How far can you go? - A question at the heart of my role as critical friend for Super Slow Way...

I visited Super Slow Way in June and July this year. This blog post reflects those visits and begins to pose a question at the heart of my role as critical friend for the Creative People and Places project.

Gatty poster (Courtesy of Claire Wellesley-Smith, 2016, http://www.clairewellesleysmith.co.uk/blog/2016/12/19/madder-root-and-gatty-red).

Gatty poster (Courtesy of Claire Wellesley-Smith, 2016, http://www.clairewellesleysmith.co.uk/blog/2016/12/19/madder-root-and-gatty-red).

How far can you go?

Being a ‘properly critical critical friend’ for Super Slow Way – a Creative People and Places (CPP) project in Mid-Pennine Lancashire – is an intriguing role. The project operates in a rather unconventional manner – at least when compared with many other CPP projects. I visited Super Slow Way twice during June and July this year: firstly, I met with artists Claire Wellesley-Smith and Jamie Holman; and on the second visit, I interviewed director Laurie Peake and deputy director Jenny Rutter. The question that informs my role as critical friend is: How far can you go? I explored that question during these two visits.


LOCAL COLOUR (ACCRINGTON)

Claire Wellesley-Smith’s Local Colour project is what I would consider to be rather similar to a traditional community art project. It is well-developed and has a strong core group of participants who are firmly committed to developing ideas and artwork about dye-making and the Gatty family. I have explored this a little in previous posts and, during my visit in June, I was again able to witness the group’s enthusiasm in action. We made dyes from weeds and wildflowers collected from around Gatty Park – the location of the project. We were also visited by Super Slow Way’s community liaison associate, Uzma Raziq. And it was during Uzma’s visit that I suddenly became acutely aware of an element of the project that I had not thought about before. (The fact I did not consider this before is an example of the inherent cultural biases that I – as a white, male person – share with many others in British society.) It was clear that the project participants were white – working class, but white.

This led me to wonder about the project’s title – Local Colour. It would seem that the project was, in terms of participant make-up, not content, predominantly white. I had talked with Claire about the South Asian population to one side of Gatty Park and how they tended to be separate from the white areas of Accrington, but I wondered if Local Colour was, in this sense, a misnomer. Thinking about the question, ‘How far can you go?’, I wonder if Local Colour cannot go beyond its white participants and white context – the Gatty family are white, the park is a traditional English park with a rather grand house and grounds, Local Colour’s partner organisation, Community Solutions’ primarily white service user base, etc. This is not a to decry the excellent work Claire and Community Solutions has done and will undoubtedly keep doing here, but it is interesting to think about how our inherent whiteness can lead us to unconsciously design projects that celebrate and attract people like us.

It is important to note that the work was commissioned by Super Slow Way with the intention of embedding the artist in the organisation, in this case Community Solutions. It was not designed as a community cohesion project. Claire was not asked to recruit participants from the wider community, rather her focus was to engage with existing service users, many of whom Claire describes as ‘vulnerable adults experiencing low wellbeing for many different reasons’. Community Solutions does engage with its local South Asian community and a minority of service users, volunteers and staff come from that community. The public park that surrounds the building is used by both the White British and South Asian heritage communities.

Claire stressed that important to recognise that Gatty was ‘an economic migrant to Accrington’, arriving during the early 1840s following an invitation by compatriot, Frederick Steiner - a Huguenot who fled persecution in France. Claire explained that the men ‘became successful industrialists, following a very similar trajectory to many other male business owners of the period’. She pointed out that ‘the inequalities in their histories and in those of the workers in their businesses have very much been part of the discussions we have had since the project began’. The project’s direction is decided upon by the whole group. Claire said that Local Colour is ‘participatory by nature’, adding that ‘the themes explored by the group are very much led by the participants’. ‘Through a process of co-operation they decided that Gatty's 200th anniversary was something they wanted to draw attention to as part of our programme of activities’, she explained.

Claire has worked on many different projects in many different settings and always applies a critical approach to her work. It would seem that she was here limited by the terms of Super Slow Way’s commission, including the pre-defined partnership arrangement with Community Solutions, and bound to her commitment to listening to and being informed by the interests and ideas of participants. Perhaps Super Slow Way could have been less prescriptive in its commissioning in this case, allowing the artist greater freedom to design the project with local community members from scratch?

Local Colour landing page on Super Slow Way’s website.

JAMIE HOLMAN

I met with Jamie in Blackburn College and we talked about the forthcoming British Textile Biennial. Jamie was very excited by the festival and was hard at work both making work for it and planning a conference to conclude the biennial. We talked about a lot of things, as we always do. Jamie said that our previous discussion about the art world and the question, ‘How far can you go?’, had led him to question everything that he does and gets involved in.

