Lia Ghilardi summarizes the methodology Intercult focused on in our process of finding and implementing a changemaking methodology for work at our organisation.
Here we would like to present the methodology to our partners and audience in Sweden, included the decision makers providing funding to culture in Sweden.
The methodology is engaging artists creating participatory events in local communities on the burning subjects which are especially valid for people living in those communities.
At Intercult we re-directed the work of our organisations to capacity-building projects projects taking up subjects like cultural heritage, climate changes, gender, culture on waterfronts, digital tools for performing arts. In all projects we are now working closely with connected artists and artistic interventions, both local and international. The projects create opportunities for artists to participate in a broad range of activities. This methodology is somewhat behind in Sweden compared to other European countries where the financing goes to organisations supporting and promoting artists instead of directly to individual artist. As Lia Ghilardi summarises, during the webinar it was often repeated that artists act as a megaphone for the community, but we shouldn’t expect artists to solve the structural (often intractable) problems of our society. The people themselves have their expertise and knowledge of a place; they know instinctively where the solution lies, and so artists can help communities to shift agency away from institutions back to the people, who in turn can create meaningful change. Art practice tactics, as has often being said, are ‘the acupuncture point’ for the artist to steer, guide and build the conversation between the local community and decision makers. If the tactic makes a compelling point, then those in charge will have to listen.
Notes on the webinar hosted online by Intercult on the 16 June 2021
“When I feel trapped, I ask myself what would an artist do?”
This was the motto of the mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, who served two terms in the city between 1995 and 2003. Mockus instinctively understood the power of artists to see the world afresh and give ordinary people the ability to create meaningful change in unprecedented ways.
During the 1990s, Colombia’s capital had major problems with crime and corruption, but the local community was resigned to the status quo. Thanks to humour and the help of artists from a variety of practices, the mayor turned the city around in the space of a few years. Famously, he piloted an initiative that saw the replacement of corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists.
So it was that, instead of the police giving out tickets (and illegally pocketing fines), performers ‘policed’ road and driving behaviour by communicating with mime — for instance, pretending to be hurt or offended when a vehicle ignored the pedestrian right of way at a crossing. This in turn led to people taking traffic signals more seriously and, for the first time, respecting pedestrian crossings.
Today, in an increasingly uncertain world, artists working in social practice give us the means to examine our place in the world. Artists interpret existing material into new forms, and by sharing this journey of discovery with them we can learn more about ourselves and our capacity to intervene in changing our lives for the better. In essence, instead of just representing or reflecting the power structures around us, activist or socially engaged art addresses those structures directly. In becoming ‘political’, art generates the conditions for society to shift.
In a recent address to its members, Robert Lynch, President and CEO of the non-profit organisation Americans for the Arts, said: “We are in a time once again where our need for the arts is growing more and more apparent. Controversy and anger and fear seem to swirl around us these days in large supply. This has happened plenty of times in our history. We have needed and sought the healing and teaching power of the arts for a long time, perhaps forever.”
Four Artists and their Approach to Engaging Communities
Hosted by the Swedish organisation Intercult, the webinar aimed to share the learning about approaches and methods to creatively intervene in the urban landscape as a means of affecting social change. During the event we saw four presentations by socially engaged women artists, and debated practices and methods that have equal commitment to both the quality of the aesthetic and social justice agendas: Tara S Beall, Gülbeden Kulbay, Liz Gardiner, Dina Abu Hamdan.
Tara S Beall
Tara is a socially-engaged artist and researcher based in Glasgow and Dumfries. She works with communities on long-term projects to recover and highlight marginalised histories. Her work spans a variety of media including performative events and guided art walks. For Tara, everything is collaborative and is about listening, scoping, pattern recognition, asking questions that re-vision a locality, or shine a light on a situation. In other words, challenging troubling dominant narratives is what she works for.
She is keen on projects to be durational and is comfortable with the idea that the output of socially engaged processes can vary from place to place with often unpredictable outcomes. During the webinar she presented a selection of her recent projects, such as Let the River Take It (part of Memory of Water, an artist-led project exploring post-industrial waterfront heritage in the context of community development and urban planning in the three European river cities of Levadia, Gdańsk and Govan); and Strong Women of the Clydeside: Protest and Suffragettes (2013-present). Both projects are aimed at recovering the hidden histories of place by, for example, bringing to the fore the work of women in domestic settings, but also by celebrating women activists.
