of the economy which ultimately relates to real people and real values. There are 26 different projects across Scotland, overseen by Creative Scotland’s Culture Collective.
Why do you need to judge it?
As Francois Matarasso reminded us in his Inspire session from the initial project training, “the real wealth of a nation is in its people…the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.” He went on to challenge us about our motivations for working in participatory art and the various positions of power when it comes to pushing for social change.
As an ex-teacher I have found the transition from clearly defined boundaries of power and purpose to more shifting and transactional modes of action quite a challenge! But this could partly be because I am having to re-orientate myself to a different world, one where there is now more urgency for co-operation and an increasing awareness of the fragility of existence at all levels. So this project is timely on several levels, for me personally as I move my art practice out of the education bubble into a more chaotic real life world in the lingering aftermath of Covid and the shadow of environmental apocalypse brought to the fore by COP26. Plus, I moved house from Essex to Scotland last year!
In Matarosso’s recent book, A Restless Art (free to download, suggesting where he’s coming from) there is an empowering quote for artists like me emerging with a bit of trepidation into the brave new world of participatory art:
“We are brave in our bold dreams but also in our hesitations. We are brave
in our willingness to carry on even as our pounding hearts say, You will
fail and land on your face. Brave in our terrific tolerance for making a
hundred mistakes. Day after day. We are brave in our persistence.
My fellow (more experienced with this kind of work) artists in this project are Rosie Giblin (with Mungo) and Alice Francis, and we are working in the Dunlop Road area of Lochside in NW Dumfries. Our vision is to bring creative hope and possibly a bit of cultural regeneration to the area – in collaboration with the residents themselves. Trying to work within a model of democratic art we are contantly asking ourselves whose art it will be and who will benefit fom what we do? Or put another way,”Whose story is this a chapter of?” The honest answer might be that we all hope to benefit and make the story our own, and become better through the process.
Another inspiring training session came from Gerri Moriarty who asked some searching questions in connection with our own NW Dumfries theme of Belonging and Pride: How do you identify with others? How can you share their story from your own? Are any voices being excluded from the conversation, if so whose? Can you encourage these ones to speak up? How do you restore confidence from competing points of view?
When it comes to identity and ownership of the project, the challenge will be to let the community be the judge of success. The artist has limited powers BUT does bring special skills to the equation:
100% ARTIST + 100% COMMUNITY = 100% SUCCESSFUL OUTCOME.
Some feedback from the community at a local Gala event in Lochside.
The Liminal Space – areas of the benign unknown where transformations can take place
Continuing these themes in his inspire session, Simon Sharkey sees participatory artists as facilitators and equals in society, not heroes but pilots helping others navigate through the chaos of life. Sometimes refered to as liminal spaces, we all experience the desire to move beyond familiar boundaries or thresholds into new areas of endeavour or existence where usual hierarchies can be flattened and unattainable ceilings smashed. We want to create spaces for people to navigate through the opression of expected failures, even more so with the fallout of Covid still lingering.
To this end as artists we are proposing for the residents of Dunlop Road a liminal space on the ground outside the flats there in the form of an art tent and ultimately an art kabin (more permanent portacabin) for an escape into a realm of creative wellbeing and hope for better personal and community futures. In these structures we will try to create a warm welcome into workshops and conversations about what we can be and offer each other. My own contributions could be photographic and in areas of stained glass and ceramics. Alice and Rosie could bring wood-working, sculpture and film theatre, plus outdoor home cooking…
The Lore of the Potato
There were once tattie fields in Lochside and Alice has been inspired to use this fact as a conceptual tuber for the project. This is why we are planning a gathering around an oven for baking tatties – hopefully on the scale of a tractor wheel in due course. The semiotics of the spud is complex and rich, from the earthy delights of the allotment to the self-empowering of home cooking, heartening staple cafe fare to bonfire nights, ridged fields of plenty to the Irish Potoato Famine, Cadbury’s Smash to Seed Potato Classification… But essentially it is a humble beginning for what we hope will be a project that will grow steadily in time. After all, “art is a verb” (Eric Booth in The Everyday Work of Art).