Intercult invited four socially engaged and changemaking women artists and practitioners to present the frame of their community building methodology.
Liz Gardiner is an artist, teacher doctoral candidate with the University of the West of Scotland, free-lance consultant specialising in cultural planning and executive director of Fablevision.
Liz is interested in arts and activism and she said something controversial from the outset:
“The arts are not a magic talisman.
The arts do not produce social change automatically. In fact they can be used to preserve and maintain the dominant narrative, as we saw in the 20th century in the UK where the high arts (opera and ballet etc), were funded whilst everything else was lumped together as “the rest” under the banner of community arts: unfunded, undervalued – struggling to have our voices heard.
The force for social change is not therefore the arts, per se.
Rather, ARTISTS with particular approaches underpinned by particular ethics and values can effect change.
What are those approaches?
Artists striving to achieve social change are a broad church, using a variety of approaches that are still being unpacked and distinguished: Community Arts, Participatory Arts, Socially Engaged Arts Practice, Artistic Interventionism: they all involve teaching/learning; co-creation in terms of authorship.
What are those ethics and values?
Primarily, there is an equal commitment to at least two priorities: the quality of the aesthetic and social justice.
There is always an aspiration to empower, give voice/platform to, uncover hidden stories, transform the narrative and make a difference
These approaches are ‘non transactional’ with a determination to ‘give it away’: often mentoring new young artists or spinning out new organisations/collaboratives/social enterprises
What are those Methods? (or as I prefer to describe them, key ingredients)
Artists, often working out with the established arts/cultural scene – regarded as ‘lesser than’ in spite of the complex array of skills and expertise required.
Artists working in partnership with communities/communities of interest: often developing relationships launched through the imperative of some kind of ‘crisis’
The work is usually unfunded/underfunded (there is no funding stream to pay for this kind of quirky, symbolic, often humorous anti-establishment, rebellious revolutionary transformational practice.
Cross Sectoral working is a hugely important ingredient. Working with public/private/voluntary sectors; policy makers, politicians and (if the intervention is based on a physical space) architects, planners and developers (genuine partnership – no tokenistic ‘consultation’
Often working to empower/capacity build local people/organisations and/or spawning new organisations
Scotland’s contribution to the evolution of this work
I’m going to say something else that could be regarded as controversial:
It all began in Scotland!
From the 1960s n the housing schemes of Easterhouse in the West and Craigmillar in the East when artists empowered local people, the notions of artists and social change have been inextricably linked.
Community arts told stories of working class culture – their families, struggles and achievements: until community arts was appropriated by local authorities to service arts and sports service delivery agendas and were rendered toothless in the 1980s
I wanted to approach this as, so many of you have done this afternoon, to illustrate the development of the methods artists use by telling the story of my own personal journey and some of the projects I’ve been involved with over four decades of experimentation and learning.
My journey began in the early 1980s at the tail end of the Easterhouse Festival Society: ESF embodied artists and activism: a real force where artists empowered local people.
Artists were embedded in teams with local residents and activists.
Non-confrontational creative, celebratory activism was the baseline approach – giving local people the opportunity to showcase and discover their own talents and abilities.
Easterhouse Festival Society was probably one of the earliest community development trusts with a cultural focus.
But the problem was, there was no real understanding of why it was so powerful. Artists themselves wrote themselves out of the narrative in favour of promoting the achievements of the community. We described this phenomenon as ‘spontaneous combustion’ where communities were apparently springing into action with a burgeoning of creative activism.
Only later did we realise this was a Europe wide phenomenon. In France it was called ‘generation sans aide’ and even cultural planners like Franco Bianchini in 1996 described Easterhouse Festival Society as a group of local residents who organised themselves with community actions – writing the artists out of the narrative completely.
When Easterhouse Festival Society collapsed, mainly due to a mixture of this lack of understanding and local politics/rivalries, Fablevision was born with an initial focus of working in thematic areas of social context.