We talked about how Arts Council England and other funders and agencies tended to categorise some people and their cultural activities as ‘not-art’ and of ‘low cultural engagement’ – for example, ravers and football hooligans and people going to social clubs and bingo and religion and magic and lots more cultural activities that are not recognised as ‘cultural activities’. We talked about cultural democracy and the Movement for Cultural Democracy and about how, in a cultural democracy, all these cultural practices would be considered as equally valid to high art, theatre, opera, etc. We wondered whether Creative People and Places and Arts Council England, more generally, could ever bring about the radical changes necessary to enable our communities to really become cultural democracies that celebrated all our many different cultures, rather than those officially sanctioned by the state and its agents.

This led us to conceive of a conference that turned the art world on its head and forced it to look both inwards at itself and outwards, at those cultural activities the art world presently (and historically) has ignored and belittled. We imagined a panel in which people who ‘live for the weekend’ – for football and clubbing – for example, and people from other cultural and religious backgrounds could tell the art world why what they did – their cultural practices – were so important to themselves and their wellbeing, and explain why they did not go to art galleries, etc. This is something Jamie and I are continuing to progress and develop.


INTERVIEW WITH LAURIE PEAKE AND JENNY RUTTER

Laurie and Jenny are very keen to push boundaries, so I wondered what would happen if we sat down and talked through some of examples of their work and ideas that related to the question, ‘How far can you go?’

We began by talking about diversity and inclusion. Laurie talked about the Islamic cultural practice of Nasheed and Super Slow Way’s work with Nasheed artist, Hussnain Hanif or ‘H’ as he is known. We discussed why this type of cultural practice is not seen as art and how it didn’t merit inclusion when determining levels of ‘cultural engagement’. Describing the project with ‘H’, Laurie said, ‘Nasheed is traditionally a solo pursuit and a devotional pursuit, so putting a choir together, getting these lads together… could be seen as heretical’.

We talked about when projects were or could become ‘delicate’. Laurie said, ‘It is always a case of where the barometer swings’. She was interested in trying to understand when a cultural practice ‘suddenly becomes art’. For Laurie, there was originally ‘an expectation’ that CPP would help the voluntary arts sector develop so that it was ‘identified or acknowledged as making art’. I remember that Voluntary Arts England had pushed for this when CPP began, including ideas around the cultural commons and cultural democracy. This wasn’t a case of seeking to incorporate voluntary arts practices or professionalise them, rather it was a case of valuing and recognising the sector. Laurie pointed out that they do not often receive ACE funding: ‘I mean, your local AmDram society will rarely get money from the Arts Council’.

We talked about how, somewhere down the line, those intentions to understand and develop a broader cultural commons was lost to many, if not all, CPP projects. This had led to lots of artists, arts organisations and voluntary organisations becoming alienated, before quickly distancing themselves from CPP. We talked about how this wasn’t necessarily a failing on Arts Council England’s part, but often resulted from the way some CPP partnerships operated. Laurie talked about Super Slow Way’s relationship with the Civic Theatre. The organisation had given up applying for ACE funding after a number of unsuccessful attempts. Laurie said that she was unable to find a way within what she described as ‘the baroque nature of our bid’ of being able to simply give some money to the Civic for the work that it did and wanted to continue to do. She understood that this was how a cultural democracy would operate but was at pains to point out that activities such as the Civic offer to their community with great success ‘don’t register with the Arts Council’. ‘Neither does everything that happens in mosques on a daily basis,’ she added.

We talked about redistribution of lottery funds as proposed by the Movement for Cultural Democracy. Jenny and Laurie understood the merits of such an approach but felt that it would be likely that the money would be allocated to ‘the loudest voices’ and the ‘traditional community gatekeepers’. Using the example of Stephen Turner’s Egg project, they accepted that this example had not been community-led to begin with but argued that the many positive activities that took part in the community in which the Egg was placed may not have happened if Stephen Turner had not been invited to bring it there. Jenny was unsure about how ‘community’, ‘local’, etc. were and could be defined and argued that a centralised arts council still had a role to play today.

We talked about how Super Slow Way invested different amounts in different projects; how it could invest a lot of money in a large-scale project that was about audiences and broad but not necessarily deep and sustained levels of engagement, whilst achieving high-levels of participation and engagement with smaller, more community-focused projects for a relatively small outlay. Laurie fully understood how this could lead to some artists feeling frustrated but her focus was on ‘the value of an experience per individual’ when deciding upon project spend. She emphasised the importance of scale and of ‘collective actions’. She wondered, ‘How big does a group need to be before it’s seen as “representative” of a community?’ Laurie compared the Suzanne Lacy project (more than 2 years long and with more than 1,000 participants) with Claire Wellesley-Smith’s Local Colour project (another long-term but much smaller-scale project with a ‘core group’ of about 5 people and a larger ‘satellite group’). Laurie had not done the calculation but guessed that the spend ‘per capita’ was similar.

