AGL: above ground level

As founder of dot to dot active arts CIC – a member organisation for socially engaged artists and arts workers that’s fiercely independent and always grassroots – I’m committed to working with communities and our artists to develop new ideas to mix art and life openly and honestly.  We worked in Blyth, Northumberland last year, met loads of really interesting and desperately passionate people, did some great participatory art, revived empty shops.  Many people wanted more.  So we’re back with a new project.  This post attempts to explain why and a bit more about what we’ll be doing.

dot to dot active arts was only formed in January 2013.  Old-New Curiosity Shop was our first major arts project.  We chose to work in the Northumbrian post-industrial coastal port of Blyth.  Some of us had produced arts interventions there before; some of us lived there (or nearby).  We managed to convince Arts Council England, Northumberland County Council, other local funders and sponsors to support us.  Even the local MP and some local councillors backed our work.  We took on two empty shops and did lots of free art workshops in them.  Anyone could drop in.  The response from the people of Blyth and the surrounding areas was astounding.  We were sad when our project finished.  Happy that we’d worked well as a team and created a down-to-earth place for people to create things, but sad that we left a void – people wanted us to stay and keep doing what we were doing.  Not everyone though.  Some local arts organisations and artists were (given their clear messages given to us during our project) no doubt very pleased to see the back of us.  Success can sometimes be threatening to some.  That’s completely understandable in one sense.

AGL two crop

We listened to local people and our members.  We worked with Arts Council England and other local funders.  We found an amazing new space – an empty 2,000 square feet open plan office with shop frontage, accessible and in lovely condition.  We made another project happen in Blyth.  That project is AGL (above ground level)It starts in a few days and will run until the end of October 2014.  But this is a pilot, a test.  We want to work with local people and local staff and our artists to make AGL something more permanent.  Not a place for state agenda supporting participatory art.  Our first project in Blyth was, for me, more grassroots participatory than grassroots socially engaging.  Not a bad thing.  Part of our engagement strategy.  We did not suggest that Old-New Curiosity Shop was going to be complicit in furthering participatory art as a creative cure-all solution.  It wasn’t.  No arts project ever will be.

But AGL is different in three key ways.  First, this project is about introducing issue-based and theme-based socially engaged arts sessions to local people.  A more focused approach; more challenging; still grassroots.  Second, AGL wants to develop our own artists (their practice and by their hands-on training of trainees), our own local members (by working as staff who will develop their own roles and deepen our links with the community), a local apprentice (who will learn by first-hand, in-at-the-deep end experience how to run projects and an arts organisation our way), and, critically, local people of all ages to challenge themselves and others through learning new forms of artistic practice and new ways of expressing their feelings about their communities.  Third, we hope the project will develop itself into a longer-term project that will enable the space to continue to be used as a place for local people to develop their own new arts projects and events as well as to experience meetings with other artists from around the country.  A free-range incubator for do-it-yourself and do-it-with-others ideas, not a cultural R&D centre.

We want our socially engaged project to be different from other ‘participatory’ arts projects in the area.  Not more of the same.  Our workshops will mix contemporary arts practice with social justice to ask questions without answers; to challenge people to express themselves openly in their own ways.  There will be sessions about personal stories, about gender and sexuality, about climate change, about wars, about the body, about back alleys, about culture, about digital, about street sounds…  above ground level is an attempt at grassroots socially engaged arts in the local community that, like last year’s project, doesn’t know what will happen yet is certain lots of interesting things will happen.  It is not about looking back at bygone days of industrial greatness.  It is not about art for art’s sake.  It is not about ticking boxes or making claims about wellbeing and happiness or economic benefits of arts and culture.  It is about having a safe potential space where creative things might happen.  A place inspired by notions of the carnivalesque and of playing and reality.  Somewhere where nonconformity is encouraged.

So that’s us; that’s AGL.  Oh, and why the title?  It is about altimeters measuring the ever-changing height of a moving object over the changing height of the changing terrain below.  AGL is essential to safe navigation, to accurate atmospheric measurements.  AGL is also a statement of intent: to avoid revisiting the area’s historic coal mining past.  Finally, AGL is a place from which you can ‘parachute into’ another place.  A criticism often (wrongly) levelled at us.  To me, it doesn’t really matter whether you parachute in or embed yourself for x number of months/ years.  It matters what you do with local people whilst your there.  It matters that good things come to an end.  It matters that there is an end.  Not THE END as a finality.  An end as potential for new beginnings, new independence.