Birds of Paradise
In the early years of Fablevision, we worked mostly with people with disabilities.
In those days, people with disabilities were largely unseen: they were in locked hospital wards or they attended what were called Adult Training centres on a daily basis where they learned macrami or the pushed cotton wool balls into plastic packaging.
But we recognised that within these training centres were many individuals with real talent and aspiration so over a ten-year period, we worked across Scotland to identify those individuals. We brought them together: making shows and going on tour in busses! It would never be allowed today due to health and safety. We had a deliberate ambition to empower the emergence of a new theatre company: run by people with disabilities and involving at least 50% of performers with disabilities working alongside able bodied artists.
That theatre company was named Birds of Paradise (a nod to the 20th Century psychiatrist, R D Laing) and it celebrated its 25th anniversary a couple of years ago.
Artists written out of the Narrative
Once again, however, the role of Fablevision artists was written out of the narrative and only later when we visited Gateshead with Birds of Paradise to make contact with a very similar group called the Lawnmowers involving actors with disabilities; only then did we realise that they had been empowered in exactly the same way as Birds of Paradise by an activist group of artists called Them Wifies. So once again, artists were written out of the narrative.
Royston Road Project and Bolt FM
In the 1990’s Fablevision returned to place based cultural planning with the Royston Road Project in the North East of Glasgow. Two rival communities, both living in abject poverty were in the parish of the local minister whose aspiration was to join them together and attract larger funding and more aspirational practices. So when the church on Roystonhill – the only building of any architectural significance in the area, was under threat of demolition, the minister approached Fablevision and together we created a 10 year programme looking at how we could save this cultural landmark and also link up with the community at the other end of the Royston Road: Blackhill Provanmill. They had the very important Molendinar burn and waterfall: rumoured to be the source of Mungo’s inspiration for creating Glasgow: the patron saint of Glasgow who reputedly fell asleep beside the waterfall and had a dream of Glasgow: a very important waterway that runs underneath Glasgow Cathedral.
We didn’t manage to save the church. The church was demolished but we did manage to save the spire: a city landmark and with four artists in residence, we worked with the local community to form another emerging community development trust: the Royston Road Community Trust and to develop two new public spaces for the area: one around the saved church spire; the other around the Molendinar burn and waterfall.
Four artists: four residencies
Our starting point was cultural resources (not the problems) and even those issues that were seen as problems, like young people, unemployed and hanging about we looked at them as the main resource for recreating the community and generating the future. For one of the artist residencies, the artist chose to develop a pilot radio station which celebrated its 21st birthday last year: celebrating place, visioning new futures, identifying the treasures of the Royston Road rather than the issues and problems and developing new, small, medium sized social enterprises like Bolt FM which is the radio station which exists today generating jobs, training and employment opportunities for local young people. The aspiration was towards a critical mass of new projects and organisations – gloriousness that would transform the narrative of the place and indeed that has happened: the Royston Road narrative was transformed from the inside out but reflected back to them from the outside in.
Then in the 1990s, we’ve always been based in Govan but we started working more intensively in Govan: a post-industrial shipbuilding neighbourhood close to Glasgow with a huge heritage. Professor Stephen Driscoll of Glasgow University famously said of Govan:
“Govan has had two eras of greatness – and that is two more than most places”
The first era: the medieval era Govan was the centre of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde with Doomster hill – the moot hill of debate; possibly where kings were crowned and perhaps also buried. Govan also hosts one of the oldest churches in Europe with its heart shaped graveyards and famous Viking Hogback stones.
And then Govan’s second era of greatness, with shipbuilding, where the river was lined with shipyards and sheds and the air rang with the sound of riveting and hammering.
In the late 70s when the Thatcher ethos attempted to close the shipyards, Jimmy Reid of Red Clydeslde, led the famous workers’ revolution and ‘work-in’ which we linked into a shared history with colleagues in Gdansk, Poland. There was a very similar narrative in Gdansk, of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement.
