While out saying Hello and leafletting in the flats, we knocked on David’s door and he kindly invited us into his top floor flat. David gets to look at an amazing view of hills and sunsets as often as he likes (or can). It’s the best flat he’s had he says and he has had quite a few over the years. If he sits in a chair on the balcony he sees just the hills, over the roofs. It’s all a question of viewpoint and what you want to see. And he takes lots of photos of the dramatic skies laid out before him. In his flat are hundreds of prints from his view through this and other windows onto the world outside. He has made the space his own.
What is a space and who owns it?
These are questions we discussed at the first Quarterly Collective Working Session along with artists from the other four regions of Dumfries and Galloway. We were invited to suggest a word to sum up our experience so far – “challenging” was mine, as it has been an unfamiliar process in the early weeks and the power balance has shifted in unexpected ways. And I’ve had to learn patience and belief in the inevitability of progress if you are open to following the positive opportunities that arise. Actually, this is just the creative process in a new context – you start from a blank sheet and make a mark which leads to more marks which will eventually form a reponse to the world outside of you.
So back to the question of space, we were encouraged to “activate a space” for art and the community (Lucy McCleod, Outpost Arts, Langholm) and were warned of the time it can take to “acclimatise” or build up trust in a community (Kat Wheeler, The Stove Network). We discussed how to share ownership of a space and how to make spaces that are safe and engage with different groups. Location is crucial and as much communication with as many people as possible at all stages will be crucial.
So to the Bonfire Night event in the playing field at Lochside, just outside the flats, organised by Angie of LIFT. I offered some help with the building and had a lot of fun joining the community of folk making the massive fire.
The green space is the activated community space when folk get together and unite in a common goal. We will need to understand how to connect with it too as we try to bring creative encounters to the people of Lochside. This stage of the bonfore building was a great thing in itself but also a setting of the stage for what was to come in the evening…there was excitement in the air.
We have found three ways so far to make contact with local folk: knocking on doors to say hello with fliers, planning to make a pop-up venue in the form of a tent pitched on this same recreation ground, and an art room in the nearby YMCA building. These are ways of building friendships and making connections, laying foundations for longer term significant creative encounters.
If you build it, they will come
According to Pablo Helguera (Education for Socially Engaged Art, 2011), the implied message from this old adage (and Hollywood film from 1989) is that building comes first and audiences second. Yet the opposite is true, he says – “We build because audiences exist. We build because we wish to reach out to others, and they will come initially because they recognise themselves in what we have built. They are not static spaces for static viewers but ever-evolvong, growing, or decaying communities that build themselves, develop, and eventually dismantle.”
We are trying to find those existing audiences in Dunlop Road and build something that they can see themselves a part of, to break down the tribal mindset of us and them and create a space of inclusion for all.
In the Culture Collective monthly chat last week we heard from Rachel Disbury and Lauren La Rose of Alchemy Film + Arts. Their session asked very useful down-to-earth questions about creative space-making: Is it meaningful? Does it have appropriate quality? Is it deliverable? Does it dislocate unjust systems? Is there space for artist vulnerability? Are we open to unlikely alliances to move the project forward? I hope we can yes to all of them.
As socially engaged artists we are always trying to remain open to living creatively in the moment – some more so than others!