We talked about relationships with other arts organisations and National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) in the area and the impact of working with Super Slow Way or in an area in which Super Slow Way operated and wielded significant influence and financial power. Laurie was aware that some organisations had struggled to understand their senses of agency in their relationships with Super Slow Way but that they had sometimes benefited ‘enormously’ from working with Super Slow Way. She, interestingly, described this as a ‘Faustian pact’ – that often meant growing bigger, programming differently, and finding artists from outside of the area (much to the anger of some local artists who might perhaps feel side-lined or ignored). Laurie said, ‘Like it or not, it’s not always the artists who’ve been on the doorstep for 30 years doing the same lovely things’. I can understand this because not all (or perhaps even that many, in some cases) ‘local’ artists engage with their communities anyway and, crucially, artists coming from ‘outside’ communities as visitors, outsiders, etc. can see things differently and are often privileged to be able to be told things that remain unsaid between many community members.

Returning to the question of how far can you go, we talked about expectations and limitations, often placed upon SSW and its projects by other partners, funders, and others. We talked about Local Colour as a potentially problematic title, given the very white nature of the participants and the project’s location (Gatty Park) and the primary focus (the Gatty family). It is perhaps unsurprising that the participants are white, because Gatty Park is a traditional park that was gifted to Accrington by the Gatty family – white, middle-class industrialists whose dyes were used by the colonial British armed forces, particularly Turkey Red, who, it could be argued, exploited both natural resources and workers. Given all of these factors, it would seem highly unlikely that anyone from the nearby Asian population would want to take part. Whilst the project is clearly not at all intentionally white, it is not easy to ‘reach out’ to different cultures in that context. I noted that the partnership with Community Solutions in this project mirrors the problem in that its service users are primarily white, its staff are white, the café is frequented by white people, etc. Laurie felt that this is what would happen if cultural funding was distributed as per the proposals made by the Movement for Cultural Democracy, unless very carefully managed and monitored.

Interestingly, the Local Colour participants have gone (in my words) ‘Gatty mad’ – producing all types of Gatty-inspired creations. They seem to be reproducing the phenomenon of white, British class deference – looking up to our oppressors. The Super Slow Way office and programme planning wall was littered with the word ‘Gatty’. Laurie felt that if Claire wanted to extend Local Colour to explore dye making with the local South Asian community, it would need to be on their terms in a space they felt comfortable and probably with a different partner organisation.

Laurie was philosophical, saying that if Super Slow Way get a further 3 years of CPP funding, she would like to focus on areas, such as those we discussed, ‘that we have so far been unable to crack’. She felt that there was a great deal still to do to even begin to tackle the question of diversity and, whilst confident that Super Slow Way had managed to sometimes attract ‘diverse audiences’, she acknowledged that to do so ‘for one night only’ was nowhere near good enough.

We talked about how to encourage young people to take part in arts projects and about working with them on the streets and in parks and other places they like to hang out. Laurie explained that was an approach being tested in Thompson Park in partnership with Blaze and by In-Situ in their Yes, And project. She said Super Slow Way had found it ‘incredibly difficult’ to attract many young people to their projects in ‘any meaningful way’. Super Slow Way are beginnning to work with Blaze on an artist commission. Jenny was talking to a small group of young people the evening I visited about how they could go about attracting/commissioning an artist on their own terms.

We talked about how the Canal & River Trust was going through a rebranding exercise. For Laurie, the canal was a ‘really interesting space’. We talked about the social production of space and how canals, towpaths, bridges, etc. were, in fact, socially produced spaces. These spaces are created by the people who use them: not just canal users, but also children and young people playing and hanging out, graffiti artists, etc., etc. Yet, for organisations like the Canal & River Trust, this is often considered ‘anti-social behaviour’ to be ‘dealt with’ or ‘erased’. This viewpoint fails to understand that ‘anti-social behaviour’ is also social behaviour and contributes to the social production of space. It is often the case that the people involved in ‘anti-social behaviour’ do not consider spaces such as canals as being ‘their’ spaces and, if they did, they might feel a sense of ownership and agency about what they wanted to do there and what was needed there.


SO, HOW FAR CAN SUPER SLOW WAY GO?

Laurie is concerned about how effective CPP was as an ‘action research project’ if an exemplary outcome was for partnerships to become NPOs. If this is as far as CPP can go, then it would appear to be limited in outlook – and focused on institutionalisation of community arts and culture, rather than cultural democracy and truly experimental cultural practices.

Super Slow Way are aware of the constraints placed upon and limitations of its CPP project. It will be interesting to see how the project and those people involved in it might push these boundaries further and what will happen if and when they try to do so. I think the project will undoubtedly challenge itself and its artists and participants over the next few years and it is refreshing to see it engage critically with its actions and practices in such a positive manner.

More soon…