Whose art is this anyway?

A lot has happened in the past couple of months and a lot of questions have been asked and answered and some remain in that twilight zone of “working on it”… Art is like an idea which you can’t quite pin down but you know would be great if you ever could. And socially engaged art is even harder to put in a safely labelled jar on the shelf of intellectual closure. It stops you getting too complacent about what you’re doing which has to be a good thing.

I’ve been reading John Dewey’s “Art As Experience”, in which he says: “For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption aand conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the aesthetic.”

He wrote this in 1932, but it has a contemporary resonance as we try to build back after a pandemic and make the aesthetic dimension a fundamental part of the process. The thing we are seeking is a re-ordering of social connections and hopes which can only be achieved through trust and partnership. And out of the patchwork of common purpose could come some unexpected art…

Get yersel shafted!!

We have had various responses to what we are trying to do in Lochside, ranging from very positive to somewhat the opposite. We were hoping for comments from residents when we put up posters telling folk who we are a giving a brief intro to the project. We found the first one cut off the poster and lying on the ground. This first response made us stare, laugh nervously and have a serious chat about who we are and what we are doing as white middle class “airty fairty” do-gooders in other people’s familiar spaces which they already value highly.

We realised this was a heartfelt and genuine response, spoken with elements of Scots language to linguistically put us in our place and remind us that real people with their own culture and valid outlook live in the flats (“We have the best block under the sun…we help each other oot.”) Suddenly we needed to be a bit more careful with language and our approach to what we are doing, and we did some soul searching about what indeed we are actually offering. We realised we are trying to bring something of genuine and lasting value but we needed even more to find out what the resdents themselves actually wanted and needed.

Making progress

About this time we had a meeting with Kelly and Jill from the local housing association responsible for the flats (DGHP) to talk through our Project Approach. When they saw the visuals of our ideas and began to understand the difference between what we could bring and what they had imagined we would do, we all realised we could be partners in a much bigger process and a mood of excited expectancy filled the room. This felt like a big step in the right direction.

Alice explains the Project Approach to Jill and Kelly of DGHP at the YMCA

So we teamed up with DGHP for a residents drop-in morning a few weeks hence, to try to get some genuine feedback in a safe neutral environment (the YMCA). Our job was now to get as many local folk as possible to come to that event and add their input which would make the best argument for DGHP getting behind all (or some) of our plans. More on this later.

Poster for the residents’ open house at the YMCA in Lochside, with a couple of comments (positive!)

A sideways approach

While waiting for the big day of Dec 2nd, we made contact with Sarah, a teacher at North West Community Campus, the local school for Lochside. She is the lead for an elective vocational programme, Creative Industries, and was very keen for our involvement with a group of S1 and S2 pupils. So we devised a 5-week set of lessons and split the group between me and Alice/Rosie. My lot did a crash course in copper foil stained glass and the others had a free-wheeling art experience making self-portraits on very big sheets of paper and other things.

The young people had a unique experience which they seemd to value highly as a weekly escape from school into the pop-up spaces we created in the YMCA. And we all enjoyed the fun of interacting with willing subjects withiout any of the admin of a beleagered teacher (although I did have to come up with a lesson plan and risk assessment, but as an ex-teacher that was getting off lightly!) I personally found this really enjoyable and it helped ground my role as a community artist through the weekly sessions which were relaxed but challenging in other ways. And I had the feeling we were working with the community by giving time and energy to the local school and building valid relationships along the way.

From my perspective as a glass artist, I was happy to help youngsters of 12 and 13 use glass cutters and soldering irons and start to understand a new material which most folk have no interaction with all their lives. This felt an important thing to do, and we escaped with very few minor injuries! In fact, the young folk (and teacher/helpers) were brilliant and really got involved with all the activities.

Finished glass project pieces done by the pupils on the theme of Personal Objects
Winding down at the end of the expressive painting sessions with Rosie and Alice

Pupil feedback sheet for Stained Glass or Expressive Painting sessions with artists at YMCA, winter 2021

Name:  Sarah Dames   Collated feedback from pupils  Class:   NWCC – S1 and S2
Did you enjoy the sessions?Yes – all responses   It was a good experience because we had to go to the YMCA to do this.            
What new skills do you think you learned?Drawing in left-hand. Improved drawing with my non-dominant hand. Social skills. Painting with opposite hand, trace and self-portrait. How to grind and cut glass. To cut glass. How to cut glass and use the different tools.      
What do you feel you learned personally from the sessions?Being out of school. I learned to Interact more with people of my year. To use the glass cutting and soldering equipment. I am trying to use my left hand more. How to talk to others better. How to stay safe with glass and hot things. Learnt how to work more independently.        
Would you like to do more sessions like this?   Any other comments?   Thanks for taking part!YES – all responses     Rosie was the best. It was fun. It was nice to go out of school to do the activity. It was very exciting. The experience was unique (stain glass window making)      
Lots of positive feedback to indicate it was worthwhile for the school and youngsters

John Cage and generosity of spirit

Another book I’m reading is Art as Politics by Adam Michael Krause. In it he writes of the generosity of John Cage’s approach to music, who made no elitist distinctions between posh concert halls and more humble grassroots venues such as gymnasia or town halls, even at the height of his fame. Even more, “Cage viewed himself as one among equals, and was willing to collaborate with anyone who wanted…Anyone who wanted to work with him was welcome to do so, and a persons’s pedigree in the established art world was entirely irrelevant to the equation.” Krause argues that if art is to increasingly come into the realm of ordinary people, we need works that demonstrate a new way of being, a genuinely shared experience (like Cage’s famous silent work in three movements: 4 minutes 33 seconds, which demands nothing of the audience except an open heart). There must be a meeting of equals which fundamentally respects the different experiences and skills we all bring.