Through the use of various techniques such as art walks (a cross between a guided tour and a performative happening), temporary street renaming, chalking on the pavement or by holding wiki workshops to share knowledge about the history of places and communities, Tara helps communities to regain a sense of belonging while challenging dominant narratives of place.
From Turkish heritage, Sweden-based multiartist Gülbeden Kulbay has been working with performance and community art for over fifteen years. At the core of her work is the theme she calls ‘humanity’, and in her practice she develops body-based performances that help the participants to open up to new perspectives of what it means to be a human being living in a capitalistic society.
To this end she leads workshops where she teaches the methods of performance art to young people, and she encourages youth to be aware about the connection between mind, body and soul to sustain mental well-being, sanity and strength. Her artwork is always co-created with the community and is inspired by the personal stories that are shared during a creative process which takes time. Her work is often commissioned by the public sector, for example by the Municipality of the town where she lives (Botkyrka).
Gülbden works through an intuitive process where her personal experience is her toolbox, but is open to what else she can do to make that process more relevant/specific to a situation or place. At the webinar she presented the project called Allby [All in Alby] – A Walk through Storytelling. This involved the use for three months of an empty shop in the heart of Alby (a suburb of Stockholm) where colours, paint and chairs were provided for people to come in and write or draw their personal stories of living in that particular area of Stockholm. Members of the local community who entered the shop, were assigned a guide (artist) who helped them to prepare a guided tour of favourite places in the neighbourhood.
By the end of the three months the artists/guides, together with the community had created four different walks which became very popular. Today a much-loved coffee shop has opened in that space, making the original art studio a permanent meeting place for the community. From the beginning, the municipality of Botkyrka has reacted positively to this project. Staff from the Cultural Department have shown their support by participating to the walks.
Liz is an artist, a teacher and freelance consultant specialising in cultural planning. She is the founder and executive director of Glasgow-based Fablevision, a group of social enterprise companies working for more than three decades with community participatory practices across Scotland and Europe.
For Liz art has to be about activism and change. She maintains that it is not art in itself that changes society, but rather the artists, and especially those who work with socially engaged practices. During the webinar she presented a portfolio of three projects which describe very well the trajectory of her practice, starting with Birds of Paradise in the late 1980s. It was a project which pioneered the involvement of disabled actors both as writers and performers. Later on, Birds of Paradise was formalised into Scotland’s first touring theatre company employing disabled and non-disabled actors.
The process that led to the creation of the company (which is still very much active today) started by challenging the status quo and people’s attitudes to disabilities and the ambition was to transform the dialogue about people with disabilities in the world. The North Glasgow cultural planning project (1990), on the other hand, involved four residences of artists in one of the most developed areas of the city. The residencies and the process of involvement of the local community not only led to a change in perceptions among the people about their neighbourhood, but also changes in the external narrative about this particular neighbourhood by creating two new public spaces and establishing a community radio which is still in existence today.
The Cultural Planning process was acknowledged in the Award given by SURF (Scotland’s Regeneration Forum) to the project for best practice in using the creative arts in regeneration and inclusion. Liz also discussed her more recent project, Memory of Water, which over the past three years saw Fablevision involved in putting together interdisciplinary teams of artists, activists, architects, planners and community representatives, all working with a variety of artistic interventions to challenge conventional urban planning approaches to waterfront transformations. This is an action research project that over the past two years has involved partners from six different EU countries, and developed a programme which includes four City Labs, six international residencies, and a filmed documentary.
During the webinar Liz shared with the audience some reflections about the evolution of her practice and the impact that engagement with communities can achieve. In particular, she highlighted the fact that since her early projects she has witnessed a dynamic which tends to exclude artists from the legacy of projects. In other words, especially in the past, there was no understanding (especially among officials) of why artistic interventions were so powerful, and what they could achieve if given the necessary funding to continue their engagement with the community once a project was officially over. She also expressed her opinion that artists cannot deliver social change alone, but that there must be certain ingredients present in a place to make social change possible.