We didn’t manage to save shipbuilding: most of our shipyards have gone now – this is Govan today. But Govan has a HUGE wealth of resources – mainly in her people, in her activism – there’s a huge pride in our place and determination to take control – and these cultural resources all along the Clyde.
Some of them unfortunately have fallen prey to housing developments but again, the international benchmarking, linking and sharing has been very very important to Fablevision and activism in Scotland.
We set up, this time with academics from the University of the West of Scotland, a whole five year programme of summer schools. Activism, artistic interventionism (underpinned by academic research) unravelled the complex shared heritage narratives between Govan and Gdansk – challenging conventional urban planning approaches, joining up those narratives – and involving artists using methods that promote engagement and dialogue.
The project was called Riverside Solidarity. It culminated in an exhibition in the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and there were four artists’ residencies. One of them was Dr Tara Beall, socially engaged artist and doctoral researcher who linked with a sister project in Gdansk developing similar approaches. Together they uncovered the hidden histories of women in the shipyards of both Govan and Gdansk. Architect, Andrew Macavoy delivered another one of the residencies. He had discovered shared narratives of building submarines between Govan and Gdansk during World War 2. Lee Ivett and Ben Parry created rope sculptures on the River Banks of both Govan and Gdansk and John Mullen created a series of heritage plaques. All of this work was underpinned by dialogue with architects, politicians, planners, developers and crucially, local people.
Memory of Water
Our case study was the Graving Docks, or dry docks, in Govan – one of the last remaining industrial heritage assets: ‘A’ listed, Victorian, granite built and described by activists as our equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids. The land owner was proposing to build 750 high rise flats on these wonderful docks. There was a rival proposal from Ferguson Marine Shipyard, supported by local people, to restore them as working drydocks once again.
This all led to the Memory of Water project – 6 artists with different practices and methodologies in 6 post-industrial European Cities. Sharing narratives: Govan and Gdansk at the centre once again but this time with Stockholm, Limerick, Levadia and Ostend joining the dialogue. Using participatory action research methods: artistic interventions, socially engaged practice, walks (walking has been very important in our process) community consultation and political lobbying – also very important.
The interventionsm has been successful in that the plans for the 750 high rise flats were rejected by the local authority planning department and the developer has incorporated all the community feedback and aspirations for jobs, heritage, tourism and employment into his new, revised plans. The challenge now will be making sure those plans are delivered on the ground.
So, four decades on, what have we learned?
Personally, I am ever more aware of what I DON”T know!
As a sector:
We have learned to distinguish the huge variety of methods and approaches that used to all be lumped under one umbrella called community arts.
We have learned there is a new type of community arts emerging that has a deeper understanding of the role of the artist (Mattaraso, 2017)
We have learned that the artistic intervention is like an acupuncture point: it has huge power, but artists cannot deliver social change alone. Artists must be supported by activists, academics, policy makers, politicians, planners and FUNDERS! This work is so much more than the performance or the artwork (the bits that funders will pay for)
We have learned that rather than “methods” that can be repeated like a recipe in different contexts, there are rather, certain ingredients, the presence of which in the hands of artists with expertise, can deliver social change.
Those ingredients include:
Artists in genuine, equal partnerships with communities/communities of interest; artists in cross sectoral partnerships that are neither top down nor bottom up, but rather (as Lia Ghilardi said in 2019) work ‘from the inside out’.
They involve co-creation
The need new legal structures to support them: structures that are independent of government or funders (the social enterprise/community development trust is a good model emerging as having the potential to support this work and in Scotland we have examples like the Stove Network in Dumfries, Govanhill Baths Trust and Leith Walk Development Trust).
Crucially, we have learned that these approaches are longitudinal. They develop over years – sometimes decades.
We have learned that these approaches are not new.
Sir Patrick Geddes, Scottish geographer and planner (arguably the father of cultural planning in Europe) was mounting large scale community pageants at the end of the 19th Century (Helen Mellor, 1997) to inspire, empower and support communities to take action in planning their own spaces and places”