“If art is to actually impact the community in which it is presented, then bringing people together to experience different types of relationships – stripped of status and privilege – becomes a very useful artistic practice. By facilitating the occurence of new modes of interaction, Cage demonstrates that different types of relationships are possible.” (Krause, 2011)

Bringing it all together

The day arrived fo the community consultation at the YMCA and we had put up posters and displays to explain our ideas to the residents who wanted to come along. There was a steady turnout throughout the morning and most folk stayed for a while to have a good old chat, after meeting us briefly before when we knocked on doors…

Alice jotting down some comments from Paul and Maria about our ideas

Jill and Kelly from DGHP were also present to talk to residents about housing issues and there was a feeling of working as a team for the community – something felt by the residents as well I believe. Here are some of the comments they made:

Dean – That’s music to my ears! When I grew up I could go into about 20 houses for a blether, I want my daughter to grow up in a community like that. 100% this could bring that back. There’s no respect because there’s no ownership. The key thing is educating people and an opportunity to learn.

David – It gives people a chance to try new things and meet new people.

Amanda and Tony – Nobody talks to you and we don’t know folks’ names. The block’s not got the best reputation – we need a more relaxed atmosphere…to bring people together, a place to communicate and build trust, especially after the last year. There’s no-one else who does anything like this in Dumfries.

Fatme – It’s a good idea for Dunlop Road – I would come with the kids to play, not for dogs! We need more space for children.

Paul – It’s a brilliant idea, hopefully the community can get involved, it would help mental health, depression and anxiety, bringing them out of themselves.

The hub of our idea – even the pretentious spelling of Kabin didn’t seem to put people off!
Jade from our place partner LIFT chatting with a younger resident who amazed his parents by conversing with adults about anything at all!

Overall it was an excellent occasion which encouraged us all in the belief that folk wanted something that we had hope to bring – a warm community hub which can work on many levels, from drinking coffee with another human being to learning more about growing plants for home cooking to drop-in sessions with DGHP to self-discovery through drawing, painting, glass, photography, sculpture, wood building, film screenings, theatre, music, poetry and so much more… It also cemented in my mind the inevitability of all this – it must happen because we have now built up trust and expectation in the minds of folk whose names we know. There is now an obligation to bring something to them, in whatever ways are possible. No pressure then…

Some great news!

Indeed DGHP have listened and have sourced a portacabin for the project which we hope will be sited on this very patch of land near the flats on Dunlop Road…watch this space!

In an essay from 1957 John Cage writes, “one may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments” (quoted by Krause).

Perhaps the same is true for our approach to art via a community of people – we are trying to create an open space which will be gradually controlled by all participants as the project unfolds. I’m looking forward to next year.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy, this is a big post because it reports on considerable achievement and enormous insight into community art, or art in the community. The initial response written on your poster would have set you back on your heels alright, but you’ve bounced back with a response that proves you are listening to cohabitants of the block. The results of the childrens’ stained-glass workshop are brilliant (illuminating) takes on the craft, and the big drawings – wow! Their parents now have an idea of what they could help achieve in this enterprise. The whole venture is now being realised because of your can-do attitude, no doubt developed over years of teaching and art making. I’m also enjoying your generosity as you share your reading…and while Krause may write about “stripping back status and privilege” in practice it takes the guts that you clearly have in undertaking this project. Can’t wait till the Scottish summer when the cyanotype and the pinhole cameras come out, and the portacabin sports a darkroom or becomes a camera obscura. I’m thinking as we swelter in a run of 37º days that in the early northern winter, a bit of yarn-bombing might help keep out the cold…may I recommend a book by one of my past students? Guerrilla Kindness and Other Acts of Creative Resistance by Sayra Lothian https://www.booktopia.com.au/guerrilla-kindness-and-other-acts-of-creative-resistance-sayraphim-lothian/book/9781633537408.html?source=pla&gclid=CjwKCAiA8bqOBhANEiwA-sIlN6bl30ZpP8f8oJXx25iavoYrsMvaHBbCZMJrBpI9scpmiP2pyU1vrhoC3DkQAvD_BwE

    Liked by 1 person

  2. aljbphoto says:

    Thanks so much James – it has been a significant journey in the last few months and I feel things are coming together as a foundation for some significant progress this year. Yes, there must definitely be some camera obscura work in the portacabin! And thanks or the link – looks interesting. Stay cool in the heat (it’s even mild here right now) and all the best for 2022.


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