Reflections on an Engaged Practice
Artworks Fellowship with Artworks Alliance & Barbican Guildhall
Early last year an application crossed my desk, and that of The Stove's, to submit a proposal as an artist/organisation pairing for a supported period of interrogation and artist-led CPD (continued professional development) in Participatory Practice.
This is a language learned through my deepening involvement with The Stove over the last 3.5 years but can still send me into a labyrinth of jargon…anyone who has attempted to casually slip "Participatory Practice" into lunch-time conversation knows my pain! Never-mind trying to communicate what that work can involve, what the "thing" is that I do within that. It is there, it's benefits come through the the things we make with people, the conversations we have, the ideas we share and the projects that this creates where people, from all backgrounds and experiences, really are working together to creatively change the places they live, and it may seem cheesy but the lives it changes (including my own) in the process. It is this process, the ethos, the change I see it make in people and places that I am passionate about and makes me want to be able to communicate it, to understand what the "thing" is that makes it work, or not work in many cases, what are the sometimes very subtle differences between an activity that really is engaged, collaborative with others, and one that isn't.
So how is this relevant to my Artworks Fellowship with The Stove. Well we were asked two things: to think about what we wanted to develop in ourselves as artists (blue sky, anything we wanted to achieve) and come up with a line of interrogation, a question, that our Artworks journey would relate to in our participatory work with the paired organisation. I found this incredibly difficult, to identify a question that I felt was relevant to this "thing" that I was passionate about. I wanted to reflect on this "thing" that makes our work at The Stove so profound, as an organisation and for me as an individual artist. But I kept getting lost in the language, trying to understand the structure. I needed to really understand this "thing" outside of the jargon and identify my part within it, my relationship to it, before I could reflect on it. What am "I" and what is "It" and is the separation important.
In this way we were maybe different from the other 4 pairings, as I had become completely entwined in the structure of The Stove and my practice had developed profoundly within that but I could not see what it had become exactly. As you might notice I do not tend to do anything by halves…continued professional development you say…some might just go away and do something but I needed to spend months pulling it all a part. I did end up just doing some things in the end – drawing, reading (or compulsively buying books and trying to find the time to read them) - turns out that is also important.
Artworks became a lens from which to observe myself, The Stove, my/our work, relationship, everything I did I began to look at with interest: Why do I/we do it that way, what is the usefulness of that, what is important? I set aside Fridays as Artworks days, points for reflection, often Fridays were over-run catching up on project enquiries, partnership development, talking with people. Sometimes I thought I would drown in what seemed self-indulgent reflection of my "practice" and what was important within that, sometimes I got lost in Stove world, lost myself entirely to the "Organisation" and Artworks gave me a life line back to look at what my individual needs were, and why they were both important for myself as well as The Stove.
I didn't identify a single line of interrogation, I observed the process of finding the dilemmas in my work with The Stove, the tensions, our working process and how this is relevant to our work with other people, to the "thing" we do with our communities. My journey with The Stove became more about looking at all the pieces and how do they fit together, what piece am "I" in the organisational jigsaw, what pieces may be over-used, under-used, lost under the table.
In hugely simplified terms what came out of it for me is that Participatory Practice (one that involves others at its roots and not just its surface) is not about how it all fits together, or what the picture looks like at the end, it is about the "process" by which you choose to approach it, who is involved, the time you spend along the way. If this process was a walk it would be about who is there at the beginning, who joins at various points for a little while or for the whole jaunt, how our route changes direction and navigates the places we go through, how those places change us, and how we constantly choose and re-adjust our route. And whether we are aware this is still only one way and we can only ever see it from our individual perspective, how can we take that into account? In that sense it is truly about valuing the individual rather than coming up with one umbrella we can all fit under – spoiler…you will never find that umbrella!!! And why would you want to.
A creative practice is a deeply personnel thing…this journey became a deeply personal thing but it has also added another level of understanding to what I do with The Stove…even if I am still a long way from being able to fully communicate it.
If I were to communicate one thing from this learning then it would be if you really want to include other people in your work, to co-develop and collaborate, then you need to create a process together that you agree on and then surrender to a journey that leads you in directions you have not considered or planned on. And in order to do that you will need to understand each-others methods of communication.
I am challenging myself into something completely new...(glimpses of a very personal journey through story) at an event at The Stove on March 1st