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.

Playing and reality – potential space for creativity

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the eighth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The third post in this section briefly discusses playing and reality.

Notes on Participatory Art (2010) by Almenberg is gives an interesting and primarily historical perspective on participatory art. The author is interesting, not just because he coined the phrase for an exhibition of his work in the early 1980s, but also because he was a psychodynamic psychotherapist for more than twenty-five years. The book is not primarily about art as therapy but does contain a very interesting allusion to D.W. Winnicott’s theories of play and creativity. In participatory art, as Almenberg explains, ‘neither the object nor the beholder is the focus of the situation. Rather, the focus is the very act of creating. Participatory art is “the beholder in action” using personal choice and intuition as primary tools’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). He relates this psychodynamic perspective to D.W. Winnicott’s ‘“discovery” in the 1950s of a third kind of reality, that is neither the inner nor the outer reality… Winnicott called this play and included it within the wider context of culture and art’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). This is an area of psychoanalytic, object-relations theory that offers a completely alternative route to potentially understanding socially engaged arts practice from the perspectives of both participants and artists than those (cognitive behavioural psychology, neuroscience, etc.).


Winnicott was a leading psychoanalyst who is well known in that field for theories including the true self and false self, the ‘good-enough’ mother, transitional objects, etc. But it is his works around playing, creativity and ‘potential spaces’ that are of particular interest to this research. Living Creatively, an essay in Home Is Where We Start From (1970), by Winnicott sets the basis for his seminal work, Playing and Reality (1971). In Living Creatively, Winnicott states his belief that:

‘To be creative a person must exist and have a feeling of existing, not in conscious awareness, but as a basic place to operate from… Creativity is then the doing that arises out of being’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 39).

Winnicott is clearly positioning creativity as distinct from cognition. He goes on to warn against the creatively stifling effects of excessive state controls on society when he explains that:

'By creative living I mean not getting killed or annihilated all the time by compliance or by reacting to the world that impinges; I mean seeing everything afresh all the time. I refer to apperception as opposed to perception’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 41).

Winnicott more fully develops these concepts in Playing and Reality, in which he explains ‘creative apperception’ as being the primary process ‘that makes the individual feel that life is worth living’ whereas relating to external realities dominated by compliance constructs a world ‘only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation’, creating ‘a sense of futility for the individual’ that can result in ‘the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). To Winnicott then, his theory is based upon ‘a belief that living creatively is a healthy state, and that compliance is a sick basis for life’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). He locates this place of living creatively and cultural experience as situated ‘in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object)’; he links this concept to play and early childhood experience, explaining that ‘[c]ultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play… life experiences that take place at the early stages of the individual’s existence’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 100).

The postulating of a ‘potential space’ is particularly relevant, not just to child development, but also to the types of experiences that may frequently occur in socially engaged arts projects (including radical interventions). The concept could perhaps be further developed and theorised by further exploring this. As Winnicott explains, ‘For me, playing leads on naturally to cultural experience and indeed forms its foundation’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106). He describes the characteristics of this theory as follows:

'The potential space between baby and mother, between child and family, between individual and society or the world, depends on experience [derived from play] which leads to trust. It can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living… By contrast, exploitation of this area leads to a pathological condition in which the individual is cluttered up with persecutory elements of which he has no means of ridding himself’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 103).

He explains the ‘third type of reality’ – potential space – as contrasting with external and internal realities by describing them as follows:

‘Looking first at external reality and the individual’s contact with external reality in terms of object-relating and object-usage, one sees that external reality itself is fixed… [Similarly] inner psychic reality… is to be seen as a fixity that belongs to inheritance, to the personality organization, and to environmental factors introjected and to personal factors projected.’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106)

For Winnicott, the potential space an 'area available for manoeuvre in terms of the third way of living (where there is cultural experience or creative playing) is extremely variable as between individuals’ because this space is ‘a product of the experiences of the individual person (baby, child, adolescent, adult) in the environmental that obtains’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 107). The implications of this theory for future research in relation to socially engaged practice span the full spectrum, from collaborative working to understanding participant responses to interventions differently to perhaps developing democratic ways of living creatively, based as it is on the understanding that '... for creative living we need no special [artistic] talent’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 44).  Perhaps, then, practitioners and researchers can learn much by thinking of how to create a supportive space where art can be experienced as ‘play’ by participants in the sense described by Winnicott?