Dina Abu Hamdan
Dina is an Interdisciplinary artist, artistic director, choreographer and producer based in Denmark. She works with both small and ensemble performances as well as large-scale outdoor events, and is currently a resident artist working with a municipality in the west of Jutland. During the webinar she discussed the process that led her to become the artistic director of A Shared Moment, the official closing ceremony of Aarhus 2017 European Capital of Culture (Denmark), and the artist behind the Sugar Town performance marking the 40th anniversary of Carlow Arts Festival in Ireland.
In the webinar, Dina talked about her approach, which is essentially about gaining the trust of the community, which in her words is the equivalent of being ‘adopted’ by them. Her process is about digging deep into place and the memories of the people who live there; their narratives and perceptions are shared and developed together with the artists to create new perspectives for that place. Dina’s performances often use music to great effect, like in the recreation of the sound of a working shipyard that is now derelict. A simple gesture, but a powerful one that led in this case to people remembering how lively and full of noise was their city in the past, and reflecting on ways to bring back that vitality through reimagining new ideas about inhabiting that particular area of the city.
Events for the Carlow Arts Festival were mostly implemented by the people of the town themselves, with the help of professionals from circus and other art disciplines. For Sugar Town, for example, they organised a requiem for the sugar factory (which had been the driver of the local economy for years), but which had been closed, leaving vivid memories in the minds of those who worked there. As catalysts for the process, Dina used old photographs of the factory and its workers, which she shared with the local community. This led the factory owners and former workers to write entire scenes, and then staging the requiem’s performance. The event was well received by both the festival organisers and the local politicians, who, having seen the positive effect it had on the local community, have pledged to invest more in similar projects in the future.
Dina finds that there is a huge talent among communities of any town or city, and the thing is to find a way to work with this potential by giving the talent the right atmosphere, time and the opportunity to be together. ‘Through the use of light and music we can infuse imagination,’ she says, and in the end it that’s what matters.
There is a sense that we are living in a time when the word participation is over-used (participation fatigue?) and instead of being collaborative, some interventions are simply consultative (i.e. the artist goes into a place with a pre-packaged vision of what should happen, and the community is simply asked to ‘buy into’ that vision). Real engagement cannot be outsourced and this is why the process and the time it takes to understand the context (mapping), and crucially to build a dialogue and gain the trust of the community, should be considered when making decisions about funding for projects.
To be successful, these kind of projects have to be durational, but the decision makers’ mindset is very often just tuned into getting the quick fix, and tangible immediate results. Artists being there for the long haul should be a precondition written into the funding plans for engagement projects.
Community engagement projects are unique to a place and social context, in essence they are unscalable (TS Beall). Here there is a tension, between on the one hand letting the process run its course to achieve often unpredictable outcomes, and, on the other, wanting to transfer and (even) mainstream methods and tools that have worked in one place to another. Whilst disseminating the learning from one project to another can be done by developing ‘peer learning’ programmes, there is a problem in getting key local stakeholders (and those in power) to understand that the ‘policy transfer’ approach to local development often fails when the desired effects are not delivered. This, in turn, leads to more demoralised and/or disenfranchised communities. As was said earlier, leaving time to artists to engage with the context and allowing the communities involved to direct ‘their own’ journey of discovery is the way to go. It is only then that lessons for future policies can be learned.
During the webinar it was often repeated that artists act as a megaphone for the community, but we shouldn’t expect artists to solve the structural (often intractable) problems of our society. The people themselves have their expertise and knowledge of a place; they know instinctively where the solution lies, and so artists can help communities to shift agency away from institutions back to the people, who in turn can create meaningful change. Art practice tactics, as has often being said, are ‘the acupuncture point’ for the artist to steer, guide and build the conversation between the local community and decision makers. If the tactic makes a compelling point, then those in charge will have to listen.
Finally, it is worth remembering that artists involved in engagement processes are not machines; they are human beings with their qualities and frailties. Emotional involvement in projects (and especially in areas of great social and economic distress) takes a toll on the capacity of the artist to remain detached, move on, and rebuild their practice once a project is finished. Time and funding should perhaps be given to artists who wish to ‘revisit’ projects in order to measure the distance travelled not only by the community in a particular place, but also to evaluate the journey made by the artists themselves in the development of their practice.